Photo: Alexia Kaltsiki
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Michel Fais
Translated from Greek by Mina Karavanta
Lieber Anschel, Lieber Franz,
I am sorry for the sudden bout of intimacy, sorry if I tired and inconvenienced you, sorry if I said anything that might have hurt your feelings or upset you.
I have been reading your work since I was twelve. If it means anything to you. I switched straight from Mafalda to you. Straight on. A kind of Mafalda that stood between Prague and Komotini. A six-year-old lonely girl who at times felt she was called Yulie, at times Milena, and at other times Dora. This could possibly cheer you up. I started with The Metamorphosis. I shed light on the pages with a little flashlight in the tent of a youth camp by the sea. The boy I had fallen for was totally ignoring me, and the so-called group activities were utterly boring, until my mother—I’d rather be silent about our Kafkaesque relations—brought me some children’s books. She finally returned to Komotini with the children’s books, leaving to me the book she was reading.
I was born fifty-two years after your death in a border town in northern Greece. A provincial society that, despite all the makeup of prosperity and development as time passed on, remained a depressing mud town of Christians and Muslims, but also of inconsolable Jewish ghosts at its deep core; once a fortress, a walled town of the Ottoman Empire, that once belonged to the administrative district of Andrianopolis.
For years I felt like something between an ashamed girl and a trapped animal.
Do you think that this is due to, among other things, my unfulfilled initiation ceremony into adulthood? The passage from the children’s world to the adults’ world that never took place because of a tongue-twister that troubled me since I was a child.
To this very day, I feel the haunting shadow of a perpetually postponed bat mitzvah.
I am sorry for being so intimate at this very last minute. I owe you a lot. I will restrict myself to the most important thing. To what usually quietens down this addictive trouble of writing.
Writing what you cannot write is maybe the only way to write.
Fallen Angel (Anschel) of Prague, I have gone to extremes for you. I have masturbated, I have been intoxicated by your texts. I have thought of jumping over the balcony with your books in my arms. I have gotten into fights with my colleagues at the university at conferences and symposia, especially with those who regurgitate the theses of various Kafka experts. I have even badly hit one of my boyfriends by throwing your diaries at his head. I am ashamed. I have even drawn your astrological chart.
Cancer with horoscope on Leo. Moon between Gemini and Aries. The prevalent planets are Hermes, Sun, and Mars. Your number is 3, which shows—shall I go on?
The only extremity I have not committed yet is to travel to Prague. I have dutifully followed your example with Amerika, the missing continent of the missing Karl. As soon as my book comes out, I will visit Prague. And I will stay for as long as I can afford it. By myself. In your town, engulfed by your town. To be precise, I will imitate you. I will walk on your footprints.
Wandering in Prague both appeased and excited you. After it first familiarised you with your singular fragmented being, as well as with the shattered pieces of the world around you, it also involved you in an ongoing game of no return, through the seduction of fatigue and withdrawal—since, even though you were convinced you had not left your room not even for a minute, you found yourself wandering around in your birth town like a cursed man, as if you were a homeless person, a somnambulist or a dead man. Someone, anyway, who had for a long time lost his sense of the private and the public sphere as well as of the real flow of time.
I will stop ridiculing myself, will stop looking for your footprints in your now touristy town. No, I will not visit Prague. Never! You can never do an autopsy on the urban, existential, sexual, and historical nightmare that sprang up in the head of a writer at the turn of the previous century. You do not attempt an autopsy on something that is irrevocably buried—dust, always ash, always shadow—and, despite all this, unimaginably indelible and alive.
At any rate, Prague did not exist even when you lived in Prague.
I am thinking, I am on the verge of reaching the conclusion that, to me at least, the most reliable research methodology for your work is sleep, hypnosis, self-hypnosis, illusion, the experience of leaving one’s body, virtual reality. A passionate, an excitable simulation of death. Mainly through these spurning, unreliable, and most of all unreasonable and unprofessional tools did I approach you—an incommunicable approach. My method is the method of sleeplessness. Neither yours, nor mine, but of your texts. Writing keeps you awake. Your lids are heavy with sleep and yet remain open, your limbs are fatigued and yet stretched, your consciousness plunges into the abyss and yet remains alert.
Deep down I approached you in a homeopathic way. Live by the dream, die by the dream. Let’s not repeat your famous diary saying...
