A Transatlantic Metamorphosis: On Brian K. Goodman’s “The Nonconformists”

By Ian EllisonApril 27, 2024

A Transatlantic Metamorphosis: On Brian K. Goodman’s “The Nonconformists”

The Nonconformists: American and Czech Writers Across the Iron Curtain by Brian K. Goodman

FRANZ KAFKA NEVER traveled to America, but that didn’t stop him writing a novel about it. Or at least starting one. Der Verschollene (which means something like “the missing person,” “the man who disappeared,” or, as the Princeton Kafka scholar Stanley Corngold memorably put it, “the boy who sank out of sight”) was renamed Amerika by Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod, when he first published it in 1927, three years after its author’s death and against his wishes. Presumably, Brod figured Amerika just sounded sexier.

Between 1912 and 1914, Kafka had been working on what was his first real attempt at a full-length novel, before he abandoned it for good. In his diaries, he recalls how as a schoolboy he had sketched out a novel about a pair of quarreling brothers, one jailed in Europe while the other sails off to the United States. Years later, he folded these twin storylines of punishment and flight into a single narrative, but he could never quite manage to resolve it. In a letter to Felice Bauer, he fretted that he had set up the novel “in such a manner that it will never be completed.” Diagnosing the problem, however, couldn’t solve it.

Though hardly his best work, Der Verschollene is more readable and lighter on its feet than Kafka’s later novels, even if it reads at times like an account of an extended panic attack induced by social anxiety. The novel follows the misadventures of 17-year-old Karl Rossman who, in the novel’s opening pages, arrives, overwhelmed, in New York Harbor after his parents have shipped him off from his home in Bohemia for being seduced by (crucially, not himself seducing) their housemaid and getting her pregnant. Throughout the novel, Karl careens across a fictionalized United States, where New York and Boston are connected by a bridge that fades away into the distance over the Hudson.

Yet Kafka’s America is also familiarly urban, full of noise and distraction, from the frenetic motion of the bobbing boats at the waterside to the streams of traffic hurtling along the Manhattan streets. In conjuring up his metropolis, Kafka drew in part on travelogues he’d read and lectures he’d attended in Prague, as well as postcards and cinematic depictions, adding his own little twists every now and then (his Statue of Liberty wields a sword rather than holding aloft a torch). The experiences of some of his cousins who did cross the Atlantic also find their way into Der Verschollene. His father’s nephew Otto, who was charged with fraud back home in 1906, had become a successful businessman in New York by 1912. Yet Kafka’s diaries also reveal that his vision of New York was just as influenced by Prague’s heady Habsburg fin de siècle and his trips to the bustling boulevards of Paris in 1909 and 1911. Beneath Kafka’s vividly motorized New World throb memories of an older European past.

The Kafka craze in the United States didn’t really kick off until the late 1940s, though Willa and Edwin Muir’s English translation of Der Process (The Trial) had appeared in 1937, just at the time when the Moscow show trials were driving a wedge through the intellectual Left in the US. After the end of the Second World War, Kafka became “the patron saint of the Village literary scene,” as Anatole Broyard’s posthumously published memoir Kafka Was the Rage (1993) depicts, according to Brian K. Goodman in The Nonconformists: American and Czech Writers Across the Iron Curtain (2023). At the same time, Czech translations of much of Kafka’s work had not yet been published.

Displaced from Prague and co-opted as a totemic blueprint of dissidence and American individualism, Kafka was equipped with a shiny new set of anti-totalitarian associations. Hannah Arendt, herself fresh off the boat in New York and furiously at work on what would become The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), found Kafka’s invented worlds “rather uncannily adequate to the reality” of fleeing Europe after having been rendered newly stateless. Pouncing on Arendt’s reading of Kafka, the editors of New York’s Partisan Review, which had published many English translations of Kafka’s work for the first time (along with extracts from Brod’s biography), held up the Prague author as incontrovertible evidence that literary modernism was on the side of Western liberals. Never mind the evidence of fascist sympathies in various quarters of the modernist milieu (e.g., Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis), to say nothing of the fact that Kafka was largely unaware of any notion of modernism during his lifetime.

Kafka’s Jewishness, however, was certainly “a key factor in the New York intellectuals’ critical investment in the Prague author,” as Goodman notes in The Nonconformists. This is despite the fact that Kafka’s relationship to Judaism and Zionism waxed and waned over the course of his tragically foreshortened life. Unlike his parents and their peers, Kafka was of a generation of Prague Jews that pushed back against a liberal bourgeois model of assimilation geared towards the homogenization of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Kafka’s correspondence and diaries reveal periods of strong interest in all matters Jewish while remaining to a greater or lesser extent critically removed from them. He was particularly taken by a Galician Jewish theater group that performed in Yiddish at Prague’s Café Savoy in the winter of 1911–12. In fact, the only public speech we know of Kafka giving in his life was about the Yiddish language, delivered during a poetry reading one evening in 1912 by the troupe’s lead actor, Jizchak Löwy.

Though Kafka followed contemporary debates on Jewish national identity and subscribed to Zionist journals in Prague, he never officially joined any Zionist organization. Often he seems to have been rather disengaged or disinterested at the meetings he was dragged along to by Brod, a far more fervent supporter of the Zionist movement. After 1917, Kafka did start learning Hebrew and briefly wrote about contemplating a move to Palestine, though given his sharply declining health, it’s hard to know how serious a plan this was. His diaries and correspondence contain ambivalent statements about the project of Zionism: he sympathizes with the cause to a certain extent, yet he also rejects the label for himself.

Kafka’s literary works, moreover, contain next to no explicit references to Judaism or the Jewish people. His texts that best address Zionist issues, however tangentially, are late short stories like “Investigations of a Dog” (1931) or “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse People” (1924), which wrestle with the fraught matter of belonging—or not—to a community. As Vivian Liska has argued, Kafka “lived in the difficult situation of one who recognizes the temptations and terrors of saying ‘we.’” Ultimately, the question of Kafka’s Jewishness becomes a matter of where this Czech Jewish author who wrote predominantly in German might belong, if anywhere.

There’s a strange sort of Bohemian feedback at work in Kafka’s divergent reception in New York and Prague, whereby the iconography subsumes both the artist and his art. When the Communist Party took over Czechoslovakia in early 1948, they outlawed Kafka, distaining his work as at once a decadent bourgeois throwback to Prague’s interwar years and a dangerously corrupt figurehead of postwar existentialism creeping in from overseas. The fact that Kafka’s work was banned repeatedly in his home country from the 1950s onward only served to cement his posthumously acquired reputation as a firebrand nonconformist. In Goodman’s marvelous new book, Kafka himself remains a spectral figure. Used and misused by most major ideological and cultural movements throughout the 20th century, his work and its reputation nonetheless join up the dots of a constellation of so-called nonconformist writers. He became a kind of poster boy for a liberal vision of anti-fascist resistance, with his work acting as a lingua franca for Czech and American writers, albeit one that both sides at times seemed to have a shaky grasp of.

Twenty years ago, as he tells it, Goodman was a Beat-crazed college student in California. Visiting Prague in 2004, he acquired a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s secret police file. He became obsessed with knowing the full story behind Ginsberg’s election as the ceremonial “May King” (“Král majáles”) at a 1965 Prague student festival that had been banned under communism, as well as his later expulsion from Czechoslovakia. Yet what happened to Ginsberg is a small part of a much larger history of literary dissent across the Iron Curtain. Especially for descendants of those who managed to flee the cataclysms of 20th-century Central European history, the counterfactual impulse is strong, and it’s this impulse that drew many American writers with distant family connections to Prague.

“In the early years of the Cold War, new underground readings of Kafka’s writing would help shift the gaze of a younger generation of hipster intellectuals in New York City back toward communist-era Prague,” Goodman notes. Reading his painstakingly researched book, it would seem that there were times you couldn’t cross Prague’s Charles Bridge without running into Ginsberg, or Arthur Miller, or Susan Sontag, or Philip Roth, or John Updike, or Kurt Vonnegut. As the Cold War wore on, it was to Kafka that this “new generation of Jewish American writers nurtured on the writing of the New York intellectuals” turned, the better to comprehend and critique the communist world they surveyed.

