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The Suspension of Disbelief: A Conversation Between Magdaléna Platzová and Alex Zucker

Alex Zucker: What spurred you to write this novel? Had you been interested in Felice Bauer for a long time before you wrote the book? How did you arrive at the structure?

Magdaléna Platzová: I have been carrying Felice with me for about a decade, ever since I met her son Henry in New York. I describe this meeting in the book. As I was preparing to teach a course on Kafka at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, I was trying to find some connection between his world and the United States, and the one that came to mind was Felice Bauer, who immigrated to America with her family in 1935. So I set out to find some trace of her and got in touch with her great-grandson. He talked to his grandfather and made my visit possible. It was amazing to be able to talk to him, to touch him—almost like touching Kafka himself, or Felice. That one hour he gave me left me with some questions that proved to be stubborn enough to flourish into my novel some ten years later.

There was a question about Kafka’s letters, the way they wrestled them from Felice in order to publish them. Then all that fame, the Kafka mania that spread after World War II. Also I wanted to know why Felice had kept the letters secret for more than thirty years, carrying them all over the world with her, if she was just going to destroy them in the end? And why was Henry so angry with Kafka? Those were just some of the questions I had. Over the years, as I struggled with combining my own writing with my family life, the question of Kafka and Felice’s relationship became ever more poignant: Could the two of them be together or not? It seemed to me that if I could answer this, I could also answer some very essential things about myself.

As for the structure, it wasn’t something I planned. At first I thought I would write in a linear, chronological way. I wanted the book to be simpler, purer in a way, than my previous novels, which were more like puzzles, with all the pieces falling in place only at the end. But at some point, the narrative demanded to connect with something more authentic; it needed to be confronted with myself. I had to step in and start writing in the first person as the real me—which I hadn’t done in other novels. I believe this documentary twist gave the book a much needed anchor in reality, made the text more powerful in fact.

AZ: Felice isn’t the only woman centered in your novel. There’s also Grete Bloch, her friend, who corresponded with Kafka and, later in her life, claimed to have had Kafka’s child. She is quite a lively presence in your book. What led you to write about Grete as well?

MP: Writing about Felice, you couldn’t ignore Grete—she was, after all, Felice’s best friend. And not only that, but Felice’s son mentioned her in our interview—he didn’t like Grete at all. There was something sneaky about her. She was very active in destroying Felice’s first engagement to Kafka. I paint her that way as a kind of counterpoint to Felice. She’s an important figure in the novel, especially with the apparition of a mysterious man who claims to be her and Kafka’s son. I guess what touched me the most about her, and the reason I was able to bring her into the story in such a vivid way, is that I could very well imagine how this 51-year-old woman felt, trapped in that small Italian village, running from death, clinging to love. In a way, her psychology is closer to mine than that of Felice.

AZ: Does Kafka loom as large in Czech literature as he does in US and English literature? What aspects of his writing would you say have resonance?

MP: Well, he does loom large. He loomed even larger in communist times when his books, and his personality, were seen as subversive, as enemies of the totalitarian system. The only time his books were officially allowed to be published in Czechoslovakia between 1948, when the Communist Party seized power, and 1989, when the regime finally fell, was during the 1960s. The publication of Kafka was actually one of the first signs of the political thaw that led to what was known as the Prague Spring and, subsequently, the Soviet invasion in 1968. And even then, there had to be an afterword or foreword, explaining Kafka from the official Marxist point of view. The authors of those texts made Kafka into a socialist, if not a communist—which in fact, in a way, was not so far from the truth, since he was a very compassionate human being. But of course, people living in communist Czechoslovakia read him not for his social conscience but for his sense of absurdity, which was something they experienced every day in their own lives. The totalitarian regime, with its secret police and network of spies, its intrusion into the most intimate spheres of human life, and its hidden, mysterious authority, felt very much like Kafka’s world—whereas in the West, he was read more as a voice of modern man’s alienation from his own life, from life in general. He was interpreted as an existentialist beset by anxiety. Both are probably accurate, but the Czech reading may be a bit light-hearted. In a totalitarian state, you are also alienated, but at least you know why. It isn’t entirely your fault.

How about you, though? You’re a translator with great experience and have translated writers of many different styles, some extremely difficult. Jáchym Topol and Josef Jedlička, for example. What were the greatest challenges of translating Life After Kafka as it’s called in English? And was it different in some way from my other texts you have worked on before?

AZ: I would say the greatest challenge in translating this novel was finding the right tone, or voice, for the various characters, some of whom are contemporary, some of whom are historical, and none of whom I had met. When you as the author write the voice of a character, and perhaps even more so when the character is based on a real person, as some of the characters in Life After Kafka are (Felice Bauer’s son Henry in particular, who appears in the novel under the name Joachim), you have the advantage of having heard the person speak. I am recreating their voice based on your “Czech translation of it,” and if the person is, or was, an English speaker, I am bringing it back into an English that may or may not be accurate. I do the best I can, based on my own imagining of the person, which is in turn based on your characterization of them—their upbringing, education, how they dressed, looked—and so in the end, I can only ask you, Is this what they actually sounded like? Is this how they spoke? 

I was faced with this same challenge in The Attempt, my 2016 translation of your 2013 novel Anarchista, which also featured English-speaking characters who existed in real life. And in general, I do believe that dialogue is trickier to handle in translation than narrative, since it calls to mind a particular view of characters in the reader’s mind, a more concrete image than exists when they aren’t speaking, so the reader is more likely to start wondering, Is this what this person should actually sound like? Does the way they sound fit with my imagination of them? Boom: the reader is taken out of the text, rather than absorbed in it. “Suspension of disbelief” is, famously, a concept originating in Greco-Roman theater, though the term itself was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and I have found it useful as a way of approaching dialogue when I’m translating. Having said that, there are times when a translator wants the reader to be taken out of the text, wants to draw attention to the fact the text is translated; there are even whole books where this may be the goal. And I’m certainly not in favor of translators being “invisible.” But in the case of Life After Kafka, translating the English-speaking characters in such a way that their voice remained, let’s say, “plausible” was something I devoted a lot of attention to.

