PD Smith

Book of a Lifetime

Franz Kafka's Josephine the Singer

by PD Smith

The Independent, June 22, 2007

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.