Tag Archives: literature

Bringing Kafka’s Castle to Life

To celebrate publication of the new critical edition of Franz Kafka’s final, unfinished novel Das Schloss (The Castle), Carolin Duttlinger and Barry Murnane from the Oxford Kafka Research Centre hosted a day of activities with sixth-form students, two student workshops on editing and adapting Kafka, and a podium discussion to discuss the legacy of the novel. The day-long event brought together specialists from Oxford, Roland Reuß and Peter Staengle, and award-winning playwright Ed Harris, who recently adapted the novel for BBC Radio 4. In this blog post Barry Murnane, Associate Professor in German at St John’s College, introduces Kafka’s novel.

Playwright Ed Harris with the students on the study day

Das Schloss is not exactly the most obvious introduction to Kafka’s works. Written over a period of about seven months in 1922 while Kafka’s health was deteriorating (he had been diagnosed with what was probably tuberculosis several years earlier), Das Schloss is a rambling narrative that tells us how a protagonist known only as K arrives in a snow-covered landscape dominated by a castle and has to find his place in the local community:

“It was late evening when K arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of the Castle Mount, mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, transl. Anthea Bell. Oxford: OUP, 2009, p5)

Calling himself a “Landvermesser”, or “surveyor”, K finds himself in the middle of a society that is apparently dominated by a gigantic bureaucracy and he becomes involved in constant conversations with the locals trying to understand how this bureaucracy works.

Kafka in Spindelmühle, the winter resort where he began writing Das Schloss

For one reason or another, K never seems to ‘arrive’, however, and ends up constantly walking and talking in circles. On the one hand, he seems blameless because the castle authorities are not exactly forthcoming with any information. On the other hand, K appears at least partly responsible for his failure in that he treats the locals as little more than stepping stones on his way to the castle, including a potential lover called Frieda. It’s unclear how the novel would have ended: Kafka’s friend and first editor, Max Brod, says that Kafka told him on his deathbed how the novel was meant to finish with K being ‘accepted’ into the Castle and its community, but it seems a long way to go before K. would be accepted anywhere, never mind by the Castle authorities. Instead, we see a novel project trailing off into a “scheinbare Leere”, the seeming void, that K looks into at the start of the novel.

Thanks to the new critical edition of Das Schloss edited by Peter Staengle and Roland Reuß and published by the Stroemfeld-Verlag we now get a real sense of how Kafka actually wrote. Their edition reproduces the exact manuscript alongside an easy-to-read transcription, warts and all. The new edition is ground-breaking, but it puts an emphasis on scholars to make the overload of information it provides accessible. There is no easily consumable narrative of K against the Castle: we see passages where K is a less than positive hero figure, stubbornly refusing to actually listen to what people are telling him and treating women with little respect. One interesting thing is that the material of the manuscript itself shows no real sign of a struggle as Kafka begins to run out of steam with the project: the ductus of his handwriting remains smooth, flowing, perhaps even more so than at the start.

It is astonishing how relevant Kafka’s discussions of bureaucracy and social life in The Castle still are. With Oxford German Studies looking to build up to the centenary of Kafka’s death in 2024, the new edition of the novel is an ideal opportunity to discuss Kafka’s legacy and importance today.

Virtual Book Club: German episode

The Virtual Book Club returns once more, this time with an episode focussing on German. The German episode features a discussion about a short story by Franz Kafka, ‘Der Kaufmann’ [The Tradesman]. Here, Joanna Raisbeck leads the discussion with undergraduates Hannah and Colleen, as they consider the questions: what is the tradesman worried about?; what does he think about in the lift?; and why do you think he has these thoughts in the lift?

If you would like to receive a copy of the text, which will be provided in both the original German and an English translation, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Announcing the 2018 German Classic Prize!

