IF HE COULD REACH the open fields how fast he would fly. […] [S]till he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them. […] [T]he courts would still have to be crossed; and after the courts the second outer palace; and once more stairs and courts; and once more another palace; and so on for thousands of years; and if at last he should burst through the outermost gate — but never, never can that happen — the imperial capital would lie before him, the center of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment. Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.
These are the closing lines of “An Imperial Message,” a parable that opens many editions of Franz Kafka’s stories. And with good reason: the tale is a microcosm of the great theme that has made the author’s name an adjective — the state of physical and psychic entrapment brought about by an interminable pursuit. As a word that describes the breadth of the domain as well as its command, the “imperial” capital serves as a metaphor for Kafka’s entire universe: if Augustine’s god was a circle whose center was everywhere, then this is a world where the circle is everywhere and the center can never be found.
The vignette shares a kinship with Léon Bloy’s story “The Captives of Longjumeau,” about two travelers who never manage to leave their hometown, despite having a house full of maps, atlases, and train schedules. But Kafka’s parable presents an existential difference: it’s not merely a spatial paradox impregnated with the dream of escape, because all possibility of escape has already been foreclosed. And although it appears to be about a great city in ancient China, its claustrophobic metropolis could easily stand in for any European capital, such as the one in which Kafka lived.
When viewed on a map, Prague’s city center resembles a labyrinth. From the old town square, its central node, streets issue in all directions, branching without parallel, as if developed in ignorance of each other. They loop and double back, linked together by portals, arcades, and shadowed passages, making it impossible to walk in a straight line for very long. The sky is crowded with spires, like daggers, while the buildings are close-set, seeming almost to lean over you.
With the exception of a few excursions and extended stays in sanatoriums for his worsening tuberculosis, much of Kafka’s disappointingly domestic life was confined to this environment. Friedrich Theiberger, Kafka’s Hebrew teacher, records a moment when the two men stood at a window overlooking the old town square; Kafka pointed and said: “This was my high school, the university was over there, in the building facing us, my office a bit further to the left. This narrow circle encompasses my entire life.” As a younger man, he wrote to a childhood friend: “Prague never lets you go … this dear little mother has sharp claws.” As an older man, he remarked to Gustav Janouch (a young disciple whose Conversations with Kafka would be formative in Kafka hagiography): “This is not a city. It is a fissure in the ocean bed of time, covered with the stony rubble of burned-out dreams and passions, through which we — as if in a diving bell — take a walk.”
Kafka grew up in Prague’s Jewish quarter (known at the time as Josefstadt), which extended from the west edge of old town square to the foot of Charles Bridge. Once the home of astrologers, numerologists, Kabala scholars, and all manner of mystics, it was during Kafka’s childhood a squalid den of ramshackle houses, gas lamps, and brothels (later an inspiration for the oneiric sets in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). It is also the site of the Old New Synagogue, spawning ground of the Golem myth, and a building Hitler reportedly wished to preserve as a monument to a vanished race. It was a landscape that clearly left an impression on the young Kafka, who often recalled the ghetto with fondness in his diaries.
Born in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kafka was surely conscious of living in an imperial capital, enveloped in foreign authority. At the time, there were three minority groups all jockeying for space: Czech nationals (who spoke the vernacular language), German gentiles (a large segment of the educated class), and German Jews like Franz’s father Hermann, who had moved to Prague from south Bohemia and managed to succeed as a fabric merchant.
Kafka thus found himself nested in a matryoshka of minorities — national, linguistic, and ethnic. The 60-year period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the rise of Nazi Germany was something of a goldilocks era for European Jewry, and those like Hermann, who were proud of their assimilation, could rely on a city like Prague for a relatively undisturbed life. Kafka’s view of cities, however, is one of constant anxiety: they are endless islands where one is forced into contortions, both physical and spiritual. Over and over, his writings reveal a desire to push out into free vistas, into the great countryside, still and serene, a space without obstruction.
Kafka’s first story, “Description of a Struggle” (composed as early as 1904, when he was in his early 20s), depicts a nighttime saunter through the city, as one character challenges another to climb the Laurenziberg (Petřín hill). The path they travel is clearly from the city center to Charles Bridge and up the hill on the adjacent bank, but the story is one long continuity error, full of somatic manipulations (“This thought […] tormented me so much that while walking I bent my back until my hands reached my knees”) that make it impossible for readers to orient themselves. At one point, the narrator describes himself as “swim[ming] on the pavement”: “I raised myself above the railing by increasing my speed and swam in circles around the statue of every saint I encountered.” Soon after, the narrator is close enough to his companion to whisper in his ear, but a moment later is inches from the ground and able to pinch his legs. The fluidity of these changes contributes to the dreamlike quality in so much of Kafka’s work — characters move impossibly through violations of logic and architecture, never once questioning them.
