The air show at Brescia, 1909 /
Peter Demetz.
New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002.
xi, 254 p. : ill. (some col.), map.
0374102597 (hc : alk. paper)
More Details
New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002.
0374102597 (hc : alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Peter Demetz, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at Yale University, lives in New Haven, Connecticut
First Chapter
The Air Show at Brescia, 1909
Three Friends, Vacationing
IN LATE AUGUST 1909, three Prague friends in their twenties, and of more or less similar literary and artistic interests, thought of going together on a brief vacation. They wanted to escape from their gray old city and their office routines and stay for a few days at Riva, on the north shore of Lake Garda, the last outpost of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and deep in Italian-language territory. The youngest of them, twenty-one-year-old Otto Brod, a bank trainee, had been there a year earlier and brought back glowing reports about the towering mountains, the sailboats on the glittering lake, the palm trees, and the celebrated people who gathered there. He had even met Heinrich Mann, less bourgeois than his brother Thomas, and together they had mailed a postcard to Prague showing Heinrich before the mast of a boat, with Otto in attendance as a kind of deckhand, and Heinrich had written, "Nothing was more important to an artist than the admiration of the young who had not yet yielded to enthusiasm too often." Otto suggested to his twenty-five-year-oldbrother Max, a lawyer in the service of the Prague Central Post Office and a published writer known beyond his hometown, as well as to his friend the twenty-six-year-old Franz Kafka, who had begun to work for an insurance company, that they all go south together.
The brothers Brod had an easy time looking forward to the trip, for they had shared many vacations as children and teenagers, mostly at Misdroy, on the German shore of the Baltic Sea, the preferred watering spot of well-to-do Prague acculturated Jewish families at the turn of the century. Kafka, of a Jewish family of somewhat lower standing (his father, son of a kosher butcher, owned a reputable textile shop), had once accompanied a rich relative to the North Sea, but had never gone south of the Bohemian border. He felt a little anxious about imposing his presence on the two brothers and did not immediately make up his mind, but then apologized to Max in one of his frequent letters, saying, "If anybody had made such difficulties as I did yesterday, I would have thought twice before deciding whether to take him to Riva or not."
On Saturday, 4 September 1909, Kafka and Brod left Prague Central Station (Otto Brod was to follow immediately), and I assume that they took the fast train to Munich and switched there to the Innsbruck connection. Proceeding from Innsbruck over the Brenner Pass, they went to Bozen in the South Tyrol, in order to catch the train to Verona. TheBaedeker Travel Guide, bible for all Austrian and German tourists, indicated that travelers had to change at the little station of Mori for a local connection to Riva, about twenty-five kilometers distant; and it is easy toimagine that the three young men, short on cash, paid one crown and sixty kreuzers each for a second-class ticket rather than three crowns and twenty kreuzers for first class. They traveled on that little train through a green valley to the lake of Loppio and from there up to a mountain pass, descending again toward the town of Torbole, and enjoyed a magnificent view of Lake Garda before reaching Riva.
At that time, Riva was a lively place of nearly eight thousand inhabitants, mostly busy in the modest tourist industry. (When I visited there recently, many tourist buses, most of them from places in former East Germany, were parking in the most improbable corners.) In 1909 there were about eight hotels and pensions (of fourteen) recommended especially by theBaedeker,the elegant Hotel Lido, Hotel Zur Sonne, and Hotel du Lac, but also a few simpler places like the See Villa or the Zentralhotel near the railway station. It was a tourist must to marvel at the Rocchetta, a steep rock crowned with a decrepit tower built in the distant past by the Venetians, and to admire the picturesque harbor square with arcades and an ancient tower with a clock. The sunny scene neatly impressed itself on Kafka's memory for a long time.
MY TRAVELOGUE, with its fast and slow trains, blue skies, picturesque rocks, and the lake, has been all too particular so far. But with Kafka, matters were, as usual, rather complicated, though not all difficulties were of his own making. The simple question was whether he would be allowed by his office superiorsto take a vacation at all, even a brief one. Kafka had received his law degree on 18 June 1906, then worked for a while in the office of a Prague uncle, and continued on for a year as a court intern. But it was not easy for a young Jewish lawyer to find a suitable job. His family was concerned and turned to the "Madrid uncle," an almost mythic figure. (He was one of the directors of the Spanish railroad system and a man of many contacts.)
