A QUARREL WITH KAFKA
by Goran Stefanovski
(Keynote Speech at the Culture Action Europe Annual Conference “The Time is Now”, Brussels 7-9 October, 2010)
I have a friend. His name is Franz Kafka. He is a writer. He is thin and shy and rather, how shall I put it, anxious. We meet on Fridays in a local cafe. He looks up to me and asks for my advice. I am somewhat of an established writer and he is, well, a novice. I have taken a liking to him and I give him a bit of pastoral care. I always go for strong black coffee and he usually stays with the decaf or mint tea. I think it calms him down.
He has written his first novel. It’s called The Trial. I had a look at it. Difficult material, unfinished, not commercial. He agreed with my findings and admitted he felt stuck. I told him he has to diversify, look at the larger picture, join a creative writing course, do a bit of networking, apply for a grant.
Check Culture Action Europe, I said, I have old friends there. I gave him the link. He said he wasn’t very good with computers.
Me: What do you mean you’re not good with computers? You’ve got to get good at it, you must go digital!
Kafka: What is Culture Action Europe?
Me: It’s a lobby organisation. It can offer you space to elaborate and exchange common positions. After all you are a cultural actor, a cultural player.
Kafka: I am what?
Me: A cultural actor, Kafka, you’re not just a writer alienated from society. You have a voice. Political responsibilities. You can have your say about European policies.
Kafka: I am a novelist.
Me: Yes, and where do you live as a novelist? The moon? No Kafka, you live in Europe. Whether you like it or not you are caught in the European project. Your novel won’t be published unless there is public investment in culture and the arts. Are you a member of a writer’s association?
Me: See? You’re not represented. Cultural cooperation matters! Let me try a little psychoanalysis. The name of your main character K. stands for Kafka i.e. you. Am I right?
Me: See, I was right. Ergo, K is a writer.
Kafka: He is a banker.
Me: Who writes in his spare time.
Kafka: He doesn’t.
Me: Well, he writes in his head. He has the febrile imagination of a writer.
Me: You know what I mean. He’s a frustrated writer. No first port of call. No access to opinion or debate or decision makers. What K. needs is a structured dialogue with civil society.
Kafka: I’m not interested in all that.
Me: But all that is interested in you. European politics has impact on the way you walk, breathe and make your toast in the morning. You’ve got to have a position!
Kafka: K. has no positions.
Me: That’s a position too. That’s a Not-for-profit cultural position. But you could give it a clearer voice, a more coherent message.
Kafka: I’m not a political writer.
Me: You want a grant or not?
Kafka: I do.
Me: Well then. Give your novel measurable social value.
Kafka: Excuse me?
Me: Clarify methodology. Rewrite!
Me: Let us for a moment imagine that it’s not called “The Trial” but “The European Trial”.
Kafka: It isn’t.
Me: Let’s just suppose it was. Suddenly it all falls into place. It raises poignant questions: K. is lost in the common arena, he has no vision of sustainable and more cohesive Europe and no access to the arts. Which is his fundamental right!
Kafka: That’s not what the novel is about.
Me: Don’t you wish it was? It isn’t now, but it could be! Tweak it, focus it, let it resonate with issues of the European project.
Me: So you get a grant. Or else you do community work. Creative writing sessions with prisoners, the handicapped, drug addicts?
He looked defeated. He promised he would work on the case. The following Friday he gave me his report.
Kafka: I went to the Arts Council website.
Me: Now you’re talking.
Kafka: I tried to log on. I was told I had to become a member first and it asked for my details.
Me: See how easy it is.
Kafka: Then it put me through an eligibility check. Asked me whether I was applying as an individual or an organization. I hesitated. It said “If you are not sure read the ‘Who can apply‘ section of ‘How to apply’. Then it went into a “recalculate” mode. It asked me for a figure of how much money I wanted to apply for. I wasn’t writing the application, I wanted to get a form. The next level gave me three options, none about writing: Are you asking for funding towards course of study, activity in film or purchase of second hand equipment?
With a wave of my hand I dismissed his whimpering complaints. I ordered another coffee and got my I-pad out. Within minutes I got him information on all kinds of grants he could go for. I could see his admiration in my peripheral vision.
The following Friday he said he studied the materials and wrote a draft of a story to go as a sample of his writing towards his application. He said he tried to press all the required buttons. He was obviously under my influence.
Me: Just go for it, Kafka! The time is now! No time like now!
