Tracking Franz at Planá

Franz Kafka arrived in Planá—a small resort town on the Lužnice River in south Bohemia on Friday, June 23, 1922—a week before his official retirement from the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague. He’d been promoted to senior legal secretary in February 1922—in recognition of his fourteen years of valued civil service—despite a diagnosis of tuberculosis in 1917 and several extended medical leaves. When it became clear he’d never be well enough to return to work, he requested a disability pension and was approved for retirement with a monthly pension of 1,000 Czech crowns, effective July 1.

He came to Planá by train—to spend his first months of retirement in the company of his sister Ottla, brother-in-law Josef David, and their baby daughter Věra. Ottla had rented an apartment for the summer in the house of a local craftsman. Josef would be there on weekends only and Franz would be free to read, rest, and continue working on his novel The Castle, which he’d begun writing at the northern Czech resort town of Spindelmühle (Špindlerův Mlýn) while on leave from the Institute in January. Ottla would attend to her brother, as she had during his first medical leave in the west Bohemian village of Zürau (Siřem) in 1917-18. The two were close and she was sensitive to his needs and idiosyncrasies.

M. and I arrive in Planá by car: Friday, August 18, 2017. Our destination is Příčná 145. I want to see where Kafka wrote the bulk of his last, great, failed novel before abruptly abandoning the work, mid-sentence. Příčná is a narrow one-way street that connects to a slightly wider two-way street, Husova, that connects to the town’s main thoroughfare: Čsla. In under two hours from Prague, we’re almost there. We park on Husova and step out.

In his first letter from retirement—to best friend Max Brod—Franz wrote: “It’s more peaceful in Planá than it’s been at any previous summer resort…as far as I can see at present.” This is our sense too. Planá is quiet, flat and nondescript. It has none of Prague’s architectural elegance and less of the natural beauty of other Czech towns we’ve visited—at least on first impression. Husova Street is neat and unremarkable, except for the exposed side wall of a house on a construction site next to where we’ve parked. The year the house was built—1908—is stamped into a panel on the wall, which would have been concealed till the adjoining building was torn down. Kafka would have passed these buildings on his daily walks from Příčná to the other side of the Lužnice, but this year of construction would have been hidden. This ‘revealed concealment’ strikes me as oddly indicative—for hiddenness, evasiveness, and secrecy were emblematic of Kafka, especially in The Castle. I take out the camera to capture the exposure.

Příčná 145 is a fenced and gated lot, barbed wire along the fence-top. A picture of a guard dog on the gate enforces the warning. But there’s no dog in sight, nor any sound of one. No people either. From our vantage point on the sidewalk there appear to be three buildings on the lot: a low, garage-like structure with a wood panel door, and beyond it a two-storey, greyish-white house with a gabled tile roof and thin brick chimney—like a smokestack. Once upon a time this would have been a quaint country cottage. Now it’s rundown. Both buildings look to be of Kafka’s vintage and we’re thinking that the one with the chimney must be where Franz and the Davids stayed in the summer of 1922. If only we could get in and see it up close. The third building is newer: a two-storey, concrete and plaster house. There’s no door on the street side, so the entrance must be on the other side. The absence of a ‘front door’ and three narrow windows on the gate-side of the house give the place a garrisoned look—augmented by a lone casement window facing Příčná.

Windows figure prominently in a number of Kafka’s works and the strangely-placed windows in this house recall the windows in The Castle: peepholes, spy-windows, rooms without windows. When Kafka’s stand-in—land surveyor, K.—gets his first clear view of the eponymous castle, he sees that it is not a “knightly castle from the days of chivalry, nor a showy new structure, but a complex of buildings, a few of them with two storeys…small windows, shining in the sun…There was something crazed about the sight…as if drawn by an anxious or careless child.” Windows set an edgy tone in the first chapter of the novel. In chapter three, “the window” assumes an active, intermediary role. When K. and his lover, Frieda, retire to his room at the Bridge Inn for the night, K.’s two assistants, Artur and Jeremias, follow in after them like tag-along children. “They were turned out, but they came back through the window,” writes Kafka, and “K….lets them back in, to spend the night.” It’s an odd ménage, and not elaborated upon. In the absence of a ‘front door’ at Příčná 145, one can imagine having to enter the house, like Artur and Jeremias, through the lone window facing the street. But the window is closed, the curtains drawn. The house is still; it admits no entry. The large garden completing the lot is quiet too, as is the street.

