The Most Impossible Word to Translate in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 7 2014 2:36 PM

The Ghosts of Kafka Present

Two new books attempt to capture the gaunt specter of modernism—and make him talk.

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For Bernofsky, although Gregor Samsa dies in the story (can you spoil a book that’s 100 years old?), his multivalent and, yes, hilarious struggles are still very much alive. For Jay Cantor, so is Gregor’s author. In Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel, subtitled “Four Stories for Franz Kafka,” four evocative, ambitious, and highly varied tales aim to bring Kafka back to us by showing that he never left.

Instead, he haunts everyone and everything he touches. In these stories, Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend and literary executor, disobeys the author’s dying wish and publishes manuscripts slated for incineration—and is tortured by his decision for the rest of his life. Ludwig “Lusk” Lask, the overshadowed spouse of Dora Diamant (who had been Kafka’s enchanting last love), ends up quoting Kafka when he’s being tortured in a Soviet gulag. Milena Jesenská, Kafka’s great epistolary flame, recalls Kafka as she finds unlikely love against the horrifying backdrop of the Ravensbrück concentration camp. And the author even manages to haunt an attic in Prague, where Cantor has Kafka composing a self-referential story-within-two-stories from beyond the grave.

Cantor creates gripping stories around innumerable epistolary and biographical artifacts: Max Brod’s intimate (some say inaccurate) biography, as well as more recent books by Ernst Pawel, Louis Begley, and Reiner Stach; Kathi Diamant’s masterpiece Kafka’s Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant; Kafka’s letters and those of his friends and lovers; and tales of the brilliant and tragic Jesenská.

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In the book’s title story, as Kafka lies on his deathbed in an Austrian sanitarium, a rabbi again refuses to allow him to marry Dora Diamant. Unable to speak because the tuberculosis has reached his throat (he will, indeed, technically die of starvation, not unlike his Hunger Artist), Kafka scribbles a note to Brod that ends with “And who could be a better prosecutor in this matter than one’s self?” “If,” Brod answers, “one is Franz Kafka.” The dying author then smiles “in that ironic and malicious way that now terrified Max, since it seemed to call both God and Kafka’s right to live into question.”

Yes, there are liberties taken here, some having to do with the fact that Cantor is writing in English about people who are ostensibly not speaking it: “He isn’t appointing me his literary executor,” Brod tells Dora, “but his literary executioner” (a funny line, but the two words are not similar in German). But these liberties allow Cantor to take his palpable longing for Kafka and turn it into Kafka speaking on the page, which for those of us who love him is achingly satisfying in spite of its falsehood. Achingly satisfying because of its falsehood—because, in a way, of Kafka’s unknowability.

Jay Cantor.
Jay Cantor

Courtesy of Richard Howard

In Cantor’s heartbreaking “Lusk and Marianne,” Dora Diamant’s second life partner Lusk Lask, a dedicated communist who nevertheless suffers immensely under Stalin’s regime, struggles to purge his home of the author’s imposing specter; meanwhile, Dora insists (as she did in reality) that one simply had to know Kafka to understand his writing. That may be true, given the 100-plus years of interpretive endeavors that, in the end, ultimately fail to bring order and understanding to a canon of prose whose entire purpose is to resist order and defy understanding —if it was even meant to be read at all.

And as noble as both Bernofsky’s and Cantor’s efforts to harness Kafka’s life force are, ultimately Kafka’s untranslatabilty and inimitability win out—you had to know Kafka to understand him, and you had to be Kafka to bring him to life. And yet both books are superb, because despite their inability to do the impossible—to enter through a doorway that exists to keep them out—both books show, with remarkable skill and palpable desire, why so many of us feel so compelled to chase down a ghost, and get him to talk to us.

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The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, translated by Susan Bernofsky. W.W. Norton.