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Prose

Doctor Faustus
Thomas Mann
Translated by John E. Woods
Knopf, $35

The Castle
Franz Kafka
Translated with a preface by Mark Harman
Schocken, $25


by Steve Dowden

Kafka's Castle and Mann's Doctor Faustus mark the two poles of novelistic style in German modernism. Their authors' artistic lives were similarly opposed. Whereas Kafka was little-known in his own lifetime, and never managed to live from his writing, Mann was the prototype of the successful, internationally celebrated novelist.

Despite these differences, Kafka was the kind of artist toward whom Mann's literary imagination gravitated: marginal, death-haunted, succumbing slowly and with minutely alert consciousness to fatal illness. Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, the year that Mann published Magic Mountain, Mann's great novel of Western decline under the sign of tuberculosis. Its hero, unlike Kafka, shakes off the disease and leaves the decadent sanatorium, but only to plunge, with dubious enthusiasm, into the mass death of the Great War.

When Mann published Doctor Faustus in 1947, his preoccupation with links between disease and creativity remained undiminished. As Adrian Leverkuhn's Mephisto puts it, "disease, and most specially opprobrious, suppressed, secret disease, creates a certain critical opposition to the world, to mediocre life, disposes a man to be obstinate and ironical to civil order." The demonically inspired composer Leverkuhn succumbs to syphilis slowly and with acute awareness of his condition, but also achieves a breakthrough into a new and wholesome mode of artistic creation.

Kafka, who admired Mann and identified with his early artistic protagonists, remained unaffected in his prose style by the weight and ironic grandeur of Mann's characteristic idiom. And when called upon long after Kafka's death to write an introduction to The Castle, Mann admired Kafka's comic genius for understatement and restraint. Mann read Kafka's world to be like his own--informed by a spiritual dread that is treated in ironic language. Kafka's art of understatement complements Mann's art of grandiloquent, self-consciously outdated overstatement in parody of traditional modes. But at bottom an underlying common sense of modern need can be discerned in The Castle and in Doctor Faustus. Kafka's K. and Mann's diabolically gifted Leverkuhn are seeking to restore some kind of contact to a realm that transcends the alienated materialism and conformist mediocrity of middle-class life.

How does it happen that both books appear just now? The evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a revival of modernist classics in translation, fueled, at least in part, by the lapse of many copyrights. Some of Kafka's short works have come out in new versions, as have some of Mann's. New translations of Nietzsche's complete works are underway. Musil's Man Without Qualities has recently appeared in a fresh and expanded translation. Proust's In Search of Lost Time has been reissued in a revised translation. The debate about the various new versions of Joyce's Ulysses--they, too, are translations of a sort--rages on. Witkiewicz's Insatiability has been given a second chance to penetrate the modernist canon in English, perhaps because of Bruno Schulz's relative success in this country. And such less well-known modernists as Pessoa are becoming available.

Thomas Mann has already benefited from this trend. John Woods, able translator of Doctor Faustus, has published strong retranslations of Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain. Like Woods's earlier translations, the new Doctor Faustus marks a net gain over the much-maligned versions of Helen Lowe-Porter. Lowe-Porter was the translator whom Knopf forced on Mann at the outset of his publishing career in the United States. Mann had his own candidate in mind for the English edition of Buddenbrooks, but Alfred Knopf's choice prevailed. For better or for worse, she remained the translator of nearly all of Mann's works. Philologists and translators have often been harsh in their assessments of her renderings, and have found many errors in them.

Bashing the work of previous translators is a common feature of translators' introductions, but Woods refrains from any Lowe-Porter bashing. Indeed, he offers no foreword or commentary at all. He allows his translation to speak for itself, which it does admirably. His prose strikes the right tone, balanced between eloquence and the parody of eloquence. Mann frames the novel as a posthumous biography of Adrian Leverkuhn written by his close friend Serenus Zeitblom, an old-fashioned humanist and teacher of classics. Zeitblom, of course, is unaware that he is the comic figure of ironic fun, and the reader only gradually sees that Zeitblom does not understand Leverkuhn very well. In this depiction, Mann's novel unintentionally mimics the relationship between Max Brod and Franz Kafka. Like Zeitblom, Brod wrote a hagiographic memoir: an attempt to remake Kafka in Brod's his own image, as a religious intellectual. Brod, to whom we owe very much for preserving and publishing Kafka's work, did not understand his friend's genius very well at all. So, too, with Serenus Zeitblom.

