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Kafka Tribute in New York

By Nicolle Elizabeth

What better way to spend a Sunday night in New York then at a “tribute to Kafka” reading, and what better place to do it than the KGB Bar? The KGB is an institution here in New York, for many years now, and the fiction reading series is curated by the talented Suzanne Dottino. The line-up she invited to read within the dark, propaganda-filled, Russian-Red walls was stellar.

Lynne Tillman gave us a quote for everyone reading the WWB Blog, íKafka said: ‘My fans, if I have one…’ë and her reading later in the night would bring uproarious laughter and revelation.

Michael Shelichach started the reading by sharing background before pulling out what I could see, was an incredibly read book. I mean, really, that copy was worn, loved, even. íKafka's work,ë Shelichach began, íwas mostly un-finished or destroyed, which leaves us who love him to pour over the scraps.ë

The loved, read, worn book Shelichach was holding on the podium was íThe Diaries of Franz Kafkaë and the section he chose to read has no title. It's actually interrupted in two parts by an entry Kafka had written, about an upcoming trip to Berlin, perhaps you remember the piece well.

íIt was written over two nights, it was never meant to be published,ë Shelichach confirmed.

The story is about a neighbor who enters Kafka's apartment to wrestle at night, he put an ax through the door. íApparently, he is a student, sleeps all day and wants exercise at night…once, he brought a girl…Well then, said the girl, who was sitting at my table and had begun to read a letter I was writing…ë The crowd was overjoyed.

Laurie Segal followed and it was a treat to see her read, silver hippie ring on the index finger turning the pages. íI got into The Castle and I couldn't get out,ë she said. íThis story is about a man who needs divine grace from the castle to continue to lead his life.ë (Can't we all relate?) Segal then went on to give us her take, which was generous, and everyone in the room hung on every word. íI cannot think that Kafka didn't think about the oppressive presence of this èthing' up there.ë She summarized, íHe is not in the castle, but a corridor. It's five in the morning and Kafka has no business being there in the first place.ë

If you know this part of the work, you know that Kafka is building a rant, really, about the levels of bureaucracy within the system. People are waiting for their papers, some angrily. íServantsë are pushing people's files, everyone is waiting for permission from administrators: the hierarchy reigns.

Segal read more, ía gentle man who considered himself entitled to the files, clapped his hands, and became impatient.” “It's like he's a comic book hero,ë she said, íwatching servants being un-defeated,ë she read on, then turned the page and said, íThat's the sentence I would have DIED to have written.ë You know where the story goes, there's one document left, which K thinks is surely his, and the servant, of course, rips it up.

Lynne Tillman, the original literary hipster, next to Kafka, told us a story about a time she was in London to see a play, this was -I think she said- in the 1970s. She shared a part of the conversation from the evening, íEverybody talks about Kafka, but nobody does anything about Kafka!ë She chose to read from íLetters To Feliceë and explained in a very clear yet subdued way, that Kafka was beyond obsessed with writing to Felice, a then modern day gmail-internet-chat, if you will. He would write her multiple times in an afternoon and become enraged if he didn't receive word back. Somehow, however, all of Felice's letters to K were destroyed, lost, buried, burned, and so, our only description of this woman is from Kafka's perspective.

íVery late, my poor persecuted dearest,ë she began to read from his letter, íall letters will start getting lost again. Only one way out to throw down our pens and run toward one another…my darling, I beg you to not be jealous of my novel.ë (Tillman looked up and said, íThe novel which was Meditation.ë) íIt is through writing, I keep a hold on life.ë

Matthew Sharpe began with a lecture on language. íLanguage is a dialect with an army and a navy. Language is a way to enforce boundaries. It might be said that he (K) was comfortable in no language.ë (As we know, he wrote in German, spoke Yiddish predominantly and was living mostly in Czechoslovakia.)

Sharpe chose to read from my second favorite Kafka work, as any good punk rock kid would agree, and it was, íThe Trial.ë íIn Kafka's version of the law, we find that the law was invented perhaps by God, but enforced by humans, who were, well, according to Kafka, not God.ë Sharpe said.

íThe Trial,ë you know, gives us a sense of the world, recording history, or a skewed manifesto about it. Kafka goes to Titorelli, a painter of judges, and a “who's on first” ensues. Titorelli makes acquittal promises and we learn about fate. íSo am I free?ë Sharpe read Kafka asking. íYes, but only ostensibly free.ë T answers.

Kafka is talking about karmic propositions: íBut it can come back down at any time. The court never forgets anything.ë

Published Jun 15, 2009   Copyright 2009 Nicolle Elizabeth

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