The tiny village of Siřem is located 78 km northwest of Prague. By Route 6 on a clear day, driving time from the capital is under two hours. When Franz Kafka made the trip in 1917, the village was known as Zürau, and travel time by train to the nearest station, Michelob (now Měcholupy), was almost four hours. Zürau, six and half km from Michelob Station, could only be reached by horse and cart.
Kafka spent almost eight months in Zürau — during the War — from September 12, 1917 till April 30, 1918. The village had a population of 350; a church, a pond, a smattering of country buildings on rolling hills, farmland, hop-gardens, and animals — whose number, including the mice, far exceeded the number of residents. There was no electricity, no running water, paved streets, restaurant or inn. And no post office. The postal address for Zürau was Flöhau, Bohemia — six km away. Letters and packages from Prague took three to four days to arrive. Tiny, rural Zürau was a complete contrast to Prague. Exactly what was wanted.
Following pulmonary hemorrhages during the nights of August 12 and 13, 1917, Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis and approved, on September 7, for a three-month medical leave from the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute where he held the position of vice secretary. He’d felt the illness lurking in him for years. Finally, fatefully, it broke out and his life took an abrupt turn. With the doctor’s consent, he put himself under the care of his youngest sister, Ottla, who was tending the Zürau acreage of their brother-in-law, Karl Hermann, while Karl was on active duty at the front.
In an August letter to Ottla from Prague, Franz termed his illness a “mental disease.” In his diary, he referred to it as “a symbol whose inflammation is called Felice.” In his first letter from Zürau to best friend, Max Brod, he wrote: “Things can’t go on this way, said the brain, and after five years the lungs said they were ready to help.” “Five years” was the period of time Franz had been courting Felice Bauer, mostly through letters. The two were still formally engaged (for the second time) when he left Prague for Zürau, but an end would soon be brought to the tortuous relationship. The TB diagnosis provided Franz the reprieve he’d long desired —chiefly from the specter of marriage to Felice. Early in the relationship, she’d played the part of literary muse, inspiring a creative breakthrough in 1912. By 1917 that role had fully played out.
Deep into my Kafka-quest, I’m eager to visit the setting of one of the author’s happiest periods, the place where he produced a body of short introspective writing that came to be known as The Zürau Aphorisms. At the time Kafka kept the writings secret, even from his closest friends, though the manner in which he ordered and transcribed the pieces suggests that he might have been considering publication. In his study, Kafka’s Castle and the Critical Imagination, Stephen D. Dowden holds that these “literary miniatures should be regarded as finger exercises for Das Schloss / The Castle — the novel Kafka did not start writing till the winter of 1922. Kafka himself indicated no such connection and the short texts, first published in 1931, seven years after his death, stand on their own as distinctive in the oeuvre.
I’d pored over old photos of the village and knew what I was looking for: first and foremost the house in which Franz and Ottla lived. There’s a photo of brother and sister standing at the entrance, Franz wearing a fedora, overcoat, white shirt and tie—looking like he’s ready for a workday at the office; Ottla dressed plainly in a dark skirt and work shirt hair pinned up and out of the way. The photo shows only a doorway and passage to an inner courtyard in the background. The plaster on the steps and doorframe looks badly eroded, even in 1917, so I can’t be sure the building is still standing. The Ringplatz (village square) and goose pond that Franz refers to in letters, is close to the house, adjacent the onion-domed church. The church appears in a number of old photos, and I’m hoping to be able to enter it.
The August morning is warm and sunny when M. and I depart Prague in our rented Škoda. Within the hour we pass through the brew-town of Krušovice, population 615, turn north onto Route 221 and pass the hamlet of Krupá on the two-lane road that leads to Siřem. The land is flat, dotted with clumps of wild grass, the occasional tree. Hardly another car.
