In the first issue of Partisan Review is a review by F.W. Dupee, of Kafka’s The Trial, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, and published by the prestigious New York firm of Alfred A. Knopf in 1937. From then on, Kafka became something of a presiding spirit over the imaginary persona of the Partisan Review. Starting with Dupee’s review, between 1937 and 1944 , PR published an essay on Kafka in 1938 by Max Brod, his biographer; between 1939 and 1942, three Kafka short stories; in 1944, “Kafka: A Re-evaluation,” by Hannah Arendt; and in 1946, a section from Kafka’s diaries. And there were many more discussions about Kafka through the next four decades of Partisan Review. Arendt looks for what makes Kafka so modern:
“All his admirers …are struck by something new in his art of story-telling, a quality of modernity which appears nowhere else with the same intensity and unequivocalness. … ” And she goes on to make a case for his simple style as a form of modernism:‘Without in any way changing the German Language, he stripped it of its involved constructions until it became clear and simple like everyday speech purified of slang and negligence.”
It was also the case that the NY Intellectuals wanted their journal to show not only America on the verge of great change, but also a connection to and yearning for their European connections and origins. Franz Kafka was Jewish, troubled, and a ‘problem’ to his father. He died in 1924 at 41 of tuberculosis, with a fairly small oeuvre and a voice that moves between the ‘fabulous and the familiar,’ as Dupee described it, creating a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity common to both German Expressionism and Modernism. (for more of this, turn to post of 21 July, 2017, which begins with the three paragraphs above…..)
In this issue, Vol 6,.No 1. and No.2, we have a story by Kafka, Blumfeld: an Elderly Bachelor. It was written around 1915, and it has a feeling of DADA about it, and even though it is funny, it has none of the joy of DADA. It was left unfinished when Kafka died, and we don’t know much about what he had planned for its continuation either as a longer story, or as part of a novel. What became clear to me as I have roamed the internet picking up comments about the story, is that very few readers care that it isn’t finished: they treat it as complete because it belongs to the genre that Hannah Arendt called ‘the analysis of bureaucracy,’ and that we can assume it will go on, if it does, in the same vein as The Trial and The Castle, and as it has already been going.
What also struck me as I read the story was how much like Melville’s Bartleby our ‘hero’ was in his behaviour — except inside out. While Bartleby ‘prefers not to’ Blumfeld ‘prefers to.” Bartleby’s is the power of silence and passive resistance, while Blumfeld’s is the power of low-key insistence. Both are in struggle with the conventions of their oppression, but Blumfeld has internalised them so thoroughly that they become his now impotent being. He is the next step in Arendt’s discussion of Kafka’s work as the analysis of bureaucracy.
‘Blumfeld’ is ‘ a man hounded by bouncing balls’. He comes home to his sixth-floor apartment, musing (and amusing) on the pros and cons of having a dog to keep him company, when he hears a rattling sound from within. He quickly unlocks the door and switches on the light. He is not prepared for what he sees. For this is magic – two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the wooden floor; when one of them touches the floor the other is in the air, a game they continue ceaselessly to play.
What makes the story itself powerful is the way the narrator keeps it comic, with a continual juxtaposition of Blumfeld’s internal dialogue about the pros and cons of owning a dog, which never is resolved because Blumfeld’s is a mind that is always ready with an ambivalent response to his own query. Here is the link for you to copy and paste to read the story:first part: http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=283915. pages 55-64; second part: Vol 6, No.2, pages 96-103.
Hannah Arendt’s “Kafka. A Revaluation” was published in Partisan Review, Vol 11, No.4, pages 412-422, cut and paste: http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=283952 Or you can wait till we get there! 1944…jeez
Next week: Edmund Wilson on Marxist Dialectics