A job asAurshilfskraft(temporary assistant) was found at the Assicurazioni Generali of Trieste, a prominent Italian insurance company with a branch office in Prague. He had to work there eight to ten hours every day, was not paid for overtime, and was given the privilege of being permitted to apply for vacation time only after serving two full years. At the start, he felt elated, began to study a little Italian, and hoped the company would send him to Trieste for future training. After a few weeks in the office, located in the heart of the city at Wenceslas Square, his affair with an intelligent young woman of socialist leanings was going awry, and in the spring of 1908, young Kafka returned to his usual and lonely consolations in the night cafés and brothels. By late spring, his situation at the Assicurazioni had become untenable, and he had to mask his efforts to look for a job elsewhere. Fortunately, the father of one of his former schoolmates--an insurance manager of importance named Dr. Otto Píbram, president of the General Accident Insurance Company--made certain that a job was offered to the young lawyer. It was a meager position, though with excellent prospects, and Kafka accepted it immediately, making him the second Jew (notcounting the president) among 250 employees. He was to work there loyally until 1922, when he was furloughed because of his grave illness.
Though he again started as a mereAushilfskraft,Kafka's new job offered remarkable advantages to an employee who seriously wanted to get ahead in the insurance business and do his own writings, sorely neglected for quite a while. It was a job"mit einfacher Frequenz,"that is, office hours from 8:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M., allowing Kafka to return home for an afternoon nap, to walk with his friends through the Prague streets or parks, and to work later on his own prose, if the mood was right (it seldom was). His superiors, especially Dr. Robert Marschner, liked him well enough, and sent the newcomer on factory inspection trips through the industrial regions of northern Bohemia. Quietly recognizing his literary intelligence, Dr. Marschner asked him to write technical analyses that were published regularly in the yearbook of the company; after eight months, his superiors praised his eminent loyalty and diligence, his commitment to his agenda, and his "literary talents."
Yet he was not content; he had not had a vacation for three years (his last he had spent at the Silesian mountain resort of Zuckmantel, where he found himself happily involved with an older woman), and he felt listless and chafed under the strict rules making him ineligible for vacation time. As early as 17 June 1909, he submitted a petition, on company stationery, claiming that he, for some time now, was suffering from a pathologically nervous condition that caused prolonged digestive problems and insomnia. On 18 August, now with the Riva plans in the air, hefollowed up with a certificate by a friendly physician confirming that Dr. Franz Kafka, after three long years without any vacation, "has begun to feel fatigued and nervous and to suffer from frequent headaches." From a purely medical point of view, it was necessary that the patient "take a holiday, even if only for a short while." The company behaved well. Forty-eight hours later, Kafka was notified (so much for the famous old Austrian bureaucracy) that his petition had been granted, and on 20 August he was informed that, by extraordinary permission of the director, he was free to take a requested vacation of eight days.
It does not seem that our three friends were too concerned with how short their vacation was actually to be, considering how long it would take them to get from Prague to Riva and return. They settled at the inexpensive Pension Bellevue, not listed by theBaedekerbut close to the Rocchetta and with a nice view, spent a good deal of time hanging around the veranda, and went on an excursion to Castle Toblino. A rare photograph shows Otto and Franz, with floppy hats against the sun, rigging up a little boat, verysportifand yet curiously serious. Most of the time, I assume, they spent at the Bagni della Madonna under the Ponale Road, hewn into the rocks (it was less expensive than the bathing establishment at the Hotel Lido). Even after many years, Max Brod recalled "the long gray wooden boards in the sun ... , the glistening lizards, the cool quietness of the place," and felt that they were really welcomed here by "the classic simplicity of the south," as the renowned eighteenth-century critic Winckelmann called it.
Between swims they liked to read, enjoying their little Italian, and theSentinella Bresciana,the Italian daily published across the border. The issue of 9 September, to which Kafka later referred, immediately caught their interest. It would have been impossible, anyway, to ignore the headline splashed over page one:La Prima Giornata del Circuito Aereo(The First Day of the Air Show). As restless on vacation as he was at home, if not more so, Kafka immediately suggested to his friends that they all go to Brescia, Brod recalled, and since they had never seen any airplane in flight (though Brod had written an article on the famous French pilot Louis Blériot for a Berlin paper), they decided to go before it was too late. On the morning of 10 September they went by lake steamer to Desenzano, a trip of nearly five hours, making stops at Limone, Campione, Gargnano, Maderno, Gardone, Salò (which would be Mussolini's last stand), and Catullus's Sirmione. At Desenzano, they took the local train to Brescia Main Station, with its theatrical turrets and false crenellations. (They did not know that in the Austro-Italian war of 1859, Josef Rilke, father of their Prague fellow poet Rainer Maria Rilke, had been the commander of Brescia Castle.)