“Description” is unique, not just as Kafka’s first attempt to establish an aesthetic that would be singularly his, but because it is one of the few stories set in a recognizably “real” world, with street names and identifiable landmarks. His stories would soon push into imaginary terrain, without any clear location in reality, and develop a psychic topography, where characters’ inner states are projected onto their environments in a way that resembles the twisted landscapes of Ludwig Meidner.
The word “Prague” never appears in any of the stories, but traces of the city can still be found. There are a few locations that are known with confidence. K.’s walk at the end of The Trial, for example, almost certainly takes him across Charles Bridge into Malá Strana (Lesser Town), ending at St. Vitus Cathedral, the centerpiece of Prague Castle. (Kafka lived for a brief period at the foot of the Castle while working on the novel, and it’s likely this path is a retracing of his commute to and from work.) The bridge the narrator hurls himself from in “The Judgement” is also clearly Čechův Bridge, adjacent to a block of flats where Kafka lived in 1912 when he wrote the story.
According to his diaries, “The Judgement” was written in a single eight-hour session. “The story,” he later described, “came out of me like a real birth, covered with filth and slime.” “[O]nly in this way,” he said, “can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.” Kafka’s maturity as a writer can be dated to this distinctly productive period; The Metamorphosis arrived a month later, with equal speed; he also began working on The Man Who Disappeared, which became Amerika, while the rest of his time was spent correcting galley proofs for Betrachtung (Meditation), his first published collection.
Whereas the environments in the stories are clearly circumscribed, often featuring a single setting (a flat, an office, a country house), the larger landscapes are sketched in the novels. Kafka’s fictional villages seem to have been shaped by his own circular existence within Prague, always in the service of some establishment. This is the world Kafka’s characters inhabit: the endless registry, the typists’ pool, the teller’s cage. His city is less a living space than a locus of institutions — schools, churches, law offices — recognizable only by their symbolic features (doors, portals, gates, attics, galleries, corridors).
The most time Kafka ever spent away from Prague was in the last illness-wracked years of his life. In 1923, he moved to Müritz, where he met Dora Diamant, his last girlfriend, and the two soon relocated to Berlin. During this time Kafka advanced his work on The Castle, though he would never finish it, and also wrote “A Hunger Artist.” The following year he wrote “The Burrow,” his last major story. In the spring of 1924, he fell ill again and relocated back to Prague, before being sent to a sanatorium in Lower Austria, where he died a few months later of laryngeal tuberculosis.
Kafka was buried in the “New Jewish” section of a massive, mile-long cemetery in Prague’s Vinohrady neighborhood. It is located across the street from my apartment — I can see its walls from my kitchen, the decorative headstones peeking over it, and I often pass the Kafka family plot on evening walks through its grounds. In researching this article, I extended my perambulations to the old town area, visiting many of the sites that inspired so much of the imagery in the novels and stories.
I’ve been living in Prague long enough now that I am unable to lose myself in its streets. Alas, I know the maze too well. But this too was something Kafka anticipated. “The Burrow,” which is narrated from the perspective of a weasel-like creature that has come to know the full extent of the warren in which it has enclosed itself, contains a response to the call first issued in “An Imperial Message”:
Yes, the mere thought of the door itself, the end of the domestic protection, brings such feelings with it, yet it is the labyrinth leading up to it that torments me most of all. Sometimes I dream, that I have reconstructed it, transformed it completely […] and now it is impregnable; the nights in which such dreams come to me are the sweetest I know, the tears of joy and deliverance still glisten on my beard when I awaken.
This is the dark secret that lurks at the heart of Kafka’s work: even if we come to learn the path through the labyrinth, we may soon wish to unlearn it, because knowing and not knowing torment us equally, and relief from one only comes when dreaming about the other.
I would like to thank Garth Houlbrooke Powell for the photographs included with this essay. https://houlbrookepowell.com
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada and currently lives in Prague. His work has appeared in Quillette, 3:AM, The Smart Set, Areo, and The Millions. He is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness (2019) and the novel Venus&Document(forthcoming).