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  • Franz Kafkas Sprachen: ". . . in einem Stockwerk des inneren babylonischen Turmes . . . "
  • Franz R. Kempf
Franz Kafkas Sprachen: "... in einem Stockwerk des inneren babylonischen Turmes... ", by Marek Nekula. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2003. 397 pp. €98.00.

While trying to find relief from his tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Meran in April 1920, Kafka was invited to share a dinner table with two high-ranking members of the Austrian army. In the course of the conversation, the colonel and the general engaged in a striking and frightening act of linguistic antisemitism. Not only were their fine ears able to trace Kafka's German with uncanny accuracy back to the Kleinseite district of Prague, but they were also able to detect a tone in Kafka's German that, for them, could only be Jewish.

Nekula's exhaustively positivistic linguistic study of Kafka's (and his parents') German and Czech in the present monograph fills a lacuna in Kafka scholarship. Nekula's main source material is the private correspondence of the Kafka family to which he had access at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Some of his findings represent a necessary, albeit not earth-shattering, corrective to something that originated with Politzer and Wagenbach and since then has evolved into a truism of Kafka criticism: Prague (Jewish) German.

Nekula concedes that while there may have been audible in Kafka's German traces of a "Jewish ethnolect," it is problematic to maintain the received notion that Kafka's German was colored by Prague's Jewish German because it is difficult to differentiate between Viennese, Yiddish, and/or "upper-German" influences and idiosyncrasies. What, at the time, many considered to be "Pragisms" were in fact "Austrianisms" which people outside of Austria mistook for "Jewish." And just as Prague Jewish German is a misnomer for Nekula, equally questionable is the "myth" of a distinct and unified Prague German and, by extension, the "myth" of Prague as a secluded German Sprachinsel where German had become more and more ossified, if not atrophied; this, in turn, is commonly given as an explanation for Kafka's unadorned style. Nekula shows that Prague reacts to and participates in developments in the German language, mainly due to the influx of Jews from, for the most part, Bavaria. He thus corroborates that Kafka' s sparse and sober style is, first and foremost, the result of a self-conscious artistic choice. [End Page 159]

Despite the importance of German for the Prague Jews and for Kafka and his family—in 1900, 91% of all Jewish children attended German-speaking schools; German was the language used in and around the synagogue; Kafka's father carried out his epistolary courtship of his wife-to-be in German; the inscriptions on the tomb of the Kafka family are in German—Czech is not neglected. As a matter of fact, Nekula marshals ample evidence to make the point that Kafka was indeed bi-lingual. For eight years, Kafka had formal instruction in Czech at the Gymnasium (in his final year, his grade in Czech was better than in German), including extensive exposure to Czech literature (whose "influences" on Kafka's oeuvre are largely unexplored); Kafka learned Hebrew from a Czech textbook; in 1918, with Czechoslovakia gaining independence, Kafka had no trouble switching to Czech when it became the official (and only) language at his place of business, the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute. Other components of Kafka's "Czechness" are his (alleged) ties with the anarchist klub mladych, as well as his short-lived but close, even intimate friendship with Milena Jesenská (who, during their relationship, translated The Stoker into Czech) or his active interest in Max Brod's renderings into German of Janáček's operas.

Kafka's antidote to any form of linguistic chauvinism was his hope for a Babylonian confusion of languages (alluded to in the title of Nekula's book), which he thought he had encountered while traveling through multilingual Switzerland. German, Yiddish, and Hebrew play, of course, a crucial role in his life, not in terms of his nationality but in terms of his identity as a writer and, concomitantly, as a Jew. Despite Nekula's single-minded scrutiny of Kafka...


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