The three friends were having a good time together, kidding, laughing, walking, rowing, and swimming, but they did not show much interest in literary matters--seemingly. At the bathing establishment, they almost inevitably met and talked to the Tyrolean poet and nature apostle Carl Dallago, who quoted Nietzsche and Walt Whitman and, possibly, made a nuisance of himself. Max Brod testily remarked that Dallago "lived" (hauste) on the wooden planks of the Bagni, but his commitmentto an alternative way of life and to vegetarian nourishment was tremendously interesting to Kafka, who later came to read Dallago's contributions to the famous Innsbruck periodicalDer Brenner, which was also committed to the poetry of Georg Trakl.
Max Brod had other plans; he had always been intensely involved in the literary affairs of his friends, especially if they did not publish as much as he did; he interfered, cajoled, and wrote endless letters of recommendation. He had good contacts among German publishers, and felt frustrated when it was impossible for him to put these contacts at the disposal of his friends; it is more than probable that Brod opened Franz Werfel's way to glory, and he certainly eased Kafka's way into print. By 1909 Brod was well known in Prague and Berlin as an enterprising young writer of considerable aesthetic finesse and an addict of Schopenhauer. Already he had written a collection of novellas and a volume of poetry (published in 1907), and his 1908 novel,Schloss Nornepygge(Castle Nornepygge), had created a remarkable stir among the Berlin expressionists. The following year his novellaEin tschechisches Dienstmädchen(A Czech Servant Girl) challenged both Prague Zionists as well as Czech patriots, who argued in unison that the ancient Prague conflicts of nationalities could not be solved as easily as the novelist thought. Kafka, in some contrast to his friend Max Brod, had composed, before going to Riva, only a curious medley of a few meditative texts, a partly disheveled review of Franz Blei's rococo keepsake for society ladies, not exactly Kafka's cup of tea, two fragments of an early prose piece, and an important legal article on the insuranceresponsibilities of construction companies (published in 1908). Brod believed that Kafka was right in wanting to go to the air show. A new experience might break his writer's block, and he suggested that they might enter into a friendly competition: they would both write articles about the fashionable show of the new flying machines, and Brod would take care to see that Kafka's text would be published by a Prague newspaper.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER they arrived at Brescia, our friends were surrounded by a noisy crowd and found a rickety carriage that could hardly move on its wheels but whose coachman was in a good mood and rushed them, through nearly empty streets, to the Komitepalast (actually, the Palazzo Bettoni, via Umberto I), where they were given the address of an inn that, at first sight, was the "dirtiest" they had ever seen. Kafka hated dirt viscerally, but he noted that the gesticulating innkeeper, "proud in himself, humble to us," constantly moved his elbows, "every finger a compliment." He ultimately resigned himself to ambivalent feelings of rage, dismay, and irony: "Who, one could ask, would have had the courage not to feel sorry in his heart for such dirt?" In a lighter moment, which Kafka remembered six years later in his diaries, on 4 November 1915, he walked on the Brescia cobblestones distributing a fewsoldito the street kids (still in daylight), but as soon as the friends hired another horsecab, they ran into trouble and the evening was nearly ruined. Kafka did not say where he and his friends wanted to go, but to judge from their habits, it possibly was acafé chantant,if not amore disreputable place. The driver asked for three lire, the friends offered two, but the driver did not want to go, dramatically describing the terrible distance he would have to cover. The friends agreed to pay three lire, and after one or two turns, they arrived. Otto promptly refused to pay three lire for a one-minute trip, argued loudly with the driver, and wanted to call the police unless he was shown "the tariff." The driver produced a smudged piece of paper with illegible numbers. The tourists had been had; Otto, still screaming, made an offer of one and a half lire (accepted), the driver galloped with his cab off into the next narrow street, where, however, he could not turn around, and Kafka realized the coachman was not only enraged but melancholy as well. The friends had not behaved appropriately, and Kafka remarked ruefully, "You cannot behave like this in Italy. Perhaps somewhere it may have been right, but not in Italy." Yet again, he added cheerfully, you cannot become an Italian so quickly, within the short week of an air show.
