An Alienation Artist: Kafka and His Critics
Of all Kafka's major works, Amerika: The Missing Person, his first attempt at a novel, bears the least resemblance to the author's life and contains the least evidence of the personal turmoil Begley takes to be the thread suturing Kafka's biography and books. Kafka started Amerika in 1911, only to abandon it in 1914. (Max Brod published an edited version of the incomplete manuscript in 1927, three years after Kafka's death; Mark Harman's adroit new translation is based on the restored text.) The novel chronicles the misadventures of the exiled German teenager Karl Rossmann, cast off across the Atlantic by his parents after a housemaid who seduced him becomes pregnant and bears his child. It is by turns a picaresque narrative, an archetypal immigrant's tale, an epic road story, a bleak vision of city life and a sneering take on the "land of plenty." But though it tracks Karl as he stumbles from job to job, town to town, Amerika is not a coming-of-age novel; if anything, it is a parody of the European Bildungsroman, with a series of mishaps preventing Karl from becoming anything at all, no matter how he tries. (The nameless protagonist of Invisible Man would face similar travails, with comparable results, four decades later.) In this respect Karl is a prototype for Kafka's later protagonists, whose actions never produce the desired results but rather reveal the gulf between intentions and outcomes.
The book opens with a steamer inching toward New York harbor and Karl standing on its deck gazing at the Statue of Liberty: "The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds." Begley unceremoniously dismisses this substitution of Liberty's torch for a blade as "almost surely" a "slip of the pen." But given that Kafka declined to alter the sentence in the story's second printing, Harman's conjecture in the preface to his translation of Amerika is more credible: the sword provides a deliberate alienation effect, immediately placing the promise of America in quotation marks and situating the reader in a slightly disfigured reality, where metaphorical figures become as palpable and unyielding as concrete and steel.
As the ship docks, Karl becomes involved in a dispute between its stoker and his superior. This, in turn, leads him to his long-lost Uncle Jakob, who fled Germany many years ago as a pauper but has since remade himself as a shipping magnate. Jakob takes Karl in, furnishing him with a piano, a new set of clothes, a tutor, riding lessons and a fine desk "such as his father had wanted for years"; the immigrant boy determines that "one could not hope for pity" in America, but for a short while it seems to him that the fortuitous patterning of life unique to the country might elevate him to the ranks of the wealthy few who "seemed to enjoy their good fortune amid the indifferent faces on all sides." In this ambivalent state, Karl regards downtown Manhattan from the balcony of his uncle's elegant apartment, which looks down on a street that is
filled with constantly bustling traffic, which seen from above seemed like a continually self-replenishing mixture of distorted human figures and of the roofs of all sorts of vehicles, constantly scattered by new arrivals, out of which there arose a new, stronger, wilder mixture of noise, dust, and smells, and, catching and penetrating it all, a powerful light that was continually dispersed, carried away, and avidly refracted by the mass of objects that made such a physical impression on one's dazzled eye that it seemed as if a glass pane, hanging over the street and covering everything, were being smashed again and again with the utmost force.
Before Kafka focused his writing on a specific, native aspect of modernity--the bureaucracy he inhabited--he zeroed in on the Manhattan street scene, where life had been transformed into a blur of speeding machines and spectral selves. Karl is stymied by his first attempt to fathom the city: instead of the boy looking at the skyline as his ship approaches Manhattan, it is the skyline that gazes at Karl "with the hundred thousand windows of its skyscrapers."
It isn't long until Karl is down among the masses, having been abruptly banished by his uncle for a trifling transgression. From that point on, his position in life declines precipitously. He rambles north for a while, joining two immigrants named Delamarche and Robinson until their abuse becomes intolerable; he flees and finds work as an elevator boy in a suburban luxury hotel but is eventually fired and stripped of his dignity on account of a drunken visit by Robinson; he soon finds himself running through an array of tenement towers with the police in pursuit, only to be saved by Delamarche--who immediately imprisons him in an apartment that he and Robinson share with an abominable obese singer named Brunelda, so that Karl may become their servant. The text trails off, picking up again at a putative final chapter in which Karl is seeking employment with the chimerical Nature Theater of Oklahama. By this point he is so abraded by his months in America that he refuses to give his real name, instead identifying himself as "Negro," pleading with the circus's bureaucrats to cart him off to the country's unspoiled, unknown interior.
After a few hundred pages, one gets the sense that Karl's epic journey through the gears of the capitalist machine was perfectly crystallized twenty years later, in Charlie Chaplin's actual journey through the gears of the capitalist machine in Modern Times. "It was my intention, as I now see," Kafka wrote in his diary three years after he had stopped working on the book, "to write a Dickens novel, but enhanced by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have gotten from myself." If London was the epicenter of modernity during Dickens's lifetime, the incarnation of its most improbable fantasies and lurid failings, by the turn of the century that place was America. Kafka learned about the country through newspaper accounts, travelogues, lectures, silent films and perhaps, as Harman notes, the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; accordingly, his description of the country is a sometimes inconsistent, if imaginative, assortment of secondhand details glommed onto Dickensian urban tableaus. Nevertheless, Amerika holds within it the basic element of Kafka's greatness, the ability to project the tremendous world inside his head onto the one we know, as if it were a screen fabricated expressly for that purpose. Within that palimpsest the contours of inner exile emerge: the general alienation that was a byproduct of the industrial age; the particular isolation felt by a Goethe-worshiping Jewish writer at a time when Jews were considered incapable of producing great literature in German; and the angst felt by the first generation of cosmopolitan Jewish intellectuals, for whom, Hannah Arendt observed, "all traditions and cultures as well as all 'belonging' had become equally questionable."