Already a few days into his stay at Planá, Franz was grumbling about the noise: “It would be lovely here if it were quiet,” he wrote to Max, “there are a few hours of quiet but not nearly enough…a woodcutter has spent the whole day splitting wood for the landlady…On such a noisy day…I feel like someone expelled from the world.” Noise was harassment to Kafka and noise became thematic in his letters from Planá: “…noise blasts sleep and shatters the head”; “If only there were not so much noise in the world”; “noise has something…narcotic about it.” There were the neighbour’s children, the horn-playing of a peasant youth, the saw mill—”hammering, rumbling of logs, cries of the loaders,” “the gee and ho of oxen attached to a winch.” The whirr of the circular saw was especially distressing to Franz, even with the aid of Ohropax wool and cotton ear plugs, which he relied on day and night. “At the nearby railroad station,” he wrote to Max mid-July, “timber is perpetually being loaded…The chain at the station clanks…and for the past few days some two hundred Prague school children have been quartered here. A hellish noise, a scourge of humanity.”

M. and I are struck by the general quiet—the absence of children, animals, clanking; movement of any kind. I photograph the Příčná lot and buildings from outside the fence, the guard dog sign on the gate, the well-tended garden. We linger on the sidewalk, hoping someone will appear. No one does.

We head back to Husova Street, to look for the “nearby” train station. 250 meters up the street we see the sign and platform—where Kafka must have disembarked that Friday in June 1922. And beside it: the saw mill—heavy machinery, logs and planks stacked neatly between the warehouses and office buildings, the lot extending west. There’s a sense of connectedness in seeing the mill—still in business almost a hundred years after Kafka complained so bitterly about the noise issuing from it. On this Friday, the day of our visit, it’s silent. Not a worker or working animal to be seen—apart from a picture of a guard dog on a billboard inside the fence.

Kafka was hyper-excitable at Planá. Even with his sister’s solicitousness, which he commended in letters to friends, he couldn’t overcome the disquiet that dogged him. “Ottla looks after me no less tenderly than after Věra, and that is saying a great deal,” he wrote to his physician friend, Robert Klopstock. To Max he wrote: “I am given the use of the fine room…where one has a magnificent view from the bed, with the woods in the distance…while the family of three sleep in a tiny cubicle, with the view of the neighbour’s yard and the chimney of the sawmill…The lodgings themselves are very cleverly arranged…Ottla looks after everything” and yet “I have been dashing about or sitting as petrified as a desperate animal in his burrow. Enemies everywhere…”

The enemies, fears, or ghosts as he often called them, were real to Franz, even if immaterial, and their power mounted during his stay at Planá—despite the close care of his sister, in the freedom of retirement, in a place he viewed as beautiful. “Ottla,” he confided to his childhood friend Oskar Baum, “tries to explain the fear partly as springing from physical weakness…but the physical weakness which surely does exist springs from psychic weakness.” He used the term “mental disease” to refer to his lung condition. At the beginning of July, Oskar invited him to vacation in Georgental in Thuringia, Germany. Oskar made the arrangements: “a fine quiet room with balcony, reclining chair, good food, and a garden view for 150 marks a day.” Franz had only to take the train, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it—for “fear of change” or “fear of attracting the attention of the gods,” as he put it to Max. To Robert, he wrote that this “fear, which does not let me travel, is something I have known for a long time; it is more alive than I am and out to prove it.”

