The crack in the veneer

Louis Begley: “Rather, the fear was of a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter … the heritage that these Jews had recently and completely cast aside.”

On Feb. 18, 1912, Franz Kafka introduced a Yiddish poetry reading at Toynbee Hall. In typical Kafka fashion he put his finger on the fear of and attraction to Yiddish that the assimilated Jews in the audience had (or he presumed they had). In analyzing that speech, Louis Begley writes in The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head:

The rub was there [in the fear of Yiddish and by extension the fear of themselves]. Kafka knew that the assimilated Jews sitting in Toynbee Hall feared close contact with their grandparents’ language, and most likely deep down he feared it as well. Of course neither Kafka nor the other Jews he was addressing were afraid of being identified as Jews: they weren’t trying to pass as Christians, if only because it would have been impossible to do so  in Prague, where everyone in the German-speaking minority knew everyone else. Rather, the fear was of a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter the miasma of the shtetl or the medieval ghetto that had been left behind, the heritage that these Jews had recently and completely cast aside. For Kafka, Yiddish and the shtetl held out the attraction of the close-kint spiritual community that he imagined flourished there and, I believe, a special terror: that of further linguistic alienation. (65-66)

Kafka’s situation — and that of other assimilated Jews — is very different from that of Mormon Americans. I am not making any strong case for parallels of any sort here. However, I do want to note the phrasing “a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter the miasma… the heritage… that had been recently … cast aside”.

And clearly assimilated Mormon American artists do not fear a further linguist alienation. Prague’s Jews were alienated from the majority because they spoke German instead of Czech so that to twist that alienation further via Yiddish was truly a further linguist alienation.

And yet Mormons do have sets of demarcations that show up in dress, vocabulary, socio-cultural attitudes and daily life. Some of the art produced by Mormons does show a certain crack in the veneer. Much of it, especially the lost generation stuff, is cracks in the veneer of Mormon life. Now that we are post-assimilation, I find myself interested in the cracks in the veneer of assimilation, and (I would hope) have no fear, but rather a deep interest in what comes seeping through those cracks. Bring on the Mormon miasma!

Liner Notes for “County Doctor”

I decided to go ahead and do full-fledged liner notes for “County Doctor,” my translation of the Franz Kafka short story “Ein Landarzt” (typical translated “A Country Doctor”). If you have not read the translation, you can find it here. Read it first because what follows does contain “Spoilers.”


I began the translation in June 2004 — shortly after the debut of A Motley Vision. I had an hour and a half each way daily commute on public transportation at the time and had finished up my low-brow fiction binge that had occurred in the 8-9 months after completing my master’s degree. I wanted to write but didn’t have the time or focus for fiction. So I decided to translate my favorite Kafka story. I found the original German text on Project Gutenberg, copy and pasted it in to a word document and then went through a inserted page breaks after every 2-3 paragraphs of text. I printed out the resulting document (I can’t remember how many pages it ended up being) and every workday or two I’d slide one of the pages, one other blank piece of paper, a letter-size portfolio and my 1952 Langensheidt’s German-English/English-German paperback dictionary in to my backpack. Every night on the way Continue reading “Liner Notes for “County Doctor””

Short Story Friday: “County Doctor” (Wm’s Kafka translation)

Due to popular demand, the rather non-existent market for literary translations of short work, and just because I’m such a nice guy, this week’s Short Story Friday is my translation of Kafka’s Ein Landarzt. You have the weekend to read it and respond. On Monday I will update this post and talk about the choices I made, the process of translation and a little bit about my reading of the story. But I wanted to give devoted AMV readers the chance to read it without extra-textual influences first.

Story: County Doctor: A translation of Kafka’s “Ein Landarzt” for the American West
(liner notes for the translation)

Author: Franz Kafka, translation by William Morris

Year: Translation 2004, Story 1920

Publication Info: Self-published via Google Docs

The many misuses of Kafka and insider knowledge

I threw a minor fit on Twitter the other evening over the  New York Times article How Nonsense Sharpens the Mind, which reports on a study that claims that experiencing the uncanny, the weird, the absurd, the freaky “may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss.” What provoked the outburst on my part was the revelation that the researchers rewrote a Kafka short story for use in their study. Here’s how the reporter Benedict Carey describes it:

In the most recent paper, published last month, Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine described having 20 college students read an absurd short story based on “The Country Doctor,” by Franz Kafka. The doctor of the title has to make a house call on a boy with a terrible toothache. He makes the journey and finds that the boy has no teeth at all. The horses who have pulled his carriage begin to act up; the boy’s family becomes annoyed; then the doctor discovers the boy has teeth after all. And so on. The story is urgent, vivid and nonsensical — Kafkaesque.

“The Country Doctor” is my favorite Kafka short story and is the piece of literature I have spent the most time with as a critic. I read it and wrote about Continue reading “The many misuses of Kafka and insider knowledge”