Needless to say, I do not deny the huge benefit of having spent endless hours in libraries or on the internet, immersing myself in huge bibliographies, going over documents, passages, words, and titles, comparing dates, biographical and narrative details, while also distilling interpretative convergences and divergences of emblematic, radical, conventional, even inadequate and maladroit researchers—all of which have their place in the Kafkaesque Babel.
Yet every morning I would wake up, in the midst of my sleep, while sleeping, whichever way I was sleeping, with the same impossible question: recomposition or decomposition?
In other words, do you recompose the past of your object of research to delineate it convincingly in the present, or do you become decomposed in its place so that you trace it back to its time, to the people who shaped it, to the thoughts and the images that possessed or pacified it?
This is the crucial question to which I measured myself as your researcher. To confide in you that I have dreamt of you is an exaggerated exaggeration.
I’m sorry, sorry, sorry. Sorry for everything.
Next time I will be cautious. I will be succinct and to the point. Which means, I’ll be silent.
If needed I will restrict myself to your death throes:
“Yes, this way, this way is good” (according to Brod).
“I am leaving though” (according to Klopstock).
Or maybe rely on sister Anna’s dazed gaze with “it is finished”? I am wondering, will there be a next time?
I will tell you something that I don’t know how you will take. Something that has been my burden for a long time now. You can call me anything you want. Superficial and erratic, even paranoid, or obsessed. I cannot hide it from you though. I find it impossible.
I ignore what you find out and how you do so. Even we can barely tell the difference between the event and its distortions despite the immediate access we have to facts. What can I say? Maybe sometimes the irrevocable distance, being informed after the event, is more accurate and sober than the information that the immediate experience provides.
To make a long story short. You may have been informed about the dreadful trials and the bitter end of your last love, Dora. Roaming the entire scene of horror of the twentieth century. Nazism, Stalinism, destitution, isolation. Her daughter, Franziska Marianne Lask, lived a hard life just like her mother.
This is the one I want to ponder. To insist on. With insatiable determination.
She may have been the daughter of the German communist Lutz Lask, who lost his life in Siberia, just like many of his kind who fled to the great Soviet fatherland in ’36, but anyone who met Franziska (calling her by her half-name honours your memory) talked about a creature who looked like you, not only in spirit but also in appearance. As if Dora, who had one of your big framed photos on top of her bed, had not got pregnant by the head of the Red Flag, but by the author of the Castle. This girl, who lost her birth father at the age of six, was raised under the weight of your traumatic absence in her mother’s life. She became the child you did not have with her mother. What a difficult father, what a difficult fatherly ghost… On top of having a mother too obstinate and adamant about refusing to appropriate an inch of your posthumous fame in order to alleviate herself and her daughter of the destitution that burdened them. A mixture of communism and Hasidism. An unlikely cocktail! The outcome: the mother dies when she was barely forty years old (August 15, 1952) of kidney failure in a hospital in east London. Unknown and lonely.
Eighteen-year-old Franziska Marianne loses the ground under her feet. Without any flair for the melodramatic: she is deprived of the necessities to bury her mother, your beloved Dora. This afflicted by misfortune creature who suffered all the disasters of European history in the second half of the twentieth century, the daughter you never knew, the daughter who was born outside your orbit, your real daughter, your main inheritor, exhibited signs of schizophrenia. It is said that she heard voices and sounds while experiencing delusional situations. Exactly the same way—and here I am thinking aloud—several protagonists or narrators of yours did. Except that, and you know this first-hand, the fictional characters go in and out of their invented darkness. Whereas Franziska Marianne, despite the efforts of several Jews in London (including your own niece, Marianna Steiner) became alienated from everyone. She disappeared off the face of the earth. She became a beetle, a weasel, a mole, she became a hunger artist. Without return, though. She was brought back to “reality” by the police, who had been notified by her neighbours. It was October 12, 1982 when the police and the locksmith broke into her apartment in Muswell and found her decomposing body in her bed. She had died of starvation at the age of forty-eight.
Enough with the enigmatic Kafkaesque deductions, though.
At any rate, Kafka’s enigma is that there is no enigma. To be precise, an enigma is a state balancing on a tightrope between a condition of hilarity and a zero ground. There might be no tightrope, let alone a rope. And the rope, whether tight or loose, might represent one’s desire to suspend oneself in the lightness of terror.