I’m thinking about what other languages this novel has been translated into besides English. Can you tell us what they are, and what questions came up during your work with those translators that might have been different from the ones that came up with me?

MP: It has already been translated into French, it is currently being translated into German, Serbian, Italian, and Croatian, and it will soon be translated into Danish too, as far as I know. My French translator had some questions, but very few, and I haven’t yet heard from the others, which actually worries me. A translator who has no questions is always suspicious to me—it makes me wonder whether they’re digging deep enough. But we’ll see.

Another question that was on my mind is whether you need to be passionate about a book in order to translate it? Does it have to speak to you personally? And if so, what was it that spoke to you most about my novel?

AZ: I suppose it depends on what you mean by “passionate.” I would say I have to be interested in a book, but because I’m a professional translator, I have to have “a job” at all times, which is to say I always have to be translating something, and that means I can’t limit myself only to books I love. But I don’t have to love a book for it to speak to me personally, and that, I would say, is a necessity for me to translate a book. So, what speaks to me most about your novel are the family relationships. I know the focus of the book is Felice Bauer’s life, and purportedly at least, her relationship with Kafka and the echoes of that relationship across space and over time. To me, though, the most moving and intriguing aspects of the novel are the relationships between her and her children, or between her children and her, to frame it slightly differently—and the relationships between Felice Bauer’s children and the other people in her life, including, of course, Kafka.

MP: How much of yourself do you think you add to the texts you translate? And how much personal attachment do you feel?

AZ: Well, it’s inevitable that a translator “adds themselves” to the texts they translate. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having the discussion about AI that we’re having now. At least when it comes to literary translation, there is inevitably interpretation going on. A literary text is a work of imagination in the language in which it was written, so it is impossible to produce a version in another language without the use of imagination. (This is made clear, I think, by the fact that literary translation is often referred to in Czech as artistic—umělecký—translation.) Typically, when asked to explain what literary translation is, I begin by saying that what I do is primarily translate style. Not words. Style. So, my work on a text, a novel, is, over time, an arriving at a style that I think suits, or matches, or fits the style in which it was written in Czech. Everyone has their own experience of literature, and their own preferences—what they think sounds “good” or “right”—so that necessarily means an attachment to one’s choices.

I know you’re not overly attached to being Czech, but I’m curious how you see yourself “fitting into” Czech literature—or not. Do you see yourself as part of a Czech lineage? How much of an influence do Czech writers have on you as opposed to writers working in other languages?

MP: I do see myself as a part of Czech lineage, but in a broader sense. I think by living abroad for a long time, I freed myself from the expectations of the Czech literary world, which can be quite limiting. I don’t care anymore about whether or not I’m interesting enough for Czech readers and literary reviewers. This process of opening up to the broader world was not without pain—there was a lot of insecurity involved—but now I’m out and I can see Czech literature and culture without the bias of somebody stuck in the middle of it. Things that loom large for someone in Prague are often not of much interest to me. On the other hand, I’m able to see great value and mastery in things that may not be appreciated as much. To take one example: You translated Josef Jedlička [Midway Upon the Journey of Our Life, Karolinum Press, 2016]. To me, he is a fantastic writer. Not many Czech people know him at all. And there are others. I read in Czech, French, and English, the language doesn’t much matter to me. I can feel or absorb a writer’s work intimately in all three. And learn from them. Of course, there is always a larger selection of inspiring books in English and French—the number of books published in Czech is very small compared to those two. I’m not denigrating it. That’s just a fact. I also feel these two languages enrich my Czech, as I often strive to express something that comes naturally in one of them but perhaps doesn’t come that easily in Czech.

AZ: So, one last question, since after all, the excerpt being published with our conversation is a chapter from the novel that takes place in Los Angeles. Readers might be interested to know how much of your writing here is based purely on research and how much of it is based on your personal experience of Los Angeles?

MP: I have been to Los Angeles, but a very long time ago, and it had no connection to my writing. To tell the truth, even if I had gone there to do research, I don’t think I would have found the city I write about in the novel: Los Angeles of the 1940s and 1950s. I’ve learned that, for me, what works best when I’m writing about a place is to start with thorough research—look at maps, photos, read what people wrote about the place at that particular time—for instance, to get the spirit of 1920s Berlin, one of the things I read was Joseph Roth’s reportage—and then to use my intuition and imagination. You actually evoke the city for yourself using details—scents, sounds, etc.—and by doing that, you give the reader enough material to do the same work. I believe that sometimes it’s even counterproductive to actually see a place before writing about it. The images you paint are less vivid. For example, in my book I describe jacaranda trees in bloom. You can almost feel how sticky the flowers are, right? I think if I had seen them, you never would have gotten such an image from me.

Alex Zucker is the award-winning translator of several books by Czech authors, including Magdaléna Platzová’s novels "The Attempt" and "Life After Kafka."

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Magdaléna Platzová is the author of nine books, including three novels published in English: "Aaron’s Leap," a Lidové Noviny Book of the Year Award finalist, "The Attempt," longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award and a Czech Book Award finalist, and "Life After Kafka," a Magnesia Litera award finalist.

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More from Issue 9: Winter/Spring 2024


Life After Kafka

by Magdaléna Platzová, Alex Zucker


“Notes on the Confessional Style,” “Memorial Day”

by Benjamin Bartu