THE LAST WHO KNEW KAFKA.

Ofer Aderet has an interview in Haaretz with pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who recently turned 106:

Sommer was born into a secular and educated Jewish family. Besides her twin sister, Mariana, she had another sister and two brothers. She discovered a love for music at the age of 3, and it has remained with her to this day. Her family home in Prague was also a cultural salon where writers, scientists, musicians and actors congregated. One of these, author Franz Kafka, she remembers well: He was the best friend of the journalist, author and philosopher Felix Weltsch, who married her sister Irma.
“Kafka was a slightly strange man,” Sommer recalls. “He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing. He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories. I remember the atmosphere and his unusual stories. He was an excellent writer, with a lovely style, the kind that you read effortlessly,” she says, and then grows silent. “And now, hundreds of people all over the world research and write doctorates about him.”
She says she knows about the ongoing trial in Israel, at the center of which is the question of who owns the rights to Kafka’s estate. “Kafka would have been against this. Don’t forget that he asked his friend Max Brod not to publish his writings. That much I know,” says Sommer – she is the last person alive who knew Kafka personally.

Her story is quite dramatic; you can read more about her in a Guardian interview from 2006. (Via MetaFilter; also on MetaFilter: semicolons.)

Comments

  1. “Kafka would have been against” what? The fighting over money? the pretense to ‘owning’ something one didn’t personally create? or the fact that his unfinished, de-authorized material is available to profit from and quarrel over at all?
    Kafka knew the stupid injustices of fame and poverty, and I’d guess that he was familiar with the Aeneid; might he have cast a smiling shrug at the legal scrum-and-shiv?

  2. It is a great antidote to life’s woes to read of someone who has been through so much and still has such optimism.

  3. Wow, someone who knew Kafka. Thanks, Language.

  4. Wow, someone who knew Kafka. Thanks, Language.

  5. On a trivial note, in the Guardian interview she said she only drinks hot water, no tea, no coffee, no alcohol. If that’s what it takes to live to the age of 106, I’m afraid I’m out of the running.

  6. Recently somewhere I read that Kafka and friends had meetings at which Kafka would read from – it was either Das Schloß or Der Prozeß – and they all had a good laugh and were higly entertained.
    I’ve read Beckett complaining that people take his work too seriously, and miss the humor – particularly in Waiting for Godot. I know that I get a giggle out of reading Watt, Molloy, Malone meurt, and L’innommable. I’ve read them all several times, in French and English. The novels contain both subtleties and laughs. It depends on what you want to want to pay attention to, at each reading.
    Many people, even Germans, shy away from Luhmann as being abstract and ponderous, but to me he’s a brilliant old sweetheart with just a dash of civil-servant po-faced humor in his prose. Just now, reading Soziale System, I keep being surprised by his little jokey-poos, and the occasional biting sarcasm (often directed towards other soziologists).
    I have a markup system to help me relocate things while reading, and later when cross-referencing. I recently added Sark (Sarkasmus), H (Humor) and sH (schneidender Humor) (cutting humor).

  7. “Kafka would have been against” what?
    Give the woman a break, she’s 106! You should hear what my mother-in-law has to say about current affairs, and she’s only 93.

  8. Stu’s use of these classes (as well as the “schimpfen” tangent in another recent thread) reminds me of a beloved table in Fowler’s Modern English Usage. I see that it is reproduced in the Online Etymology Dictionary — except that the heading of the final column has been altered in a way that I am sure Fowler would not have approved.

  9. what a great life lived! so very admirable

  10. Many people, even Germans, shy away from Luhmann
    They’d probably rented that film, Moulin Rouge.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Kafka would have been against” what?
    It the lady being interviewed in her own language? Probably not. In French you could very well say : Kafka aurait été contre, meaning against whatever was said before.

  12. hsgudnason says:

    About thirty years ago I spent several days in Prague. Most of the people I dealt with in shops and restaurants spoke German, but rather poorly and with a heavy Czech accent. On one occasion though I dealt with a railway ticket seller who was old enough to have learned German as a first–or early second–language, and spoke with all the characteristics I knew were associated with a Prague accent. I kept finding new questions to ask him, just so that I could keep him talking, thinking to myself all the while, “Wow, this must be what Kafka and (maybe) Rilke sounded like.”

  13. Interesting. What were the characteristics of the Prager dialect? Was it similar to Frankish? Closer to Saxon? Every German dialect map I’ve seen ignores the Sudetenland and Prague completely, even though they typically show what German dialects were spoken in what is now Poland and Kaliningrad.