Budding Germanists out there might be interested in delving into a ‘German Classic’: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart. For the second year, the Oxford German Network is running an essay competition for Sixth-Formers who have studied German at GCSE level (you do not need to be studying German at A Level or equivalent). There are prizes of £500, £300, and £100 to be won. The deadline for submissions is noon on Wednesday 12 September 2018. More information is available here or read on to find out more…

The Prize celebrates a classic text of German literature, with resources to make it accessible whether or not you have experience of German literature. This year, the prize focuses on Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart, a fascinating historical drama about how Elizabeth I came to have Mary, Queen of Scots executed. The great centrepiece of the play is a gripping confrontation between Elisabeth and Maria – in fact, it never happened but it makes for electrifying drama.

You will find a rich array of material including podcasts and YouTube links on Maria Stuart: http://www.ogn.ox.ac.uk/content/german-classics-prize. Candidates may also request a special reader with extracts from secondary literature on the work (see contact details on the website).

The task: Write a 2000 to 3000-word essay in English, independently and unsupervised, over the summer holidays between Lower and Upper Sixth/ between Years 12 and 13.

The prize, and funding of the accompanying resources, have been generously donated by Jonathan Gaisman, QC, a highly distinguished commercial barrister who was introduced to German literature at school and still finds German literature and culture the most intellectually rewarding part of his life. He would like to give young people the opportunity to be inspired as he was when he first encountered German literature.

Students willing to have a go at undertaking this challenge have the possibility of winning a glittering cash prize worth £500, £300 or £100. All participants will get a certificate of participation.

The prize is aimed at German learners in the UK. It does not assume that participants will be taking English beyond GCSE or that they have a prior interest in literature. The rationale for asking Modern Languages students to write an essay in English is to give an opportunity for UK learners to engage with a linguistically and intellectually challenging German work in the linguistic medium they are most comfortable with. While participants may want to use a translation to support their understanding, we recommend reading the work in the original to get the most out of it and take advantage of the opportunity it offers for expanding German competence. All quotations must be in German.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

As with all the Oxford German Olympiad competitions, we aim to create a level playing field for students from different backgrounds, schools, and levels of linguistic competence. The submission form must be signed by the participant’s teacher, who is also asked to submit the essay online. All sixth-formers in UK schools with a GCSE or equivalent UK qualification in German are entitled to take part, including students who are not taking a German A-level or equivalent qualification. Native and near-native speakers of German are not excluded but are required to declare their linguistic status on the submission form. Our prime criterion is the quality of intellectual and imaginative engagement with the work evident in the essay while taking account of prior opportunity.

Any questions should be addressed to the German Classic Prize Coordinator: Joanna Raisbeck, joanna.raisbeck@some.ox.ac.uk.

Viel Glück!

An Introduction to Effi Briest

This post was written by Katie Wilson, a first-year student of French and German at Oriel College. Katie gives us a glimpse of one of the texts studied in the first year of the German course at Oxford, and makes the case for Effi Briest as an early feminist novel.

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest is the first text we study in Hilary Term (in Oxford, this is the term that runs from January to March) of the first year, and the first German novel we study during the degree. The text is about seventeen year old Effi, who is forced by her parents into an arranged marriage with an older man: Baron Geert von Innstetten. Becoming quickly entrapped in her inevitably unhappy marriage, Effi seeks to fight against boredom and depression in her marital home in any way that she can. We read the novel following the study of four German plays in Michaelmas Term (the term that runs from October to December). As interesting as they are, the plays are primarily focused on male characters, and all written by male authors. There are female characters in only some of the plays, and they’re not the heroines that female students want to read about.

Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), portrait by Carl Breitbach

The novels for Hilary Term don’t look much more promising on the surface. There’s still no female authors, and we’re treated to a round of soldiers, a magician and an ungeheuren Ungeziefer (the ‘monstrous bug’ of Kafka’s metamorphosis)*. Fontane’s novel, however, is a game changer. Although it’s written by a man, the novel is structured so that we share our experiences with the female protagonist. When Effi’s bored, Fontane takes up page after page to explain her boredom, so that we’re bored with her. When Effi’s happy, we’ll only experience a page of excitement because time flies when we’re having fun.

This is no accident. Sharing Effi’s experiences means we’re naturally sympathetic towards her, so when she takes actions that were unforgivable in her Victorian Prussian context – ie: having an affair with married womaniser Major Crampas – we understand her motivations and direct our animosity towards the privileged few that oppress Effi.

