To Gustav Janouch (first letter)


Dear Gustav,
I know of you through Conversations With Kafka. How many others have told you this over the course of your life? I imagine thousands. The book continues to fascinate me as a representation of collected memories and an attempt to bear witness. There are moments when I suspect you’ve been a star-struck kid romanticizing an unwitting prophet, and then, suddenly, I’m there with you, listening to Kafka speak from behind his office desk or as we stroll down a Prague backstreet.  Memory is in flux throughout the text. Your writing (perhaps all writing?) promises to hold experience still, to lift it out of time, but this promise is broken with each new engagement. Whenever I pick up Conversations With Kafka it is a different book and I am a different person (or people?). Kafka comes off as someone else with each return, as do you and your perceptions and remembrances of him — and yet something immutable (true?) continues to be traced or suggested. I keep coming back.
Does it matter that you didn’t read some of Kafka’s posthumously published works before assembling Conversations With Kafka? Does it matter that you first knew him as your father’s acquaintance at work? How could you reconstruct that initial relationship given all that has happened since? Does it matter if your claims about Kafka’s speech and behavior are potentially hagiographic in nature (the work of an enamored disciple)? Do I only recognize what I’ve always already thought of Kafka when I read your book? The subject of Conversations With Kafka is not Kafka or you or your remembrances and potential idealizations of your time with him, nor is it my own fantasies.   It seems to me that your book (and other memoirs too — if they aren’t, in fact, pure fiction) must lead to whatever remains unknowable. We confront the limitations of language in attempting to establish ourselves in relation to one another. Conversations With Kafka makes me consider all of this.
Is language all we have beyond our bodies? Is it of us, a part of our bare lives, regardless of station and circumstance? I’m reminded that we write and represent as we read, and read and represent as we write. I’m reminded that ontologies of language and being are bound up in semantics: What means what? Can we define our terms in relation to the singularity of our lived experiences in time? I’m reminded that we exist in negotiating this bind, in meeting the voids that proliferate. All of it is ritualized in memoir. Memory is revealed to be a living process that perpetually reconstitutes and exceeds both the individual and the text. What happens when/if we forget how to remember? What happens if/when this process becomes automated?
If, as you’ve recalled Kafka asserting, poetry is a condensate, an essence that tends toward prayer, and literature is a relaxation, a means of pleasure which alleviates the unconscious life, a narcotic, how do we situate the memoir, your memoir, in relation to them? Perhaps, regardless of particulars in each instance, memoir is best posited as a liturgy — giving form to wisdom before it is lost: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It’s also likely these categorizations of writing are as misleading and indifferent to the singularity of things as allegory, metaphor, analogy, simile, pictures, words — all perpetually displacing, while never entirely dissuading belief in, the existence of whatever they attempt to represent.
In my favourite section of the book, you recount Kafka’s assessment of a pictorial illustration of Capitalism by George Grosz: The fat man in the top hat sits on the necks of the poor. That is correct. But the fat man is Capitalism, and that is not quite correct. The fat man oppresses the poor man within the conditions of a given system. But he is not the system itself. He is not even its master. On the contrary, the fat man is also in chains, which the picture does not show. The picture is not complete. For that reason it is not good. Capitalism is a system of relationships, which go from inside to out, from outside to in, from above to below, and from below to above. Everything is relative, everything is in chains. Your memoir, in contrast to this image by Grosz, exposes a totality rather than obfuscating it – that of language and representation (commandeered by Capital to a point of merger in my lifetime). The structure of your book activates an impossible task within this system. It’s as if, in wanting to know Kafka, to remember him properly, correctly or accurately, we must first acknowledge that we can’t.
In doing so the promise of meaning in memory is sustained.   Maybe this is how truth (the immutable?) happens.