  14. Every German dialect map I’ve seen ignores the Sudetenland and Prague completely, even though they typically show what German dialects were spoken in what is now Poland and Kaliningrad.
    How very odd. Any of our Germanists want to weigh in on this?

  15. mollymooly says:

    “Every German dialect map I’ve seen ignores the Sudetenland and Prague completely, even though they typically show what German dialects were spoken in what is now Poland and Kaliningrad.”
    German Empire vs Austrian Empire?

  16. German Empire vs Austrian Empire?
    Probably just Cold War crap.

  17. Stu’s use of these classes …
    Ø, I have not a clue as to what your comment means. Does it belong in another thread ? What have I missed ?

  18. Pardon my brevity. I meant the classes Sark (Sarkasmus), H (Humor) and sH (schneidender Humor) (cutting humor).

  19. Ø, I have not a clue as to what your comment means.
    Referring to your “I have a markup system to help me relocate things while reading, and later when cross-referencing. I recently added Sark (Sarkasmus), H (Humor) and sH (schneidender Humor) (cutting humor).”

  20. Beaten to the punch!

  21. Sorry to be such a bore, but why “classes” ? Do you call my markups “classes” because I use them to classify things ? Is a taxonomist a classicist ??
    The things I classify are classes. The classification mechanisms are not classes. Hammers are not nails.
    Empty, in another thread you surmised that I ought best to know the uses of grumbling. Well, the above is an example. I use grumbling as a technique to explore the world – in the present case, the mentalities of my fellow creatures.

  22. Probably just Cold War crap.
    Or maybe not.
    This site has various dialect maps on it.
    http://userweb.port.ac.uk/~joyce1/dialects/mapgerm.html
    Most include the Czech areas, but you’d need to know the political borders before that was clear.

  23. Clarification:
    The things I classify together are classes. The classification mechanisms are not classes, but are used to define classes.

  24. Stu,
    Empty, in another thread you surmised that I ought best to know the uses of grumbling
    No, that wasn’t me.

    I don’t precisely know what a markup is, but I don’t think I was saying that a markup is a class. I meant that when you decide whether to mark up one thing as “sarcasm” and another as “cutting humor” you can be said to be sorting these things into classes. Would you prefer another word? Categories of humor? Varieties of humor? Or do you take issue with the suggestion that you are engaged in sorting things? I didn’t mean that the main point of the activity for you was sorting. The main point seems to be to save them for possible later use. But you don’t do it haphazardly, you have a system.
    I’ll shut up now, because I fear that I may be missing the point.

  25. Actually I found a decent article on Prager Deutsch at Wikipedia (German). It’s right at the line where Bavarian and Mitteldeutsch meet. But later, not surprisingly, seems to have fallen under Viennese influence, in particular in vocabulary. Apparently in the 18th and early 19th century Prager Deutsch was considered one of the most prestigious dialects of German – the Prague dialect was considered “a very ‘pure’ form of German, with little regional coloration”.

  26. The things I classify together are classes.
    Really? Particulars “are” categories?? – rather than, say, ‘compose’ or ‘constitute’ or ‘exemplify the paradigm of’?
    Sarkasmus, Humor, and schneidender Humor sound to me like “classes” – kinds – of the larger “class” of ‘ways of being comical’. I thought that ø was using the “classification mechanisms” of “class” names to refer to, to indicate, “classes” by virtue of their having been (provisionally, conversationally) “defined” by those names.

  27. Give the woman a break
    She doesn’t need a “break” from me! – but you misunderstand the question because you misunderstand the tone, language hat. I really was asking: which of the squalid aspects of the litigation I mentioned – if any – dismays Herz-Sommer, and causes her to throw “Kafka” in the litigants’ teeth (as it seems she’s doing?)? It’s a bizarre-sounding (but pretty common in American courts) squabble over money – one which, thanks to having read him, I imagine Kafka would have found funny (as well as darkly illuminative, as it were).
    -
    As marie-lucie says of French, so in English or German or (ancient) Greek or Latin: “this” might easily – probably does – refer to the most recent thing said, either a word or phrase, or a whole clause. But, the way it reads in the article and in language hat’s excerpt, “this” is ambiguous to me.
    At the risk of incurring the superfluous defense of who must be a pretty tough woman, what would Kafka have been against?

