Kafka As A Vessel For Relationship Advice


I

The Vintage edition of Kafka’s The Complete Stories could, despite the name of its publisher, be mistaken as a recent translation, and it would be an easy mistake to make. It was printed in 2018, so each letter is clear – however there are numerous full-stops missing, although the reader cannot be certain whether that is intentional or not – in a typeset that is not named at the start of the five-hundred-page book; one might guess that it is 10pt Garamond, despite it looking a little weighty. The name of the typeset at the front of a book, among all the legal jargon, is preferred. It is all well and good that one understands the person speaking to them, but unless they recognise the accent then so much is lost! At the end of each piece within Kafka’s The Complete Stories, the translator is noted, right-aligned, in italics: Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir or Translated by Tania and James Stern. The translators are remarkable for the sole reason that they are husband and wife. On train journeys to an office job, the single reader, coming to the recurring couples’ names, is led to wonder what their marriage is like; do they discuss Kafka at the dinner table; how did they meet; how do they love each other; are they sick yet of Kafka? And soon, slowly, particularly when not in the mood for concentrating, the reader begins to imagine the lives of these separate two couples. Indeed, the daydreaming reader wonders how they are getting along, because it is simple to picture the trajectory of a single person, but somewhat trickier to picture how a couple in love might carry on. And then, halfway (three-seventy-four pages) through the book, while searching for the name of the typeset, the reader sees that these translations, which, at first, were thought to be so recent, were copyrighted in 1933, 1949 and 1954. So, then the reader is shocked, and no longer considers whether these married Kafkaesque German translators are still in love but whether they are still alive. And a fraught sadness descends.
II

One of my favourite things – and it was a long time ago, so forgive me my fogginess – is a scene in Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club. It is the scene where Rubén González is performing Pueblo Nuevo. Rubén is sat at a grand piano in what looks to be a conservatoire for girls. The first time I saw it, unfamiliar with the piece, my adolescent gaze was captivated. My uncle lent me the video but it was not something I rushed to put on at first. Rubén’s scene is about a third of the way into the film, if I recall, and he is playing in the centre of a large hall; around him little girls between the age of seven and twelve are dancing ballet or practicing gymnastics. The hall is large and the piano is so small within it, and Rubén smaller still. The girls, their tiny frames in leotards, are prancing and pouncing in the background, soon become entranced by his piano playing and begin to gather about the black wood and his tinkering, and he smiles at them, playing all the while, nodding his head in time, and the girls smile and giggle at this new fixture amongst their practice. The teacher gathers, too, and Rubén, through his white beard, is smiling and his fingers dancing over the keys, as grace- and playful as the young girls not a minute earlier. Beside him is Orlando "Cachaíto" López, his arms wrapped round a double bass, smiling too. The hall is grand, indeed. There are tall ceilings, ornate columns, large windows that permit soft enormous walls of Cuban afternoon sunshine and city sound to fall upon the entertainers and audience. The columns are white but between them the walls are either faded aquamarine or turquoise, it was difficult for me to determine, other than to marvel at how beautiful it appeared and the imagination of that humid Buena Vista heat, the patter then quieting of pointe shoes, piano reverberating. After he finished, hands falling to his lap, he sat grinning kindly at the fascinated gatherers applauding him.
III

The FA Cup Final is usually an anticipated social event but, for the second year in a row, my friends and I were forced to watch it at home. Yes, we could have gone out, however, due to circumstances, we did not. We either abide tradition, or we abandon it. In this instance, we did the latter. Usually, we would meet for a late breakfast of black coffee and beer, begin the festivities with something competitive – mini-golf or ping-pong, etc – then hole up in a pub and watch the game, before moving into a crawl of various venues until we either met someone or can simply stand no more. Money changes hands throughout; even the most objectionable to gambling is inclined to part ways with substantial amounts of cash, betting on events during the day, big or small; what might appear inconsequential is endowed with spectacle simply due to the sum of money riding on it. This year I watched it in my parents’ quiet living room. I tried to make the most of it. Alone on the sofa, I opened up a chain of beers, and called out to the television set, became excited or deflated, before rising up and clapping and whipping myself into a frenzy for the hell of it. My niece was on the sofa next to me. She was entertained with oversized Paw Patrol playing cards, organising them into piles, concentrating deeply, always gathering pleasure from organising items, which her family found most endearing and against her otherwise destructive nature. A dear friend messaged me a photograph of his young son smearing his hands over the television screen, programming the same as my own. He had become a father since we last met; two Mays ago, we would have been side by side down the pub and other dear friends we had known for years. He told me his son was not interested in the FA Cup Final, and I filmed my niece to prove that she was not interested either, as she swiped each pile of oversized Paw Patrol playing cards onto the floor.
Mark

Thank you for reading. It really does mean so much to me.