I told him that was the name of an important conference I was invited to attend in Brussels. I teased him that if he was a good boy I might put in a good word for him. He asked me if he could read me a few paragraphs from his short story which I accepted with pleasure. The title was “Metamorphosis”.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous cultural operator. He was lying on a heap of paper forms and plastic folders and when he lifted his head a little he could see his body looked like an armour-plated filing cabinet. The bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous drawers opened and closed helplessly and the labels danced before his eyes: Proposals, Applications, Bursaries, Conferences, Public Engagements, Example Budgets, Audience Development, Sources of Funding.
Oh God he thought, what an exhausting job I’ve picked on! Filling forms day in, day out. It’s much more irritating than doing the actual writing, and on top of that there’s the trouble of endless conferences, networking, constant travelling, irregular meals, casual acquaintances that are always new and never become intimate friends” He read me a few paragraphs. They sounded promising. I encouraged him to work on it. He asked me to help him with the forms of the proposal.
Me: Go on, then. What are the questions?
Kafka: Do I want the public to know that my work has been supported with funding from the National Lottery.
Me: Yes. A resounding yes. If not it may affect your future applications.
Kafka: What is it I want to do?
Me: Write a bloody novel.
Kafka: How strong is the artistic idea? Has it been thoroughly thought through? Is the plan likely to achieve the artistic ambition?
Me: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Kafka: What are the aims of my activity?
Me: Write a novel.
Kafka: We covered that in what I wanted to do. But what is my aim?
Me: Same thing.
Kafka: But these are two different questions.
Kafka: How is my activity likely to affect the people who experience it. Will it provide an excellent experience that affects and changes people engaged with it?
Me: They will cry and they will laugh.
Kafka: Can I write that?
Me: No, you can’t.
Kafka: How will I manage the budget and my cash flow?
I was a bit lost for words. I told him that my friends from Culture Action Europe would be more than qualified and happy to help here. There was a long and unpleasant silence. He threw the papers in the air. We sat there watching them land. He said he’d had enough.
Me: Calm down, Kafka. It’s all about feasibility and feasibility is not all bad.
Kafka: Feasibility? That’s why I never learnt how to ride a bike. Because of feasibility problems with my keeping balance. I never learnt to swim. Because of feasibility problems with my staying afloat. I never learnt to make love. And that’s why I write. Because I have problems with the feasibility of this world. And I refuse to cycle by numbers, to swim by numbers, to make love by numbers or write by numbers.
Me: Are you saying I write by numbers.
Kafka: I don’t know how you write.
Me: If you asked I’d tell you.
Kafka: I don’t care how you write.
Me: It’s not bad to have orientation in time and place.
Kafka: Orientation? Yes, please! Give it to me. Tell me where I belong. Classify me on Amazon. Put me in my niche: Crime, thriller, mystery, fantasy? Or political or romance? Or gay and lesbian? Historical, horror, humour or lad lit?
Me: I’m sorry but there is a real world out there!
Kafka: Real? Did you call it real?
Me: Yes. And I want to find my real place in it.
Kafka: I am so happy for you.
Me: Who are you attacking?
Kafka: Who are you defending?
Me: You don’t know me at all.
Kafka: I have my intuition. Be careful not to become a walking cliché. Like one of those characters who slit the throat of K. at the end of my novel.
Me: I am squeamish, Kafka. I couldn’t hurt a fly!
Kafka: Piss off!
Me: That’s political language. You said you were not a political writer.
Kafka: I will burn my manuscripts.
Me: Oh, come on! Now that is a cliché!
Kafka: Piss off.
He told me to piss off twice. Then he slammed the door on me. Then there was long pause and silence and time for reflection. I thought I would be fine with it, but I wasn’t. Not that I would show it, but my confidence was a bit rattled. I went into a soul searching mode. My sleep became a bit irregular, I lost my appetite. I was trying to help that bastard and now he infected me with his paranoia. I suddenly thought: this is the age of austerity, whole countries go bankrupt, will I ever get another commission, what if my producers stop answering my calls. I would have to start writing on spec.
I couldn’t take black coffee any more, I hit the mint tea. One Friday as I was sitting alone in the cafe I noticed in the corner a man I’d seen a few times previously. He invited me to join him.
He’s a fellow writer, an older guy, bald, quiet, says he’s written a few plays in his life, but he’s retired now. He said he’d overheard my conversation of the previous week.
Him: I respect feasibility. I never rocked the boat. I always worked to exact commissions, tight briefs, I pitched to the taste of the audience, I always had an individual patron and played the tune exactly as the paying piper called it. By the way my name is William Shakespare. You can call me Will.
I suddenly realized where my problem was. He always had patronage by individuals, I have always had patronage by committees. I poured my heart out to him about my writing and Culture Action Europe and the Brussels Conference. He found it most interesting. In the end I exclaimed that we must prove that we are MORE! To which he gently replied: Let us just make sure we are not less.
I think it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.