03. 03. 2011. 20:37

Franz Kafka and the emperor’s new clothes

Tibor Szemző – András Forgách: The Imperial Message

World Theatre Day, which this year will be officially celebrated on Sunday March 27th, is to be marked in Budapest one day in advance by a performance due to be broadcast at 20:04 hrs on Hungarian Radio 1 of an extract from a new piece based on real and imaginary writings by Kafka that is taking shape under the overall guidance of its original conceiver, Tibor Szemző.

Szemző came to attention most recently with a scintillating film, A Guest of Life (2006), which is part folktale-style, part animated picture book, part handheld camera “real-life” footage of the trek of Alexander Csoma de Kőrös (1784–1842), the first Hungarian Tibetologist. Now Szemző has employed some of the musical principles which were behind that to an equally eclectic but very different mix of materials which relate predominantly to the last year of writer Franz Kafka’s life.

Most people who have read The Trial, The Castle, and probably also the novella The Transformation ('Metamorphosis'), quite possibly the more incomplete novel Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared and other works, even part or all of the Diaries, have probably been impressed by Kafka’s gift for telling strong stories. Equally, most of us will have gained the image of a gaunt, sober and saintly, even dour Jewish writer who chose to write in German (not Czech or Yiddish, though both were possible alternatives). More particularly he lived in Prague at the turn of the twentieth century, made his living as an assessor for the state-run Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, but died of tuberculosis when Europe had barely recovered from World War I, with most of his works (apart from a handful of the short stories) still unpublished and in not fully complete MS form. The very word Kafkaesque has come to denote a situation characterised by its senselessness and lurking threat.

Much of Kafka’s work was unfinished, let alone published, during Kafka’s lifetime. Indeed, Kafka’s writing was little noticed until after his death. During his lifetime, he published only a few short stories. He finished The Metamorphosis, but none of his full-length novels. Prior to his death, Kafka wrote to his friend and literary executor Max Brod: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me ... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.” Brod, in fact, would oversee the publication of most of Kafka’s work in his possession, which soon began to attract attention and high critical regard. However, the German critical texts of these and possible other works are still actively being searched for and sorted.

The original concept for the piece came from Tibor Szemző, with András Forgách adding significant writing support. The staging and, more particularly, real ‘actors’ (professional or amateur) who feature in it play a major role, but musical considerations (the sound of the language as well as “tunes”) were the final consideration. The piece comprises two parts, each of which runs for just over 50 minutes. The backbone is provided by the short story “An Imperial Message” (or “A Message from the Emperor” or “The Emperor’s Message”, depending on the translation), which is a paragraph of seven sentences, separately published but originally written by Kafka as part of a short story “The Great Wall of China” in 1917 (it did not appear in full until 1931, seven years after Kafka’s death). The original German makes considerable play of long sentences to save the punch until almost the last word through the device many German (and also, incidentally, Hungarian) sentences employ of positioning the verb at the end. Here the story is relayed repeatedly in 13 languages: first Hungarian (for fairly obvious reasons), then Finnish, English, French, Spanish, Yiddish, Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese, Urdu, Tibetan, only then the original German, Czech, and finally Hungarian again. Clearly no person will be able to understand more than a few of these, but that is not the point: it is the inherent musicality of the readings in most of these languages, not least the German (though the English comes across as comparatively flat).

At this point one might mull over the irony of an emperor’s deathbed message which is effectively not delivered and the deliberate flouting of Kafka’s own explicit deathbed message. In any event, this spine of the tale is fleshed out by at least four other “story lines”. Two of these consist of extracts from reminiscences by two people who were closely associated with him in the final year of his life (1923–24). One is provided by his last lover, Polish-born Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old (not 19-year-old as mistakenly relayed by some) kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family, who was independent enough to have escaped her past in the ghetto and was working as a volunteer for the Jewish People’s Homes Vacation Camp at Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea, when she met Franz Kafka. The later lived together in Berlin and before Kafka was forced by worsening tuberculosis to move to a private sanatorium at Kierling, near Klosterneuburg not far from Vienna. Which is where he died. (After his death she worked as a professional actress before joining the Communist Party of Germany in the 1930s, marrying and giving birth to a daughter. It is also not without interest that Dora, after escaping Germany with her daughter to the USSR in 1936, somehow managed to leave there and reach the comparative safety of England just before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. After being interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man in 1940–41, she returned to London, where she helped to found the Friends of Yiddish dying at Plaistow Hospital in East London on 1952 – all of which is recounted by an American namesake (and not, to her own knowledge, related) Kathi Diamant in Kafka’s Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant. It should be noted Dora also ignored Kafka’s wishes, keeping some of his writings until they were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933.)

A third strand is the memoirs of Robert Klopstock, a Hungarian-born medical student who made Kafka’s acquaintance in 1920 at Tatranské Matliare in the High Tatras (now in Slovakia), where they were both patients being treated for lung. Kafka and Klopstock became fast friends, with Kafka arranging for Klopstock to complete his medical training at the Medical Faculty of the University of Prague and was also present at Kafka’s death-bed on 3 June, 1924 in Kierling. (Klopstock finally graduated in 1933 in Berlin, moved to the USA in 1937, where he was active as a lung surgeon and a scientist before dying on June 15, 1972 in New York.)

