Seeking Kafka in Prague
By: Irene Shaland
© Irene Shaland, all rights reserved
“Prague won’t let us go…This little mother has claws…”
Franz Kafka in a letter to his friend Oskar Pollack
“And yet – Kafka was Prague and Prague was Kafka…And we his friends…knew that Prague permeated all of Kafka’s writings in the most refined minuscule quantities…”
Jonannes Urzidil in There Goes Kafka
Forty years in the making
We arrived to Prague in mid-April yet it felt more like November: cold, gray, rainy, gloomy and strangely, emotionally familiar. I had two books in my backpack: The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka and his Letters to Friends, Family and Editors. “Here we are,” I patted my book bag. “After almost forty years, the city you loved to hate.”
My husband and I each discovered Kafka in the early seventies – and were swept up and overwhelmed by the turbulence of his stories – while still in high school in theSoviet Union. We have often wondered why Kafka was ever translated in the bleak and depressing world of Brezhnev’s USSR.
Everything we read in Kafka was about uncertainty and loneliness, futility and repeated failures. It was a world of oppressive reality and bizarre life changes. It was a world filled with endless struggle with authority and bureaucracy. And it was a world each of us knew: “Kafkaesque” described our contemporary life: bitter, ironic twists of fate; hopeless situations; alienation; nihilism.
But unlike the characters in Kafka’s stories – and luckily for us – we were able to leave that world behind. And, in 1989 when the communist dictatorship in the entire Eastern Bloc came to an end, the road toPrague– the city that permeated every page of Kafka’s books – was open and we, readers of Kafka for almost four decades, were able discover his city.
But, as we found, to step into the Prague of Kafka (1883-1924) you have to step into the author’s imagination.
The challenge for a Kafka literary pilgrim
There was Kafka inPragueand there isPraguein Kafka – two different entities to understand and navigate.
You find very little of what might be called “Pragueprose” in Kafka’s writing. With the exception of his early story, “Description of a Struggle,” Kafka never mentions his native city as a specific place and there are no direct descriptions ofPrague settings in his pages, no panoramic shots or coherent sequences of the townscape. You find, instead, remarkably transformed and dispersed fragments of reality in the strangest of contexts. Prague, indirectly and unobtrusively, is forever present in his work.
Pragueinfluenced everything Kafka – as an artist and a man – was. In his diaries and letters, he never stops talking aboutPrague- its eccentric charm, its medieval streets, its curious legends.
Pragueis where Kafka feels condemned to live an essentially unalterable, insecure and futile existence. In his many letters, the city is increasingly associated with his existential angst. “I cannot live in Prague…I do not know if I can live anywhere else. But that I cannot live here – that is the least doubtful thing I know,” he writes in the Letter to His Father (1918).
How would a Kafka pilgrim even attempt to understand his city? Follow his biographical and the city’s topographical facts? Praguewas where Franz Kafka was born, went to school, became a lawyer and worked. But in his writings it was also a timeless metaphor for the kind of life he felt the city forced him to live. It expressed the relentless pressure – the grip – in which he was held and which he could not escape: it was a complex web of obstacles and impossibilities that blocked his path at every turn. Kafka wrote of a suffocating and oppressive family environment; of his overpowering father whom he admired but also detested; of the “inescapable anathema” of his double life; his need to write and his job as a lawyer.
Because no places or landmarks are named in his writings, Kafka’sPraguerecedes, becoming unidentifiable through its buildings and monuments. The greatest “obscurer” in modern literature, Kafka cared little about his readers gaining a concrete image of his city. Instead he gave them ambiguity, supported by illusive perspectives that turnedPragueinto a visionary symbol that transcended mundane reality.
So, where do you start if you want to understand Kafka’s relationship withPrague?
End as starting point
Kafka never escapedPrague. Though he died in a tuberculosis sanatorium nearViennaon June 3, 1924 – one month short of his forty first birthday – his remains were brought back toPraguefor burial. His grave is where the pilgrim starts: take Metro Line A to the Zelivskeho Station, then walk to the entrance of the Jewish section (Novy Zidovske hrbitovy) ofStrasniceCemetery. Unlike the small and overcrowded ancient cemetery inPrague’s Jewish Quarter, this one, laid out in the 1880s, is one ofPrague’s largest. The Kafka family plot is about 600 feet to the right of the entrance.
A family tombstone – in Czech cubism a style – marks the plot: father Hermann joined his son in 1931; the writer’s mother, Julie, died in 1934. In death, as in their anguished lives, all three are together. The small tablet at the gravesite also commemorates Kafka’s sisters. All three perished in Holocaust. On the wall opposite the grave a simple plague recalls Kafka’s lifelong friend Max Brod who, in spite of Kafka’s wishes, published most of his manuscripts posthumously.
Writing was a very personal process for Kafka. Whether he was published or how many read him, was never his concern. “Writing,” he once mentioned to his friend Johannes Urzidil, “is a form of prayer. Even if no redemption comes, I still want to be worthy of it every moment” (There Goes Kafka).
Without Max Brod, Kafka would probably have remained unknown, read only by the few German-speaking intellectuals inPragueandBerlin.
Kafka’s recognition as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century began after his death and grew during the years before and after World War II: after that, theSoviet Union’s dominance of the Eastern Bloc countries forced his works underground. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “velvet revolution” inPrague in 1989, he becamePrague’s favorite son, a saint, martyr, god of modernism – and a prime tourist attraction. Now, however, hardly a single US-published guidebook mentions Kafka.
That means, for a Kafka pilgrim, finding Kafka inPragueis a personal journey of discovery.
Kafka’s Prague as a small circle: Old Town
Once, looking out from his room in Old Town Square, Kafka said to his friend and Hebrew teacher Friedrich Thieberger: “Here was my secondary school, over there…the university and a little further to the left, my office.” Then, Thieberger recalled Kafka drawing a small circle in the air with his finger, Kafka added, “My whole life is confined within this small circle” (There Goes Kafka).
In the center of theOld Town Square(Staromestske Namesti) is the massive monument to a man who has been a Czech hero for almost six hundred years: Jan Hus. A university professor and a preacher, he predated the Protestant Reformation by a century and was burned at stake for heresy in 1415. In 1915, Kafka most surely witnessed the unveiling of the monument in commemoration of the 500 year-anniversary of Hus’ death. He might have been amused by an ironic (Kafkaesque?) twist of history: a monument to the greatest of Protestants peacefully coexisted with the St. Mary’s Column, a symbol of the Counter-Reformation, placed near the center of the Square. In 1918, an anti-Catholic (anti-Habsburgs) mob pulled the column down. Today it stands humbly behind theTynChurchon the same square.
This was Kafka’s world. The architectural landmarks of the Old Town Square – the gothic Tyn Church where Hus preached; Old Town Hall with its Apostle Clock (which has a chilling stereotypical medieval Jewish money lender among its grotesque figurines); the Kinsky Palace where Kafka went to secondary school, and where his father later owned a shop – all these comprised the contents of Kafka’s “confined…small circle.”
Kafka’s mother, Julie, lived in number 548/1 on the Square before marrying Hermann Kafka, the writer’s father. There used to be a café (demolished after World War II) next to theTynChurchthat was managed by Kafka’s great-uncle Leopold. At the entrance toCeletna Street, one ofPrague’s ancient streets, emanating from the Square, was the attorney’s office of Dr. Richard Lowy, where the newly-graduated lawyer Franz Kafka began his legal career.
Old Town: birthplace and education
The house where Kafka was born on July 3, 1883 was located on the north-east side of the square, very close to the baroqueChurch ofSt. Nicholas, right at the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. The family lived there for less than a year after Franz’s birth, moving to various locations
throughout theOldTown. The house burned down at the end of the 1880s and was replaced with another one that preserved, however, the original portal. In 1965, in the atmosphere of the approaching “Prague Spring” of 1968, a memorial plague with Kafka’s bust was mounted next to the portal: Communist bureaucrats were beginning to grudgingly acknowledge the writer, though only as a critic of bourgeois morality and alienation.
During Kafka’s early childhood, his family lived in a 17th-century house – called the House of the Minute (Minuta) with beautiful Italian Renaissance-style sgraffito frescos on biblical and classical themes – located to the left of the Old Town Hall. From this house, little Franz, accompanied by the family’s Czech cook, walked to the elementary school that Kafka described years later as “horror.”
To increase his son’s chances of gaining a good position in the hierarchy of the imperial civil service, Hermann Kafka sent Franz to the Imperial and RoyalOldTownGermanSecondary Schoolin the KinskyPalace(Palac Golz-Kinskych). Kafka’s experience there was far better than at elementary school: among his classmates was Max Brod, who became his lifelong friend. Just before the start of World War I, Hermann Kafka moved his thriving haberdashery business to the ground floor of the same building and in Letter to His Father, Kafka wrote about his feelings of “torment and shame” concerning his father’s harsh treatment of the store’s clerks. Noted Kafka: “I heard and saw you screaming, cursing and raging.”
