Kafka in Love

“All these parables merely express that the ineffable is ineffable and we knew that already. But the cares we must struggle with everyday, those are a different matter.”
–Franz Kafka

Kafka

Kafka

I don’t remember when I first came upon Kafka. He’s become such a part of my mental architecture that I can hardly imagine a time before I read him. It’s unsettling to me that he was in fact a historical figure, that there are others with the surname Kafka, that he died when my grandmother was 13, that his first love, Felice, was alive until 1960. So then I cannot recall if it was Jennifer Swanson Smith that drove me to Kafka or if it was Kafka that drove me to Jennifer Swanson Smith, or if Jennifer Swanson Smith or Kafka drove me to writing, or if it was the other way around.

Jennifer Swanson Smith was the first person I ran into at my 10-year North Park College reunion this October. She was there alone.

Her husband Dave was taking care of Dave Jr. and Mark at home. She said she had just come from Lane Tech High School where she teaches English, and that she could wear jeans today since it was Friday. She said that she and Dave and the kids had moved into her grandmother’s old house on the South Side of Chicago and her mother wouldn’t let them change anything in the house. She said her brother Karl Swanson-Clifton and his wife Karen Clifton-Swanson would be at the Philosophy alumni dinner I would be attending that evening. She said she remembered how I had once speculated on what names the children of Steven Bouma-Prediger (a philosophy professor) and Bob Taschannen-Moran (a local pastor) would take if they married each other. She said she’d let me borrow her children later so I could bamboozle former classmates into believing that I had offspring. She said there was a cookie and coffee reception coming up at the Scandinavian Studies Center.

But she did not tell me — and I did not dare ask — what I really wanted to know: Was she happy with her marriage? Because, you see, I once proposed to Jennifer Swanson Smith.

*

I actually remember little about Jennifer Swanson Smith, the daughter of Mel and Joanne Swanson. Like all the other Jennifers and Kristens she had blond hair and blue eyes and wore Laura Ashley dresses. She spent a year abroad in Belgium after high school. Her father was head of financial aid at North Park College. Except for that year in Belgium, she had always lived at home, a block away from the college, at 5279 Christiana Avenue. Her father had given her mother a copy of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing” as a birthday gift when they were dating. She was an English major but took some philosophy classes. I remember little because so much of what Jennifer was was what North Park College was, what the Evangelical Covenant Church of America was.

I don’t even remember when Jennifer emerged from the background of North Park College and Theological Seminary. If Jennifer was anything, she was a flag. A Swedish flag. Blue background with a yellow cross. Thin, insubstantial, points in whatever direction the wind is blowing. But beautiful and able to inspire loyalty and passion (albeit a contained and Swedish kind of passion). Maybe she would’ve been the Madonna, the Mary, if only the Swedish Evangelical Church of America had had a Mary. For I believe she surely would have produced a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Messiah if she had only remained a virgin.

*

I was not nervous when I proposed to Jennifer. February 23, 1992, less than a year following our graduation, she was working at the North Park College MBA office. I was working days at Habitat for Humanity, nights as a security guard at the Covenant Village Retirement Community. The day I proposed I was hanging drywall at the Habitat workshop with a college volunteer group. I came to the MBA office where I knew she was working late. I still had on my overalls covered with drywall dust. I asked her if she wanted to go see Wayne’s World that night with Shari Haas and me. She declined because she had work to do. And so I gave her the ring then and there and asked her if she wanted to get married.

She looked more startled than I had expected. Over and over again, she kept saying, “What are you doing?” I told her that I was asking her to marry me. I slipped the ring on to her finger on top of the engagement ring that was already there. I told her that I was going to see Wayne’s World but that I would meet her later at the Bowmanville coffee shop to talk more. I was not nervous when I proposed to Jennifer Swanson because she was already engaged. And I was not nervous because the seriousness of my proposal was open to interpretation.

*

Jennifer Swanson and I had several philosophy and English classes together. It must have been in Existentialism and Pragmatism that I first told her that we should get married and name all of our children after the “unrequited loves of continental existentialists”: Kierkegaard’s Regina, Kafka’s Felice and Milena. I don’t think any of Sartre’s loves went unrequited.

Another time at a philosophy professor’s house we were talking about how well the philosophy professor’s books complemented those of his wife and how that might be a good test for marriage. Jennifer and I compared our own hypothetical joint library (as you can imagine, there was too much redundancy). I did actually like Jennifer, her quiet intelligence, her calm and self-effacing speech. I half-heartedly pursued her, getting to know her friends, going to North Park Covenant Church Sundays with hopes of seeing her. But Jennifer had always been with Dave Smith, who had the dark, rugged good looks of a caveman, and drove around campus sidewalks on his motorcycle. His father owned a company that made machines for measuring the vibrations of other bigger machines at factories. All Dave needed to do to get a job at his father’s company was to graduate college. You need a 2.0 GPA to graduate from North Park. Dave finished with a 2.0 exactly.

*

Jennifer, Matt Klemp and I took a Shakespeare class together my senior year. We came up with the idea to rent videos of the plays and watch them at Jennifer’s. Twice a week Jennifer made popcorn and Matt and I brought beer and we chatted amiably throughout the videos. January 15, 1991, we ended up watching the news coverage of the just-occurring air strikes on Iraq, instead of the usual video. We had already grown tired of the persistent “What would you do if you were drafted?” question that was drifting around campus and so I formulated a slightly different, gender-neutral question: “What would you do if you had 24 hours left to live?” Jennifer and Matt both said they would have sex (they did not specify sex with whom, though I imagined they were thinking of each other). I said that I would do what I did every other day: go to class, go to the Bowmanville coffee shop, hang out, read, drink coffee, and smoke.

