America by Franz Kafka, with an introduction by Edwin Muir and a postscript by Max Brod
Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1967 (first published in English in 1938)
America is possibly the least known and read of Kafka's three novels, but was in fact the one he began first, with the first chapter actually being published in 1912. As with his other novels, Kafka never finished this book, and in fact never gave it a definitive title; Amerika being the title chosen by his literary executor, Max Brod. America is in many ways more unfinished than The Trial or The Castle, as it consists of eight long chapters, the first seven of which are connected, but with the (unfinished) eighth obviously from what was to be a latter part of the book.
While this book is often said to be the most light-hearted and humorous of his novels, America is still a mind bending ride through a strange land with mysterious characters, where the status quo can turn on its' head in an instant.
In this novel we follow the journey of Karl Rossman, who has been sent to America by his parents after making a servant girl pregnant (it turns out he was as innocent a party in the seduction as he could be). As his ship pulls in to New York, he realises he has left his umbrella behind and as he gets lost in the hold looking for his berth, he runs into a stoker who feels he has been unfairly dismissed from the ship's service. Rossman sides with him, and supports him in his idea to confront the Captain. He follows him to the Captain's cabin, where the stoker tries to put his case, but is defeated by his own prolixity. The well-off man who was chatting to the Captain then takes an interest in Karl, and by turns realises that Karl is in fact his nephew.
This stroke of good fortune leads to Karl heading off with Uncle Jacob (who is a Senator), leaving the stoker to his fate, and his belongings behind, which he had left with a friend on deck. He is driven to his Uncle's palatial home and business, where he is given a marvellous room, a piano to play, an English teacher and riding lessons. He only sees his Uncle in the morning, and is not given any insights into his Uncle's business. He does by chance meet an acquaintance of his Uncle, who invites him to his country house. Karl accepts, over his Uncle's seemingly half-hearted objections. He travels to the house, where he meets Mr. Pollunder's daughter Clara and has a meal with them and a Mr. Green - an associate of Mr. Pollunder - who has arrived unexpectedly.
Karl is confused by the brashness of Clara, and this leads to a fight between him and her in his bedroom, where she pins him to the bed. She seems unfazed by this, but Karl, who has spent his entire time in America trying (and failing) to understand the motivations of those around him, decides his Uncle was right, he shouldn't have accepted the invitation, and should return at once to New York. Mr. Pollunder is naturally upset, but agrees to arrange for Karl to get back home, whereupon Mr. Green implores him to stay, stating that he had a very important message that he must give to Karl, that could only be delivered to him after midnight.
With this in mind, Karl decides to accept Clara's invitation to play piano for her in her room to pass the time. He does this, and is embarrassed to find that he has been overheard by Mack, the suave young man who has been teaching him to ride, and whom he now discovers is engaged to Clara. By then it is midnight, and Mr. Green finds him and delivers the message. It is from Uncle Jacob, saying that by accepting Pollunder's invitation Karl has proven himself unworthy of staying with him, and thus Jacob does not want to see him again. This message is accompanied by his luggage from the ship.
Karl leaves the house immediately, and finds overnight lodging in a room occupied by Robinson and Delamarche, two out-of-work mechanics who are walking to Butterford to look for work. Karl decides to go with them. Both turn out to be rascals, cadging money off Karl, and going through his things. Karl however has a stroke of luck when he enters the Hotel Occidental looking for food and drink - the Manageress is a German and takes a liking to Karl and offers him a job. He has a nasty break-up from Robinson and Delamarche, and joins the hotel staff as a lift-boy.
His time there is brief - despite being well looked after by the Manageress, and befriended by her secretary Therese, Karl is dismissed from service after Robinson appears at the Hotel dead drunk, forcing Karl to leave his post, a sackable offence. The Manageress is still sympathetic to him and gives him advice on where to go and stay, but the Head Porter is less enamoured of Karl, and tries to give him a beating.
Karl escapes the Hotel, but to make sure he gets away, he hops into a taxi that Robinson has by then procured. On arrival at the apartment building where Robinson lives (with Delamarche and Brunelda), Karl is questioned by a policeman when he can't pay the taxi fare. He tries to escape: just when he is about to be run down by the policeman, Delamarche appears and saves him.
He then makes his way with Delamarche to the apartment, which he finds stuffed to the brim with furniture, curtains, trunks etc. It turns out that Brunelda was a wealthy singer, who has left her husband for Delamarche, and who is insanely sensitive about noise, and almost everything else. Robinson has become their servant, and the inveigling of Karl to the flat is to put him into service as well. Karl initially tries to escape the flat, while a farcical election rally is held in the street below, but his attempt fails. Later on he talks with a student sitting on the balcony of the flat next-door, and he convinces Karl to stay.
This is when the story moves to the final chapter. Without being given any intervening plot, including how he escaped from the flat, we come across Karl observing a banner advertisement for work at "The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma". He uses some of his last money to head to the racecourse, where a huge array of trumpeters blare out to draw attention to the recruitment area, one of whom Karl knows (we don't know how he knows her). Karl gets taken on by the Theatre, and he boards the train to head to Oklahoma, and the story ends, unfinished.
A bare outline such as I've just written merely scrapes the surface of the strangeness of this book. Like other Kafka novels, there are long extremely detailed descriptions of places, events and people: these descriptions drown the reader in detail, so much so that the absurdity of what is being described is actually lost in the detail. It is this fast-moving description that draws the reader right into the scene, to the extent that you feel like you're swimming in information without a way to draw breath. Kafka has a remarkable power to make what seems mundane both absurd and riveting. The sudden changes in perspective, which can happen at any time, can take the reader's breath away. Needless to say I read this book in translation, so kudos here to the translators, Willa and Edwin Muir, who have it seems captured Kafka's idiosyncratic German effectively.
The story moves from one scene to another without resolution, without any apparent meaning, and certainly without Karl understanding what's happening to him. Karl's interaction with other people in America is a source of constant confusion: he sees his own behaviour as reasonable and other people's in turn cruel or stupid, but they exclaim the opposite. And most of the time bystanders agree with the other people over Karl.
Kafka never went to the USA, and so his picture of the place can be quirky (the Statue of Liberty holding a sword, for example), but he is successful in showing that while America was very advanced, it was not immune to the poverty and exploitation that was occurring in Europe as well at the time. His theme here, as in many of his other writings, is about power: how those without it suffer arbitrarily at the hands of those who have it, how those that have it are not necessarily worthy to wield it, and how the absurdities of power that are obvious to the powerless seem normal to those who have it.
While America doesn't quite have the power of The Trial, or the excruciating nature of The Castle, it is still a marvellous example of 20th century literature. A classic from a true great.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell