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A HUNGER ARTIST & OTHER STORIES; POEMS AND SONGS OF LOVE
By Franz Kafka (Thor Polson, trans.)                        ; By Georg Mordechai Langer (Elana
                                                                                         and Menachem Wolff (translators)
Guernica Edition
228 pages
$20
ISBN: 978-1-55071-867-6 (pbk.)
ISBN: 978-1-55071-868-3 (epub,)

 

            This unusual flipbook, the concept of poet-editor Elana Wolff,* brings together selected work by internationally renowned Franz Kafka and the much less renowned Georg Mordechai Langer, poet, essayist, and anthologist (who would write in Czech, German, and Hebrew). Both men were born in Prague to Jewish families, though Kafka’s Zionism was secular and, perhaps, as unconventional as his sexuality—he rarely set foot inside a synagogue—whereas Langer converted to Hasidism in his teens, lived for five years in the Hasidic court of the Belz Rabbi in eastern Galicia, and wrote a psychoanalytic study of Hasidic Judaism. Both men came from assimilated German-speaking, middle-class families, and both became friends, though Kafka was eleven years Langer’s senior, and far outstripped his young friend in terms of literary quality. So was there some recondite bond between the two unequal writers? Accomplished poet-editor Elana Wolff puts her finger on a homosexual or, at least, a homo-romantic connection, and the genesis of her idea seems even more fascinating than the evidence she presents through the poetry of Langer.

            Wolff was doing research for a biography course in which the final assignment was “the life story of a person, no longer living, who had made a significant contribution to humanity.” She selected Franz Kafka, whose The Trial she had first read on a kibbutz during a year in Israel. She relished his “grim humour, relentless portrayal of bureaucratic absurdity, stripped-down writing style, and dark enigmatic ending.” She found nothing overtly Jewish in the work, but realized, while returning time and again to his writing, the wisdom of Camus’s assertion that “the whole of Kafka’s art consists in compelling the reader to re-read him.” Not unique, however, because any great writer exerts a similar compulsion. Nevertheless, I understand Wolff’s fascination, though I do not necessarily share it to her degree. Certainly, the selections that Kafka translator Thor Polson has brought to the Kafka half in the flipbook—fourteen pieces from A Country Doctor; four from A Hunger Artist—display his indulgence in fantastical allegory, sharp political satire, close observation of human behaviour, and wry wit—often given a potent torque by his dry, elliptical style.

            Wolff went deeper into Kafka through the winter and spring of 2011, “poring over Kafka’s oeuvre—the well-and lesser-known fiction, the notebooks, diaries, correspondence, and many of the studies and biographies.” She discovered a key theme: “the centrality of friendship to his literary development and posthumous success, particularly the extraordinary friendship of Max Brod (1884-1968).” This friendship, as well as that between Kafka and Franz Werfel, had been explored by biographers and critics long before Wolff’s burgeoning interest, but she has latched on to Kafka’s friendship with another male, Georg Mordechai Langer, in a way that sharpens our understanding of Kafka’s sense of sexual frustration and failure—a subject first explored explicitly by historian Saul Friedlander who, in Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, ventured into the area of Kafka’s shadowy bi-sexuality in order to show how many of the chief torments in the writer issued from his anomalous sexual behaviour with women and men. Friedlander refers to Brod and Werfel, though he is careful to allow for ambiguity in the matter. Wolff, however, concentrates on the mystic Langer in order to show that his friendship with Kafka was rife with at least homoerotic, if not homosexual, suggestions and connections. She acknowledges that Langer’s name is mentioned only briefly in Kafka biographies, but she turns this deficiency to her advantage, seizing on a short entry in A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia that the importance of Langer in Kafka’s life has been “largely overlooked.” Her interest was further sharpened by a reference in the same article to a Hebrew elegy for Kafka by Langer, published in a small collection in 1929. She could not locate this particular collection at the time, so omitted Langer from her 2011 biography project. However, as with much creative writing, ideas can be kept percolating on a back-burner until the right moment for their development, and so Wolff, finding her own interest in Freud reflected in Langer’s Freudian methods in analyzing subconscious sources of Jewish ritual, mysticism, and religion (as expressed in The Eroticism of the Kabbalah and Nine Gates), committed herself to deeper investigation. Unable to find any of Langer’s poetry in Toronto or online, she was not prepared to remain disappointed.

While she and her husband, Menachem, were in Israel in August 2011, she discovered Langer’s small collection of Hebrew poems (Piyyutim ve-Shirei Yedidot [Poems and Songs of Love]) in the system at the National Library. Her discovery is beautifully evoked in her Introduction: “In the intense fluorescence of library quiet, I was handed the little original—a plain cardboard-cover book, barely 5” x 7”. I turned it over in my hands. It was Langer’s first book of poems—one of a small edition that he had surely brought with him on his long escape from Prague in 1939 and bequeathed to the library in 1943.” Sixteen poems, not a single return-date stamped on the old-fashioned sign-out form. She felt like the first person to have opened the little book to air. “A shyness overcame me and I turned each page carefully, checking its integrity—like a young mother examining her newborn’s fingers and toes. I came to the twelfth poem—“On the Death of the Poet”—after Franz Kafka, the name inserted plainly under the title, and I knew that I would read every one of these pieces in the way a poet wants to be read, and that my husband Menachem and I would do the work of translating the collection together.”

It was obviously a labour of love (abetted by the couple’s Hebraist background and study) that enabled them to appreciate the language, texture, and voice of Biblical and medieval liturgical poetry. And yet a poetry, according to Wolff, that was also modern in its invocation of contemporary references and deeply personal experience: “poems of profound loneliness and longing, and, as we would fast discover, undisguised, unrequited homo-romantic love.”

