Kafka

Václav Havel

vaclavhavel.cz

The writer of one of my favorite plays has died: Václav Havel. Unfortunately, it has been a week of several writerly deaths (Christopher Hitchens, Gilbert Adair). Havel was a prominent leader who helped bring down communism in Czechoslovakia. He was both the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic and a playwright. I’ve only read one of his plays, The Garden Party, but it’s truly a favorite. The play is a critique of conformity during communist rule and an enjoyable Kafkaesque work.

The protagonist is Hugo Pludek, who is an average person from a middle-class Czech family. His parents are worried about his future so they arrange an appointment for him with the influential Mr. Kalabis at the garden party of the Liquidation Office. Hugo does not find Kalabis but instead a sequence of absurd encounters starts. All of the functionaries of the Liquidation Office speak in a degenerated, ideological, content-free language, as is expected from their role in the bureaucratic system.Hugo is intelligent and adaptive, therefore is able to adjust his behaviour. He learns to speak platitudinally, using clichés that do not mean anything real and finally becomes the head of the newly created Central Inauguration and Liquidation Committee. As the result, he completely loses his identity.

I tried searching for a copy of the play on Project Gutenberg but no results were found. The play is from the 1960s and probably still retains its copyright. Because of his death, I have pulled Havel’s collection of plays that I own off the shelf and have added it to my winter break reading list. I’m very much looking forward to re-reading The Garden Party and becoming acquainted with his other plays.

The Garden Party also reminds me of a Czech film from around the same time period called A Report on the Party and the Guests. I’ve been searching for this film for almost two years on Netflix and Amazon. I don’t think it’s available in the US but it might be available in the UK. It is fantastic and also offers 71 minutes of the bizarre and absurd. If you’re like me and can’t get your hands on the film, in the very least, pick up or borrow a copy of Havel’s plays.

“If there are any theatres left that base work entirely on the writer’s text, theatres that value the development of poetry in drama, then Havel’s plays will never be out of the repertoire.”  –Milan Kundera

A photo I took in Prague of a haunting memorial dedicated to all of the victims of Communism.

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Creating Characters

Let me be more specific–creating character names. In an earlier post, Contemplating Scrivener-software which I had only recently discovered-I wrote about my find. So far it seems like Scrivener and I could work out (albeit, I’m still only halfway through the tutorial). In part of the aforementioned post, I listed name generator as one of Scrivener’s features. To each his own, but making up character names has always been a chore for me. I am very finicky and quite often over think the whole situation. On the particular project I am working on now, many of the characters are Germans or of German extraction. So of course they need over the top yet authentic names! I contemplate: should the names mean something, should they foreshadow the plot? Get it together! Be like Kafka; he was an expert at character names.

I was curious to try the name generator feature of Scrivener even though I have yet to come across it in the tutorial. You are able to put various restrictions on your generated list but I just put in female | both First and Last name of German origin | 10 names. There are other options like whether the name should start or end with a certain letter, but I kept it simple. Here’s my generated list:

Rillie Eberhard
Etta Schwarzauer
Idetta Schola
Didrika Regensperger
Sente Wüthrich
Amelia Saloman
Engelbertina Trostdorff
Adelina Köbner
Halifrid Rosemann
Idaia Halinburg

Fantastic, right!? However, I know many others find pleasure in creating names the old fashion way. Any tricks of the trade?

Also, below I have listed some related websites (not specific to name creation but they lean more towards creating characters in general).

The Misuse of Kafkaesque

Dictionary.com defines Kafkaesque as,

KAF·KA·ESQUE

[kahf-kuh-esk]

adjective

1. of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling the literary work of Franz Kafka: the Kafkaesque terror of the endless interrogations.

2. marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity: Kafkaesque bureaucracies.

Granted, it has been awhile since I’ve heard the misuse of this literary term but it still gets under my skin (don’t even get me started about a former boss who would misuse the term “Catch-22” constantly in the office!). But instead of this post being all curmudgeon-y like I originally intended, I will just qualify this by labeling it another Writerly Musing.
I am a great lover of Kafka and cite him as one of my influences, if not the top influence. From the massive amount of empirical data I have not collected, I conclude that when people misuse this wonderful literary term, they are often describing something that is merely bizarre or weird. Whilst I was thinking about this, I ran upon a course that was offered at the University of Colorado-Boulder that is constructed around the misuse.

The term should be utilized to either describe Kafka’s own work or to describe a situation, art, book, etc. that has a cyclical and never-ending bureaucratic sense about it. Some examples,

The Trial Josef K. is rounded up and arrested. He is never told his crime and he keeps running around in circles trying to find some authority figure to make sense of it all. Orson Welles also made a fantastic film version starring Anthony Perkins. The film is shot in b&w and has spectacular camera angles.
The Castle Throughout the entire novel, K. is trying to gain access to the castle and to the mysterious official named, Klamm. He has documents saying he is the new land surveyor for the village but gets shuffled back and forth from different castle bureaucrats.
OTHER NON-KAFKA KAFKAESQUE EXAMPLES
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov. This is a great novel; when I read it, I kept forgetting that this wasn’t a Kafka novel. Nabokov claims that he had not heard of Kafka at that point but I think he’s just a little liar. Cincinnatus C. is in jail awaiting his death after being sentenced for “gnostical turpitude.”
“The Prisoner” starring Patrick McGoohan. This is a great BBC television show from the 1960s. Number Six is drugged and taken to the Village. Throughout the entire series, Number Six is trying to a) find out who Number One is and b) get out of the Village. This series has a striking resemblance to The Castle. Hmm.

I am not a number! I’m a free man!

One Brief Defense of Literary Translation

After a really interesting discussion in the comments section of the post, An Evening of Translation, I remembered a short note I recently read about the translation of Kafka’s The Judgement (Das Urteil: Ein Geschichte). It can be found in various places on the internet but here is a brief mention of it: The sentence can be translated as: “At that moment an unending stream of traffic crossed over the bridge.”What gives added weight to the obvious double meaning of ‘Verkehr’ is Kafka’s confession to Max Brod that when he wrote that final line, he was thinking of “a violent ejaculation”. Franz Kafka Writing

The last word of the story in its original German is Verkehr. In true Kafka form, he has a chosen a word with multiple meanings leading to its ambiguity. Below is an excerpt from Kafka: a short introduction (Oxford University Press, 2005):

So my verdict is: Yes! We need literary translators!

Prague

On a recent trip to the Czech Republic, like all good book lovers and especially Czech literature enthusiasts, I had a Kafka nerd-out. Besides scooping up a copy of The Trial translated into English with illustrations by Karel Hruška, I also weighed myself down with a beautiful poster of Gregor Samsa looking into a mirror with the image of a giant vermin staring back at him, Das Schloss in the original German (yes, that’s the title for The Castle), and other little nick-nacks that I couldn’t resist despite my tourist meter reaching its max. Prague was beautiful and I couldn’t help but feel motivated and inspired in my own writing (perhaps cheesy, but I got a kick out of all of the restaurant signs featuring Švejk). Also, a personal favorite, was the bust of Bohumil Hrabal that reigns over one of the walls of At the Golden Tiger. Once I returned to the States, I felt a renewed sense in my ability as a writer and once again excited about the line of work I have chosen.

On a day trip out of the city, I visited the castle in the small town of Karlštejn. It was built by Charles IV to keep his royal jewels and whatnot, but some scholars believe it to be the model for Kafka’s castle that so torments K.