Our friends spent a dreadful night at the dirty inn--"the robbers' cave," as they called it--and Max discovered, or later was thought to have discovered, a circular hole in the floor through which one could see the bar downstairs. Being an opera fan, he imagined that the evil Sparafucile, the killer fromRigoletto,might enter momentarily. But in the early-morning sun, the "bad hours of the night" were forgotten quickly, and the friends took the new tram, constructed for the occasion to transport people from Brescia to the plains of Montichiari, where the aerodrome, as it was called then, had been constructed. The traffic and the dust were frightful. Tram cars, bicycles,huge automobiles, horse-cabs, and donkey carts all moved on the narrow road (which continued on to Mantua). Despite the tram cars' being overcrowded, they casually stopped to take on even more passengers. At Montichiari, the masses streamed to an open field, guarded by decorative cavalry and border guards, and found the hangars, a platform, and other facilities including a post office.
The crowds did not see much flying in the morning. The winds blowing over thebrughierawere too strong, and even when the committee functionaries substituted the white flag, suggesting the possibility of flights, for the green (which meant no flying), they did not assuage the anger of the public, which began to whistle in protest and tried to storm the restaurant. Many of the famous pilots did not go into action because their flying machines did not easily start. It was not a happy day for the Italians. Lieutenant Mario Calderara, darling of the patriots, could not crank up because his machine was out of commission temporarily, and so the French and Americans dominated. In the late afternoon, Blériot circled the airfield, ascending and descending again almost playfully buthors concours.The dour American Glenn Curtiss performed well, flying one and a half kilometers at an altitude of forty-five meters.
Kafka, trained as an insurance writer, had a sharp eye for technical detail, while his friend Max did not show himself too impressed by the feats of the flying machines and was more interested in the organizational and financial aspects of the meeting. Both Kafka and Brod basically wanted to write salable articles for immediate publication, and devoted a good deal ofattention to the social elite attending the events and the illustrious Italian artists in the audience or, rather, seen near the hangars and in the restaurant. As self-appointed reporters, they must, considering their changing takes and their almost incredible close-ups, have been moving quite a bit from one part of the aerodrome to the other. Our Prague visitors both remarked on the elaborate hats hiding the faces of the ladies and the curious shape of their low-slung bodices, which made it imperative that they constantly walk rather than sit. They must be embracedtiefer, from below, Kafka wrote.
Brod and Kafka also both noticed the presence of Giacomo Puccini, admired much more by Brod than by Kafka, who did not care about opera and simply said that Puccini had the nose of an alcoholic. Gabriele d'Annunzio, king of the air show--behaving like a true showman, giving interviews to the press, reciting a poem about Icarus--presented a fragile figure in his white suit, always moving to strike a photogenic pose with a famous pilot or a principessa. He was certainly a man to be watched, and for many reasons.
"Early evening on the Italian fields" descended quickly, as Kafka noted, but the pilots went on for a while. Glenn Curtiss, tired and grave, was applauded, and Henri Rougier, another crowd-pleaser, ascended quickly in his "heavy plane," outdoing Blériot--although by now it was nearly seven o'clock, after which the flight results would not be registered officially. The waiting cabs, carriages, and trams did not budge, for everybody admired Rougier and waited for more. Our friends, who had a long way to go, fortunately found a rattling jalopy (without adriver's seat), and the jolly coachman took them to the Brescia station, where (after the experience of the preceding night) they took the train back to Desenzano, hoping it would be easier to find lodgings there. They did not fare better than in Brescia, and possibly worse; there were hundreds of pictures of saints in their room, Max remembered hyperbolically, and from under these pictures bedbugs appeared and attacked en masse. Although the Prague tourists may have had a high level of tolerance, considering Bohemian hotels and inns, they quickly moved out of their room and spent the night on a park bench on the Desenzano quay, awaiting the morning steamer, which safely returned them to Riva.