The Shakespeare class ended in February. After that I didn’t see Jennifer as much. But I heard that she and Dave broke up in March. In April, Matt Klemp and Jennifer came to my room pleading with me to accompany them to Jennifer’s parents’ summer home in Michigan for the weekend. I ended up ditching my Saturday morning job to go with them. That night on the hide-a-bed in the summerhouse living room (there were plenty of other beds) Matt half-teasingly-forced Jennifer to sleep between me and him. Although it wasn’t a very big bed, I don’t think anyone ever touched anyone else that night.

Jennifer and I graduated in May. I started working for Habitat full-time and lost track of her. January 15, 1992 I learned that she and Dave were engaged to be married.

*

After Wayne’s World, after my proposal, Jennifer came to the Bowmanville coffee shop. I was the first to blink. As soon as Jennifer sat in the booth across from me, I confessed the illegitimacy of my proposal. I had borrowed the ring from my friend, Mike Soderberg, who had recently become unengaged. The only reason I had ever been able to get from Jennifer as to why she was marrying Dave was that she wanted to move out of her parent’s house. I told her that while my proposal was disingenuous, my concern was not. If she indeed felt that she had to get married in order to leave her home, she need not marry Dave; I would marry her.

She looked awhile at her hand, which still had two rings on it. Then she took off my ring and gave it back to me. She did not give me a specific reason. She did say that if she and I were married we would never get anything done, since we were both indecisive, apathetic.

*

In the nights following my failed proposal, during my security guard job, I read Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice by Elias Canetti and wrote letters to Jennifer. For four nights in a row, I read and wrote as I sat at the desk of the Covenant Village Retirement Community, and delivered the letters to her house at 5279 Christiana when my shift ended at 4:30 in the morning. I wondered if her parents asked her about getting the notes. (Mel and Joanne liked me much better than Dave.)

Franz Kafka met Felice Bauer August 13, 1912 at the home of Max Brod in Prague. Nothing of great magnitude transpired outwardly, but at the close of the evening, Felice promised to accompany Kafka the next year to Palestine, the Holy Land. Five weeks following their meeting Kafka wrote to Felice. They quickly developed a correspondence (only Kafka’s letters survive). Kafka, in exquisite and painful detail, recounts every detail of their first meeting. He demands from her in return every detail of her businesswoman life. From the very beginning, Franz complains of his unworthiness and indecisiveness, but the letters continue undiminished, sometimes several per day.

Kafka is fiercely alive in his writing at this time, and not just in his writing to Felice. It is during this period of writing to Felice that he writes The Metamorphosis, parts of Amerika, and The Penal Colony: stories in which the language burns so brightly that it seems to blind us to or burn up any referent objects until the language becomes language itself — intensely unique and personal yet absolutely translatable. And this quality is in the letters to Felice too. Through the force of his writing, Kafka in his letters seeks to create a world where he can be completely accurate, completely naked, and yet completely unafraid.

But this world inevitably collapses. Felice eventually asks of his plans for the future, and they end up meeting again. Everything becomes too much for Kafka and everything crumbles around him. Eventually he proposes but with such self-flagellation and such indecisiveness that it is more painful to watch than a stutterer confessing a monstrous crime. From the proposal letter:

“But for perhaps the last time, I say that I am absurdly afraid of our future together and of the unhappiness which, through my fault and temperament, could develop from our life together, and which would be bound to affect you first and the more profoundly, for I am basically a cold, selfish, callous creature, despite my weakness which conceals rather than mitigates these qualities.”

Kafka waffles further following this letter. Finally, a formal proposal is received in front of Felice’s family. But Kafka backs out again, citing his own uselessness. Mediators are introduced, families get involved, investigators are hired. It all ends in an ugly way; the involved parties and families meet publicly in a “tribunal” in which the engagement is officially dissolved.

This period becomes Kafka’s The Trial. Kafka’s engagement becomes Joseph K.’s arrest. The engagement-dissolving tribunal becomes Joseph K.’s execution. The particular becomes the universal. Farce becomes literature.

On one level I was merely reading Elias Canetti’s book about the letters between Kafka and Felice and writing to Jennifer about it. It would not be so unusual — so I justified it to myself — to write letters to her about my current literary interests: We were English majors together, after all. I was determined to keep face. Throughout my letters I never — as though it were the name of the Jewish god — never spoke our names, never spoke directly of the relevance of Kafka and Felice’s tortured relationship to that of Jennifer and me. All interpretation was up to her. Was I identifying with Kafka: longing but indecisive? Was I still wooing Jennifer? Was I poking fun? Was I paying homage by repeating Kafka? Was I hoping to create pure literature out of the mess?

I don’t even remember what I said in the letters. But I remember the feeling when writing them that they were kinds of prayers. I did not know what I was saying but words were coming out of me. And I was hoping that God or Jennifer or Kafka or the Void would know the answers I did not.

But neither Jennifer, nor God, nor Kafka nor the Void responded. We never talked about the letters and Jennifer was married in August 1992. And she lives in her dead grandmother’s house with her children Dave Smith, Jr. and Mark Smith — names that could make even the staunchest British empiricist quake with despair.

Erik Hanson, a contributing editor of KtB, was once the religion editor at AltaMira Press, but then he was laid off. He taught Math and English at a K-8 Quaker School but then he was laid off from there. He currently advises Anthropology majors at the University of Maryland, where he has not yet been laid off, although he is expecting furloughs.