Anyway. I’ve stretched this too far. Too far. Let’s get to the point.
On Facebook I coordinate a closed, small group that consists of your most dedicated readers. We have called it “Hotel K.” It involves not only academics and researchers. Amongst the members of the group, there are writers, artists, architects, lawyers, students, and bibliophiles who read you systematically, without ideological misconceptions or fixations. Men and women of all ages. Random individuals from across the planet. A network of persistent, and open-minded readers of your work. We exchange news, thoughts, articles, of our own and others’, photographs, and anything else that might concern your world in the passing of time. One day a photographer from Buenos Aires uploaded a photograph of Franziska Marianne at a young age. He was preparing a photo exhibit the theme of which was the women in your life. I had never seen the picture before. There was an online moment of embarrassment. Dead silence. She and I looked alike like two peas in a pod. I don’t want to say how beautiful she was. To be precise, she was a noble mixture of her mother’s gaze and yours. I was paralysed. It took me three months to reconnect with “Hotel K.”
I am certain that, aside from being called stupid, I run the risk of being accused of vanity.
I here enclose her photograph (alas, in poor resolution) and mine at a similar age. You can take a look and draw your own conclusions.
At that moment I wrote a note in my journal: From Mafalda to Franziska…
There are modernisms and modernisms. Fortunately. The plural here has always been the curse of obsessed readers. In fact, your modernism upsets expert readers, not programmatically but in action, it paralyses them, it freezes them in time, as it quietly and insidiously, draws them into a conflict zone of reversals, controversies, and doubts. Without exaggeration: you attract, as much as you repel, your interpreters. Especially those who approach your work fully armoured with adamantly concrete and inflexible theories. As you demonstrate with every aspect of your writing, interpretation is that which does not exist in reality. This is against the reading spirit of our times, when we are forced to read the interpretation of interpretations often rendering the text absent. As you demand that we allegorically return to the animal, so you ask that we really return to the text. To a text that we must silence in order to relate what is non-relatable. Exactly the way he did. “He who was pulled out, He who was saved from the Waters, He who pulls out.” The slow-tongued Jewish preacher, Moses. He who, together with his dispossessed people, crossed, among other things, the linguistic desert of his time, until he spoke a dialect that pulls out salvaged meaning—a dialect that consolidates a return to, and refuge, in time: an uprooted return, an uprooted refuge.
I think that, maybe because of this distant memory, the characters in your stories suffer from having either no sense, or an overwhelming sense, of self. Because of this invariable self-sameness, they are more accountable—one can argue totally so—to an internal plot that often delays, defers, becomes abstract, nearly undermines, or becomes indifferent to the external plot, the action of the story. The result of this organised chaos is that your characters do not display a concrete psychological identity. As if, deep down, they are not individualized acts but reflections of a cruel and uncertain epoch. Hence they often appear to be controversial, fluid and centrifugal; an epoch whose temporality is indefinite though: does it belong to the past, the present or the future? What is most certain is that you are drawn by faces that are most real and intimate, that experience situations that are truly unnatural and unfamiliar. And because you map their passions so coldly (the way a researcher performs an experiment) but also so comically (in the same manner an actor bursts into laughter instead of bursting into sobs or crying out), a sense of comic abyss is conveyed to the reader.
Please, count me in as one of the characters in your story. The most insignificant one in one of your most incomplete stories. Like the flash of a character that remained a spark.
This is more than enough for me. This is my only ambition in life. The highest one.
(I am really wondering, come to think of it…) Can this underweighted, unmapped, nearly embryonic figure bid you farewell as a quasi-heroine and not only as a lifelong reader of yours? In other words, to address you with a repetition of hearing, of seeing, and—why not—of touching?
(I am wondering, truly wondering, wondering about myself writing whatever I am writing to you. And yet I go on. I have an excuse, though. At the back of my mind, there is the thought, not entirely unfounded, that, at the end of the day, I am not your fatigued researcher who is writing to you, but a disheartened heroine of yours, and, above all, a disheartened woman. And be prepared for everything when dealing with a disheartened woman…)
I hold on to the memory of the most indelible farewell you have ever been given. The sweet-scented farewell of Dora who stood by you like a mother, a sister, a nurse, and above all, like a woman fully in love. I refer to the bouquet of wildflowers that dedicated Polish Jewish woman laid on your chest just before you shut your eyes forever.