Two men in bright yellow vests come into view as we approach a level crossing. They’re standing at the roadside — one closer, one farther away. Just two men in yellow, facing each other at a distance. They’re holding instruments and I realize in the moment that they’re surveyors. “Land surveyors!” I announce, and quickly grab the camera. “What’s so special about land surveyors?” M. asks. “The protagonist, K., in The Castle is a land surveyor,” I sputter, snapping as we pass. “K. is the cipher for Kafka himself, and he has two assistants, Artur and Jeremias,” I add, as if invoking a transposition from the novel to the road. Seeing these lookalike surveyors on the way to Siřem feels meaningful to me.
“How many times in your life have you seen land surveyors on an empty country road?” I ask M. “I don’t know,” he says, “maybe never,” “Exactly,” you don’t see surveyors every day, but today, on the road to Siřem — where Kafka lived happily for eight months and afterwards wrote The Castle, in which the main character K. is a land surveyor, with two assistants” — I stress the latter point — “we see land surveyors.” “Right,” says M. ironically, “maybe it’s a sign … but I don’t know what it signifies …” “It’s an affirmation, a nod from literature,” I assert, “maybe even from the author himself.” “Right,” says M. again. He gives me a look. I disengage and turn to viewing my captures: two shots of two surveyors in bright yellow vests. In one of the shots, one of the surveyors is obstructed by a road sign. In the same photo, the other is holding his instruments in front and I snapped the shot as we were driving past, so the instruments are obstructed. The second photo shows only one of the surveyors — facing us with his instruments slung over his back. Both views are partial and I’m feeling doubly denied.
We pass through the village of Svojetín, slowing for a lone dachshund. The road wends through the village of Velká Černoc, we pass a country church, a small roadside chapel (kaplička), then another: each with a cross on top, Madonna and Son, flowers in the niches. We come to Sobӗchleby, population 129, the hamlet Kafka would sometimes walk to — 2.6 km from Zürau. We’re close; I’ve got the camera in hand.
Trees border the winding road, fields of hops beyond. A cemetery, red-roofed buildings on the hillside, then the road sign: Siřem. The onion-domed church comes into view as we round the bend. Blue sky shows through the wooden slats of the cupola. Tufts of wild grass have sprouted from the top of the tower stone. I zoom in, capture the dilapidation.
Ottla attended to her brother here, even as she was responsible for cultivating 50 acres of farmland. She’d broken away from the family fancy goods shop in Prague to pursue her dream of living a simple agricultural life in the country. It was an arrangement that for a time served her and the family well, especially Franz. Ottla bore her brother up “on her wings,” as he put it in a letter to Max: “I live with Ottla in a good little marriage.” It was the solicitous, unsexed kind of marriage that best met with Franz’s requirements for happiness.
Some of the buildings on the road into Siřem — ramshackle and abandoned — look to be of Kafka’s vintage. Others are more recent, giving the place a patchwork appearance. There’s a bus stop at the Ringplatz, a taxi. Not a person in sight. We park near the church and step out to gauge the lay of the land. The “goose pond outside the window” that once claimed Franz’s hat in its ice is now a rectangular concrete pool surrounded by a tattered chain-link fence. The water is a bright lurid green, thick with scum. There are no geese, nor do we hear the sounds of any of the many other animals Franz names in his letters from Zürau. There’s a phlegmatic stillness to the place.
“I am thriving among the animals,” Franz wrote to Max in a buoyant tone three weeks after his arrival. “This afternoon I fed the goats.” Franz was in retreat among a Noah’s Ark of farm animals: geese, pigs, cows, calves, dogs, horses, cats, rats, mice. There was a din in the village, largely due to the animals, and Franz was hypersensitive to noise. But he wasn’t complaining. In Zürau, he had a ‘pro’ compensated for every ‘con’: His room faced northeast and was “not sunny and not quiet,” but it was “well-furnished.” The mice in the house “carried on outrageously,” but the weather was mild and there was this “marvelous spot where he lay “like a king,” “sunbathing in semi-nudity” in his “reclining chair. As for his illness, he reported “no fever” and “no pain.” He was “short of breath, but didn’t feel it when lying or sitting.” And though he had “no appetite,” “all the things he was supposed to be eating were in good abundance.” By the end of September he’d “already put on a little weight.”
