Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

What to Do with Kafka, or Where's My Prize?

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

What to Do with Kafka, or Where's My Prize?

Article excerpt

Who else but Roth would have imagined Prague under communist rule for his spring getaway?

-Mark Shechner (97)

Much has been written about Roth and Kafka but more can be said. Articles, book chapters and even a monograph have examined connections and more can be imagined. A Czech critic even proposed an anthology of Roths writing about Prague, Kafka and Czech writing, including his conversations with Kundera and Klfma.1 But less attention has been paid to Roths winning the first International Kafka Prize in 2001 and the comedy of how he was to receive the actual prize, characterized by mix-ups, confusions, and delay.

1973 saw the publication of the first of Roths Kafka-centered works: "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka," in the New American Review (#17), reprinted in Reading Myself and Others (1975), and dedicated "To the Students of English 275, University of Pennsylvania, Fall 1972" {Reading281). It begins with the forty-year-old Roth looking at a photograph of the forty-year-old Kafka, a photograph Joyce Carol Oates claimed was hanging in his study at the time he was writing the piece.2 This was the first public inkling of Roths deep attachment to Kafka, reinforced when Roth visited communist-controlled Czechoslovakia in 1972. He continued to do so each spring until 1976, the year his visa was cancelled by the authorities. In 1973, he refocused his course on World Literature at the University of Pennsylvania to concentrate entirely on Kafka and Bellow. The first half of his 1973 reading list for English 275 and assignment dates reads:

Sept. 18 The Judgment/ Metamorphosis/ Report to the Academy

Sept. 25 In the Penal Colony; Josephine the Singer

Oct. 2 Amerika

Oct. 9 The Trial

Oct. 16 The Castle

Oct. 23 Franz Kafka by Max Brod; Letter to His Father3

By 1974, Roth was beginning to have contact with Kafka's family, meeting with Kafka's niece, Vera Saudkova and, subsequently, Marianne Steiner, daughter of Kafka's sister Valli, who lived in London.

Another result of Roth's Czech experience was his 1973 PEN report, the first "Country Report" for the organization, published in August 1973. Roth began his commentary with "A Visitor's Notes on Kafka's City," opening with an anecdote about a student who, when asked why he doesn't pack up and go, answered with "why don't they go," referring to the Russian troops in the country. The self-irony and suppressed despair convey, Roth suggests, the tone and tenor of the country and the state of writers, academics, and intellectuals who face suppression.

Roth's response to the fate of Czech and other Eastern European writers led to the "Writers from the Other Europe" series (1974-1989) for Penguin which successfully reprinted translations of the work of major Czech and Eastern European writers. Novels and short stories by Bruno Schulz, Milan Kundera, Ivan Klfma and others began to appear with new introductions or afterwords by John Updike, Irving Howe, and Roth himself.

A piece in the Village Voice for 1974, "Our Castle," identified the Kafka-like state of America as Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, turning the White House into Kafka's Castle and Americans into the hapless Land Surveyor, K., who has no idea of how laws are enacted or executed. A New York Times piece in February 1976 further expanded Roth's interest in Kafka. Entitled "In Search of Kafka and Other Answers," it marks the occasion of Roth's reconnection not only to the writer but also through the writer to Roth's own Jewish heritage, life before Newark, if you will. Kafka became Roth's Virgil to his Dante. In the piece, he also reveals that Kafka's "Dear Father" letter became a kind of prototype for a novel about a family-obsessed Jewish bachelor that might have begun "Dear Mother, why am I obsessed with you?" The allusion is to Portnoys Complaint (1969).

Other elements of Roth's "In Search of Kafka" emphasize that his first visit in the spring of 1972 allowed him to possess his pre-America Jewish past, permitting him to absorb Jewish Europe, ancient Jewish Prague recalling for him what it might have been like for his grandparents in Austro-Hungarian Jewish Europe, ancient Jewish Prague recalling for him what it might have been like for his grandparents in Austro-Hungarian Lemberg and Czarist Kiev. …

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