And then, of course, I refer to her formidable silence about you. To her persistence not to cash in on an inch of your memory. Of your short-lived and so valuable common life.
Nabokov, speaking as a writer-entomologist, made his declaration about Metamorphosis: it is not about a cockroach but a beetle. I wonder, will a Nabokov expert on your plants be discovered? And more specifically a writer-botanist who will determine the specific kind of flowers in the bouquet that Dora laid on your breathless chest in your final hour? There is still some confusion regarding the matter. Did it consist of peonies? Lilies? The lemon yellow and poisonous laburnum? Or something else?
I also hold onto the memory of Milena’s eulogy that was published a short while after your funeral (Narodni Listy, 6.6.1924). I read the closing section: “His work in its entirety describes the horror of mysterious misunderstandings and unjustifiable guilt. He, as a man of so many ethical reservations that he stayed sleepless even when the others, the deaf ones, felt safe.”
Could I possibly add mine…?
(I am surprised at the thought, I belaboured this point and I am writing it to you…)
Ninety-six years since your death. I do not know if it is exceptionally later, untimely in the present or, on the contrary, rushed and premature. Since we are not talking about just anybody. We are talking about a consciousness like yours, whose relationship with time suffered from a long-lasting stagnant anticipation. I do not know if what I thought of as a retrospective endowment of your absence, as a little stone I would crave to lay on our tombstone, is considered something indecent or blasphemous.
“Whatever is to burn, is as if it has already been burned,” we read in the Talmud. So I blurt it out…
I go back to
I go back to
We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to black
So, what I have thought as my own insolent farewell (farewell, in a manner of speaking, since not a day passes that something of your does not upset me) is one of my favourite songs by a favourite singer of mine.
You would have liked her. Perhaps she would have made you anxious at first. But I am certain that not only would you have flirted with her, you would also have made her yours. I am not saying you would have saved her from drugs and alcohol or saved her from the fatherly labyrinth or the seduction of wild lovemaking. I do not know if she would have had the patience, the time or the interest in responding to your long and soul-consuming letters. At any rate, she was in a rush. Her internal speedometer constantly went over the red line. Twenty-seven years was the maximum she could last. She would probably have sent you an email or an sms. And I believe that. I am almost certain. For her eyes, her sad, ferocious, unprotected eyes, you would have gotten over your fear of technology.
The lines I enclose in this letter are from the song “Back to Black” and the singer is Amy Winehouse. A slow, mournful, passionate song. It came out in 2006 and had an incredible world impact. Do not panic! You also fell victim to your global impact—even if you did so in absentia and retrospectively; to your Kafkaism that has for decades wrenched you as much from your mass popularity as from our hermetic isolation. On the one hand, the t-shirts, the plates and cups with your face printed on them, and, on the other hand, the hyper-theorized analyses of your work, the self-referential painting exhibits, the exaggerated theatrical performances—I do not want to frighten you more, but what is about to happen, always in honour of your work and your memory, in 2024 will be beyond words.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that Amy would have been your beloved one. One of your beloved ones. You would have been struck with awe. Especially if you saw her on stage. Her movements, her performance, her sensual presence that she was at times self-conscious about, other times sarcastic about. To my mind, the Winehouse phenomenon would have something to say to the Kafka phenomenon. This controversial Jewish girl from North London, of Russian-Polish origins, who dressed in an old-fashioned way, had a grand hairstyle and a chaotic tattoo for a body, and a mythical contralto voice that mixed and matched musical and performative elements of jazz, soul, pop, swing, funk, gospel, even hip-hop—a mixture you would not find that unfamiliar, if we judge by the fusion of linguistic and stylistic elements in your writing, always in favour of integral clarity.
I do not know if the big clock in the square of the Old City of Prague, on the eleventh of June, 1924, stopped at exactly at 16:00, the time when they buried you, by actually lifting you to the attic of your last hexagonic residence of grey travertine. There, in the last Kafka residence, where your father, your mother, and three sisters, on rotation, migrated from the floors below, I do not know if, on that bleak day, the drizzle interrupted the monotonous Kaddish prayers. What I know, though, or rather I am certain of, is that Amy would have been the perfect performer of the Yiddish songs that you so much liked in interwar Prague.
For this reason, Franz, do google “Amy Winehouse Back to Black” and then plunge into the wild velvet of her voice…
(I will delete this I don’t…