robert walser, “answer to an inquiry” / franz kafka, “blumfeld, an elderly bachelor”

Two small books this time: the first, an illustrated edition of a short Robert Walser piece, the second, an illustrated edition of a long short story by Franz Kafka. The Kafka came out last year though I only recently found a copy; the Walser is from this year, and it’s a new translation, unlike the Kafka. In terms of purely textual content, there’s not much here that the devoted reader of either author wouldn’t already have in some other form; but both of these small books take short pieces and stretch them out to book length, forcing the reader to slow down, an impulse that I find interesting.

Robert Walser
Answer to an Inquiry
(trans. Paul North; illustrated by Friese Undine) 
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

There seems to be a lot of recent Walser projects: I still have a copy of Microscripts on the pile of things to be read, and I know of a couple of other projects in the works. But this little book was near the counter of the St. Mark’s Bookshop last night; I generally like Ugly Duckling if I don’t follow them as obsessively as I might. This is a small book – 64 pages, the majority of the book is illustrations – short enough to be comfortably read on the subway. The text of this book is Walser’s “Answer to an Inquiry” from 1907; it’s followed by an essay by translator Paul North of about the same length. The text felt familiar; Golden Rule Jones points out that it’s previously been translated (as “Response to a Request”) by Christopher Middleton as part of Selected Stories and The Walk. In those editions, the text takes less than three pages: it’s also the lead-off piece in those collections, where it’s presented as a short story. It’s a fine piece, and one can understand why it would be presented first: before so many other stories, though, it’s likely to be forgotten by most readers.

Here it’s primarily expanded through Friese Undine’s illustrations. Walser’s story, as its title suggests, is in the form of a letter; illustrated and given enough room to stretch out (a sentence every two pages), it becomes a sort of handbook; or perhaps a strange expressionist children’s book detailing how to live in an unforgiving world. Undine’s illustrations, which might be pencil drawings, seem to depict a theatrical production put on by bureaucrats; but the characters are ever-changing, and the production leads to the world: satellites circle the earth, a library full of anguished people, a bar, a mother with a homely baby. Screens (television, computer, outdoor advertising) are everywhere; and finally, things begin happening which shouldn’t be happening in the theater: a snake wriggles from a man’s mouth, another sticks a knife through his eye until it comes out his throat, at which point he smokes a cigarette. Walser’s text was published in early 1907; but the atrocities of the twentieth century seem to be predicted in this version of the book. “Whenever humans have progressed beyond the mere struggle for physical existence,” Undine writes in his brief introduction, “there has been theater and the drive towards self-destruction.” Undine finds Max Ernst (The Elephant Celebes) and Antonin Artaud in Walser: this Walser is full of coiled violence and seems newly foreign, different from the dreamy man we thought we knew. 

Franz Kafka
Blumfeld, An Elderly Bachelor
(trans. James Stern & Tania Stern; illustrated by David Musgrave) 
(Four Corners Familiars, 2009)

It’s easy to forget how enduringly strange Kafka is: he’s been canonized, and his fictional output was small enough that there’s the temptation to read it all at once. I don’t know that I’ve actually re-read The Castle and The Trial since high school; I’ve been better with the short fiction and Amerika. Expanding Blumfeld to book-length is an interesting idea: it’s not quite one of the canonical stories, certainly not in the English-speaking world, and as such Blumfeld is not as familiar a character as Josephine, Red Peter, or Odradek. “Blumfeld” is unfinished; there are no divisions in the text, but it seems to be the first two chapters, the first longer than the second, of a novel.

In the first, Blumfeld, who lives alone, though he wishes for a companion, is visited by a pair of animated balls: “two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the parquet”. The magical element goes unnoticed by Blumfeld: “They are undoubtedly ordinary balls, they probably contain several smaller balls, and it is these that produce the rattling sound” (13). Blumfeld is slightly irritated by the dancing balls; they won’t leave him, and he wishes they would stop moving, or at least making noise. In the morning, the charwoman comes; Blumfeld is embarrassed of the balls, and tries to hide them from her. Leaving his apartment, he tries to pass the balls off to neighborhood children; for Blumfeld, the balls are something shameful, perhaps a sign of his status as a bachelor. 

In the second part (which starts on page 57 of this edition), Blumfeld goes to work in the linen factory where he works. There’s nothing magical about Blumfeld’s life: the details of work swell up to take all available air, and his position (below his boss Ottomar, above two subordinates who don’t have names) is clearly delineated:

But what worries Blumfeld more than this lack of appreciation [from Ottomar] is the thought that one day he will be compelled to leave his job, the immediate consequence of which will be pandemonium, a confusion no one will be able to straighten out because so far as he knows there isn’t a single soul in the factory capable of replacing him and of carrying on his job in a manner that could be relied upon to prevent months of the most serious interruptions. (p. 63)

The narrative loses itself in the intricacies of the bureaucracy, moving finally to the perspectives of Blumfelds’s assistants, lowest in the office food chain, who have misbehaved:

They obey at once, but not shamefaced or with lowered heads, rather they squeeze themselves stiffly past Blumfeld, staring him straight in the eye as though trying in this way to stop him from beating them. Yet they might have learned from experience that Blumfeld on principle never beats anyone. But they are overapprehensive, and without any tact keept rying to protect their real or imaginary rights. (p. 86)

The two assistants seem to mirror the two balls in the first part of the story; or perhaps Blumfeld treats the balls deferentially because he’s used to treating his subordinates in the same way. “Blumfeld” seems to have been written in 1915; it seems impossible that Kafka would have known Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” or “The Paradise of Bachelors, and the Tartarus of Maids,” though both are suggested here, as might be any of a number of Walser’s works. 

David Musgrave’s illustration of the story start with the endpapers of the book: blue and white vertical stripes interrupted by a circle of diagonal stripes, causing optical vibrations: one appears in the front of the book, one in the back, but it’s almost impossible to see both at once. Inside the book, glossy plates appear every eight pages: centered on the front and back of these are murky rectangular images that seem like they might be poorly reproduced photographs of archaeological relics. These images are small; they seem as if they might have accompanied an anthropological text of a century ago. (Samples of Musgrave’s work – I don’t think there’s any overlap with those that appear in this book, though they’re similar – can be seen at Luhring Augustine’s page for him.) The most recognizable seems to be a shark tooth with a stick figure of a person carved on it; but looked at more closely, it’s hard to tell if it’s actually a person at all, as it’s missing an arm, and the circle that should be a head is too big and vertically bisected. Others suggest animals, but aren’t quite recognizable; one feels that there’s an intelligence behind these relics, but it can’t quite be understood. If these were anthropological illustrations, they’re missing the necessary captions. 

in the penal colony, again

“And here, almost against his will, he had to look at the face of the corpse. It was as it had been in life; no sign was visible of the promised redemption; what the others had found in the machine the officer had not found; the lips were firmly pressed together, the eyes were open, with the same expression as in life, their look was calm and convinced, through the forehead went the point of the great iron spike.”

(Kafka, quoted in Gabriel Josipovici’s Writing and the Body, p. 114.)


“210 West 14th Street, New York City          6 Feb. 1950

My dear Carrouges,

Long after your letter I received the text, which I’ve read over several times.

It is true I am indebted to Raymond Roussel for having enabled me, from 1912 on, to think of something else instead of retinal painting (André Breton will enlighten you as to this term, because we have discussed it together), but I must declare that I have not read In the Penal Colony, and only read the Metamorphosis a number of years ago.

Just to let you know the circumstantial events which led me to the Mariée.

So I was astonished at the parallelism which you have so clearly established.

The conclusions you have come to in the sphere of ‘inner significance’ interest me deeply even though I do not subscribe to them (except as far as the glass is concerned).

My intentions as a painter, which have nothing to do with the deep result, of which I cannot be conscious, were aimed at the problems of ‘aesthetic validity’ obtained principally through the abandonment of visual phenomena, both from the retinal and the anecdotal point of view.

As for the rest, I can tell you that the introduction of a ground theme explaining or provoking certain ‘acts’ of the Mariée and the bachelors, never came into my mind – but it is likely that my ancestors made me ‘speak’, like them, of what my grandchildren will also say.

Celibately yours, Marcel Duchamp”

(Quoted on p. 49 of Le macchine celibi/The Bachelor Machines, ed. Jean Clair & Harald Szeemann, following the contribution by Michel Carrouges. This letter appears to have been translated from French to Italian before being put into English.)

a view of new york

“They arrived in a region that sloped upward, and each time they halted and looked back, they could see the panorama of New York, with its harbor, stretching out ever farther. The bridge connecting New York to Boston hung delicately over the Hudson and trembled if one narrowed one’s eyes. It appeared to bear no traffic, and a long, smooth, lifeless strip of water stretched out underneath. In both of these giant cities everything appeared empty and erected to no avail. And there was scarcely any difference between large and small buildings. Down in the invisible depths of the streets life probably went on as usual, but all they could see above them was a light haze that was motionless yet seemed easy to chase away. Peace had even descended on the harbor, the largest in the world, and only here and there – perhaps influenced by the memory of vessels seen from close up – could one see a ship dragging itself forward a little. Yet one could not follow it for long; it escaped one’s gaze and disappeared.”

(Franz Kafka, Amerika: The Missing Person, trans. Mark Harman, p. 96.)

kafka in davenport

“Instead, he prays. Have mercy on me, O God. I am sinful in every corner of my being. The gifts thou has given me are not contemptible. My talent is a small one, and even that I have wasted. It is precisely when a work is about to mature, to fulfill its promise, that we mortals realize that we have thrown our time away, have squandered our energies. It is absurd, I know, for one insignificant creature to cry that it is alive, and does not want to be hurled into the dark along with the lost. It is the life in me that speaks, not me, though I speak with it, selfishly, in its ridiculous longing to stay alive, and partake of its presumptuous joy in being.”

(Guy Davenport, “The Chair”, p. 59 in Apples and Pears and Other Stories.)

giving it all away

“But perhaps more essential, in The Beautiful Room Is Empty (the rather enigmatic quotation is from Kafka) are [Edmund] White’s descriptions of the discovery of the world of art, a subject not often explored by American writers. The novel begins not with a discussion of the young man’s sexual awakening but of his hunger for books, music, painting, information – commodities almost all Midwestern writers report being starved for. . . . The narrator is an interesting rarity, a budding artist and intellectual in Michigan. Normal Mailer, writing | somewhere of James Jones, speaks of ‘the terrible inferiority complex of the midwestern writer,’ meaning perhaps the feeling many Midwesterners have of coming upon culture suddenly or by accident, whether by going East to school or to Europe in a war, and having the impression that they were just now being let in on something other people had always known. . . . Though every American region has its apologists, the Midwest, which has produced so many of our greatest writers, has the fewest, is the most resolutely ‘a country where no one else was like me.’ Writers who start out there have tended to move (as White, who lives in Paris, has done) and not to take their flat, unromantic heartland for a subject. Just as blacks, from Baldwin to Baker, have found a more agreeable life in Europe, so the Midwesterners – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gellhorn, Jones, Herbst, to name a few – have their own set of circumstances to flee, those White describes so well.”

(Diane Johnson, “The Midwesterner as Artist”, pp. 71–72 in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1996)

janouch on kafka on work

“On my next visit to Kafka I inquired:

‘Do you still go to the carpenter in Karolinenthal?’

‘You know about that?’

‘My father told me.’

‘No, I have not been for a long time. My health does not permit it any more. His Majesty the Body.’

‘I can quite understand. Working in a dusty workshop is not very pleasant.’

‘There you are wrong. I love to work in workshops. The smell of wood shavings, the humming of saws, the hammer-blows, all enchanted me. The afternoon went so quickly I was always astonished when the evening came.’

‘You must certainly have been tired.’

‘Tired by happy. There is nothing more beautiful than some straightforward, concrete, generally useful trade. Apart from carpentry, I have also worked at farming and gardening. It was all much better and worth more than forced labour in the office. There one appears to be something superior, better; but it is only appearance. In reality one is lonelier and therefore unhappier. That is all. Intellectual labour tears a man out of human society. A craft, on the other hand, leads him towards men. What a pity I can no longer work in the workshop or in the garden.’

‘But you would not wish to give up your post?’

‘Why not? I have dreamed of going as a farm labourer or an artisan to Palestine.’

‘You would leave everything behind?’

‘Everything, if I could make a life that had meaning, stability, and beauty. Do you know the writer Paul Adler?’

‘I only know his book The Magic Flute.’

‘He is in Prague. With his wife and the children.’

‘What is his profession?’

‘He has none. He has no profession, only a vocation. He travels with his wife and the children from one friend to another. A free man, and a poet. In his presence I always have pangs of conscience, because I allow my life to be frittered away in an office.’

(Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, trans. Goronwy Rees, pp. 15–16)

statues of liberty

Marcel Duchamp’s cover for André Breton’s Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares (1946):

Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares

The cover of the first American edition of Michel Butor’s Mobile (1963), designed by Janet Halverson:

mobile by michel butor

(I would have a better image of that, but there doesn’t seem to be one on the Internet and thieves stole the scanner cable, so the phone & Photoshop will have to do. Alas.)

One would imagine that someone would have similarly made a splendid cover for Kafka’s Amerika of the Statue of Liberty holding a sword aloft, but the closest one I can find is the New Directions cover by Gilda Kuhlman:

gilda kuhlman cover for amerika by kafka

But the best cover for Amerika that I could find is the poster for this French theatrical version of the novel, which captures more of the novel’s spirit:

french kafka