Yet another strand is a series of imagined letters from a doll named Annabelle, lost by a little girl (Sophie) in a park near to where Kafka was living in Berlin. It is told – we are by then more than one third of the way through the work, and several of the stories have been related – by Dora:

Once when we were returning from the Botanical Gardens, coming back home, we passed through the playground and we heard a little girl sobbing her heart out, crying, bawling. There was no way of not noticing, of course, so we went over and Franz squatted down to ask her what was wrong. She tells him that she’s lost her doll. “And what was your doll’s name?” “Annabelle.” So he said, “Don’t worry! I know what had happened to Annabelle.” And the little girl, looking at him in wonder, eyes big as saucers, asks the nice mister, “How do you know that?” “Because she’s written me a letter,” he said. “Where from?” So he told her, “Your doll has gone off on a trip, and right now she is travelling all over the world.” She was always sending him letters to describe all her adventures. “Do you have it on you?” she asks. “No, I ‘m sorry,” he says, “I left it at home by mistake, but I’ll bring it with me tomorrow.” By that point, of course, the girl had calmed down and regained her composure and was no longer crying. Kafka went straight home, sat down at the table and with the same seriousness he would give to writing to a treasured friend or the like he spent a long time writing at quite some length Annabelle’s first adventure. The next day, he rushed back to the park with the letter. The little girl was waiting for him, and since she had not learned how to read yet, he himself read the letter out loud to her. The little girl was delighted by Annabelle’s letter, so from then on Kafka made up a new adventure every day, putting as much effort into doing this as if it had been a genuine piece of paid work.

These doll’s letters are narrated in a male voice (plainly representing Kafka). There are a further ten letters before we get to:

Dearest Sophie, The last letter I wrote has been returned. Could it be that your address has changed, dearest Annabelle? Please write. I really must know what has happened to you! If Franz should by any chance come your way you can also hand over a letter or even dictate one to him as he knows where to send it. If he is not in Berlin, then he can only be in Prague, but if he isn’t there either, then I have no idea where he can be. With hugs and kisses, your loving, ever-faithful Annabelle.

Clearly this represents a tactful retreat by Kafka from a task he is no longer able to fulfil, and it has to be stressed again that these are entirely imagined texts, with not a shred of support from the known Kafka documents and are entirely the work of Tibor Szemző and András Forgách. As a discrete link a few scattered sentences have been copied literally from other writers, such as Gustav Janouch, whose Conversations with Kafka, originally published in German in 1951 relay the reported speech of the author (and hence, of course, with the benefit of hindsight and also of Max Brod’s imprimatur).

A final strand is made up of a series of ten scenes drawn from everyday present life (in Hungary of wherever). These are not obviously related by subject – road-menders, a long-distance coach service; a string quartet’s travels; the Lukács Thermal Baths in Budapest; the book section in a department store; at a photo booth at a metro station; an “eroticke salon” (in Nové Zámky in Slovakia); running in the open air; an eye testing clinic, on a ship’s deck – but one unspoken common thread in each scene incorporate a sentence or two of those attributed by Janouch to Kafka.

What stand out in the pieces are the natural voices, not in the least mannered in typical ‘actorly’ fashion but with credible everyday inflections. This is perhaps all the more astonishing in that many of the passages are carefully, evenly interlaced with the most muted punctuations and tracery of bass flute, piano, string bass and percussion of flautist composer and film director Szemző’s The Gordian Knot, an ensemble he formed in 1998, having founded Group 180 in 1978 as a group dedicated to the performance and recording of so-called minimalist contemporary music including John Cage and Steve Reich, at a time when they were rarely performed in Europe as a whole, and certainly not in a Hungary still under heavily slanted (if not heavy-handed) Communist dictatorship, and leading it until it was disbanded in 1990. At time this support picks up snatches of recognisable tunes, such as one penned by Friedrich Silcher in 1853 to an earlier poem by Albert von Schlippenbach: Nun leb ‘ wohl, du kleine Gasse (apparently Kafka’s own favourite). Another is a passage from a string quartet, and is in fact the opening of Henry Purcell’s 4-part C minor Fantasia for Strings from 1680, other treatments of which recur later in the piece.

The overall effect is to present us with an aural picture of Franz Kafka which one can suppose is much more casual than the fussy grey suits of an uncompromising modernist that Max Brod sought to project. There is no question, of course, that Kafka was one of the founding spirits of literary modernism. What this suggests, though, is that he also had other facets which have not hitherto been so much on display (at least in English). It is hugely to Szemző and Forgách’s credit that they have been able to fillet out a view which puts a very human face on a man who has played a hugely important role in world literature (one only has to think, say, of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore from 2002 (in Japanese, that is, and 2005 in English). Of course, it’s always possible to take another viewpoint, but this one has the merit of humanising Kafka more than we have been used to, at least in English. On top of which it is a beautifully wrought musical treat.

Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Tibor Szemző, Franz Kafka, András Forgách