Friday, September 09, 2005

Kafka's Hilarity

The Trial, by Franz Kafka, Read by Geoffrey Howard, Blackstone Audio, 1998

When I was in college, I read an essay that transformed, temporarily, my notion of what Kafka was supposed to be about. My own experience reading the books and partaking of the predominant Kafka mythology, fueled by imbibing a great quantity of his diaries, was to see him as a dark, tormented genius, a melancholy observer of human society who saw how depraved we are as a species and how indifferent we are to individuals as a civilization. Seen in the light of his Jewishness and the encroaching Nazi Holocaust, this reading benefits from a certain historical hindsightedness—yes, of course Kafka was right; brutal societies will crush us all.

The essay in question talked all about the humor in Kafka, how darned funny the books were, how Kafka used to read early drafts to his friends at pubs and they’d all laugh and laugh the whole night through. What the heck am I missing, I wondered, going back to the books, searching in vain for Kafka’s hilarity. For a while, uncertain if I was just too dumb to get something fundamental, to my eternal shame, I faked it, fobbing off another’s impressions as my own, vamping on about all the good belly laughs to be had in Kafka.

This, of course, was in my twenties. I’ve come to grasp over time that the essay author was full of total shit. This is not to say that he or she was absolutely wrong. There is a good deal of humor in Kafka, only it’s not funny, which is to say, no one will read Kafka and slap the table or their knee or jump up and say, “Hot damn, wait til I tell the boys this one.” It’s not haha funny, but the other kind; it’s a queer expression on a dead dog’s face funny. Mordantly funny. Funny as in you can taste a bittery little ash in your mouth when you laugh, but only just a little bit.

An introduction to the work on the new translation makes plain the flaws of the earlier, “definitive English translation” by Willa and Edwin Muir put out by Schocken Books in 1937. Generally, my instinct is to give more credence to translators who lived in roughly the same time period as the author on the theory that their simultaneity somehow corresponds to a shared sympathy. While awards may pile up for the Pevear & Volokhonsky translations of Dostoyevsky, I will always remain faithful to Constance Garnett’s impeccable Victorianisms and poetic gifts. (From The Brothers Karamazov she translates a word as “laceration” which later translators soften to “outbreak” or “incident.” Which would you rather read, even if you didn’t know that hers was the more correct translation?)

The Breon Mitchell translation of The Trial, on which this Blackstone Audio version is based, brings out of the book much more of the darkly absurd humor, what the Muir translation rendered hyperbolic doom and gloom. As the introduction makes clear with examples, the Muirs followed what must have once seemed a sensible policy of providing variation in correspondence, meaning if the author used ubermensch five times in one chapter then the translator’s job was to render that term in five differing ways for aesthetic variation. What’s (to me, at least) simply stunning about many older translations is this notion — that the author’s choice of words, repetitive often for effect, shouldn’t be overused because readers might get bored with it. It’s as if variety of language were more important than internal thematic considerations. And this particular linguistic sin has been mentioned in a number of more recent translations of classics, so at some point it must have been the prevailing fashion that translators needed to jettison thematic points merely in the service of novelty of vocabulary.

Yet clearly there is some tension here, the eternal translator dilemma between the spirit of the text and the letter of same. What sins we may lay at Constance Garnett’s door I’m sure other translators are cataloging as we speak. At heart, with English being an outgrowth in a large part from German, the languages have a fairly approximate map of each other and Mitchell’s translation differences stem not so much from radical revisionism as toning up the sloppier work of his forebearers. A slight reordering of chapters is involved too, but each chapter of The Trial remains so nearly isolated from the others in the unfolding of events that their placement can often seem like a matter of whim.

Thematically, what came out more this time around was my realization that one can look at The Trial not as the prosecution merely of Josef K, but as K’s indictment against the religio-legal system in his world. From the moment of K’s arrest, he begins by not recognizing the jurisdiction of the court officers, but by lodging charges against them. In his first appearance in court, he doesn’t allow for a single word to be voiced against him; rather, K lists the shortcomings of his arrest, he attacks the members of the court for their factionalism, he invents, on little evidence, charges to levy against them. During the investigative period of “the trial,” K interviews several people like the court usher and his wife about the corrupt nature of the court. In this view, it is not insignificant that nearly every interview K has with people who provide him with information about the court system happens in a one-on-one situation, as a cross examination.

In one of the funniest, creepiest scenes, Joseph K finds his two arresting officers about to get beaten based on things he said against them while in court. His first reaction is “to go and get a witness.” “I don’t even consider them guilty,” K says, trying their case to keep them from being flogged, summing up with, “It’s the system that’s guilty.” The curious element about this is that the flogging happens at K’s work, suggesting that K himself is responsible for their punishment in a way much deeper than merely for reporting their offense. A nightmarish moment happens when K goes back to the junk room a day later and finds that everything is just the same, the flogger, the men about to be flogged. What can we make of this development? At that point, The Trial leaves what light and tenuous grip it had on an approximation of a warped reality and becomes something else entirely, something in the realm of nightmares.

Of course, it is The Trial’s great strength and great weakness that it is so amorphous, so dreamlike, so unfinished. The sketches provided at the end of the print copy are also included in this audio version, which somehow changes the nature of what we’re listening to. In print, it’s an appendix; to listen to it subtly, but distinctly alters the listening experience in a fashion I can’t quite pin down. There are a number of loose ends presented in them that show the outline of an even more personal conspiracy than is obvious from the rest of the book. Some of them demonstrate Joseph K developing closer relationships with members of the court, a possibility likely if his case dragged out ever longer, while others delve into the fractious relationship K has with one of the vice presidents of the bank, maybe the man who spread the lies that got K arrested in the first place. At best, these can be viewed as tantalizing hints to illuminate the parts of the novel Kafka did finish or that are considered finished by editors. They remain one of literatures enduring mysteries.

Reader Geoffrey Howard has such an open, friendly voice that having him read both the translator’s introduction and the text of the novel itself gives the strange feeling that he is the translator himself. When he began to tell us the complexities of translation, it was hard to remind myself that he was merely a performer in all of this. For Blacksone Audio, it’s a triumph, albeit of the small kind, but for them, that is triumph enough.

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