Hanna Schygulla played Effi in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 adaptation. (Prod Co: Tango Film Prod, Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Phot: Jürgen Jürges, Dietrich Lohmann, Ed: Thea Eymèsz, Art Dir: Kurt Raab).

Of course she’s young, naïve, and perhaps not the greatest heroine we could have hoped for. However, Effi Briest ticks all the boxes for a first wave feminist text that highlights women’s issues in Fontane’s context. Everyone should be very excited about studying this author!

* If you’re curious about translating the phrase ‘ungeheuren Ungeziefer’, check out this article by professional translator Susan Bernofsky.

Conversations with Moroccan Poet Abdellatif Laâbi

This post was written by Khalid Lyamlahy, a doctoral student at St Anne’s College. Khalid’s research looks at Moroccan identity in a post-colonial context, examining the concepts of nostalgia and revolt in the works of three contemporary Moroccan Francophone writers : Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine (1941-1995), Abdelkebir Khatibi (1938-2009) and Abdellatif Laâbi (born 1942).

Poet Abdellatif Laâbi


On February 20-21 2018, the University of Oxford hosted Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi for a two-day event, supported by The Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities and the Maison Française d’Oxford (the French cultural centre in Oxford). The event provided a unique opportunity to discuss and engage with the work of one of the major voices of Francophone poetry.

Born in Fez in 1942 under the French protectorate, Laâbi was only fourteen when Morocco gained its independence in 1956. Laâbi taught French in Rabat and cofounded in 1966 with a group of Moroccan poets and artists the journal Souffles-Anfas, one of the most influential platforms for cultural and political production in postcolonial Africa and the Global South. A political activist in the Moroccan Left, Laâbi was arrested in 1972 and spent more than eight years in prison. After an international campaign for his release, he left Morocco and went into exile in France. Laâbi has published a wide range of works including poetry collections, novels, essays, autobiographies, children books, and translations, as well as a series of articles and interviews. In 2009 he was awarded the prestigious Goncourt Prize of Poetry, and in 2011, the Grand Prix de la Francophonie de l’Académie Française. His works have been translated into English, Spanish, German, and Italian, among other languages.

The first day of the event was introduced by Jane Hiddleston who provided a synthetic introduction of Laâbi’s trajectory and literary production. The first panel, chaired by Toby Garfitt, included talks by Andy Stafford and Khalid Lyamlahy on the motif of light in Laâbi’s work. In two equally enthusiastic presentations, Stafford discussed the at once ambivalent and rich meaning of a series of occurrences of the word “soleil” (“sun” in French) in Laâbi’s early poetry, while Lyamlahy reflected on the presence and absence of light in Laâbi’s writing, demonstrating how the poet recovers, protects, and brings light to his readership. For the Moroccan poet who has long lived behind bars, light is a source of hope, inspiration, and generosity. As he writes in one of his prison poems from 1978:

Bonjour soleil de mon pays
qu’il fait bon vivre aujourd’hui
que de lumière
que de lumière autour de moi
Bonjour terrain vague de ma promenade
tu m’es devenu familier

(Good morning sun of my land
how good it feels to be alive today
so much light
so much light around me
Good morning empty exercise yard
you have become familiar to me)

This extract is written as a dialogue between the jailed poet and the Moroccan sun. By repeating the word “lumière” (“light” in French), Laâbi celebrates life and creates a sense of freedom that resists incarceration and confinement.

Participants on the first day of the event at the Maison Française, Oxford

The second panel took the form of a conversation between Lyamlahy and Laâbi’s wife Jocelyne who is also a writer. Jocelyne has published a historical novel, an autobiography in which she recounts her life in Morocco and struggle for Abdellatif’s release, in addition to several collections of Moroccan tales which she gathered and translated into French. During the conversation, Jocelyne explained how she came to writing, commenting on her interest in Moroccan popular culture and, more broadly, the history of the Arab world. She also read some excerpts from the new edition of her Moroccan tales, Avec la rivière mon conte s’en est allé (Al Manar, 2018) which means “With the river my tale went away”, a closing formula used by Moroccan storytellers at the end of their tales.

