KONUNDRUM: SELECTED PROSE OF FRANZ KAFKA
by Franz Kafka
translated by Peter Wortsman
Archipelago Books, 384 pages
reviewed by Eric Andrew Newman
With the centenary of Franz Kafka’s first three major publications having passed just a few years ago, a plethora of new translations of Kafka’s stories have recently been released. Among them is Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka, with works chosen and translated by Peter Wortsman, a writer known for his own micro fiction. Wortsman’s selection of what he considers to be the very best of Kafka’s short prose, whether it’s a story, a letter, a journal entry, a parable, or an aphorism distinguishes Konundrum from the other new translations. This approach contrasts with the single book-length work of Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of “The Metamorphosis” and Michael Hofmann’s new translation of all of Kafka’s unpublished stories in Investigations of a Dog.
In the acknowledgements, Wortsman states that his only criterion for inclusion in the book is the ability of a piece to amaze him. In this way, his selections are more personal than a collection of Kafka’s most important works, or works that were published while he was alive, or works that went unpublished in his lifetime. Wortsman also says that his publisher gave him the complete freedom to dip into Kafka’s entire opus and translate whatever strikes his fancy. This kind of freedom is a gift not only to the translator, but also to the reader, as it gives Kafka novices the ability to sample his letters, journals, parables, and aphorisms without having to dive into each of the separate volumes dedicated to the subject and meticulously published by Schocken Books, the gatekeeper to most of Franz Kafka’s available writings.
The first translations of Franz Kafka’s works from the German into English were completed by Edwin and Willa Muir, and published by Schocken Books in the decades following his death. The opening of Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis,” as translated by the Muirs, is perhaps one of the most well-known first lines in all literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” However, later translations, such as my worn high school copy of Joachim Neugroschel’s version, would go on to describe Samsa as having transformed into a “monstrous vermin,” beginning the decades-long debate of whether it is more accurate to translate Kafka’s phrase “ungeheueres Ungeziefer” as “monstrous insect,” or “monstrous vermin.”
Wortsman, who retranslates the title of “The Metamorphosis” here as “Transformed,” sidesteps this issue by using the more colloquial phrase of “monstrous bug.” In the introduction to her new translation of “The Metamorphosis,” Susan Bernofsky mentions that when Kafka spoke of the story to his friends, he often referred to Samsa by the more playful term bug, rather than the stricter term vermin. This more playful, colloquial sensibility of Wortsman’s translation is also reflected in the new title of the piece, which translates directly from the German into English as “The Transformation.” With his new title, Wortsman wanted to strip the English translation of the heavily classical connotations of Ovid’s The Metamorphosis and give it a more accessible air, choosing the form “Transformed” due to how often the word appears in the text.
Kafka’s playful sense of humor is also highlighted in an excerpt from a letter that he wrote to his fiancée Felice Bauer, “I Can Also Laugh:”
I can also laugh, Felice, you bet I can, I am even known as a big laugher… It even happened that I burst out laughing—and how!—at a solemn meeting with our director—that was two years ago, but the incident has lived on as a legend at the institute.
With this collection, Wortsman endeavors to bring the comedy back to Kafka. In the forward to his previous book, Tales of the German Imagination from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, Wortsman relates the story of his aunt going to a reading given by Kafka in Vienna when she was younger. While she didn’t know what to make of “the gawky man and his strange stories,” what struck her the most was that throughout the reading Kafka could barely keep from shaking with laughter.
At first glance, one might assume the book is arranged in chronological order, as it begins with Kafka’s first known writing, a note he wrote to a friend, and ends with his last known writings, the notes he wrote his doctor while dying in a sanatorium. But on a closer inspection, the rest of the book doesn’t follow suit. Throughout, Wortsman alternates between early published pieces and later unpublished ones, whether they are stories, parables, reflections, or journal entries with no real discernible pattern. This approach, however, allows readers to experience the prose on its own merits, rather than as a strictly defined literary form. It also shows the reader how porous the literary borders between Kafka’s short prose and more informal writing can be.
One example of this porousness is the short piece, “A Hybrid,” a favorite of mine from the collection. In the story, the narrator tell us about a creature he cares for that is half cat and half lamb, and how it is the favorite spectacle of the local children. He describes the mysterious creature as:
Head and claws come from the cat, size and stature from the lamb; both bequeathed the glint and wildness in its eyes, the soft and snug coat of fur, the manner of its movements no less leaping than skulking.
Even though it reads like a polished story, it was actually taken from one of Kafka’s journal entries. In the acknowledgements, Wortsman says he chose to include several journal entries that he imagines Kafka might have taken and published as stories, and it’s hard to argue in the case of “A Hybrid.”
However they came about, this reader is happy to have more of Kafka’s short shorts in print. Many of Kafka’s short shorts, particularly the ones from his first book, Contemplation, and his later book, A Country Doctor, seem to have been the prototype for the recent flash fiction, or micro fiction movement. Wortsman is singularly qualified to bring these short short stories back into the zeitgeist, as he himself is a writer of flash and micro fiction, having published a book of the form, A Modern Way to Die: Small Stories and Micro Tales. In fact, Wortsman published his translation of Kafka’s short “A Hybrid” in Gigantic, a contemporary literary journal that only publishes flash. Another favorite short short is “Poseidon,” a parable that imagines the god Poseidon so buried in bureaucratic paperwork he doesn’t even have time to enjoy the sea.
While the selections Worstman includes in Konundrum are terrific, I also have to wonder about the pieces he chose to leave out. One major omission here is Kafka’s breakthrough story, “The Judgement.” As one of Kafka’s first major works published in his lifetime and the product of what Kafka considered to be his ideal artistic process (he wrote it all in one night), it’s essential to any Kafka short prose collection. Still, Konundrum includes the rest of Kafka’s greatest hits that were published in his lifetime, like “Transformed,” “The Hunger Artist,” “In the Penal Colony,” and “A Report to the Academy,” as well as lesser known, but just as great, stories that went unpublished while he was alive, like “The Burrow,” “Investigations of a Dog,” “A Hybrid,” “The Bridge,” and “Poseidon.”
In his afterword, Wortsman remarks on how fresh and alive Kafka’s prose still is today and I can only agree. Once you dust them off and give them a new coat of paint, his surreal stories are just as relevant now as they were a hundred years ago. The absurdity of bureaucracy, a singular object of Kafka’s work, only seems to have grown in the intervening. Wortsman does an excellent job of maintaining the long, looping run-on sentences essential to German grammar, while at the same time keeping a rhythm and readability for the English speaking reader. In addition to being a solid collection for the Kafka beginner to start reading and enjoying his work, Konundrum is also a good collection for more modern and experienced readers who might appreciate a fresher, looser take on Kafka’s prose.
Eric Andrew Newman currently lives in Los Angeles, but is originally from the Chicago area. He works as an archivist for a nonprofit foundation by day and as a writer of flash fiction by night. He has previously been named as a finalist for the Robert J. Demott Short Prose Contest and the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Exposition Review, Gargoyle, Heavy Feather Review, Necessary Fiction, and Quarter After Eight, among others.