PD Smith

Kafka’s mouse

23 June 2007 | Bentham, Dawkins, Einstein, Kafka, Kafka's mouse, Science & literature, UCL, Writing & Poetry | 7 comments

Just in case any of you are wondering why I called this site 'Kafka's mouse' (and I know some of you are), you might like to read this piece I've just written for the Independent. They asked me to write about my 'Book of a Lifetime' and I decided to bend the rules slightly and to do one on a short story. Here it is:

I first read Kafka’s story “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse- folk” when I was studying German literature. It has haunted me ever since. It was written in March 1924, three months before Kafka died. He had tuberculosis of the larynx, and was unable to speak - a poignant background for a story about a singer. But it was Kafka’s writing, not his tragic life, that made such an impression on me.

Although the title tells us this is a story about mice, the word is never used. You become uncomfortably aware that he is writing about us. Part of Kafka’s genius is to trick the reader into seeing our own world differently. When Josephine sings, her audience is transfixed without knowing why. The narrator cannot pin down what it is about her singing that means so much to them. They listen in utter silence and sometimes it is difficult to tell whether it is the singing or the stillness that surrounds her voice that is so compelling. Paradoxically, those listening feel her voice is nothing special; but there is an elusive quality that moves them: “Something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness that can never be found again, but also something of active daily life, of its small gaieties”.

Tucked away at the back of the collection Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Stories, translated beautifully by Willa and Edwin Muir, the story is a remarkable meditation on the power of art and its place in society. Kafka is the narrator and the artist, criticising Josephine (who has disappeared, presumably in a fit of primadonna pique) while also celebrating art’s ability to see beyond the mundane world. The disturbing strangeness of his other works is absent - at least on the surface. But the wonderful ambiguities that Kafka delights in (or was tormented by) are here, as is his unique sensitivity: he saw shades of psychological subtlety in situations that most would scarcely notice.

As a lecturer at University College London, I started writing a Kafkaesque novel about academic life. To whom else could you turn in a university where the institution’s founder, Jeremy Bentham, is kept mummified in a glass case in the entrance hall? Later, while researching the lives of scientists, I was struck by the parallels between Josephine’s honoured role in her society and the way we idolise scientists such as Einstein, whom Kafka met in Prague. After all, the greatest science - as Richard Dawkins has said - allows us to “hear the galaxies sing”. Whether Josephine represents science or art, to me her singing symbolises what life is about: the quest to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. Such songs are difficult if not impossible to describe in words. But like love, they infuse life with meaning.

7 comments so far:

  1. Kaytie M. Lee | 23 June 2007

    I love hearing about stories that haunt writers. I've got this story in a collection, one of those bookstore editions, and I plan to reread it this afternoon. At the time I was singing in comic opera productions so as I recall it was one of the stories that meant something to me...but that was seven or eight years ago.

  2. PD Smith | 23 June 2007

    it's certainly a story that is worth re-reading. The best ones always are...enjoy!

    Hope your new novel is going well...

  3. Paul Halpern | 24 June 2007

    I very much enjoyed reading your piece. I am struck by the line “Something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness that can never be found again, but also something of active daily life, of its small gaieties” and wonder whether Josephine, as singer (or scientist, as you suggest) represents the regrets adults have as their interests necessarily shink and narrow when they take on the myriad responsibilities of grown life. In that manner, children, with their virtually unlimited hopes and dream, tower above those whose ambitions has narrowed over time, turning them into industrious, but less idealistic "mice." When Josephine sings, then, memories of the lost hopes of childhood return. In that sense, I'm reminded of Mann's "Death in Venice." Thanks for recommending that Kafka story.

  4. Shannon | 24 June 2007

    The way you describe this story, it seems like there could be so many meanings infused in it that even Kafka wasn't aware of. Or maybe he was. Sometimes I think an artist's subconscious is sneaking in it's own points while the artist isn't looking. Your piece makes me wonder if he wasn't also saying that even if someone doesn't understand fully what they are listening to (reading, etc) they can still be moved on an emotional level. Also, "the singing or the stillness" invokes the notion of opposites. You can't appreciate light without darkness, that sort of thing.
    In any case, thanks for sharing. It is always interesting to understand how we humans inspire each other.

  5. PD Smith | 25 June 2007

    Hi Paul - yes, that's a poignant thought, and I think it is certainly there in the narrator's words. Her songs remind them of an age of innocence...but I think her songs mean different things for different listeners; that's part of their beauty, at least for me... "Death in Venice" - there's another haunting story... Thanks for reminding me of it!

    Hi Shannon - yes, that's a wonderful idea and I'm sure it's true: that there are more meanings in a story than even the author was aware of. And I agree too about the paradoxical (dialectical?) nature of Kafka's writing. That's one of the things that makes his work so eloquent, so evocative...It's like a tune you can't get out of your head; just keeps on playing...

    Good to hear from you both! - P.

  6. Paul Halpern | 25 June 2007

    As a further note, your "Kafkaesque novel about academic life" sounds intriguing. The only novel about academia I've read is Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man" which is very cutting and funny.

  7. PD Smith | 26 June 2007

    Not published, unfortunately... "Lucky Jim" is another favourite on the ivory towers. Well worth a read...

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