Kafka’s Novels: Amerika

Kafka took some early stabs at writing a novel, but none of them really worked out. In 1903, he started The Child and the City. He abandoned it, and the manuscripts have since disappeared. He tried to collaborate with Max Brod on a work called Richard and Samuel, but that didn’t work out either. The fragment “Wedding Preparations in the Country” was supposed to be much longer than it was, but he gave up on it. Therefore, when talking about Kafka’s novels, we always have to start with Amerika. Although like his other attempts it remains unfinished, enough of it exists for us to recognize it as a novel, and so it is here we begin.

The original manuscript bears no title – Amerika is the name given to it by Kafka’s friend and posthumous editor, Max Brod. He chose the title because Kafka often called the work his “American novel,” but Kafka had a number of different names for it, such as Der Verschollene (translated alternately as The Man Who Disappeared, The Missing One, Lost Without a Trace, or The Lost One) and The Stoker, the title given to the first chapter and sometimes extended to include the entire work. Kafka wrote the majority of the novel from 1911-1912, with additional fragments being added intermittently over the next few years until it was finally pushed aside for other things. Only the first chapter was published during Kafka’s lifetime, and though The Stoker was recognized as a quality work, the rest of Amerika had to wait for Max Brod to come along.

In its beginning stages, however, Amerika received the rapt attention of its author. After scrapping his first attempt because he thought it too Dickensian, Kafka began it again and wouldn’t stop writing, working in his typical fashion from the early evening until late at night. Having never been to America, he pulled some of his information from a series of articles describing one man’s journey there. We know this because in both the articles and the manuscript for the novel, “Oklahoma” is spelled “Oklahama.” While a small mistake like that can be ignored, larger changes – such as the one to the Statue of Liberty – are of significant importance. What we come to realize is that Kafka’s America is not so much a real place as it is a land of infinite possibility, where a man can succeed beyond his most far-flung dreams and fail beyond his most terrifying nightmares. This is a place that cannot be seen with the eyes – it has to be grasped with the imagination. To picture Kafka’s America as a plausibly real place is to miss the point entirely, and it would be a shame to read Amerika so carelessly.

The story begins with the main character Karl Rossmann nervously waiting for his boat to dock in the harbor of New York City. Karl is not quite a willing visitor to these shores – after being seduced by a serving girl who subsequently became pregnant, Karl is being shipped to America by his parents. As the boat prepares to dock, he realizes that he’s left his umbrella below deck. When he goes to retrieve it, he gets lost on the ship, running into a series of strange characters who push him from one plot point to the next. It soon becomes obvious that Karl will spend the rest of the novel wandering.

The next two hundred pages or so follow Karl on his journey. As his meandering takes him through the worlds of the amazingly rich and the despicably poor, he makes and breaks friendships along the way, always trying to find a steady footing, and always getting tripped up somewhere down the line. To his credit, Karl never resorts to despair; and even when he is depressed, he seems ready to take on the next problem with what could only be described as a youthful exuberance. Amerika is said to be Kafka’s most optimistic work, and he even entertained notions of giving it a happy ending, with Karl finding a steady job and reuniting with his parents. However, a September 29, 1915 diary entry suggests a more pessimistic outcome, in which Karl is “destroyed by a legal sentence;” and while he is not “hurled to the ground,” he is at least “pushed to the side.” The novel itself, giving us no real conclusion, leaves us to contemplate both possibilities as Karl travels steadily into the infinite expanse of the West.

Since Amerika doesn’t have as many metaphysical conundrums as The Trial or The Castle, pointing out the relevant themes may seem an exercise in stating the obvious. Nevertheless, there are a few things that anyone reading Amerika should look out for, so here are several points you can ponder over, refer to, or angrily disagree with:

The world of Amerika is one of gigantic proportions.
When Karl is not busy getting lost in ships or mansions, he’s bounding down endless city streets or working as a lift-boy for a hotel that seems to grow larger with each description. The harbors are large. The crowds are large. The buildings are large. Even the writing-desks are impossibly complicated. But the size doesn’t just extend to the physical. America is a land of dreams and nightmares, where any event is possible as long as it can be imagined. Fliers on street corners read: “The great Theater of Oklahama calls you! . . . Everyone is welcome! . . . Down with all those who do not believe in us!” Structures, ideas, bodily gestures – everything everywhere is writ large. It can get downright overwhelming for poor Karl. He’s excited by the prospect of America, but at the same time, he wishes he could be home again, in the comfortable and courteous family environment that existed before sex came along to ruin everything. America’s infinite opportunity frightens him, particularly because he has nowhere to turn if he fails, and he’s seen what it’s like for those who can’t quite meet expectations.

The division between rich and poor runs deep.
In the course of his adventures, Karl finds himself in the worlds of both the privileged and the not-so-privileged. As with everything in Kafka’s America, the division is a large one. On the one hand, we have enormously successful businessmen who can afford to build pointlessly grandiose mansions. On the other hand, we have laborers scrounging around for any kind of employment or financial support, cursing the entrepreneurs for not giving the workers what they want. The rich sleep in inordinately large bedrooms; the poor sleep (when they can) in inordinately cramped attics. Kafka makes a special point of acknowledging both extremes; and while this fondness for extremes is useful as a tool to critique capitalist society, it can also reflect Kafka’s prejudices, particularly when applied unfairly to women. Which leads us to...

The women of Amerika are conveniently divided into virgins and whores.
Sex ruins everything in this novel. It is because of sex that Karl was sent away from his parents, and it should be noted that in Karl’s eyes, the sexual act was entirely the fault of the servant girl. The women who are kind to Karl have the chaste air of mothers and sisters. The women associated with sex are either the violent, spoiled daughters of the rich, or disgusting, smothering, lower-class beasts. There seems to be no middle ground, and the total picture feels more than a little unjust. This ridiculous dichotomy, however, turns Kafka’s female characters into absurdly funny caricatures, and despite one’s righteous indignation, it’s hard not to laugh.

Amerika is a comedy.
The very fact that Kafka considered a happy ending makes this novel far more optimistic than the bulk of his other works, and the tone of the novel carries a certain light-heartedness. The size of Kafka’s America, while it can be frightening, is for the most part exhilarating, and its exaggerations are often comic. The goofy mannerisms of both the rich and poor transform everyone into clowns, from buffoonish fat cats to gigantic, slobbering whores. There’s no need to torture oneself over symbolic constructs with a novel like this – it’s simply meant to be enjoyed as written.

Amerika is a novel for dreamers, for those who like to pretend that roads stretch into infinity after disappearing beyond the horizon. Kafka definitely sees danger in this limitlessness – just as there are endless horizons, there are also endless chasms – but for the most part there is hope, a never-ending hope. If a city fails you, you can always continue on to the next, and if that city fails you, and the next one and the one after that, you can always head West, to the mountains and the plains and beyond, where, as if by magic, everything is possible, for you and for everyone else. Enjoy this dreaming while it lasts. Kafka has a fondness for nightmares, and Amerika offers the patient reader a chance to breathe some fresh air before diving back down into darkness. It is a brief flash of levity surrounded by unending chaos.

— The Modern Word

The Power to Narrate: Class Relations and Kafka's Amerika

The utopian force to be found in countering the "patriarchal orchestration of the look" can be found in Straub/Huillet's film Class Relations (Klassenverhältnisse , 1983), based on the novel fragment Amerika by Franz Kafka. Unlike the films before and after it, Class Relations was widely admired by the critics, who called it perhaps their best film and "probably . . . the only Kafka film that can stand the test of time." It prompted the second of two mainstream film books on Straub/Huillet to be published in West Germany. It was also the last of their films to be seen by sizable U.S. audiences (only The Death of Empedocles has been distributed in the United States since), as it was the last of their films to be shown at the New York Film Festival. It was an official German entry at the Berlin Film Festival, where Straub/Huillet were awarded an Honorable Mention "in recognition of their unique, sustained contribution to universal film art." The festival scheduled the film in the afternoon, however, reflecting the official segregation between "art films" and the mainstream. Straub expressed regret that the film thus missed the time when people ordinarily go to the movies but added that it may be an honor to join the films from the Third World in the same fate.

