- Die drei Mäntel des Anton K./The Three Overcoats of Anton K by Ernst Krenek
Not even seasoned readers and listeners are necessarily familiar with a novella Ernst Krenek wrote in German and later translated into English with the help of Brecht scholar Eric Bentley and literary agent Barthold Fles. Among other helpful features, this edition of Die drei Mäntel des Anton K./The Three Overcoats of Anton K., presented by the Ernst Krenek Institut, shows pictures of hotel stationery from cities all over Europe (80); Krenek used the reverse sides to compose the novella during his forced wanderings, his way of articulating the ordeal of confronting bureaucratic hurdles as an Austrian citizen holding an invalid passport after the Anschluss and so unable to produce legitimating documents. Krenek published the English version in a small literary journal in 1955, and the German version first appeared in the volume of Krenek's Prosa. Dramen. Verse of 1965, so it is no wonder that this admittedly peripheral—though noteworthy—achievement remains relatively unheralded.
The inherent quality of The Three Overcoats merits closer attention as a literary work on its own. The critical apparatus is in both languages as well, a sign that wide distribution is anticipated; Krenek is known throughout the world, after all. Matthias Henke edited the volume with great conscientiousness and precision, and he has prepared an informative foreword, editorial remarks establishing the text, reproductions of pages from Krenek's invalidated passport, and a map tracing Krenek's peregrinations through Europe from March through August 1938.
The Three Overcoats is unmistakably modeled on Kafka, who is referred to directly in Krenek's text (63), but to stop there is to do this many-layered story a disservice. The endless loop of bureaucratic frustration, the condescending dismissals, fake-sincere officials using mere legalities, the facelessness, the raising and dashing of false hopes: readers are well acquainted with these aspects of Kafka's art. But the differences are notable, and they exhibit Krenek's deft requisition of other sources. The plot is more sequential than is typical for Kafka; The Three Overcoats depends on a definite succession of events. The range of tones is also markedly more varied than in Kafka. Biting parody combines with the title to suggest another great narrative of inhuman [End Page 150] bureaucracy, Nikolai Gogol's The Overcoat. Also, Anton K.'s despairing diagnosis of humankind after visiting the woman (49–50 German; 119–20 English) reads like a close paraphrase of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. Moreover, it is as if Krenek were anticipating the piquant irony of a later author like Albert Drach, who brilliantly intensified legalese and bureaucratese to almost surrealistic improbability. Readers of Drach's Das große Protokoll gegen Zwetschkenbaum will find Krenek equally skilled at this fusion of the everyday and the outrageous.
Aside from these characteristics of style, there is challenging ambiguity in the ending, the place at which Anton K.'s chosen fate departs most strongly from that of Krenek himself. K. chooses to remain where he is and destroys documents that would give him freedom of movement. He seems content, and perhaps he is indeed acting with wisdom and insight. But has he simply given up and embraced passivity like the Grand Inquisitor's dull human breed? The ambiguity raises K.'s plight to an active problem for the reader, who is left to ponder what the ending might mean. Nirvana, death wish, Stockholm Syndrome?
Because Krenek did not translate The Three Overcoats entirely on his own, it is not possible to make a definite judgment about that aspect of his achievement. He was already well versed in English at the time, but not so much that he didn't require help; he did become even more adept later. He wrote extensively in English; not many are aware, for instance, that his monumental autobiography, Im Atem...