Goodman’s book reconstructs these writers’ numerous trips to Prague during the mid-20th century, but also their gravitation towards members of the vanguard of anti-establishment culture in Czechoslovakia such as Václav Havel, about whom Miller claimed that, “[i]n some indescribable way, we are each other’s continuation.” The traffic went both ways: while Kafka was exported across the Atlantic, a Czech counterculture grew up around smuggled-in copies of Beat poetry and Moby-Dick, as well as Dixieland jazz records. Some Czech authors, such as Josef Škvorecký, took the risk of deliberately imitating writers like Langston Hughes in a bid to follow American literary trends, incorporating the poetic forms of the Harlem Renaissance into the literature of the Prague resistance. At times this process reads less like cultural exchange than racist parody, particularly in the case of Milton “Mezz Mezzrow” Mesirow, an outlandish Jewish American jazzman who was hugely influential for Škvorecký despite being, in Goodman’s words, “a mediocre musician, gifted raconteur, and prolific marijuana dealer who claimed to have literally transformed himself into a Black man.”

Between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, as Goodman acknowledges, “whenever the words of a nonconformist writer crossed the Iron Curtain, there was a risk of political metamorphosis.” Here, again, the threads of Kafka’s work run right through the whole dissenting enterprise, with the very idea of the “Kafkaesque” emerging as a product of midcentury political and artistic debates, particularly on the left. Yet even if it amounted to a distortion of Kafka’s own elusive intentions, this wasn’t such a bad thing. Kafka’s books found their way into the hands of millions more readers than they might otherwise have done. Since then, the images of Kafka the dissident and Kafka the prophet have spread around the world, influencing writers from Roberto Bolaño to Han Kang. In 1947, the American critic Edmund Wilson had already predicted, in his contrarian takedown of Kafka’s work, that “Kafkaesque” would become “a permanent word.”

Despite his aversion to Kafka, Wilson seems to have been proven right. “By the end of the Cold War era,” Goodman writes, “decades of risky encounters between American and Czech writers had helped transform the city of Kafka into an international capital of dissent.” And the craze of the “Kafkaesque” persists today. The irony, however, of holding up Kafka as the patron saint of contemporary dissident culture is that it was exactly this sort of political and ideological distortion of his life and work that helped create the original Kafka craze during the early Cold War in the first place.

Goodman’s book was published in the summer of 2023, mere weeks before the death of Milan Kundera, who was at the time one of the last of Goodman’s nonconformists still living. The years he spent writing the book also saw the deaths of Havel, Roth, and Škvorecký. It’s hard not to see the publication of The Nonconformists as marking the end of an era. Throughout his book, Goodman explores how, now as then, people of all political stripes can just get obsessed with Kafka. But the question of whether it’s enough simply to stand back and say “at least people are still reading him” goes unanswered. Goodman isn’t naive enough to claim that the circulation of literary dissent brought on the Velvet Revolution. Nevertheless, he is right that “the central role Václav Havel played in the popular movement that overthrew the one-party Communist dictatorship in power since 1948 only reinforced the romantic image of the persecuted dissident writer that had taken hold in the Western political imagination.” In capitalist democracies, dissent is too easily commodified, co-opted, and thereby contained by powerful elites. In short, everything goes, but nothing matters. Goodman’s view is more in line with Havel’s: “the ‘social effects’ of any act of artistic or cultural dissent are necessarily ‘incalculable, unpredictable, hidden, and indirect.’” Everything goes, but everything still matters. The question remains, as Goodman acknowledges: In what ways does it still matter? The jury’s out; the trial continues.

The critic F. O. Matthiessen, another of Goodman’s dissidents, used to tell a joke that was common in Prague in the 1940s: “Czechoslovakia is sick of being called ‘the bridge between East and West,’ since a bridge is something everyone walks over.” Like Kafka’s fictional bridge between New York and Boston (which was corrected in Brod’s first German edition of Kafka’s novel, and in the Muirs’ English translation, to become the Brooklyn Bridge), this link was in danger of disappearing. For Goodman, who rightly prefers Kafka’s stranger construction, the bridge is a convenient if slightly overbaked metaphor for thinking through the “unlikely connective role” that Kafka was shoehorned into playing in the development of dissident literature in America and Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century.

Since his death 100 years ago, Kafka has often been flattened into a one-size-fits-all template of individualistic resistance in the guise of a dissident prophet—a construction that belies much of the vivacity and humor, not to mention the communal aspects, of his writing. Abstracted from his life and work and their shifting, complex contexts, Goodman’s is a Kafka in danger, if not of being trampled upon, then of sinking out of sight behind a raised-up icon of himself.

LARB Contributor

Ian Ellison is the postdoctoral research associate on the “Kafka’s Transformative Communities” project at the University of Oxford and a visiting fellow of Wadham College. He was short-listed for the 2023 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, and his first book, Late Europeans and Melancholy Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium, appeared in 2022.


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