In February of 1948, from the balcony of theKinskyPalace, communist Prime Minister Klement Gottwald announced the dismissal of all bourgeois ministers and proclaimed the birth of Communist Czechoslovakia. Now, thisOld Town Squarebuilding with its pleasant Rococo façade, houses a collection of paintings from the National Gallery, and a Czech bookstore is located where Hermann Kafka’s business used to be.
At the corner ofCeletna StreetandOld Town Squareis The Unicorn House (U Jednorozce) where the salon of Berta Fanta, one of the cultural centers of Kafka’sPrague, used to be. During these gatherings, attended by prominent intellectuals like Albert Einstein, guests discussed and debated Nietzsche and Kant along with the then-popular spiritualism and teachings of Indian sages. While Kafka was mostly a silent listener, he came regularly with his friends Max Brod or Hugo Bergmann.
Not far fromOld Town Square, onZelezna Streetis the Carolinium, one of the oldest buildings on the campus of CharlesUniversity, where Kafka studied law. One of the oldest universities in Europe, it was founded in 1348 by Charles IV, King ofBohemiaand Emperor theHoly Roman Empire. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a university-educated Jew, who did not want to be baptized in order to have a career in the civil service, could choose from only two professions: medicine or law. Having been pressured by his father into choosing law, Kafka, who received his doctor of law degree in 1906, compared his legal studies to being fed with “sawdust that had already been chewed by a thousand mouths.”
In addition to being the seedbed for Kafka’s internal anxieties and conflicts,OldTownencompassed his very special historical circumstances. At the time of his birth,Praguewas a capital of theKingdomofBohemiaand part of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire; when he died he was a citizen of the newChezhoclovakRepublic. He was a Prague-born Jew, yet he spoke and wrote in German. In his letter to Milena Jesenska, his Czech translator and the only non-Jew among his lovers, Kafka wrote: “German is my native language …but Czech is far more endearing.”
In Kafka’s other letters to Milena, he described the events he witnessed as a German-speaking Jew in the newly independent republic: the growth of nationalism, workers’ demonstrations, attacks on German-speakers and the destruction of archives in the Jewish Town Hall in the Jewish Ghetto. “I now walk along the streets, and bathe in anti-Semitism,” he wrote in 1920. “Prasive plemeno (filthy race) I have heard the Jews referred to.”
Jewish Quarter (Josephof) and Jewish identity
Kafka’s identification with his Jewish heritage was very complex and Jews are conspicuously absent in his writing. In his late twenties, Kafka’s interest toward his roots was sparked when he happened to see the performances of an impoverished Yiddish theatrical troop from Poland. Kafka befriended the group’s lead actor, Yitzchak Lowy, and – trying to promote what the intellectual Prague Jews considered lowbrow culture – he introduced a lecture evening held by Lowy in the Jewish Town Hall in 1912. Thirty years later, Lowy died in Auschwitz.
The Jewish Town Hall can be visited today as part of the Jewish Museum complex inPrague(Zidovske Muzeum Praha). This relatively large area, home to several synagogues and the ancient Jewish cemetery, is called Josephof and is the largest and best preserved Jewish quarter inEurope. Josephof owes its survival to the crazy whim of Hitler: he planned to establish amuseumofJewsas a degenerate and extinct race, a truly Kafkaesque twist of history.
Shortly after the First World War, Kafka began learning Hebrew from his friend FriedrichThieberger, a scholar and son of a rabbi. Kafka’s other close friend, Johannes Urzidil, however, did not attribute these Hebrew lessons to Zionistic aspirations but rather to Kafka’s “insatiable urge for the nearness of God, for the unique and immediate human element in the language of the scriptures” (There Goes Kafka). It was not until Kafka’s first attacks of tuberculosis, around 1917, that he began talking and writing about the Zionist cause and immigration to Palestine.
Kafka’s family was more secular than traditionally observant and in the Letter to His Father, Kafka blamed his father for turning Judaism into a “mere trifle, a joke….You went to the temple four days a year, where you were…closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously.”
Kafka and his father actually attended two temples in the Jewish Quarter: the Old-New Synagogue and the Pinchus Synagogue: both are now within the Jewish Museum complex. The Old-New Synagogue was built in the 13th century and is the oldest still-functioning Jewish house of worship in Europe. This synagogue, shrouded in the peculiar Prague-style mystery embodied in Kafka’s writing, is linked to one of the most famous Czech Jews: 17th Century Rabbi Jehudah Loew, who is said to be the creator of the Golem, a clay-made artificial being whose supernatural powers were used to protect the city’s Jews against acts of violence. The works of many writers – including Mary Shelly, Karel Capek and Terry Pratchett – have been influenced by the creature. Legend says the Golem’s remains are hidden in the Old-New Synagogue; the rabbi himself is buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery.