  28. of being sold

  29. empty, I see now what caused my confusion about your use of the word “classes” in connection with my markups such as “Sark”. It does seem to be, as you guessed, that you “don’t know precisely what a markup is”.
    Originally, markup was (and still is) a set of conventional markings which a proofreader makes in a printed text (the proofs, for instance) to indicate things the printer should change, such as a misspelling, a passage that should be in italics.
    I write the letters “Sark”, “H”, “sH” and others in the margin of texts. I also use underlining and “vertical underlining” – one or more vertical parallel lines in the margin, to the left or right of which (depending on whether I use the right or left margin) is the text passage I want to identify for later consultation. I use the term markup loosely to refer to all the markings I make in a book for whatever reason – to identify typos, to note an idea that reminds me of another author, to signal a particularly striking formulation (“F” or “F+”), an unusual usage of a word or expression (“U”), a dubious argument (“~”).
    In one sense “Humor”, “Fiction”, “Documentary” signs can be understood as “pointing to” classes, or classifications, of books in a bookstore. But the signs are not the classes they point to, just as price tags are not the goods to which they are attached. Sometimes it is useful to make a distinction between “concepts” and “the things to which they refer”, between Erkenntnis and Gegenstand. When words refer to words, or concepts to concepts, extra notation (or markup, as I’m calling it loosely here) is sometimes useful to avoid confusion – markup such as the quotation marks and italics in this very paragraph.
    In connection with my comment about my markup system, it just didn’t occur to me that you were using the word “classes” to refer to the markup (notation) “Sark”, “H”, “sH” that I use to classify passages of text. It’s as if I had reported that I used stick-its to note down ideas, whereupon you had referred to my ideas as stick-its.

  30. Correction:
    “whereupon you had referred to my stick-its as ideas”.

  31. Am I the only person who finds the idea striking, and useful, that one can get a good giggle out of Kafka ? The lady did say

    We sat on a bench and he told us stories. I remember the atmosphere and his unusual stories.

  32. Yes, that struck me, too. We are so much in thrall to the deadly seriousness of modernism that we could be missing the fun factor.

  33. Stu,
    To me it is as if
    you told us that you use pink stick-its for humor, orange stick-its for invective, yellow stick-its for irony, and black stick-its for the sardonic,
    and I said that your classes reminded me of some thing else,
    and you said “What classes? Why do you call a stick-it a class? Can’t you tell the difference between a stick-it and the thing it points to?”
    I really do distinguish between all of the following things:
    the concept of “yellow stick-it”
    a yellow stick-it
    the concept of “irony”
    an ironic utterance
    Maybe my choice of words tended to blur the distinction between
    the class of ironic utterances
    and
    what Stu is thinking (of?) when he chooses a yellow stick-it

  34. John Emerson says:

    Beckett, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Melville are four authors whose funny parts get missed, just because they also have unfunny parts. I think that it’s a kind of humor that sensible, straightforward, businesslike people are incapable of noticing the existence of, much less laughing at.

  35. It would take a sober person indeed to miss the humor in Waiting for Godot.

  36. All those jokes in Moby Dick. How we laughed!

  37. Herman Melville: the P.G. Wodehouse of whaling.

  38. John Emerson says:

    Initially few people in America went to absurdism for laughs, mostly because the people who paid attention to European literature tended to be very serious people.
    40+ years ago I went to see Swedish Wedding Night at an Art House type theatre. About ten minutes into it I realized that it was broad rustic comedy along Erskine Caldwell lines. I started laughing at the punchlines and as far as I know everyone thought that I was being lowclass and vulgar, because no one else did.
    The Times review gets halfway there, but doesn’t seem to rewalize that the peasant girl’s long soliloquy about her love for her cow probably wasn’t meant to be taken straight.

  39. John Emerson says:

    Actually, the movie reminded me of an Ole and Lena joke. On his wedding night Ole gets drunk and passes out. When he rouses he goes to his bedroom and finds Lars, his best man, in bed with his wife, Lena. He shouts out to the wedding party and calls them over: “Hey, you guys were laughing at me because I was so drunk. Come here and look at Lars. He’s so drunk he thinks he’s me!”

  40. John Emerson says:

    Swedish Wedding Night was named best Swedish Film of 1965, but it flopped in the US because people weren’t looking for that kind of thing. Ingmar Bergman’s grim “Persona” won the award two years later, and for Americans, that was a proper Swedish film.