The disease, in its initial stages, was “more like a guardian angel than a devil,” he wrote to his friend Felix Weltsch on September 22. Especially with regard to Felice. Before Zürau, he hadn’t found the resolve to tell her he was breaking off their engagement. On September 20, she made the grueling 30-hour trip from Berlin to Zürau to see how he was doing, likely expecting to find him wanting consolation. Instead, he was more at ease than ever, and distinctly disinterested in her. She must have left feeling dejected and humiliated. The day after her departure, his mention of her in a letter to Felix has the tone of a brisk aside: “… my room is not as good as my sunbathing spot … but I can perfectly well go somewhere else … as I did yesterday when Felice was here.”
Their second engagement was formally terminated in Prague, at the end of December 1917. After that they never saw each other again. Franz used the disease to cut the ties that bound him to Felice. Max was aware of it, so was Ottla. Tuberculosis was the official explanation for the breakup given to Felice and the parents as well: a healthy woman cannot be expected to marry an unwell man. Franz was well aware that he had wronged Felice, and he did cede her the high ground, though not without histrionics. In his last letter to her, dated from Zürau, October 16, 1917, he wrote: “You were unhappy about the pointlessness of your journey, about my incomprehensible behaviour, about everything. I was not unhappy … a bit of an act is something for which I can readily forgive myself, because the spectacle before me … was so hellish that one was bound to try to help the audience by introducing some diverting music …” A straightforward apology would probably not have blunted the blow, but it would have been less offensive than a theatre piece.
I’m thinking of Felice, of the trip she took to Zürau, only to find out, definitively, she’d been dumped. Where is the dark northeast room she slept in, while Franz was dreaming in another room? Where is the dwelling that he idealized as part of his life here? I open the copy of Letters to Ottla & Family I’ve brought along for reference. It includes a photo of the Ringplatz with the church, the pond and a few houses. The caption indicates that “Kafka and Ottla lived in the house to the right of church.” I’m standing in front of the church. Stone angels on the gate columns gaze obliquely into the heavens. The church windows are shattered, the plaster exterior cracked, the churchyard grass overgrown. The house to the right of the church can’t be where Franz and Ottla lived, and Felice slept — for one very unhappy night in 1917. It’s a newer model and doesn’t match the placement of the house in the photo.
I pass through the rusty church gates. M. is off on an exploration of his own. The churchyard is a gravesite of crumbling monuments — gravestones that were once no doubt quite grand, engraved in German, Gothic lettering: Josef Steidl, born 15 February, 1834, died 12 December, 1909; Paulina Wallenta, died 15 November, 1910; Anna Quoika, died at 82 on November 14, 1908 … Franz would have viewed these monuments when he entered the yard, which he did at least once during his stay. At the beginning of February, 1918, he wrote to Felix that he’d recently attended a sermon at the church: “It had a business-like simplicity. The text was Luke 2:41-52, and three lessons were drawn. 1. Parents should not permit their children to play outside in the snow but should bring them into the church (see all the empty seats!) 2. Parents should be as tenderly concerned for their children as the Holy Family was for their son (and this even though he was the Child Jesus, about whom they did not need worry). 3. Children should speak piously to their parents as Jesus did to his. That was all, for it was very cold, but there was a kind of ultimate power in the whole thing.” The tone is jocular — it often is in Kafka’s letters, but one takes from it a certain acknowledgement of the importance of the church to the village society, though attendance may have been spotty, even in those days.
