Monday, November 24, 2008

Germans At Work

This has been a great publishing year for American fans of German modernism who can't get to Germany for a peek at their manuscript archives.

First, Walter Benjamin's Archive, a beautifully assembled book full of facsimile images and translated versions of WoBo's working notes. I bought this right when it came out, and it's great. I am a dork.

Now, a volume of Franz Kafka's Office Writings, which is even dorkier: it's Kafka's office correspondence from his insurance company in Prague. Michael Wood has a review:

[R]eading these office writings I began to wonder whether the Kafkaesque is not, as the OED tautologically says, the name of a ‘state of affairs or a state of mind described by Kafka’, but rather a form of strangeness that is more ordinary than we think. We call it strange because we want it to be strange. Kafka didn’t simply describe it, and he didn’t invent it. He blew its cover, and more important still, revealed its alarming frequency. It’s not for nothing that one of his weirdest, most wonderful stories is called ‘A Common Confusion’, literally ‘an everyday confusion’. In an afterword to The Office Writings, Jack Greenberg, a lawyer on the case, recalls the 1954 US Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, which instructed school administrators to desegregate with ‘all deliberate speed’, that is, either as quickly as possible or as slowly as possible, take your pick. He also mentions a more recent district court opinion regarding the phrase ‘no longer enemy combatants’, used of people who may never have been enemy combatants at all...

Many of the cases Kafka encounters in his work tell just this story: the large posters listing safety regulations but used only to replace broken windows; the lift that a rooming-house owner (who doesn’t want to pay the premium for the insurance of its operators) first claims is powered by a generator nowhere near the house, then by a generator in the house but so thoroughly isolated that it might as well be elsewhere; an insurance assessment system that scarcely ever has access to ‘actual working conditions’; the proposition that at a certain quarry no undercutting goes on, not just because it doesn’t, but because it couldn’t; and a law that is not only inadequate but ‘inadequately interpreted as well’. These last items sound like one of Kafka’s escalating jokes. ‘To imagine even part of the road makes one tired,’ he writes in a story about distances in China, ‘and more than part one just cannot imagine.’
Great fun. I wrote about Kafka's desk here.

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