As a black-and-white film photographed with artificial lighting by William Lubtchansky and based on a text of German prose, Class Relations reconnects with the style of the Böll films. Straub/Huillet compare the uncle to Machorka-Muff, for instance, and where the general's conquest of the capital is compared to Fritz Lang's M , Karl Rossmann's journey across America becomes the "journey into the land of vampires." The text, broken into blocks of dialogue, is articulated with syncopated pauses and a range of speech registers again reminiscent of Schoenberg.

Partly funded by the city of Hamburg, Class Relations was rehearsed and filmed there while Straub/Huillet were the city's guests as artists-in-residence. A Hamburg laboratory processed the film, and it was edited partly as an educational project with students at the Hamburg film school. With the exceptions of the final shots, then, the film parallels Kafka's description of America as being all too reminiscent of the oppressions of the Old World.

Despite this, however, we discover in Class Relations an example of the liberation from and through the cinema postulated by Benjamin in his writing on the apparatus of photography. Koch poses this utopia as an alternative to the renunciation urged by Laura Mulvey in the 1970s.

In regard to the novel Amerika and the film version Class Relations, Straub/Huillet subvert the Oedipal narrative, especially in spatial terms. In exploring how they do so, I will address the fundamental dilemma shared by Kafka, Straub/Huillet, and feminist (film) theory: how to envisage a realm of freedom for ourselves in this world when the language we have to describe it is itself one of the means of our enslavement.

Kafka sought to overcome this paradox in literature by challenging the mechanisms of narrative representation. As Klaus Ramm has demonstrated, Kafka reduced the presence of a narrator in his prose as much as possible, thus frustrating the reader's tendency to identify with either the narrator or the protagonist. A similar strategy is developed in feminist theory, which seeks to find a space in cinema that is not entirely dominated by the Oedipal narrative. Feminists have raised the possibility that every narrative is inherently a repetition of the Oedipus drama, the struggle of the son to become the father. In this drama, woman has no space of her own but is seen only as an obstacle or as the currency of exchange. The dilemma resides in the fact that in existing society, such narratives are a source of pleasure and social cohesion as well as oppression. Therefore, the task is to employ narrative and undermine it at the same time.

An example of Kafka's subversion of narrative can be illustrated briefly by considering the plot of the short story "Das Urteil" (The Judgment). In this simple inversion of the Oedipus drama, Kafka constantly builds up in the reader an expectation of a narrative whole, a narrative trajectory. In the first few sentences, this trajectory is repeatedly traced from Georg Bendemann in his room, outside to the row of houses along the river, and then to the green hills beyond, and perhaps to the friend in Russia to whom Georg has just written. The plot of the story then proceeds to undermine the reader's expectations about all these elements. Finally, rather than taking him to the distant hills or to a reconciliation with his friend, Kafka cuts across Georg's expected trajectory, having him drop himself off the bridge instead of crossing it. Both the expected narrative movement and Georg's actual path have a fateful character. But by placing two narrative wholes in opposition to each other, Kafka has left for himself and the reader a structural gap promising freedom from the narratives' closed Oedipal logic.

The challenge to closed narrative structure articulated by feminist film theory echoes Kafka's narrative strategies. Much avant-garde and feminist work has tried to frustrate the impulse toward narrative wholeness in film but often at the expense of visual pleasure. This project was theorized most prominently by Mulvey in 1975 in her article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." At its most extreme, this feminist theory calls for a renunciation of all the "satisfaction, pleasure and privilege" offered by the conventional cinema.