In their enthusiasm, the friends may have overlooked the repeated newspaper appeals of the air show's organizing committee to the citizens of Brescia to make apartments and rooms available to visitors and tourists. The committee urged the Brescians to live up to the town's grand reputation as a most hospitable place and, with the usual rhetorical flourishes, called on them to remember that it was a matter of Italian patriotism to help the committee as much as possible. Our friends, who were not concerned with international politics, may have underrated the Italian temper of the moment: Bosnia and Herzegovina had been annexed by the Habsburg monarchy the year before, and Italy (though formally allied with Germany and Austria) was making efforts to renew contacts with Britain and France and to come to an understanding with Russia in order to "consolidate" the situation in the Balkans--that is, to block further Austrian expansion there. Italian nationalism was flourishing,and theirredenta,belligerently deploring Austria's continuing power over the Alto Adige, Trieste, and Istria, was alive and well. Max Brod noted that people in Riva occasionally talked about tensions and about subterranean arsenals established in the mountains, but, he added blithely, nobody believed these things--war was an "irreal concept." True: Brescia was overrun by visitors to the air show and it was difficult to get rooms, but I cannot entirely free myself of the suspicion that our three innocents abroad overlooked the anti-Austrian mood of the people, especially in the border regions. Landlords were not particularly eager to servetre Aurtriaciwho (by the way) had little money in their pockets.
There is not much evidence of how the friends spent the rest of their meager vacation time. When they got back to Riva, it was nearly noon, Sunday, 12 September, and they were expected in Prague on the fifteenth. They probably lounged around the Madonna baths, Franz and Max scribbling away at their articles, concealing their ideas from each other, as Max remembered half joking, and asking Otto questions about details. Punctually, on 15 September, they were in Prague again to start working in their offices, and it is unknown how much they accomplished that day. That evening, Max Brod visited the editorial offices of theBohemia, a daily of liberal and national orientation, and talked to Paul Wiegler, an eminent man of letters, and his assistant, Willy Handle, peddling Kafka's article. It appeared, with cuts made by Wiegler, on 29 September--possibly one of the first reports in German about the achievements of the new flying machines. Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that Wiegler'sown review article on d'Annunzio as "Pindar of the Airfield" ("Der Pindar des Flugfeldes,"Neue Rundschau21 [1910]: 1620-23), a shrewd assessment of his ambivalent character, owes a good deal to Kafka.
It is easy to forget that Kafka, at least before his last illness, traveled a good deal, with friends or alone--to Paris, Milan, and Zurich, not to speak of Vienna, Weimar, Budapest, and Berlin--and yet he rarely returned to spots he visited as a tourist. The notable exception was Riva, which he remembered in his life and in his art as a place of sunlight and sweet melancholy, free of anxieties. In the hapless sequence of later events that were to result in his two engagements to Felice Bauer (and their dissolution), Riva was, at the moment of crisis and desperation, a refuge from Felice and the place of an unforeseen and marvelous ten days' happiness with a very young Swiss woman. Kafka had met Felice, a successful Berlin business manager, at the Brods' in Prague, and began writing to her a month later (writing was loving). In a convoluted letter on 16 June 1913, he asked her whether she would be willing to entertain the question of marrying him--immediately trying to persuade her to reject his proposal by describing himself in the most unforgiving terms as "an ill, weak, unsocial, morose man, stiff and a nearly hopeless human being" (with a rather modest income of 4,588 crowns). As Elias Canetti has shown in his impassioned analysis of his letters, Kafka rhetorically turned against himself to avoid an engagement. In May and June 1913, he had at least twice invited Felice in his labored way to join him on a trip to Lake Garda, and now he was to go there all alone, without apologies.
Kafka's futile attempt to escape the Felice entanglements once more was well camouflaged as an inevitable trip to Vienna, where he was due to attend the Second International Conference for Rescue Services and Accident Prevention (9-13 September) in the company of his senior supervisors, Eugen Pfohl and Robert Marschner, whose speeches he had written; he also wanted to be present at one of the meetings of the Eleventh Zionist Congress (2-9 September); and then he planned a more private later excursion to Venice and Riva, where he wanted to spend a few peaceful days. Originally he had thought of going with Otto Pick, a Prague fellow writer and gifted translator of Czech, but the journey together from Prague to Vienna revealed that they were not ideal travel companions (Kafka thought that Pick tyrannized him, and vice versa), and while he spent some time with Pick in Vienna, he eventually left by himself for the Italian provinces.