In Gustav Janovich’s Conversations with Kafka, Kafka mentioned one day passing by the Old-New Synagogue: “[It] already lies below ground level. But men will go further. They will try to grind the synagogue to dust by destroying the Jews themselves.”
The Pinchus Synagogue, second oldest in the Jewish Quarter, dates from the 16th century. After World War II, it was dedicated to the 80,000 Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust: their names and those of the concentration camps where they were killed are written on the walls inside the sanctuary.
New Town: “the anathema of double life”
Near the Powder Tower, built as part of the medieval city walls, and where Kafka used to meet his friend Max Brod after work, the Old Town ends and the New Town begins. It was laid out by Charles IV in 1348 as a market center. In Kafka’s time, New Town, with its numerous theaters, discussion societies and coffeehouses, was the very pulse of the unique Czech-German-Austrian-Jewish intellectual synthesis that constituted Kafka’s cultural universe.
Despite Kafka’s tortured perception of his “double life” as a lawyer by day and a writer by night, he was highly respected during his fourteen years (1908-1922) as an analyst of industrial accidents for the major insurance company. The company, Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for theKingdomofBohemiainPrague, was located at the heart of the New Town, near theWenceslas Square(Vaclavske Namesti) atNo. 7 Na Porici Street. Even though he was well-paid and his work day ended in the early afternoon, Kafka was unhappy. “If one evening my writing has gone well, the next day in the office I burn with impatience and can’t get anything done,” he wrote to his fiancée Felice Bauer, to whom he was twice engaged. “This to-and-fro is getting worse and worse…unhappiness that refuses to leave me…True hell is here in the office.”
Within Kafka, an artist and a bureaucrat were forced to co-exist and this was his constant tragedy. For him, the bureaucrat he had become was not only an obstacle, he was an enemy: the keeper of files who sat day-long at a tidy desk performing mundane tasks devoid of worth, perception or feeling. Despite that, Kafka did enjoy and participated in some of New Town’s numerous cultural attractions, most of which were situated around theWenceslas Square.
Wenceslas Square, named after the Czechs’ favorite king and saint and with his statue anchoring the square, has always been at the core of not only New Town life but also major events in Czech history. In 1939, Nazi tanks rolled into the Square to signify the conquest of the 21-year-oldCzechoslovakRepublic. In 1968, “Prague Spring” was crushed there by Soviet tanks. A small memorial commemorates the 1969 death of Jan Palach, who burned himself to death on the Square to protest Communist oppression. And, in 1989, the independence of the new democratic country was celebrated there.
At the top of the Square, is the beautiful Art Nouveau Grand Hotel Europa, known to Kafka as the Hotel Erzherzog Stefan. There, in 1912, in one of his first public readings, Kafka read from his story The Judgment. In that story, a young character’s conflict with his father ends when the old man sentences his own son to death by drowning. “Dear parents, I have always loved you,” cries out the young man in The Judgment as he jumps from the bridge into the river. Across from the Hotel Europa is the Lucerna, where Kafka and his friends enjoyed cabaret-style performances and movies.
Behind the St. Wenceslas statue is the National Museum, to the right of which is the State Opera House, known to Kafka as the New German
Theater. As a passionate theater buff, Kafka saw numerous German classical plays there. Near thePowderTower, atNo. 16 Hybernska Street, a few steps from another Prague Art Nouveau masterpiece, hotel K&K Central, is Café Arco, which was a favorite ofPragueintellectuals and frequented by Kafka and Max Brod.
The Cathedral Quarter and the City: Prague in Kafka
Praguehad always been the intellectual space that sustained Kafka’s writing. The Cathedral Quarter – a domineering, intimidating area situated across the river from theOldTown– is the best place and space for a Kafka pilgrim to come closest to understanding the city’s impact on Kafka’s writing.
During the First World War, Kafka used as a retreat the tiny house his sister Ottla – his soul mate – rented for him in theGolden Lane, home of the medieval alchemists onPragueCastle(Hradcany) grounds. The little blue shed of a house at No. 22 Zlata ulicka is now a Kafka bookstore. But, this ancient corner ofPraguestill feels perpetuated with mystery and mysticism. Standing there, in spite of the crowds passing by, you might start thinking about Kafka’s stories and getting deeper and deeper into his universe.