In the final panel, moderated by Catriona Seth, Abdellatif Laâbi discussed the challenges of being a writer “from the periphery” and how this position shapes his approach to poetic creation and language. Significantly, Laâbi described his literary career as a “miracle”, a word that refers to both his background as the son of a Moroccan craftsman whom nothing predestined to become a writer, and to the sense of wonder and sensitivity that characterizes his poetic work.

Prof. Catriona Seth in conversation with Laâbi

The second day of the event opened with a discussion on language and politics in North Africa. James McDougall and Kaoutar Ghilani spoke about the evolution of language politics in the Maghreb, and the effect of colonialism and nationalism on linguistic dynamics in the region. They provided an instructive and complementary overview of the Arabisation policy and the teaching of foreign languages in both Algeria and Morocco, while Laâbi reaffirmed the necessity of recognising local dialects and promoting linguistic diversity in the region.

After this, Laâbi and his translator André Naffis-Sahely discussed the practice and values of translation. Drawing on his experience as a translator of Palestinian Arabic poetry into French, Laâbi defined translation as an act of love, dialogue, and deep understanding of the original text. Similarly, Naffis-Sahely drew on the legacy of the late British poet and translator Sarah Maguire to argue that translating consists in taking not only an aesthetic but also an ethical position. The discussion was then followed by a bilingual reading of Laâbi’s poetry in both French (by Laâbi) and English (by Naffis-Sahely).

This two-day event was a unique opportunity to engage with the deeply humanist and thought-provoking voice of Abdellatif Laâbi. Subtle and powerful, sensuous and rebellious, his poetry is not only a record of a life of commitment and dignity, but also a call to remain vigilant and reinvigorate the dynamics of resistance in an age of violence and intolerance. Laâbi reminds us that writing is the most valuable act of sharing. In his words,

Ton écriture est ton seul bien, celui que tu n’as jamais monnayé et que personne n’a jamais pu acheter. Et ne crois pas que tu en sois propriétaire. Ce bien n’est tien que dans la mesure où tu le distribues chaque jour, chaque nuit, surtout quand tu traverses les périls.

(Your writing is your only asset, the one that you have never sold and that no one has ever been able to buy. And do not imagine that you are its owner. This asset is yours only so long as you share it every day, every night, and especially when you are crossing perilous territory)

A display of Laâbi’s books

Virtual Book Club: the Portuguese episode!

The Virtual Book Club returns once again, and this time with an episode in Portuguese. This episode features a discussion about the poem ‘Paisagem’ by Maria Manuela Margarido (1925 – 2007), which was translated by Julia Kirst in 1995. Margarido was from São Tomé and Príncipe. Throughout her writing life she spoke out against colonialism, becoming a prominent voice in the liberation of Portuguese colonies in Africa.

Here, doctoral student Alex discuss the text with two undergraduates, Clare and Ebere, looking at topics like anxiety about colonialism, the role of the poetic voice, and the use of surreal imagery.

If you would like to receive a copy of the poem (in both the original Portuguese and the English translation) to follow as you watch the discussion, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Virtual Book Club: Italian takes a turn

The Virtual Book Club is back once again, this time with an episode on Italian. The Italian episode features a discussion about a poem by Patrizia Cavalli, which was published in 1992. Here, doctoral student Nicolò Crisafi guides two undergraduates, Kirsty and Hannah, through the poem, looking at topics like gender, voice, and form.

If you would like to receive a copy of the poem to follow as you watch the discussion, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Look out – it’s our Virtual Book Club!

Last month, the Modern Languages Faculty at Oxford launched our virtual book club. For all you bookworms out there, this is a chance to engage more with literature beyond your school curriculum, and in languages other than English.

Each month we will focus on a different language but will always provide the text in translation, as well as in the original language. At the start of the month, we will circulate the texts chosen, which will be poems or short prose extracts, by email. At the end of the month we will upload a video discussion of the text with some of our academics and undergraduates.

The first episode focussed on a passage from the Russian novel The Naked Year, by Boris Pilnyak. It is available below. To receive a copy of the text or to sign up for future episodes, email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk with your name and school.