Writing was the best defense against “general fear”—but—and there was always a ‘but’ with Kafka, it was a distressed defense. “Writing sustains me,” he wrote to Max in a long letter postmarked July 5, “By this I don’t mean, of course, that my life is better when I don’t write. Rather it is much worse then and wholly unbearable and has to end in madness…I am a writer, which is actually true even when I am not writing, and a non-writing writer is a monster inviting madness…Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me…that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent into the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature…and whatever else may take place in the nether parts…Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind; at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping.”

“Grousing” to friends in letters eased the “repining” a bit. Walking also provided relief. Of evenings, he would walk across the bridge over the Lužnice River, through a neighborhood of newly built luxury villas. He’d bring the landlady’s dog along and the two would walk past the villas and into the woods.

M. and I head south on Husova, cross Čsla—following Kafka’s route—and pause on the Lužnice River Bridge. Here the view is beautiful. The river is almost motionless, glassy in the noon shine, the foliage on both banks reflected impressionistically in the water. An old mill and weir lend the tableau a painterly mien; a lone rowboat beneath a tree completes the quality. Franz did not mention swimming or rowing in his letters from Planá, though these were (and still are) popular summer activities here, and he himself had been an avid swimmer and rower. But in Planá, writing was his main engagement; walking, his diversion.

The villas he noted in letters are located on Ustrašícká Street, southeast of the bridge: large, well-kept homes with gabled red tile roofs and ornamented façades, big picture windows. He wrote of sitting on “a certain bench at the edge of the woods.” M. and I walk through the neighborhood, toward the edge of the Bohemian Forest. I’m scanning for benches. M. picks up on my attentiveness and asks me what I’m expecting to find. I don’t mention the “certain bench.” How can I entertain the thought that it might still be here? “Nothing,” I say. “Let’s go back to Čsla and see what’s there.” It’s grown hot and a cool drink might bring me up.

On Čsla we stop in at a Cukrárna—a sweets shop—for ice-cream. The place is filled with families, children playing on the patio. Franz would have found the play noisy—a hindrance to writing. Yet despite all his complaints about children and their noisemaking, his writing did progress at Planá, even if he considered it “less than average in quality, no more, and constantly endangered by noise.” In a long letter from the end of July, he wrote to Max of the impact of children on his thinking: “Once I notice that they are here…it is as though I had pried up a stone and saw underneath the obvious, the expected, and the dreaded—the wood lice and all the creatures of the night. But this is obviously a transference. It is not the children who are the night’s creatures, rather it is they who in the course of play pry up the stone from my head and ‘favour’ me with a glance into it.”

Kafka was attuned to the “tremendous world in his head,” to how his inner and outer worlds could conflate and become enmeshed. One can’t be so naïve as to suppose that fiction can be biographically decoded, yet novels are places where authors explore their subjectivity. And I wonder how much of Kafka’s professed “transference” makes its way into The Castle; how much of his daily life—as related in his letters from Planá—is mirrored or abstracted in the novel. It’s noteworthy that children and the qualities of childlikeness and childishness, figure so prominently in The Castle, just as they did in Kafka’s life at Planá. For the most part, the children in The Castle are actual children: the schoolchildren at the schoolhouse where K. and Frieda take up temporary residence; Hans Brunswick, the “small boy” who befriends K., admires his “walking-stick” and looks down on K. as if he were the “younger boy.” But the lookalike assistants, Artur and Jeremias, are men whom K. refers to as children, and they often behave as children. One wonders if the two ‘child-men’ might represent a doubling of Kafka’s shadow side—the dependent, infantilized Franz who required so much supervisory care. In a letter to Max from mid-September, he wrote that he “stood there like Gulliver listening to the giant women conversing”—meaning Ottla and the landlady, who had taken charge of him in his weakened state. Of course one can search endlessly for parallels between Kafka’s life and writing and be left guessing. Still the speculation remains irresistible, especially since there are so many clues in his ‘private’ writings.