The church is locked, so I won’t be entering. But the keyhole in the wooden door is huge. I peer in. There are a few chairs in the left transept, no pews; an altar draped with a red-edged cloth, topped with pots of fake flowers; a thin wooden cross rising frailly from the floor. The wooden sanctuary — ark of the Host — must be empty: There’s no chancel lamp. A rustic rendering of a half-armless, bleeding-heart Jesus swathed in yellow, is tacked to the wall. The church is decommissioned.
A Czech-language leaflet posted to the door reads: “Help us save the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in Siřem. We will be happy upon request to send tax receipts. Roman Catholic Parish, www.Liběšice.com. Restoration is supported by the Ministry of Culture for the Czech Republic with the assistance of the Ministry of Culture for Archeological Heritage.” Perhaps a resurrection is in the offing …
M. has spotted something of interest — a small brick building with a clipped-gable roof and slatted-wooden doors, located just west of the churchyard. The plaque above the door reads Spritzenhaus, erbaut 1927. We figure the little building could be connected to the church, but it too is locked, and windowless. A Spritzenhaus, I find out, from the word spritzen — to sprinkle or squirt — is an old German word for fire station. This station doesn’t look big enough to hold anything more than buckets and hoses, maybe a small cart. I’m reminded of the “fire-brigade festival” in The Castle, in which the all-male fire department volunteers greet the Castle’s donation of a new “Feuerspritze” — fire-engine — with great glee. The segment turns farcical through repetition of “Spritze,” and Castle official, Sortini’s, persistent handling of the “Spritze” and “Spritzenhebel,” translated as “shaft” in the Oxford edition.
A small square building set in the slope behind the church draws our attention next. This building can be identified in the old photos. Once-upon-a-time it had windows. Now they’re bricked-in, and there’s no door. Chairs like the ones in the church are visible in the semi-dark, sitting in litter. Someone has etched ‘Unauthorized Entry Forbidden’ in Czech above the lintel —giving the place the look of a kids’ clubhouse. Who knows what purpose it served originally, and there’s no one to ask.
Beyond the little square building, there’s a sports court — the newest-looking addition to the village. We check the old photos. Evidently, the court is located where the house that Ottla and Franz lived once stood, where Franz began his “new life with a measure of confidence,” as he put it in the early days of his stay. He’d stocked up on blue octavo notebooks in preparation, and announced to Max, “What I have to do here I can only do alone. Become clear about ultimate things.” He intended to write in Zürau, and did: over 50 letters in the house-no-longer-standing, and over 100 short texts that Brod arranged for publication in 1931 under the rather grand-sounding title of Reflections on Sin, Hope, Suffering, and the True Way. Yet during his stay in Zürau, Kafka kept his writings about “ultimate things” undercover, even claiming mendaciously to Max that “his will is not directed to writing,” and “since I am not writing at all I don’t have to strive for quiet.”
The quiet in Zürau was violated most often and insidiously by mice, of which Franz expressed terror: “Certainly this fear, like an insect phobia, is connected with the unexpected, uninvited, inescapable, persistent secret aim of these creatures,” he wrote to Max at the beginning of December, “The night is theirs and because of this nocturnal existence and tininess they are so remote from us and thus outside our power.” The mice — and the cat that was brought into Franz’s room to control them — became a running theme in his letters from September through December. To Felix, he wrote that he “controls the mice with a cat, but how shall I control the cat?” The cat, a necessity, was less vexing. “Overnight I leave the cat in the empty room next to mine, thereby preventing her from dirtying my room,” he wrote to Max; yet despite her “excretions … strewed over rug and sofa,” Franz admitted to growing fond of the cat, to holding her “warmly in [his] arms.” He even came around to calling her “a very good little creature,” though he was uncomfortable if she jumped into his lap, and he “didn’t like being alone with her … it’s considerable nuisance to undress in front of her, do one’s exercises, go to bed …” That was Franz: uneasy with the opposite sex, even in the body of a cat.