On Sunday, 7 September 1913, the Prague visitors to Vienna took it easy. In the morning, Kafka and Pick collected their admission tickets to the Zionist Congress at the Residenzcafé, where they were joined by Lise Weltsch, organizer of the Prague Zionist Women's Club, and together the three proceeded to the Ottakring district to visit Albert Ehrenstein, an expressionist poet whom Kafka had met earlier in Berlin. Later they all had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, the Thalisia, near the Burgtheater, clearly Kafka's culinary choice. In the early afternoon they went off to the Prater fairgrounds, together with thousands of other Viennese, bourgeois and plebeian, of many languages and ethnic origins. (I have been there recently, and the visitors have not changed much.) The friends stopped at various shooting galleries, bought tickets for a ride on a "Day in the Jungle" merry-go-round, and a famous photograph was made showing all four of them in a mock papier-mâché aeroplane against a painted backdrop displaying the Riesenrad (which appears in a famous scene in the 1949 filmThe Third Man) and two church steeples suggesting the city "below." There they are, the gentlemen all in spiffy attire and the young woman with a fashionable hat and elaboratefichu.(From left to right: Kafka; the poet Ehrenstein who wrote a few aviation poems among others, and died in his New York exile in 1950; Otto Pick, who was to die in London in 1940; and Lise Weltsch, who later married the Zionist writer Siegfried Katznelson and went with him to Israel.) I like to believe that it was Kafka who, remembering Brescia, suggested to his friends to climb into, or rather stand up in, the contraption to have the photograph made--which may explain his rare smile, the rather sullen faces of the other men (why should we have to do this, anyway?), and the quiet patience of Lise, who sometimes tended to irritate Kafka, but only mildly so.
The next day, Monday, 8 September, Kafka and Lise attended a session of the Zionist Congress (though she was not among the officially listed delegates), but it would be difficult to say that they did so with serious zeal or enthusiasm, at least from Kafka's point of view. He certainly did not listen carefully to the technical and financial discussion about funding new farms and settlements, and he noted in his diary that at the congress people "with small and round heads, and with firm cheeks, prevailed ... . There were speeches in German without results, much Hebrew. The main work is done in small meetings. Lise let herself be dragged by all of it, without paying much attention [ohne dabei zu sein], throws little paper balls into the auditorium, cheerless [trostlos]." Kafka's "trostlos," disconsolate, placed at the end of a complicated sentence, may refer to Lise's attitude or to the entire scene.
I believe that Kafka wanted to leave Vienna as quickly as possible;he sat on the stone balustrade in front of the Parliament building (where the insurance conference was held), sadly walked through the streets, pondered the impossibility of any togetherness with Felice, and on 14 September took the fast train south to Trieste and went from there by boat to Venice, where he had to recuperate from a grotesque bout of seasickness. After he had written another despairing letter to Felice, he finally moved on to Verona and Lake Garda.
On 21 September, Kafka was in Desenzano again, ready to transfer, as he had done with his friends four years earlier, from the train to the lake steamer. He was sitting in the grass, watching the waves in the reeds, Sirmione to the right, Manerba to the left, and thought he was really happy because nobody knew exactly where he was. "In all the corners of my being, I am empty and without any meaning," he scribbled on a piece of paper that he transcribed for Felice only many months later, and told himself that he felt like a big stone inside, his soul being just a dim light. The day before, he had wept in a Verona cinema; that only showed that he was capable of enjoying human relationships vicariously but not of living them through. Yet change was imminent. As soon as he checked into Dr. Hartung von Hartungen's sanitarium in Riva, the stone came to surprising life again. There was a flirtatious Russian lady across the corridor and an attractive young Swiss girl (actually, from Genoa) in the room above his own. Kafka wanted to write a few fairy tales for the girl to read between meals; he noted that she blushed easily, especially when the chief physician was close by, and he sympathized with her irritation and pain when she had tospeak about her own life. He asked himself, quite frankly, how many pleasures he was forfeiting by favoring the young Swiss, "almost a child," over the Russian lady, who might have invited him to her room for the night. Kafka and W (or G.W.; he never revealed her name to anybody, as he had promised her) invented their own games; he knocked on the ceiling or listened to her coughing or her singing before she fell asleep. Sometimes she answered with her own knocking from above, in a rather innocent Morse code, for they had not agreed on any. He leaned out of the window to greet her when she did the same, or sat on the windowsill, eager to catch a fluttering ribbon that she let fly from above. All this happened without many words or labored letters--pure bliss, "the sweetness of melancholy and love." They went rowing on the lake. W smiled at him in the boat--"That was the most beautiful thing"--and he felt like a romantic poet of old on a voyage to Italy when love was "only the desire to die and yet to hold on."
Unhappy Felice! She knew that something was going on but did not know what, and sent her friend Grete Bloch to Prague to discuss matters with Franz, who promptly fell in love with Grete, too. The affair with Felice dragged on for more than three years (the correspondence with Grete Bloch continuing as well), rich in misery and rare in consolations--until Felice visited Franz after his tubercular hemorrhage, in a little Czech village where he lived with his sister, after which the exchange of letters ceased, forever.
