Faithfully Seeking Franz is a quirky quest for Prague-born, German-speaking, dead mentor, Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The search for the man and the writer is both a personal journey and a venture of two in the field—the team of E. and M.—that moves through essay and memoir, travelogue, reflections, poems and photographic documentation. The aim: to tap a window on Kafka’s process of anxiety and creativity, to echo these, and connect.
Kafka entered my life with a force. As an angsty teen journeying into the world by way of world literature, he got into my head and under my skin with The Metamorphosis, the transformational, descending story of Gregor Samsa—dependable son, brother, employee and family champion who wakes up one morning in the ugly body of a giant bug. What struck me was the flawless fit of an incredible premise and an entirely believable telling. A protagonist troubled and troubling, yet eminently compelling. A story clearly fantastical, yet soberly told and seamlessly real. It would be accurate to say that I fell hard for a fictional anti-hero and his creator.
He’s never really left me.
I pursued Kafka in his fiction—in translations of his stories and fragmentary novels, Amerika (a.k.a. The Man Who Disappeared), The Trial, The Castle; in his biography, diaries and correspondence. His themes of guilt, shame, alienation, absurdity and strangeness never very far from immediate experience. His contradictory longings resonant also. When life permitted, I began tracking him in the field—seeking traces and contact where he lived, dreamt, worked, wrote, vacationed, convalesced, and passed; M. my valiant and hard-nosed helpmate.
I’ve been faithfully seeking Franz for years—long before I saw the search as a book—writing myself right through the centre of my life. The field part of the itinerary, begun over a decade ago, comprises pieces on ventures in some thirty Kafka places: in Kafka’s hometown of Prague and locations throughout Europe. The book is now in print, but the quest is not exhausted. I’m still rereading and dreaming, still pinning flags on the map, still seeking in the field; guided in the arc by vestiges and coincidence, signs and strange surprises, by what might be just around the bend, off-road, under a bridge, across a meadow or down a hall. There’s the affirming thrill of a felt connection. There’s disappointment, too, but letdowns and glitches can intimate the company of Kafka as well.
The term Kafkaesque was coined to name the kinds of bizarre, darkly humorous, dehumanizing, and / or vexatious situations that are depicted in Kafka’s writing. It’s a useful term, and when a situation summons its use, we feel the Kafka connection.
Last month, on our first post-FSF trek, M. and I drove north from Prague through the central Bohemian village of Želízy (known to Kafka by its German name, Schelesen) to the town of Rumburk (Rumburg in German) in the northern Czech Republic. Our destination—what remains of the former Frankenstein Sanatorium, a spa-treatment centre built at the turn of the last century where Kafka stayed for ten days in 1915. Our trip to Rumburk in search of possible K. traces turned out to be singularly disappointing, and yet by dint of consolation or reclamation, it delivered a poem for the road:
The Poem Begins in Želízy
with the pressing of a purple
pea vine flower that has no scent.
He might have touched its mesic
soil with his long thin writer’s fingers.
(One tends to believe what one’s read.)
I pluck the purple chicory too and press it,
to remember. Here atop a bright fall day
my word for purple is aegis.
I’m snapping photos here and there—
to document the route, what plenitude!
The railway station, Rumburk, is the place
he would have disembarked, taken a carriage
to Frankenstein Sanatorium. 1915, a ten-day stay,
both as patient and rep—of The Workers’
Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia /
Arbeitsunfallversicherungsanstalt des Königreichs Böhmen
(Would you like to try that in German?)
His mission: to relax while scouting a suitable campus
for soldiers with war-nerve disorders.
The art nouveau design of the buildings and “hilly—
not mountainous country,” the woods—
were “right for [his] state of mind.” Frankenstein
was the fit. He knew the tightness that squeezes the ‘i’ out of fish,
the feeling of no good home for the crow.
In 1917 the place became the People’s Krankenhaus
for neurasthenic disorders. In WW2, the campus served
the Nazi occupiers. Since the 1960s, it has housed
the rehab department of the Rumburk Municipal Clinic.
“No snapshot,” he wrote to his fiancée, “is privation.”
I feel the same;
I’ve arrived with my Canon to snap what’s standing
from every outside angle. The ivy on the walls, the gables
and frames, the threadbare veil ...
I wonder what kind of firm would want to call itself transparent …
I ask to use the WC, which gets me into the building, onto
the hall he would have walked.
The high white scentless ceilings, twenty feet up, or so they seem.
The sun on the woods—the oaks and lindens,
giant beech and birch; long thin shining fingers
stroking the greens.
The smiling Czech attendant who unlocks the door
to the WC hands me a roll of purplish toilet paper.
As luck would have it, or maybe fate, the flashcard
in the Canon, is defective. All my photos—
the route from Prague, the Rumburk railway station,
the tired rehab buildings and grounds—are lost.
All except for the shot of the hall outside the WC—
I captured on my cellphone:
one against privation. A figure for things that pass and last,
an image of what is saved.
About the author
Elana Wolff is the author of seven collections of poetry and a collection of essays on poems. She also has co-authored, with the late Malca Litovitz, a collection of rengas and co-translated, with Menachem Wolff, poems from the Hebrew by Georg Mordechai Langer. Elana’s poems and creative nonfiction pieces have appeared in Canada and internationally and have garnered awards. She has taught English for Academic Purposes at York University in Toronto and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and currently lives and works in Thornhill, Ontario. Elana’s collection, Swoon (Guernica Editions, 2020), received the 2020 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Poetry. Faithfully Seeking Franz (Guernica Editions, fall 2023) is her latest work.