Reconnecting with Franz Kafka in Prague

A highlight of my recent trip to Europe was the three days I spent in Prague, renowned for its beauty, and home, at least in some ways, to three writers important to me: Vaclav Havel, Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka.

I learned a little about each of these three, very different authors in my days in Prague, and it was perhaps most of all Franz Kafka who stood out in the trip. On my first full day in Prague, after visiting the Castle in the morning, where I stood outside the small house in the Golden Lane where Kafka lived for a time with his sister, I went to the Franz Kafka Museum. There I remembered the reasons Kafka was important to me, and began to dwell in his uniquely realised terrors again.

The Kafka Museum displays artefacts, texts and imaginative projections from Kafka’s life and writing in an innovative and moving way. It recreates the mood of the short story, “The Burrow,” by taking the visitor down a narrow staircase into an underground hall, surrounded with disturbing music and sounds, and into a long gallery of filing cabinets labelled with the characters of Kafka’s texts. It is deeply affecting.

I also remembered the affinities I had with Kafka: his self-loathing at times; his hatred of his father; his profound doubts about his writing, and yet the urgent, spiritual necessity of his writing to his existence – so deeply imagined in “The Hunger Artist”; and the troubled necessity of his work in the bureaucracy.

Images Source: my photos of an exhibit at the Franz Kafka Museum in Prague and the entrance to the Museum

Yet I also saw how and why I drifted away from my earlier obsessive reading of Kafka’s diaries and letters. My temperament has never truly been that of the hunger artist, and I have not suffered Kafka’s terrible, disabling fear of simple human intimacy and family life. Among the most affecting displays in the exhibition was the case that showed the women in Kafka’s lives who he failed and betrayed from within the prison of his literary torments.

During the trip I acquired a recent translation of Kafka’s The Castle, and began another effort to finish reading this unfinished work, in a translation stripped of some of the Muirs’ rhetoric of spiritual search. I know his parables and short stories better than his novels, and perhaps that is how it should be. Kafka is another artist of the fragmentary. Coincidentally, when in Stockholm a week or two later, I saw a performance of Kafka’s The Trial at the Swedish Royal Opera House. It was as if the world of Kafka was breaking on my shores, and retelling me this strange parable of self-destruction through literature that suggests self-realisation is a religious myth.

“In the struggle between yourself and the world, second the world.” from Kafka The Collected Aphorisms

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