Kafka does not usually insist on the autobiographical meaning of his stories, but in the many fragments of the storyDerJäger Gracchus,composed in 1916-17, he signals that his texts and his life hung together more closely than abstract criticism wants to permit. It is the story of a man who seeks quiet happiness, serenity, and salvation, and in the figure of Gracchus, the restless hunter, images of Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" and Ahasver, the eternal Jewish wanderer, are curiously combined. A barge that seems to glide above water brings Gracchus, who cannot die and yet cannot live either, to a little port town, and he is carried on a stretcher from the barge, across the town square to the town hall, where the mayor, named Salvatore (the one who can offer salvation), wants to attend to his needs. He listens to the stranger's extraordinary story: Gracchus died hundreds of years ago, but by a strange mistake the barge that was to deliver him to the netherworld inexplicably veered from the course and continues to carry him across the waters of the world. The mayor asks Gracchus whether he wants to stay in his little town, but Gracchus ironically tells him that he does not intend to do so, and yet, he adds, "I am here, more I do not know, more I cannot do."
It would be difficult to ignore that Gracchus plays on Kafka's name (the Latingraculus= the ItalianGracchio= the GermanDohle= the CzechKavka),as the German scholar Wilhelm Emrich long ago noted; that the mayor unhesitantly identifies his town as Riva; and that, as Hartmut Binder has shown, the topographical detail, exceedingly rare in Kafka's prose, fully corresponds to the town of Riva in Kafka's time--steps, a town square, a monument (actually, Prague's Saint Nepomuk, to whom Kafka gives a theatrical sword), an old church tower, awall of rocks (once again the Rocchetta), and the Palazzo Municipio. The story, if that is what it is, reveals something about Kafka's restlessness when he went to Riva for the second time, as if on Charon's barge gone astray. Unable to love Felice and yet incapable of totally freeing himself of her, he sought, on the rebound, a glorious moment of blissful respite. "So you are dead and yet alive?" asks the mayor in the story, and the response can be found in Kafka's diary of the moments after he had met G[ertrud] W[asner]--in his wish to die and yet his desire to hold on to life, as if it were his last moment.
Copyright © 2002 by Peter Demetz
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-09-16:
Demetz, an emeritus professor of German at Yale (Prague in Black and Gold), brings his research skills and background in literature to bear on this anecdotal account of a flying competition that took place in northern Italy during the early days of aviation. Attending the event, among other notables, were Franz Kafka and Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio. Kafka, who traveled to Brescia with several friends, including novelist and editor Max Brod, published a journalistic article about the show. D'Annunzio was infatuated with flying and managed to convince U.S. pilot Glenn Curtiss to take him on a flight that lasted only a few seconds. He later hitched a longer ride in a Wright biplane piloted by Italian aviator Mario Calderara. Composer Giacomo Puccini was also there, having fled his home for Brescia after a sex scandal that involved the suicide of a young servant girl, as Demetz narrates. In addition to an overview of the various flying contests (Curtiss won the grand prize), Demetz provides appealing thumbnail sketches of several competing pilots. Those interested in aviation history as well as a glimpse of the young Kafka will greatly enjoy this serendipitous account. B&w illus. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-10-01:
Beginning with the spur-of-the-moment decision by Franz Kafka and Max Brod to visit the 1909 Brescia air show in northern Italy in order to write articles about the event, Demetz (German and comparative literature, emeritus, Yale; Prague in Black and Gold) presents a lively, if somewhat chaotic, account of this "unique encounter of resourceful engineers, daring pilots, visionaries from the provinces, and eminent artists and writers." Demetz offers thoughtful speculations about the relevance of these early writings of Kafka and Brod to their later works. However, he bases these speculations on selected excerpts only (neither article is reproduced in full). For Demetz, the years 1909-12 were the "high season" for air shows. Along with his valiant attempt to demonstrate a connection with Kafka's and Brod's later writings, Demetz interweaves his chronicle of the Brescia air show itself with both a knowledgeable discussion of the growing popularity of competitions between "the new industrially produced vehicles of modern speed" and interludes of perceptive and affectionate portraits of such participants and onlookers as Glenn Curtiss, Louis Blriot, Mario Calderara, Mario Faccioli, Allesandro Anzani, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Giacomo Puccini, and Arturo Toscanini. Although these portraits are disappointingly slight, Demetz offers a useful conclusion: the results of this "almost Arcadian affair" made it clear that, increasingly, flying was to be "of interest to industrial designers, engineers, and military planners" in the future. Recommended for large public libraries. Robert C. Jones, formerly with Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, August 2002
