I’ve been dipping into this intriguing new Penguin Classics anthology, Tales of the German Imagination, which attempts to draw a nightmarish line through Germanic literature from Kleist, the Grimms and ETA Hoffmann through Rilke, Heine and Kafka to more recent times, picking up plenty of unknown or forgotten writers along the way to slot between the heavyweights. (I say Germanic, rather than German, to imply a connection between the temperament and the language, rather than the nation.)
There’s some excellent stuff in there, of course, and I’m currently working my way from the knowns to the unknowns, but of immediate and real, though incidental, interest, is editor Peter Wortsman’s introduction, which rather confusedly seems to set Kafka (represented in the collection by ‘In the Penal Colony’) as the lynchpin of his selection, while trying to argue at the same time that “the visionary German-speaking Jewish scribe from Prague” (ugh!) should be understood in the context of his precursors and contemporaries, both Germanic and not, rather than simply as sui generis.
Perhaps the reason he devotes so much time to Kafka is so as to include in his introduction two thoroughly worthwhile anecdotes. The first is Wortsman’s memory of his aunt telling him that she had attended a Kafka reading in her youth:
Steffi had to admit that she did not know what to make of the gawky man and his strange stories. ‘But one thing I do remember,’ she said, ‘he could hardly keep from laughing.’
Which is evidence of the most winningly personal kind for the argument, often rehearsed in the literature, but usually as bland, uncorroborated assertion, that Kafka did have a level of literary exposure in his lifetime, and was convinced of the comic potential of his writings. To have this aunt tell us she saw him give a reading does bring him that much closer to us.
The second anecdote, more trivial but also more amusing, is of Wortsman coming across a book of Kafka’s in a bookshop in Communist East Germany:
I was flabbergasted to spot his name out of the corner of my eye on the spine of a book. But the irony was too good, too Kafkaesque to be true, for the title I had at first squint read as Sämtliche Schriften (Complete Writings) turned out on closer examination to be Amtliche Schriften (Administrative Writings), a compendium, not of his elusive parables, but of the official reports and letters he drafted on the job for the insurance company, the bureaucratic taskmaster to which he sacrificed his daylight hours and which he cursed in his diaries and letters to friends at night.
I hope I haven’t put anyone off buying the book by filleting these gems from its introduction. I think I am going to thoroughly enjoy reading the rest of it.