Partly on the basis of E. H. Gombrich's theories of perception, de Lauretis has more recently argued that Mulvey's "Brechtian-Godardian program" was unnecessarily brutal in its denial of pleasure and that it could not logically succeed without abolishing cinema entirely. De Lauretis proposes an alternative analysis of conventional narrative, using Gombrich's theory of the "phantom percept." The phantom percept is an illusion present in all sensory perception. It is fundamental to human survival, since it allows us to reconcile the fragmentary data of our senses with the unified whole we expect to perceive. Hence we tend to see a whole circle even if a segment of it is obscured from view. The success of illusion in the visual arts rests on the exclusion of contradictory percepts that would not fit into the expected pattern, "the social contract by which external consistency is given up or traded against the internal coherence of the illusion." De Lauretis believes that it must be possible to undermine conventional narrative without destroying the basis of visual pleasure. Therefore she asks, "With regard to avant-garde practices which foreground frame, surface, montage, and other cinematic codes or materials, including sound, flicker, and special effects; could contradictory or phantom percepts be produced not to negate illusion and destroy visual pleasure, but to problematize their terms in cinema?"

A problematization of narrative illusion and the pleasure it affords is found in Kafka's works as well as in the films of Huillet and Straub. Let us now turn to Straub/Huillet's film Class Relations . Through a visual problematization of Karl Rossmann's subjectivity, Straub/Huillet's film achieves many of the goals of feminist film practice without destroying visual pleasure.

The first reel of Class Relations corresponds to "Der Heizer" ("The Stoker"), the opening chapter of Kafka's novel. Kafka was less happy with "The Stoker" segment than with its companion piece, "The Judgment." He called it a "bald imitation of Dickens," perhaps because it at times seems to postulate a privileged narrator who reveals accurately Karl Rossmann's subjective perceptions. For instance, when he first enters the ship captain's office, the seat of power and justice, Karl looks out at the majestic spectacle of ships in New York Harbor. The description concludes, "Yes, in this room one knew where one was."Soon thereafter, as the stoker is clearly failing in his plea for justice, the view shifts to small motorboats darting about and "peculiar floating objects," and the description concludes, "A movement without end, a restlessness, carried over from the restless element onto helpless humanity and their works." The subjective impressions are inconsistent but perfectly logical if we assume there is a superior narrator who is merely revealing Karl's state of mind.

Most film treatments of Kafka have seized precisely on this subjective identification and have tried to depict the images described. Straub/Huillet, however, use their film to explore the relations between the figure of Karl and the narratives within which he is placed. They do so solely on the basis of the pared-down utterances they have selected from the novel fragment, in a manner of speech that Wolfram Schütte has called "an arena where struggles of power and class take place." It is clear at the beginning of both the film and the story that Karl's position in matters of class and power is very important. This position is explored by Straub/Huillet through Kafka's use of language and his method of narration as well as through their own construction of the narrative space of cinema.

As Karl arrives by ship in New York, his narrative takes a sudden turn from his vision of the Goddess of Liberty back to the lower decks of the ship. He searches there for his lost umbrella (a connection to his family and the Old World) and finds a German-speaking ally and father figure in the person of the stoker. The conditions of this alliance are tenuous, however. Karl is drawn to the stoker only because they have suffered similar humiliations. But when the stoker says "there must have been a reason" for Karl's exile, Karl responds, "Now I could also become a stoker. To my parents it's quite indifferent now." He refuses to reveal to the stoker the true basis of his sympathy, that his parents have disowned him for getting a servant pregnant. At the same time his reference to the stoker's job betrays his presumption of superiority.

Their solidarity continues to rely on this lack of communication. Karl explains why he does not expect to study in America with a series of speculations, concluding with the assumption, "Besides, people here have a prejudice against foreigners, I believe." Not only is the word "here" ironic, since he has not "arrived" anywhere, but the stoker heightens the irony by responding, "Have you learned that, too, already? Well, then that's good. Then you're my man."

In fact, Karl has not learned/experienced (the word is erfahren ) anything new up to this point, and the stoker's ensuing complaints about his Rumanian supervisor on a German ship build up a nationalistic bond between them. Karl's invented solidarity betrays his presumption of superiority as he tells the stoker not to stand for such treatment and later impulsively speaks up for him in the captain's office. The speciousness of this solidarity is fully exposed in Karl's last theatrical attempt to impress the captain with its longevity: "To me you have always depicted it so clearly," he admonishes the stoker. Karl has attempted to fabricate a long-standing bond out of a shared feeling of victimization. Yet it becomes clear through the narrative that their two stories have nothing in common, since their social circumstances remain different.

