Ear­li­er this week, James Patrick Kel­ly wrote about a man as puz­zling as his sto­ries and John Kessel exam­ined Kaf­ka and the para­ble. Today, Kel­ly dis­cuss­es Sami Rohr Prize Win­ner Tamar Yellin and her sto­ry Kaf­ka in Bron­te­land.” 

In her intro­duc­tion to her sto­ry Kaf­ka in Bron­te­land,” which con­cludes our anthol­o­gy Kafkaesque, Tamar Yellin writes:

For years I could not read Kaf­ka. I would get to the bot­tom of the first page of The Cas­tle and my brain would seize. Then some­thing clicked inside me and I became obsessed with him. I believe read­ing Kaf­ka to be a deeply per­son­al expe­ri­ence. You can accept what oth­ers tell you Kaf­ka means or you can inter­pret him for your­self. His enig­mat­ic work lends itself to almost infi­nite interpretation.”

So too does Yellin’s mar­velous sto­ry. In the open­ing para­graph, her nar­ra­tor announces her inten­tion to throw her past – includ­ing her Jew­ish­ness – onto the heap of for­got­ten things so she can start anew. She moves to the Eng­lish coun­try­side where the Bronte sis­ters lived — and where she tell us there are no oth­er Jews. She hires a builder to ren­o­vate an ancient cot­tage and encoun­ters, but nev­er speaks to, a mys­te­ri­ous old man the vil­lagers in her new home call Mr. Kaf­ka. Mean­while she becomes obsessed with the real Kaf­ka, and espe­cial­ly with his rela­tion­ship to Judaism. The nar­ra­tor reads from her Intro­duc­tion to Kafka:

More than any oth­er writer, Kaf­ka describes the predica­ment of the sec­u­lar alien­at­ed Jew. Yet his work, so per­son­al on one lev­el, remains anony­mous­ly uni­ver­sal. He has no Jew­ish axe to grind. Nowhere in any of his fic­tions does Kaf­ka men­tion the words Jew­ish, or Jew.”

She finds this remark­able and resolves to deter­mine whether it is true. But when she goes to the vil­lage library to begin her search, she gets a sur­prise. Its copy of The Tri­al has a for­est of date-stamps, repeat­ed and reg­u­lar, going back years.” The Cas­tle has also been in heavy cir­cu­la­tion. This sug­gests to her that there is a pro­found need for Kaf­ka in Bron­te­land.” Or is it just one bor­row­er, obses­sive­ly check­ing the books out? Per­haps the local Mr. Kafka?”

What does all of this mean? Is the mys­te­ri­ous old man real­ly Franz Kaf­ka, some­how mirac­u­lous­ly trans­port­ed from Prague to York­shire? And where does this obses­sion with Kafka’s prob­lem­at­ic rela­tion­ship to Judaism come from, if the nar­ra­tor is real­ly intent on leav­ing her past behind? Yellin presents the read­er with puz­zle pieces but does not insist on a final arrange­ment. What is clear, how­ev­er is that the past refus­es to stay for­got­ten. It is every­where in this sto­ry, suf­fus­ing the present. It has set­tled in a dark cor­ner of the local pub and pokes through the plas­ter ceil­ing of the narrator’s cot­tage. Even as she tries to begin her new life, the nar­ra­tor rat­tles the cans of the past behind me willy-nilly.”

James Patrick Kel­ly and John Kessel’s anthol­o­gy, Kafkaesque: Sto­ries Inspired by Franz Kaf­ka, is now avail­able. They will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.