Publishers Weekly, September 2002
Library Journal, October 2002
Booklist, November 2002
Los Angeles Times, November 2002
New York Times Book Review, November 2002
SciTech Book News, March 2003
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Main Description
An entrancing avant-garde adventure at the dawn of the modern age In 1909, municipal authorities built an airfield in northern Italy and invited leading pilots to compete on it. The show attracted thousands of spectators--among them Giacomo Puccini and Gabriele d'Annunzio--and reporters, including, amazingly, Franz Kafka, Max Brod, and Luigi Barzini. Peter Demetz's sparkling new book tells the enchanting story of what happened in the air and on the ground before, during, and after this amazing moment. Kafka, it turns out, was a very precise observer of both the fragile new machines and the people who flocked to see them in action. Demetz shows us the spectacle as Kafka reported it, and also its unexpectedly melodramatic preparations, amazing dirigibles, and ace pilots--the American Glenn Curtiss, the Italian Mario Calderara, and the reigning king of the skies, Louis Bl riot. But above all Demetz wants to know what flying really meant to these visionaries of the air: many political and imaginative issues were sent aloft at Brescia. With discerning affection, he elucidates Kafka's subtle ambiguities about the consequences of flight, d'Annunzio's lust for power in aviation, Puccini's enthusiasm for speedy escapes, and Curtiss's modest heroism. Illustrated with fascinating material from the show itself, this provocative work reveals a vital point where art and technology met in imagining the future.
Main Description
An entrancing avant-garde adventure at the dawn of the modern age In 1909, municipal authorities built an airfield in northern Italy and invited leading pilots to compete on it. The show attracted thousands of spectators--among them Giacomo Puccini and Gabriele d'Annunzio--and reporters, including, amazingly, Franz Kafka, Max Brod, and Luigi Barzini. Peter Demetz's sparkling new book tells the enchanting story of what happened in the air and on the ground before, during, and after this amazing moment. Kafka, it turns out, was a very precise observer of both the fragile new machines and the people who flocked to see them in action. Demetz shows us the spectacle as Kafka reported it, and also its unexpectedly melodramatic preparations, amazing dirigibles, and ace pilots--the American Glenn Curtiss, the Italian Mario Calderara, and the reigning king of the skies, Louis BlÉriot. But above all Demetz wants to know what flying really meant to these visionaries of the air: many political and imaginative issues were sent aloft at Brescia. With discerning affection, he elucidates Kafka's subtle ambiguities about the consequences of flight, d'Annunzio's lust for power in aviation, Puccini's enthusiasm for speedy escapes, and Curtiss's modest heroism. Illustrated with fascinating material from the show itself, this provocative work reveals a vital point where art and technology met in imagining the future.
Unpaid Annotation
In 1909, municipal authorities built an airfield in northern Italy and invited leading pilots to compete on it. The show attracted thousands of spectators--and reporters, including Franz Kafka, Max Brod, and Luigi Barzini. Demetz's sparkling new book tells the enchanting story of what happened in the air and on the ground before, during, and after this amazing moment. Illustrations.
Table of Contents
Prefacep. vii
Three Friends, Vacationingp. 3
Interludesp. 25
The International Car Races at Bresciap. 25
From Icarus to Brescia: D'Annunzio's History of Aviationp. 30
The Rheims Aviation Weekp. 38
The Organization of the Brescia Circuitop. 43
The Events of the Air Show: A Chroniclep. 63
A New Sensation: Zodiac IIIp. 84
The Grand Finalep. 94
Puccini at the Restaurantp. 100
Kafka and the "Air Dogs"p. 112
Max Brod Changes His Mindp. 126
A Dirge for Otto Brodp. 143
D'Annunzio: Poet and Aviatorp. 149
Aviators at Brescia: Selective Viewsp. 186
Louis Bleriot: The Man Who Always Crashesp. 187
Glenn Curtiss: The Boy from Upstate New Yorkp. 195
Faccioli, da Zara, Anzani, Cobianchi: Aspirations, Largely Unfulfilledp. 204
Guido Moncher: The Amateur from the Provincesp. 210
Mario Calderara: A Hero Nobody Wantedp. 213
Epiloguep. 224
Bibliographical Notesp. 233
Indexp. 243
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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