In addition to social roles, the power to narrate is another means by which characters' relative positions are revealed. By transferring this power from figure to figure, Kafka reveals class relations and subverts narrative identification at the same time. The entire work is Karl's story, after all, but by the end of "The Stoker" sequence he is the one character with no story to tell. Karl himself raises the issue of narration, since he believes the stoker's failure lies in his inability to use his own tale of victimization effectively to gain sympathy. Yet Karl's support of the stoker has nothing to do with the stoker's story, either, despite Karl's lie. Karl's own narrative is more pertinent. In Kafka's novel, Karl's narrative is summarized in a dependent clause within the opening sentence but is narrated thoroughly only by the uncle, with Karl's comments revealed by internal monologue. In the film, both the initial summary and Karl's unspoken commentary are dropped. Only the uncle has the privilege of explaining Karl's journey and eliciting our sympathy for him. The uncle's narrative, one of the longest speeches of the film, takes the central position away from the stoker. It is delivered with polished theatricality by Mario Adorf, whose vocal style is one extreme of a broad spectrum of voices in the film. With this narrative, the uncle places Karl back into continuity with the past, in fact embedding Karl's exile into his own fantastic success story. Now that the relationship is clear, the uncle usurps Karl's right to speak by repeating his statements, almost mockingly. For example, "It did him no harm!"—referring to the ocean crossing below decks. The uncle also takes over the words that had propelled Karl in his actions—words such as "right" and "justice," which Karl has been repeating as in a school lesson but with the belief that they might have some power on their own. In the face of the uncle's impatience over the attention given the stoker, Karl insists, "But that isn't important in a matter of justice." The uncle then takes over the phrase "matter of justice," subordinates it to a "matter of discipline," and declares both subordinate to the judgment of the captain. The uncle finally uses his superior position and understanding to steer the plot of the story itself: "I understand perfectly your way of acting, but precisely that gives me the right to conduct you hence most quickly."

Karl responds to this assertion of power over him by turning to the stoker's oppression, not his own. Using the intimate form of address for the first time—as if talking to himself or to a family member—he asks the stoker why he does not resist. But since the relationship Karl has hoped for has been destroyed, Straub/Huillet cut the upper body of the stoker out of the frame as Karl kneels and holds his hand, telling him he must leave him on his own.

The final speech in this section of the film, closing "The Stoker" episode, again has the uncle as omniscient narrator: "You felt abandoned, there you met the stoker, and now you are grateful to him; that is very laudable. But don't push that too far, if only out of love for me, and learn to comprehend your place." The word place (Stellung ) is the achieved end of the entire sequence. Lost in the ship, sent to America, Karl had only an assumed "place" in regard to the stoker. The slender legacy he has brought from home, however, has expanded to the point that it temporarily determines his identity and fate: it is a long tracking shot from a very low angle, showing the facades of Uncle Jacob's endless harbor warehouses. The father's power and Karl's dependence and vulnerability are given material substance in composition, montage, and duration. Straub/Huillet have no need to repeat Kafka's summation, "It was truly as if there were no stoker anymore."[...]

— University of California Press

Kafka: The Theatre of Oklahoma

It has often been felt that of the chapters of Kafka's America The Stoker alone stands as an independent short story. But that chapter, although it may boast many fine qualities, is not completely typical of Kafka's writing. Of the chapters of America only the last, The Theatre of Oklahoma, is Kafkaesque. That is to say, the structure is perfect. If we look at what happens in the chapter, this will become clear.

On a street corner Karl sees a placard advertising the Theatre of Oklahoma. He goes to Clayton and joins the theatre, concealing his lack of qualifications in order to do so. He and the other recruits board a train to take them to the theatre. In what context does all this happen? Karl through a series of adventures has ended up working as a servant to Brunelda, a large and demanding woman. At the end of Chapter 7 he is about to run away from her flat and is dissuaded from doing so by the student Mendel, who sits on the next balcony and offers a different point of view to Karl's. On the basis of Mendel's advice Karl makes the decision not to run away, and goes back to bed considering a brighter future. Details in this chapter suggest that The Theatre of Oklahoma takes place approximately six months after the original chapters. Karl has not seen Giacomo, we learn, for six months.

