Sunday, October 11, 2020

Amerika: Strangers in a Strange Land

Watch as artistic cyclist Viola Brand does all sorts of seemingly impossible bike tricks that look like ballet, all while dodging a massive chandelier inside an ornate European castle.

See also bicycle acrobat Lilly Yokoi performing some similar tricks back in 1965.

Most writers take years to become themselves, to transform their preoccupations and inherited mannerisms into a personal style. For Franz Kafka, who was an exception to so many rules of life and literature, it took a single night. On Sunday, Sept. 22, 1912, the day after Yom Kippur, the 29-year-old Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote “The Judgment,” his first masterpiece, in one all-night session. “Only in this way can writing be done,” he exulted, “only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.” 

Everyone who reads Kafka reads “The Judgment” and the companion story he wrote less than two months later, “The Metamorphosis.” In those stories, we already find the qualities the world would come to know as “Kafkaesque”: the nonchalant intrusion of the bizarre and horrible into everyday life, the subjection of ordinary people to an inscrutable fate. But readers have never been quite as sure what to make of the third major work Kafka began writing in the fall of 1912 ­— the novel he referred to as “Der Verschollene,” “The Missing Person,” which was published in 1927, three years after his death, by his friend and executor Max Brod, under the title “Amerika.”

Amerika, Amerika

Now streaming on Netflix, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, a documentary about the 94-year-old broadcaster, naturalist, and international treasure.

It’s always tricky when an author’s name becomes an adjective. Orwellian, Machiavellian, Faulknerian -- these designations make it hard to see a writer on his or her own terms. This is perhaps most true of Franz Kafka, whose sobriquet, Kafkaesque, has become a catchall for the weird and inexplicable.

Yet 84 years after his death of tuberculosis at age 40, Kafka continues to defy such simplifications, to force us to consider him anew. That’s the effect of Mark Harman’s new translation of his first novel, “Amerika,” restored to its original title, “The Missing Person.”

Strangers in a Strange Land

WELL, THIS IS THE 21ST CENTURY, YOU KNOW:  Ducati announces the entry into production of the world’s first motorcycle equipped with front and rear radar technology.

Why Europeans no longer dream of America

It was once seen as a place of reinvention — but our attitudes to the US are shifting from envy to compassion

In Franz Kafka’s first novel, Amerika (1927), a teenage boy from central Europe is sent to the US in disgrace, having “seduced” the family maid. (It later emerges that she — a giant, terrifying, Kafkaesque ogre — did the seducing.) In New York harbour, the boy is welcomed by a wealthy stranger: his uncle, who turns out to be a US senator. The ship’s captain offers congratulations: “A shining career awaits you now.”

Kafka was poking fun at the European dream of America, which had infected his own family. His cousin Otto, who had emigrated to the US speaking no English, ended up founding the brilliantly named Kafka Export Company. Like countless Europeans, I also grew up dreaming of America. The slow death of that dream has altered the European imagination.

When I was 10, in 1980, my father, an academic, took a sabbatical at Stanford, so we moved to Palo Alto, California, for a year. Palo Alto in those pre-tech-billionaire days was a delightful university town where an academic salary got us a big clapboard house on a tree-lined avenue. 

One sunny morning soon after we arrived, we watched an old house being moved on a flatbed truck to a better location. This, I thought, was America: if anything in your life was imperfect, you fixed it. 

Even many anti-Americans wanted a part of this. The writer PJ O’Rourke recounts being held up at gunpoint in Lebanon in 1984 “by this Hezbollah kid . . . at one of those checkpoints, screaming at me about America, Great Satan, etc” When the kid was done screaming, he told O’Rourke his ambition: to study dentistry in Dearborn, Michigan.

In 1993, I returned to the US for a glorious year at university. One night at a party I ran into a Briton with a working-class London accent who had found happiness in Boston, a city where nobody cared to locate him on the class ladder. The US was a place where Europeans could reinvent themselves. I began applying for jobs there but my plans were derailed when the FT made me an offer. I decided to give it a go, thinking the US would still be there later.

In 2004, I married an American. For all her wondrous qualities, I’m sure I was also transferring my love of her country on to her. Every time we visited, her grandfather greeted me with “Welcome to America!” as if he was personally bestowing the country’s bounty upon me. 

At first, my wife and I assumed we’d end up in the US. Occasionally she’d badger me to apply for a green card. Gradually we stopped having that conversation. American life was losing appeal. In 2009, I met a Palestinian in the Gulf, who — flying in the face of history — was sending money to a relative in California bankrupted by the financial crisis. 

Today, average US hourly earnings are about the same as when I moved to Palo Alto. I see American friends spend their lives worrying about paying for their healthcare, their college debts, their children’s university education and their own hoped-for retirements. They remind me of the character in Amerika who works as an errand-boy by day and studies at night. Asked when he sleeps, he replies: “I will sleep when I’m done with my studies. For now I drink black coffee.”

European attitudes to Americans are shifting from envy to compassion. This spring, Irish donors raised millions of dollars for the Native American Choctaw people devastated by coronavirus. The gift was a thank-you: in 1847, the Choctaw had sent money to Irish people devastated by the Potato Famine.

The obvious retort to all this is that the people living in our old Palo Alto house (now valued at $5.4m) are rich beyond my imagining and work for companies that shape my existence. It’s true — though there’s more chance of becoming a billionaire, if that’s your thing, in Scandinavia than in the US. Famously, too, northern European social mobility is now higher. Then there are the catastrophic California wildfires that lit Palo Alto’s skies orange this summer. 

The US today reminds me of Argentina. When I was in Buenos Aires in 2002, interviewing descendants of Italians, Spaniards, Britons and Poles during yet another financial crisis, I thought: their grandparents went to the wrong country. They should have emigrated to the US instead. 

An Argentine historian set me right: early last century, those people were making the correct decision. They couldn’t have known that the most valuable thing they would leave behind would be their European birth certificates. By 2002, their grandchildren were queueing for passports at the Spanish and Italian consulates. 

Similarly, the poor Scandinavian farmers who populated the American Midwest made a sensible choice. But their relatives who stayed home have ended up living better. Donald Trump wants fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” and more “from places like Norway”. 

The question is why Norwegians would want to come to America today, except as aid workers. On the contrary, I suspect many Scandinavian-, German- and Irish-Americans are now rootling in the attic for grandpa’s birth certificate.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at

Faux Fitzgerald
. We think of him as frivolous and unfailingly rhapsodic, but that obscures the bracing acidity of his  Satire  

Drone Photos 2020

Lots of good aerial photography in the 2020 Drone Photo Awards in several categories (abstract, urban, people, nature, wildlife). Photos above by Paul Hoelen, Azim Khan Ronnie, and Paul McKenzie.

New Books

The 18th century brought an end to the age of the polymath. Specialization made it both more challenging and more important to seek holistic knowledge  ... Holistic 

Essays & Opinions

Luc Sante on reality TV: “It’s like the stuff I’m interested in, but with all the poetry taken out and all the money put in”  ... Asante