#16 / Editorial

“He who walks on his head has depths of the heavens beneath him.” Paul Celan, when he wrote these lines, was speaking of the poet Lenz, who sometimes liked to “walk on his head” in the course of his outings in the Vosges, where the madness-stricken artist was under the care of a philanthropist and Protestant pastor. He died prematurely at 40 years old, after a long peregrination in Europe, meeting his end one night in a Moscow Street. He was unidentified at the moment of his demise, and was buried in a common grave. Büchner, who erected the monument to Lenz to which Celan alludes, also died far too young, at 23 years old. This left him enough time to transform the German language in the few rare works of his published during his lifetime – his widow burned what remained of his corpus. Max Brod chose to do otherwise and saved the manuscripts of that other revolutionary of German expression so dear to Celan and departed too soon, Kafka.

Kafka would have marked his 138th birthday this 3 July, which has inspired us to dedicate this special issue to him. He was a lodestar of a generation of Germanophone Jews, for whom he conceived the heavens as a void in which all those who tried to speak in a modern world disconnected from tradition existed. This is how Bruno Karsenti, in any case, explains the hold that Kafka had on the German Jews of his time, Kafka’s work serving as a place where what had been lost resounded as a commandment and compulsion.

Avishag Zafrani permits us to glimpse another side of Kafka’s language, where he does not speak at all, but rather draws on a scrap of paper, an old bill or a check from one of the magnificent, loquacious cafes of Prague. The drawings of Kafka, also rescued by Max Brod, have rec »July been put online by Israel’s National Library. Les dessins de Kafka, eux aussi sauvés par Max Brod, et récemment mis en lige par la Bibliothèque nationale d’Israël, paraissent comme une autre manière d’échapper à l’obligation de produire de la cohérence dépassant le simple aperçu dans un monde moderne où rien n’est moins certain que la persistance de la révélation.

Finally, we are running again the brief portrait of Kafka that Jean-Pierre Lefebvre wrote for the first issue of K. He also views Kafka as laboring for a deconstruction of language, going as far to strip himself of his own name, reduced to the initial K. This means an obstinate refusal of the artifice of sense in a modern world in which we lack the tools to measure. Here, it is not the archaic songs of enchantment that are menacing, but rather the silence of the heavens, which lie beneath those who, mad or lucid, sometimes like K. prefer to walk on their head.

What did Kafka’s work mean to the rising generation of German Jews who embraced it with fervor in the 1910s and 1920s? What experience of the modern European Jew was refracted for them in his writings?

Kafka’s art is accessible again. Hundreds of his drawings are now available, free, from the National Library of Israel, where the Kafka Archive–a collection of his work saved by his friend and collaborator Max Brod–remains to this day.

We asked Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, the author of the most recent French translations of Kafka, what images and ideas came to him when he considered Kafka’s initial. He answered us as an astute translator and philologist, attentive to the subtle messages contained in names and words, and as a poet for whom Kafka’s work is a mental landscape to be contemplated.

With the support of:

Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.