Kafka’s K.

Jean-Pierre Lefebvre is the author of the most recent French translations of Kafka’s short stories, novellas and novels, published in the Pléiade (the French Great Books collection) in 2018. He is currently editing Kafka’s diaries and letters for publication. For the first issue of the review K., we could not help but ask him 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.


Franz Kafka, Author anonymous.


It seems that in none of the 1,742 letters of Kafka’s that have been found – or which have been found and then vanished – he ever signed his name with a single K. He uses the letter, on occasion, to avoid the perilous spelling of Kierkegaard’s long patronymic (which does not mean “cemetery” in Danish, as one might have been tempted to believe[1]).

There is but one exception, a lengthy missive addressed to the citizens of Europe at the outset of the twentieth century. His work is not like that of Stefan Zweig, coming not in the form of essays or public statements, or even of letters to important persons, dashed off when things start to go wrong between peoples. Rather, he expresses himself in three fables – as part of a letter never put in the mail – in which the main character gradually strips himself of all verbal flesh to end up being named only K.

To call himself names he probably prefers not to use the Czech name of his father[2],  which can often be seen on some doors of Bohemian merchant trucks that criss-cross the roads of Europe[3] but the least-guttural Yiddish name that he shares with a maternal ancestor and which resonates not like the song of the little crow of the towers, but the bold blackbird during cherry-blossom season, and without Kafka ever knowing it, resembles, too, the Hebrew name of poet Paul Celan of Czernowitz: Amschel[4].

Kafka’s father business card.

Contrary to the French usage, the Czech pronunciation of the word kafka, similar to the German, accentuates the first syllable (kav) but discreetly lets the second (ka) slip away. And only a perverse philologist would dare to draw any knowledge from the fact that, in written form, the name suggests the syntagma that would reveal to the ignorant that the letter kav of the Hebrew alphabet corresponds to the letter ka in the languages of Europe, thus opening up a topic that affects the question of writing, that of the historical situation, that of the assimilation of European Jews (and here, among other instances, that of the German-speaking Prague Jew with a Czech surname before and after 1918, of his learning of Hebrew) and no doubt all the other questions that this author asks himself and us.

The silent movement that inexorably draws the name of the main character in each of Kafka’s three novels toward the anonymous silhouette of the letter K. has been interpreted as a structured evolution in several differentiated times. But the path toward the nothingness of nominal definition, which has been related stricto senso to the extermination of existence in the death camps, caps all three individual paths: Karl Rossmann, in Amerika, loses his own name while traveling from east to west, choosing at the end of the road trip that of “Negro” as his silhouette dissolves in an unreadable and moving horizon; Josef K. in The Trial, if we follow the process of the novel, sets off, as soon as he is called upon by the henchmen of destiny in the absurd filmic vaudeville of the first pages, toward an annihilation without transition in the suburbs, apparently out of nowhere; and K. the aptly named “surveyor” of The Castle, who comes from almost nowhere without ever uttering his past name, in the hope of finally attaining the status of an accepted inhabitant within a human universe. He lets himself be guided through the darkness by the groom Gerstäcker, after for the umpteenth time he has been chased away from a socially relevant place. In the end the ambitious surveyor is only offered a place as a stable hand, he who knows nothing about horses, and to sit like a child next to an old woman, “someone reading a book.” But if the three characters lose the flesh of their names, they remain surveyors and witnesses of a time: of America, Prague, snowy Bohemia…

“Three Profiles, the One in the Middle Vertical”, Oskar Schlemmer, 1920. © Wikiart

In spite of its stiff form of an impractical diving board, K. is the name of the geometrician, the artist of time surveying distances. K.’s geometry is the absurd result of the tangled steel links of a surveying chain.

In the German alphabet, just before K. there is J.

J. as Jude, Judentum, Jiddisch.

Behind the K. of Kafka we do not find the “Jewish question”, as Marx said in his time, but the curious Jew that he was and the questions that Jews ask themselves and today, wherever they have found a society, between return and wandering, between reference and indifference, but which must be asked by all those who have lived with them for centuries. They can be of any kind, moral, political, religious, demographic, practical, psychological, but they cannot get rid of their general situation and the hierarchy of its urgencies, nor of a concern that is not often manifested because it is so unthinkable: what would become of a European country from which all the Jews would leave?

How, however, can one take the measurements of a problematic space, most of whose landmarks have been buried by a clever genius under a thick snow of phantasmagorias, impulses, lying interests and fading memories, when the masters of the game are still parading around in their luxurious sledges and can count on the personnel of the laundering department to ensure that this thick snow persists in disturbing the measurements. The surveyor K. enters houses, questions, discusses, negotiates, contradicts, lies if necessary, seduces, is sometimes harsh, unfair, remains in solidarity with those who have been banished to the western territory of Count Westwest[5] where he has decided to stay and not let himself be pushed around, like the quasi-communard French mechanic traipsing around America in K.’s first novel, the aptly named Delamarche[6].

Jean-Pierre Lefebvre

Translated by Daniel Solomon


1 Indeed, the proximity of the name Kierkegaard to the Danish word for cemetery, namely kirkegård, has misled many interpreters. The fact is that Kierkegaard is the name of a farm adjacent to a church.
2 Kavka, the name in Czech, means jackdaw, a small corvid familiar with towers and steeples.
3 There is in fact actually a Czech transport company bearing the name Kafka.
4 Paul Celan’s surname is Antschel (in German)/Ancel (in Romanian) and means blackbird. The writing of Kafka’s Hebrew first name “Amschel” is only a Yiddish variant of the same name. Celan francized his surname through the anagram of its Romanian transcription. He did this before coming to France: reversing the Romanian letters, it was still Romanian.
5 The castle in The Castle belongs in fact to an unlikely Count Westwest.
6 Delamarche is one of the two vagabonds with whom Karl Rossmann becomes involved in Amerika.

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