After the ice-cream on Čsla, we walk back to Příčná 145. I’m hoping there’ll be someone there we can talk to, who may even invite us in to view the houses on the lot from inside the fence. I’m floating the idea that if we can see the old grey-white house up close, it may reveal something about Kafka, even more fancifully, something he might want us to know…I linger at the fence, again awaiting a sign of life. “There’s no one here,” says M., “give it up. Let’s go back to the car. We can drive by again on our way back to Prague, if you like.”

Kafka stopped work on The Castle toward the end of August or the beginning of September 1922. In a long letter to Max, postmarked September 11, he wrote, “I will evidently have to drop work on the castle story forever, cannot pick it up again since the “breakdown.” He names four “breakdowns” in the letter: The first one occurred on one of the days the neighbour’s children were making noise, the second one when Oskar’s letter regarding the Georgental trip arrived; the third when the question of Ottla’s return to Prague for a month was raised, which would have entailed his taking meals at the town inn; and the fourth when the landlady invited him to stay on alone as a boarder for the winter. He was afraid of “complete loneliness”—”loneliness among people.” He described the paradox of this loneliness to Max: “Fundamentally, loneliness is my sole aim…and it can be said that I have ‘arranged’ my life with the view that loneliness can fit comfortably in. And in spite of this, this fear of what I love so much.”

The “breakdowns” are not described in symptomatic detail, but it was the last one—fear of being left to fend for himself alone—that finally defeated his ability to proceed with The Castle. Or maybe the story itself had become too big and unwieldy, the strands of it too difficult to pull together, the approach of the denouement too forbidding. After he dropped “the castle story,” he started work on a shorter piece, “Investigations of a Dog.” One wonders: Was this perhaps a nod to his faithful walking companion, the landlady’s dog? “Investigations of a Dog” is a rambling, seemingly unfinished story in which Kafka writes of noise / music, a “strange dog…brown, flecked here and there with white spots, a fine, strong, inquiring gaze…and an awe-inspiring voice that made the forest fall silent…” And this talking, singing dog tells the narrator: “‘You must leave this place…Walk away now, slowly.'” In fact, Kafka did go; he took the train back to Prague on Monday, September 18, 1922. Three months in Planá marked his first trip as a retiree. Neither the office, nor any other obligation awaited him at home. On September 21, he wrote to Oskar that it would have been nice to stay on in Planá for the winter, but that he “would not have been able to bear it among the unleashed nature spirits.”

M. and I return to Husova Street, get into the car, and drive along Příčná on our way to the highway. M. slows down at 145 so that I can have a final look before we head back to Prague. As we pass, an old woman walks from the back of the house into the garden. “Look,” I shout, “someone’s here.” M. brakes and I leap out. “Excuse me,” I call out to the woman, “I’m wondering if you can help me.” She says something in Czech and I answer in English. She again says something in Czech and then disappears behind the house. I stand there for a moment waiting, then, deflated, return to the car.

“What happened?” M. asks, pulling away. “I told her that I understand this is where the writer Franz Kafka stayed in summer of 1922. She said something in Czech and then went back behind the house.” “Maybe she understood but couldn’t answer in English,” M. suggests, “maybe she went back into the house to get someone who does speak English.” “What are the chances of that?” I counter. “She’s an old woman, probably living alone, and she walked away because we couldn’t communicate.” “Well, maybe,” M. continues, “but maybe not. Let’s drive around the block again and see.” “Right,” I say skeptically, “we’ve been past the lot twice, let’s see if we get lucky on three.”