  41. John Emerson says:

    Stig Dagerman, on whose novel SWN is based, seems like an interesting author.
    This also popped up on the Wiki: Nobelist J. M. G. LeClezio spends much of his time in Albuquerque, N.M.Since the 1990s they have divided their residence between Albuquerque, Mauritius, and Nice.[9]

  42. the signs are not the classes they point to
    No, but “a distinction between ‘concepts’ and ‘the things to which they refer’” changes the topic of “class” from “sign” (namely, “markups”) to “concept”. “Signs” are also not “concepts” – nor is a particular “markup” a “concept”, nor is the class of “markups” a class of “concepts” (it’s a class of signs, which (in the given case of marking up) refer to kinds of humor, not “concepts”).
    [ø was] using the word “classes” to refer to the markup (notation) [used] to classify passages of text
    But ø said that he “meant”, and I think he continues to mean: when you decide whether to mark up one thing as [x] and another as [y] you can be said to be sorting these things into classes. ø clearly used “classes” to refer to what the markups refer to – “classes” refers not to the signs used to indicate “passages of text”, but rather to the “classes” of those referred-to “passages of text”.

  43. Wikipedia: Hamsun is a 1996 Danish-Swedish-Norwegian-German drama … the film is notable for its use of language. Sydow and Nørby speak throughout the film in their native Swedish and Danish respectively, while the rest of the cast speak Norwegian or German…It won the Gulbagge Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Sydow), Best Actress (Nørby) and Best Script (Enquist).
    It sounds to me like it’s notable for it’s non-use of language. Couldn’t they have tried to do Hamsun in norsk? Bloody Swedes and Danes. Coming soon: Queen Christina,the movie: starring Liv Ullmann speaking her native Norwegian while the rest of the cast gargle away unintelligibly in swansk.

  44. Wikipedia: Hamsun is a 1996 Danish-Swedish-Norwegian-German drama … the film is notable for its use of language. Sydow and Nørby speak throughout the film in their native Swedish and Danish respectively, while the rest of the cast speak Norwegian or German…It won the Gulbagge Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Sydow), Best Actress (Nørby) and Best Script (Enquist).
    It sounds to me like it’s notable for it’s non-use of language. Couldn’t they have tried to do Hamsun in norsk? Bloody Swedes and Danes. Coming soon: Queen Christina,the movie: starring Liv Ullmann speaking her native Norwegian while the rest of the cast gargle away unintelligibly in swansk.

  45. John Emerson says:

    Wouldn’t Hitler sound funny speaking Norwegian?

  46. No more so than speaking English. They’d just have to give him a funny German accent.

  47. No more so than speaking English. They’d just have to give him a funny German accent.

  48. John Emerson says:

    Or maybe Icelandic, to make him sound even more Nordic.

  49. Initially few people in America went to absurdism for laughs
    Like the audiences of Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Groucho and Harpo, ‘screwball’ comedy, the ridicule of Rogers and Mencken, Jim and Huck coming off the river, Lincoln’s sense of the ludicrous, . . .

  50. By “initially,” he means 1620.

  51. Oh. I thought the Pilgrims were just being deadpan, not tin-eared.

  52. John Emerson says:

    No, I meant Ionesco and Beckett. People who paid attention to them when they first crossed the water were Very Serious People. Existentialists. Some may have recognized in a sort of footnoted way that there was humor in those plays, but but they did it without laughing.

  53. There might be a confusion of a couple of dates in the historiography of the reception of absurdity. It was, maybe also, in about 1620 that people, intimidated, frustrated, or (perhaps) delighted by books notorious for being viscous or grim or pointlessly difficult – or (simply) more trouble than they were worth -, began to boast of loving those books for their “humor”. (1)
    (1) This reflex, sometimes one of insecurity, has almost never been accompanied by an interest in footnotes.

  54. delighted by books notorious for being viscous or grim or pointlessly difficult – or (simply) more trouble than they were worth -, began to boast of loving those books for their “humor”.
    What books, available to read in 1620, might those be ?

  55. Yeah, 1620 was a bad time for finding the humourous passages in the bible.

  56. Oh, everybody who loves The Unnameable for the “humor” also loves Don Quixoteall of it – for the “humor”.
    I love Lear for the “humor”, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. And Donne, and The Faerie Queene, and Bacon’s Essays. And Montaigne’s – for the “humor”.
    Rabelais – not so much: too many footnotes.

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