This idea of running away makes sense of the way Karl has behaved up to this point. When he arrives in America he loses his suitcase and becomes embroiled in the fate of the stoker. The suitcase and the stoker are excuses for him not to immerse himself fully in what is going on around him. Then he meets his uncle, who takes him to his home in New York. There Karl takes so much pleasure in the earthly delights available to him that he does nothing to improve his prospects, for example to his uncle's chagrin not partaking of a course of study. His uncle throws him out, on the pretext that Karl did not go back with him, in other words that he ran away from him. Karl finds himself among down-and-outs and meets Delamarche and Robinson, from whom he subsequently spends much time trying to get away. His attempts to get away from them characterise most of the rest of the book, until Mendel persuades him to stay with them at Brunelda's. He does this when Karl's tendency to run away is made manifest, and he appears high up on the balcony, above a parade.

Mendel thus induces a sea-change in Karl's attitude. From running away he begins to make the most of his opportunities and involve himself in what is happening around him. We can see this in the two fragments that follow Chapter 7, but it is particularly evident in The Theatre of Oklahoma, which stands quite separately from everything that has preceded it. Karl for whatever reason appears to have left Brunelda's employ. Either that or he no longer cares to go back.

However we read it, the chapter The Theatre of Oklahoma has much in common with Kafka's other stories that we do not see in the earlier chapters of the novel. You could take it as a separate story. Chapters 1-7 meander and do not seem to know where they are going.

The criticism of America which is commonly voiced, namely that it does not reflect what America is really like, does not apply to the eighth chapter. That is an encapsulation of the country. Karl sees an opportunity and takes advantage of it. This is what is called the American Dream, the idea that any person can better himself or herself. Karl uses the chance to get a job.

This chapter is somewhat more positive than, say, Metamorphosis or The Judgement. Here, if there is a negative side, it lies in what we read into the Theatre of Oklahoma. Otherwise the movement is wholly optimistic. The fate that might lie in wait for Karl could be good and could be bad. According to what Kafka told Brod Karl would find in this almost limitless theatre everything he was looking for. According to a diary entry Kafka spoke of Karl as "the innocent...more pushed aside than struck down". We thus have two possible ways of imagining how the story would have developed beyond its extant ending. This is reflected in the story itself. When Karl arrives at the theatre he sees angels on the pedestals. He discovers later that they are replaced at regular intervals by devils. This implies a moral ambiguity. In addition to which the theatre offers material rather than spiritual happiness.

It does not matter what happens beyond the scope of the story as that is not given to us. The chapter is complete as it stands. The subject is Karl's movement, how he comes into the employ of the theatre, how he takes advantage of an opportunity, regardless of whether it is completely secure. We move from Karl reading the placard at the beginning to his travelling through America at the end and feeling the scenery cool his face. From read experience to lived experience.

The last paragraph in particular, the description of nature, stands out. In the first place each of the various natural forms is described specifically in relation to the viewer. This gives it a peculiar personal quality. Kafka takes the magnificence of America's scenery (which sounds rather like the Rockies) and gives it a Kafkaesque Gothic feel, seeing shadows, and "narrow, jagged, hollow valleys". This is not because Kafka is seeing the dark side of the scenery but because he uses shadow to give the scenery depth, to give it three dimensions, like a relief map. That is in the same way as the angels and devils of the theatre make its provenance ambiguous.

In both ways emphasis is placed on the possibility of the text and of the individual word. This is how Kafka's writing works as literature. It is in the possibility of words, the difference of the shapes that they can take in our minds, rather than their beauty, say.

— Kafka: The Clattering Mill

— Kafka Sciety of America

— Biografía
— El Castillo
— El Proceso
— La Metamorfosis
— América
— Diarios/Cartas
— Bibliografía