We come around the block again and this time I notice that the large window on the Příčná side of the house, facing the street, is open. And there’s a young man in shorts and undershirt, sitting perched on the inside sill. I can hardly believe it. “Look,” there is someone else here. You were right,” I say to M. He pulls over and again I leap out of the car. It’s almost comedic. “Excuse me,” I call out to the young man, “I’m wondering if you can help me.” “Maybe,” he says in Czech-inflected English. “I understand that this is where the writer Franz Kafka stayed in the summer of 1922. Do you know anything about that?” I ask. “I’ve heard something about it,” he replies, and waits to hear what I have to say next. “We’re from Canada,” I continue, “and we would very much like to see the house where Kafka worked on his last novel, The Castle. “One moment,” he says, and disappears from the window into the house.

I recall the first chapter of The Castle, in which “the landlord was perched opposite K. on the edge of the windowsill.” It’s as if life and literature are overlapping and I’m even entertaining the thought that Kafka is present. The young man reappears, together with the old woman, this time on the driveway inside the fence. The woman opens the gate and motions for us to enter. We’re inside the gate, we’re admitted. I ask the young man, who, it turns out, is the woman’s grandson, if I can photograph the grey-white house we’ve assumed is the house Kafka stayed in. “Yes,” he says, by way of the grandmother, and I take several shots. “But that is not the house where Kafka stayed,” the young man says, translating for his grandmother. “Kafka stayed here,” she says, indicating the newer house—her own house. “The place where Kafka stayed was torn down,” she says, “and this house built.” Kafka stayed up there,” she says, pointing to the south-facing window. “He wrote The Castle up there,” she says, her grandson continuing to translate, “in the room with the forest view. But he didn’t finish the story. He was bothered by the noise.” “Yes,” I say, “the noise,” not knowing exactly what to add.

“Are we the only people who’ve come here to see where Kafka stayed?” I ask, collecting my thoughts. “No,” says the woman by way of her grandson. “Others have come, but they spoke German or English and I was alone and didn’t understand them, so I sent them away.” “Are we the first Kafka visitors you’ve invited in?” I ask. “Yes,” says the grandson, checking with his grandmother. “My grandmother invited you in because I am visiting today and I know English.” “What’s your name?” I ask the young man. “Mira,” he replies. “Thank you for being here, Mira, and please thank your grandmother for inviting us in.” He does, then motions for us to follow them. We walk past the back of the house, where the ‘front door’ is located, and come to the garden. Here M. and I are presented with a cluster of freshly picked ripe red tomatoes, “Thank you,” I say. I am too moved in the moment, and shy, to think of asking grandmother and grandson if I can take their picture.

It would have been nice to have a photo of grandmother and grandson, but it seems more fitting to have photos of the setting only. There are no photos of Franz at Planá either.

As for the ripe tomatoes, what could have been a more signal and personalized gift? For Kafka was a gardener, too, and a vegetarian. Prior to Planá, gardening had been an afternoon reprieve. Weeding, watering, and planting out were balm for his addled soul.

Elana Wolff is a Toronto-based writer of poetry and creative nonfiction, editor, and designer and facilitator of social art courses. Her work has appeared in Canadian and international publications and has garnered awards. Her Kafka-quest essays are featured in The New Quarterly, The Humber Literary Review, Cargo Literary Magazine, Wanderlust Journal, The Bangalore Review, Eclectica Magazine, and GRIFFEL, among others. Her poetry collection, Swoon (Guernica Editions), is scheduled for June release.

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8 Responses to Tracking Franz at Planá

  1. It looks a bit different here! I’d be intrigued to visit. Greetings from London.

  2. abykittiwakewrites says:

    Well written piece!

  3. S Cohen says:

    How lucky that Mira was there when you visited. Serendipitous!

  4. Marion Rogers says:

    Fascinating discovery. Felt like I was there and the photos made the discovery complete.e ar

  5. Thor Polson says:

    Another in a series of excellent essays. I’m very interested in seeing your where you curiosity will lead you next.

    • Elana Wolff says:

      Thank you, Thor Polson! Back to the Czech Republic for sure. I’m not done there. Also, Germany, Hungary, and maybe Denmark… Kafka covered a lot of ground.

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