Kafka in America
John Goto

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I took him photographs of constructivist pictures. Kafka said, ‘They are merely dreams of a marvellous America, of a wonderland of unlimited possibilities. That is perfectly understandable, because Europe is becoming more and more a land of impossible limitations’. Conversations with Kafka, Gustav Janouch.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) never visited America, although it provided the setting for his first novel, Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared), which was published under the title of Amerika in 1927. He worked on it intermittently between 1911 and 1914, after which he put the manuscript aside and it remained ‘unfinished’ at his death.

Kafka based his fictional America on a number of personal and published sources. Family members had emigrated to the States and wrote home or occasionally visited Prague. His maternal uncles Joseph and Alfred Loewy, and cousins Emil and Victor Kafka all spent time in North America. Of more significance in relation to this novel, which is set in New York, were his cousins Otto, who established himself there as a successful businessman, and Franz (known as Frank), his younger brother who joined him in 1909 at the age of sixteen. It must have been strange for the writer to have his namesake escaping the confines of Prague - which Kafka didn’t himself achieve until near the end of his life - for the promised freedom of the New World.

Kafka was an avid reader of travel literature. Arthur Holitscher’s popular reports from American were first serialised in newspapers and then published with illustrative photographs as Amerika: Heute und morgan, of which Kafka owned a copy. Other literary sources claimed as influences include Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Furthermore, Kafka attended Dr. Fantisek Soukup’s lectures in Prague about his travels in America, and received oral reports from two returned workmen.

Kafka preferred the ‘repose of gaze’ offered by the photograph to the mobile vision of cinema. But scrutinising photographs does not always lead to intimacy or knowledge, and instead can produce feelings of estrangement and alienation. The fragmented city depicted by Kafka seems infused with a malevolent spirit, which compresses its space, rendering negative all that was new and hopeful. Indeed, the American ‘rags to riches’ myth found in Horatio Alger’s stories, is turned on its head in Kafka’s novel as the young immigrant, Karl Rossmann, slides inexorably down the social ladder.

Goto’s series is set in and around New York City, circa 1914. Like Kafka, Goto has not visited America, and has similarly constructed his city using photographic, literary and critical sources. The image of a wealthy, technological, modern city, with its institutions and instruments of power, is disrupted by arcane eruptions of negative space.

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