By January 1918, the cat was no longer being brought to Franz’s room. Traps had been acquired and mice ceased to be a theme in his letters. He emphasized to friends that he was doing well in Zürau — health- and otherwise. The packages he regularly received from his friends kept him up on current issues, and he had as much freedom to read as daylight permitted. He read extensively and eclectically: biographies, correspondence, the Hebrew Bible, a theatre journal, a pacifist journal, Tolstoy’s diaries, works by Dickens, Mann, Buber, Hans Blüher, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard. By spring of 1918, he was steeped in Kierkegaard: Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Repetition, and Stagesare named in letters to Max in March and April.
It’s not hard to imagine that Franz would have found space for reflection here. There’s little in the village to distract one from a task at hand. Even today: one main road, a few dirt footpaths. No inn, no coffeehouse. We return to the pool in front of the churchyard. M. goes to check out the buildings across the way. I take a seat on the bench inside the pool area and gaze out over the green water. Still not a villager in sight, not a goose. Quiet like a counterpane.
I take out the book of Kafka’s 109 aphorisms I’ve also brought along. The short texts have been described as contemplative, conceptual, metaphysical, Kabbalistic. Several are poetic, and cryptic: “A cage went in search of a bird”; “A faith like a guillotine, so heavy, so light”; “A. is a virtuoso and Heaven is his witness.” “A.” is mentioned in three of the aphorisms; who “A.” is, is never spelled out. Lord, God, Heaven and Paradise are thematic; evil and the Evil One appear no fewer than ten times. The Tree of Life also appears, as does the Fall, the Tower of Babel, the Last Judgement, sin, prayer, and the singular “indestructible within.” The frequent use of theological terminology in the aphorisms contributed to a presentation of Franz Kafka as a Jewish writer with distinctly religious concerns, though the writings themselves put the divine-sublime quite out of reach. In this sense, a connection can be drawn between the aphorisms and the sought-after Castle of The Castle — whatever it represents; it can’t be reached and the novel itself was abandoned by Kafka, mid-sentence, in the fall of 1922, never meant to be finished, or published.
I read the first aphorism aloud to the air above the stagnant green water: “The true way passes over a rope which is not stretched high up, but just above the ground. It seems to be intended more for stumbling than for crossing.” I can’t help chuckling a little, though Kafka surely did not intend for the aphorism to be humorous. Sitting before the former goose pond in Siřem, I’m reminded of a neighbor back home who put a low rope around his front yard to prevent the Canada geese from coming up from the nearby pond to feast and defecate on his green lawn. The low rope fence served the purpose of preventing their crossing, and the grass was kept pristine. The geese could not step over the rope, and they didn’t have the wherewithal to fly over it either.
M. beckons me to the other side of the pool — to a low-standing house with a large bay window. Taped inside the windowpanes are the Zürau photos of Franz and Ottla. There’s the one of them standing in a field near the village. Kafka’s secretary, Julie Kaiser, from the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute appears in this one, so it can be dated to the beginning of November 1917: Franz mentioned in a letter to Max that the girl from the office came for a visit — at Ottla’s invitation. There’s the one of Franz and Ottla standing at the entrance to the house they lived in, also a panoramic postcard view of the village. A bulletin in Czech announces “the opening of a permanent exhibition about Kafka in the countryside in the New Galleria in Siřem.” The opening date is cited as August 19, 2017 — two days from the day of our visit: We were in Siřem on August 17. I peer into the room. It’s empty and decrepit. No sign of an imminent exhibition.
We walk around to the other side of the building — to see if we can get a better view. A wooden fence, stone parapet, high grasses and shrubbery obstruct passage. We could try negotiating the brambles and climb over the parapet, but that would be trespassing — even if there’s no one living here anymore, and no one watching us … But there is: an orange tabby cat, peering at me through the grass. We lock gazes and stare each other down. It occurs to me that this is the only animal we’ve seen in Siřem, and that s/he is quite possibly a descendant of the cat that sat on Kafka’s lap. I want to believe that.