Stay Put, Herr Kafka
by Stacey Margaret Jones
part 1 of 2
When I was a junior in college twenty years ago in 2012, I went to my literature professor one day to ask her if I could go outside the course reading list to write my final research paper on Franz Kafka. I considered myself an advanced and precocious student, and I wanted her to see me that way as well.
I was seated in her small office at our private liberal arts college, and I was very excited about my idea of combining the existential other with the Jewish diaspora and the suffering of the German Jew living in Bohemia. I was too young to know that there had already been books and books written on this topic; I just wanted to write about Kafka because I preferred him to the other early modern European and American writers we had been reading in the course.
But I could see she was not going to be easy to convince, and at the mention of Kafka’s name, her normally cheery and supportive countenance dimmed. I was a tall 21-year-old, over six feet, athletic and exuberant. In contrast, her five-foot frame, pale skin and dark hair made her look like a sickly, aged Snow White.
I thought perhaps a cloud had crossed the sun, obscuring the light through the one small latticed window she had in her fourth-floor tower office of the nineteenth-century Gothic Liberal Arts building, which is where English and History professors were housed before the college tore that monstrosity down and built the glistening Humanities Center ten years ago.
I think all the dusty books she had on the shelves lining every wall of the cramped room sucked up whatever sunlight managed to fight its way in. Even though she taught modern literature, all of her books seemed ancient, just like her, although upon close examination she could have been at most only 45. She seemed old enough to be beyond guessing a number, but just described as “old.”
“I’m not sure that would be a good idea,” she said. Each word was considered, formed completely, and then sounded out. In class she spoke as if she couldn’t spit the words out fast enough because her synapses were firing at such a rate her mouth could not keep up. I looked up at her to make sure I was actually in the room with the right professor.
“But, Dr. Ticha, you said we could propose something else if we wanted when you gave the assignment.”
“I said you could propose it,” she said. Her vague accent seemed a mixture of East Coast erudition and Meryl Streep à la Out of Africa. Her voice was sonorous and weighty. As her gravitas cut my hopes, I realized I’d be left with Edgar Lee Masters, the only modernist writer in the class who hadn’t yet been claimed by another student.
“Given your interests, the themes of isolation we’ve talked about in class, your world travels, I thought sure you would be open to this,” I said. But I was gathering up my book bag and getting ready to go.
“Haven’t you wondered then,” she said, freezing me in place with her direct gaze, “with my ‘interests’, the themes of isolation we’ve talked about in class, my ‘world travels’ why Herr Kafka is not on the syllabus?”
“I figured we just don’t have time for every writer.”
“Heavens, Jonathan! Kafka is not Pierre Loti! He’s not a writer one doesn’t have time for. He’s a giant.”
She paused, and then turned and struck a match to light a cigarette. Even though the whole campus was, of course, smoke-free, she showed no sense of embarrassment or of even needing subterfuge.
“Behind you, that low credenza,” she said, nodding her head toward a heavy, oaken cabinet. I put my hand on a drawer pull and she nodded again. I opened it, and a large bottle of Becherovka, a Czech liqueur, lay alone within. I looked up at her, and she shrugged her shoulders as if she couldn’t be bothered with so many questions. I pulled it out and put it on her desk.
She took a drag on her cigarette, then snuffed the whole thing out in a large, decorative pottery bowl, uncapped the Becherovka, poured two fingers for us each in glasses she’d pulled from somewhere, and nodded to me to reach across the desk and take mine.
“I despise Herr Kafka, and I guess you should know why,” she said when I was settled with my drink. It didn’t seem fitting to say anything, so I didn’t. She began her story.
* * *
In the early 1990s, I was an English teacher in Prague. I worked for the Vysoká kola ekonomická v Praze, the nation’s premier Economics university. I taught seven class periods each week from a book on English for Economics students. I lived in a prewar dormitory in the working-class neighborhood of Žižkov, which was one of the city districts just outside the historical center.
Before I left for the year away, a woman I didn’t know, who came to my going-away party as a “plus-one” of her boyfriend, gave me a collection of Kafka writings called The Pocket Kafka. I wasn’t taking many books with me, but I thought that would be a perfect accompaniment for the trip.
I didn’t know anyone in the city, and had found the job online in those somewhat nascent days of Internet job postings. I thought I would teach some, read a lot and just spend some time being outside the life I had had up to that time: graduate school, silly part-time jobs to pay living expenses, American consumerism, etc.
The Czech Republic had just come out of Communism during the Velvet Revolution in 1989, not a long time before, when you consider it had been in its sway for forty years, or two generations. Slovakia and the Czech Republic had amicably split, and the new Czech nation was a kind of frontier, which attracted expatriates like me.
In fact, one of the Czech professors at the University told me when I arrived that if I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t have to go to any stores or restaurants in which I would be forced to speak Czech. So many cafes and boutiques had sprung up to cater to tourists and foreigners working in the jewel-like little city, I could speak English everywhere I went if I chose, but that isn’t what I wanted. I had a phrase book, I had free Czech classes at the university, and I had a lot of time to while away. I wanted to know that city in a way a tourist never could.
When I first arrived, I had such happy days! On Wednesdays, I taught first thing in the morning at the main campus, which was one tram stop from the central train station. After class ended by 10:00 a.m., I would leave my things in a desk in the shared foreign-teachers’ office and take a small bag and a book, my unlimited-rides transportation pass and strike out on foot to hop on and hop off the metro, the trams and the busses as I pleased.
I remember taking the sharp corners on the tram tracks through middle-class city district of Vinohrady deeply engrossed in Middlemarch. I could both be deep inside a book, and deep inside that city at the same time. I loved it. I thought I might never leave.
But when I began The Pocket Kafka, my feelings about Prague started to change. It didn’t help that I started that sneaky long book — it was supposed to be a “pocket” edition — at the time the Czech rainy autumn began. I think there were four straight weeks in which we never saw the sun. It was so rainy and wet that I had to take my hand-washed clothes to a laundromat and pay for a dryer; otherwise, they molded hanging in my small room. It was turning into a cold and wet life, far away in what now seemed to be a city of perpetual gloom.
I began drinking more. Beer was cheaper than Coca-Cola in those early years for the nation, which was still firmly outside the European Union, and you could drink your breakfast without judgment in any small grocer’s or 24-hour sandwich bar. Kafka seemed to be a good companion.
But then I started dreaming of him. We know in life, Kafka was a small man, contributing to his tentative masculinity and the ennui that led to his introspection. But in my dreams, he was a looming presence. In each tense and stressful nightmare of him — and they did become nightmares — he made himself into some kind of new and intractable obstacle to something I wanted in my real daily life in Prague.
In my dreams, I thought I had free miles to bring my boyfriend from New York for a Thanksgiving visit, but when I went through all the trouble to get a phone card to call the airline, Herr Kafka answered and denied my claim in a chilling and threatening voice.
I wanted to apply for the lucrative extra private teaching hours with the university’s librarians, but each time I handed in my application, Herr Kafka stamped it incomplete with a foreboding and violent motion and handed it back to me. While standing on a crowded tram, I was thrown forward and through the front windows onto the street when the tram braked to avoid hitting a man crossing the tracks: Herr Kafka.
Copyright © 2014 by Stacey Margaret Jones