Zeitblom's mannered tone in Doctor Faustus is crucial, because the tension between parody of past style and fresh creativity is the novel's basic theme. Zeitblom finds Leverkuhn's originality difficult to accept, or even understand, because it spells the end of humanism as he knows it. Mann imagines an artist, like himself, who cannot seem to transcend urbane parody of an earlier cultural epoch's characteristic forms. Leverkuhn's preoccupation with Beethoven and the sonata mirrors Mann's own emulation of Goethe and parody of Bildungsromanen. What Mann admired in Goethe was the spontaneous creativity that simultaneously expressed his individuality and reflected and helped shape the self-understanding of his age. But these older artistic forms, suggests Mann, have been exhausted. The freedom they offered at the beginning of the nineteenth century have hardened into conventions and "begun to coat talent like a mildew."

Leverkuhn overcomes this paralysis by striking a compact with the devil, trading his soul, apparently, for twenty-four years of creativity before syphilis finally destroys him. The challenge of the novel is to understand the losses and gains from this transaction. Mann, of course, continued to write in the parodic mode after Doctor Faustus. Though he was able to imagine the breakthrough into new forms, he did not achieve it.

When Kafka finally ascended into the canon of modern novels, after World War II, Mann, Hesse, Broch, and others tirelessly praised him as the figure who had broken through into a mythic expression of modernity. Such inflated rhetoric has not worn well, though fantastic claims continue to be made about Kafka. He is said to be, for example, the prophet of the Holocaust, a political rebel against the forces of twentieth-century tyranny and the like. But Kafka's K. is a power-hungry, self-absorbed, unpleasant fellow-an unlikely hero for such a mythically heroic author.

What we have in The Castle is an endlessly subtle and finely nuanced novel, arguably in the tradition of Don Quixote, as the French critic Marthe Robert urges in her shrewdly perceptive book, The Old and the New. K. is a quixotic hero who has committed himself to a quest that makes sense only to him. The villagers think him crazy, and the reader--lacking a suitable perspective from which to judge--doesn't know what to think. This is the extraordinary twist that Kafka gives to the quixotic tradition: we are locked into the perspective of a figure who may be more or less a crank. Consequently, the meaning of the novel hinges on the theme of seeking messages and meanings from authorities who may not be authorities at all. The romantic ideals of knight errantry, full of noble meanings, has been reduced to a shabby clutch of buildings on a hill that is misleadingly called a "castle."

Kafka did not finish the novel and certainly never expected or wanted it to be published. He wrote it in 1922 while suffering considerably from the TB that would kill him two years later. He wrote to Brod that it was just a novel for writing, not one meant to be read. Brod edited it for publication in 1926. The first English edition, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, appeared in 1930.

The Muirs' translation, then, was based on Brod's edition and on Brod's instructions about how to interpret Kafka. Brod took K. to be Kafka's modern recapitulation of Goethe's Faust, striving not for knowledge now but divine grace. The gap between village and castle, insisted Brod, is to be understood as the irreconcilable, Kierkegaardian abyss between man and God. Such contemporaries as Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer opposed this reading, but until the late 1950s Brod's Kafka dominated the field.

Mark Harman, a Germanist teaching at the University Pennsylvania, knows this critical tradition and Kafka's prose intimately. He has now given us a Castle that is truer to Kafka's imagination than the earlier version. To appreciate the change in inflection, consider how the castle's tower is described. According to the Muirs it is "graciously mantled" by ivy; Harman corrects this to read "mercifully hidden" by ivy. Here, as elsewhere, the Muirs generally try to mute the weirdness and smooth out the unpleasantness in Kafka.

Harmon has had the advantage of using the critical edition of Kafka's novel, reedited from Kafka's own handwritten manuscript, which is at Oxford's Bodleian Library. However, this advantage has also led to an odd circumstance. Readers familiar with Kafka through Brod's edition are also familiar with various passages that are illuminating but which Kafka struck through. It is an interesting editorial problem. Are these passages part of the novel? They have come to seem so.

Perhaps Kafka had translations of classic works in mind when he wrote this aphorism: "Leopards break into the temple and drain the sacrificial vessels; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned on in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony." Translators are like Kafka's leopards. Lowe-Porter and the Muirs made mistakes, but those mistakes have become part of the ceremony. Their Mann and Kafka are in our ear now. Eventually Harman and Woods will drive them out of the temple, but in due course the weaknesses of the new renderings will emerge as well.

Originally published in the October/November 1998 issue of Boston Review

 



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