In 1915, Kafka published Metamorphosis, one of his most famous stories. There, a young man named Greg wakes up one morning to find he’s turned into a giant insect. At the same time, Kafka was also working on The Trial(published posthumously), in which the main character, “Joseph K.,” also wakes up one morning, just like Greg in the Metamorphosis, to a bizarre situation. : A couple of civil servants come to K.’s room and accuse him of an unnamed crime (that he didn’t commit) and put him under arrest but also leave him free to go to work and lead his usual life. However, since Joseph K. does not know what he is accused of, he is going to seek his gilt by passing through the unnamed city (Prague in Kafka?) and within it – through all stages of the surreal bureaucratic process with all its ridiculous nuances of misinformation. It is the absurd logic of the world of judicial courts – so familiar to Kafka as a lawyer – that finally leads to K.’s execution in the middle of the night in the old stone quarry. Many think that the stone quarry described in the novel was located in the Cathedral Quarter.
ReadingThe Trial back in Russia, where it was more-accurately called “Process,” we saw it as an indictment and prophecy of the fascist/communist totalitarian state. And we fully understood that while “K.” never found out what he was guilty of, he came to believe in his own criminality. “Guilt is never to be doubted,” pronounced Kafka in The Penal Colony (published in 1919). In that nightmarish story, readers encounter an ominous torture machine used for execution: in a matter of twelve hours, the machine carves into the flesh of a condemned man the law he violated.
These stories illuminate a Kafkaesque universe, full of fear, pain, and – always – guilt: the world of violent metamorphosis and unnamed terror.
As always in Kafka, no specific place is named, but it is often assumed the castle in The Castle is Prague Castle or that one chapter from The Trial takes place in the St. Vitus Cathedral located within the courtyard of the Castle grounds. There is no certainty in that and probably that does not matter: Prague landmarks illuminate the inner truth of Kafka’s stories. In Gustav Janovich’s Conversations with Kafka, Kafka said: “All art is a document, a statement of evidence.”
Without a doubt, the lawyer-by-day carried this “statement” into every letter or story the writer-by-night produced.
For a diligent Kafka pilgrim,Praguewill slowly uncover its mysteries. And one of the best places to do that is theKafkaMuseum(which I never saw mentioned in a guidebook). To get there, go from the Castle Quarter through the Small Quarter (Mala Strana) toward the Charles Bridge (for this, you’ll be negotiating narrow little streets and side-alleys) till you arrive at No. 2b Cihelna, where this unique museum – one of the best conceptual museums I’ve ever visited – is located.
Don’t start your pilgrimage here, however. Look for Kafka in Prague first, get a feel for his city before immersing yourself in what the museum calls “The City of K.” The exhibit opened inBarcelona in 1999, was transferred to the Jewish Museum inNew York in 2002, and in 2005 it moved to its true home:Prague. As Mr. Tomáš Kašička, Museum Curator explained to me,Prague private company COPA stepped forward as the major sponsor of the exhibition’s move toPrague.
This is not your usual literary exhibition, where chronologically-organized artifacts, photographs and documents in glass-enclosed cases present visitors with “the facts.” Instead, you encounter a metaphoric reflection of Kafka’s work and life. The documents, the photographs, the quotes, the multimedia – all are there, but the words, the images, the light and sound are used to immerse you in Kafka’s imagination and in the metaphorical language of his writing.
The exhibit is in two parts: Existential Space and Imaginary Topography. The former presents Kafka’s life and the influence the environment he lived in had on him; the later illustrates the transformation of realPragueinto Kafka’sPrague. Mr. Kašička has sent me an impressive list of organizations and collections that provided their artifacts and materials for the “City of K”: from the National Film Archive, the Museum of Czech Literature and the Jewish Museum in Prague to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and the YIVI Institute for Jewish Research in New York.
In front of the Kafka museum is a life-size sculpture by David Cerny, a well-known and controversial Czech artist: two male figures urinating at each other while standing on the edge of basin resembling the outline of theCzechRepublic. These two guys pee with a purpose, however: they do quotes by request. (A nearby plaque explains how to use a phone to make “requests” to spell out just about anything.)
Mentally wired for some Kafkaesque connection, I thought this sculpture was a post-modern absurdist allusion to Kafka (a flesh tattooing machine in The Penal Colony?). Until Mr. Tomáš Kašička told me to relax my “Kafkaesque” grip: The Peeing Men” sculpture was installed in the square well before the museum was established!
On that lovely, sunny, truly April day Kafka’sPrague was laughing at me.
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Author’s Note: I would like to give my sincere and heartfelt thanks to Mr. Tomáš Kašička, Kafka Museum Curator, for his help with information about the museum, exhibit and the “Pissing Men.”