In assessing her claims, a reader needs to address the poetry, as well as the sexual implications, and I confess that my ignorance of Hebrew does not equip me to judge the poetry as anything but what can be gleaned from an English translation. As for the sexual component, that is guesswork, based on a palpable but small amount of poetry that reads very much like an outmoded form. So, admitting to my limitations, and acknowledging that I am a colleague-friend of Elana Wolff (to whom I continually turn for much-valued editorial advice for my own poetry), I shall address the issues as best and objectively as I can.

Bluntly put and without reference to their ethnic and cultural nexus, Langer’s poems in this collection do not pass muster as fine literature. They are filled with over-wrought adjectives, clumsy metaphors, clichéd phrases, strenuous hyperbole, and old-fashioned diction that often seem like a careless ecstasy of words—and I use the word “ecstasy” in the sense of agitation. A reader senses a soul overflowing with powerful feelings, but Langer does not have the poetic technique by which to effectively channel his ideas and feelings. Themes often emerge bluntly, with no finesse, and the philosophical is either flattened out or whipped up into something uncomfortably vague. The evidence is ample: “Slowly the silence has donned the garments/of darkness and spread its wings over the garden”; “And when I saw your perfect pliant height,/strewing sparks of charming youth,/as I gazed in thirst at your faithful eyes”; “my soul quivered”; “for you ignited the sea of my cold eternity”; “the heat of your tranquillity”; “a beautiful garden, blossoming and blooming”; “life’s fluxing flow”; “precious cedars crown our heads in splendour”; “pondering the impossible”; “when the garden dons the black shadow of majestic death”; “as if disunion exists in zero time-space”; “the filth of despicable lust/the holy sparks of purest love”; and, as the ultimate in risible cliché, “W-O-E is me!”

But when a reader turns to the Wolff note on translation, the matter becomes more complex. The “Note on Translation” recognizes that “a translated work is essentially a new work—given the strictures that inevitably arise when words from different languages attempt to describe the same experience.” In their close collaboration, the Wolffs wrestled with the question of how to render “an idiom, colour a word, or untangle a syntactical ambiguity in order to correctly and effectively convey meaning and evoke the elusive quality of tone in moving from Langer’s Hebrew to English.” The husband-and-wife team cites many examples, and their technical exposition is of significant value in re-reading the poems. For instance, “Like the Dying Inside,” from which I have quoted two lines above, becomes more understandable in its literary intent when the reader considers that the original poem was “set to a tune for chanting the book of Lamentations,” and therefore includes “cantillation tropes that are not easily replicated.” The translators can only hint at the “spiritual depth and kabbalistic resonance” to the poems. A similar complexity defines “The Arielites Will Sweetly Sing”—“a Zionist paean and idyll that draws on verses from Isaiah and Song of Songs” for which the Wolffs resort to transliteration. Perhaps the most fascinating problem for translation occurs in five of the sixteen Langer poems, where end-rhymes cannot be satisfactorily replicated in English. The translators opt for a mixture of alliteration and assonance, while admitting that crucial gender markers for twelve of the original poems have been left out, thereby reducing the homo-romantic inflections.

Therefore, it becomes apparent that certain problems of translation leak into problems of interpretation, though the overriding question, apart from literary quality, is whether Elana Wolff is reading too much into Langer’s friendship with Kafka. Because of my ignorance of Hebrew and of Jewish religious literature, I cannot decide definitively. Given the weight of evidence in Kafka biographies, there is little doubt that Kafka could have had a homo-romantic interest in Langer, and Langer evidently had some form of hero-worship of Kafka bordering on the homoerotic. But what about the poems themselves? In “Like the Dying Inside,” Langer refers to the “tremours [sic] of a secret love” and to not daring to “love/to the end.” These enigmatic (or cryptic, at the very least) lines portend something more than mere friendship. but there isn’t enough clarity as yet, because the English version does not carry gender markers that would emphasize the cause of a desperate heart’s quaking. Later, “To My Companion” describes a perfect love that is idealized and abstract—the epitome of paradisal love—that combines yearning with affection! But affection is hardly the equivalent of eroticism or even romanticism, although I am convinced by the Introduction that Langer uses the “language of elemental love. “The Strength in Splendour” is far more explicit, at least in terms of physical rapture, what with such phrases as “Pearls shower from his mouth,” “he cast his glances at me—and every shrub went up in flame,” and “your crimson lips flowed myrrh,” though there is no annotation provided. However, the translators do point out that “A Meeting,” “Alone,” “To An Estranged Friend,” and “On New Year’s Eve” are further poems in which the translation does not indicate the masculine markers of Hebrew. Consequently, while it is possible that Elana Wolff reads Kafka too emphatically into the poems collectively, making him the main subject of Langer’s homo-romantic focus (that remains blurry for me), she is radically correct in identifying his poetry as one of “deferment, substitution, spiritual reaching, and deep existential sadness.” Moreover, the very fact of her drawing a link between Kafka and Langer is a significant contribution to both men’s biographies and writings, and one that deserves scholarly study.


* It is necessary for me to correct this statement because it was Thor Polson who had just translated the stories and submitted them to Guernica, where publisher Michael Mirolla came up with the idea to combine Polson's translations with the work of Elana and Menachem Wolff on Langer's poems and songs as a flipside book. It was a happy stroke of synchronicity because Elana Wolff had also just submitted the translations of Langer to Mirolla. My thanks to Elana Wolff for straightening out the chronology and giving Thor Polson and Michael Mirolla their rightful due.


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