All any of us wants is to be seen and to be heard. This longing is at the core of our human beingness. Most never get the opportunity to share their life story in a way that impacts many. Why some people become famous and others, equally as gifted, remain obscured to the annals of history is a compelling study in itself.
Kafka & Langer
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) has become an iconic figure in 20th century literature. Critics, writers and readers alike revere him as one of the most influential authors of our time. His stories and novels live on, continuing to ignite the imagination, inviting new critical studies and translations from their native German. Kafka’s writing is known for its universal themes: archetypes of alienation, physical and psychological brutality, parent-child conflict, labyrinths of bureaucracy, terrifying quests and mystical transformations. His many works, including, The Metamorphosis, A Hunger Artist, The Trial, The Castle, continue to captivate the generations who have followed him.
Georg Mordechai Langer. Who? That’s what I asked when I was led to a new book—a flip book published by the Toronto-based literary press Guernica Editions—that brings together translations of Kafka’s and Langer’s writings and sheds new light on their friendship.
A Fascinating Story
How this book came about is the fascinating part of this story to me. The Kafka half, A Hunger Artist & Other Stories, is a new translation by Ashland, Oregon-based author Thor Polson of some of Kafka’s most famous stories along with other lesser-known pieces. Polson, long drawn to the work of Kafka, took up the translation as a way of developing his own writing.
The Langer half of the collection took seed when Toronto poet and artist, Elana Wolff, was researching Kafka for an in-depth biography presentation at Arscura – School for Living Art. She found several brief references to fellow Prague writer Georg Mordechai Langer, (1894-1943), in biographies on Kafka and in Kafka’s own Diaries and Letters. There was little explanation or detail of why or who he was. She became intrigued and wondered, “Who was Langer and what was his relationship to Kafka?” It became her mission to uncover the unknown.
A Friendship Overlooked
Two references, in particular, piqued Wolff’s curiosity—one to an elegy written in Hebrew by Langer for Kafka and published in a small collection at the Prague Jewish printing works in 1929, and another, in A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia, stating that the importance of the friendship between Kafka and Langer had been “largely overlooked.” Wolff was determined to read the elegy, leading her on a quest to find a copy of the book in which the poem appeared. She also committed to uncovering whatever she could on the Kafka-Langer relationship.
In her Introduction to the Langer half of the flip book, Poems and Songs of Love, Wolff takes the reader along on her path of discovery—to unearth more than a few sketchy mentions of Kafka on Langer and Langer on Kafka. She located a copy of Langer’s collection of Hasidic tales, translated from Czech as Nine Gates, at the York University Library in Toronto. The forward written by Langer’s older brother František, offered insightful biographical information.
Who Was Georg Mordechai Langer?
Wolff’s telling of Langer’s story is a wonderful read, revealing his childhood loneliness and draw to religious mysticism. She describes how much like Kafka himself, Langer was seeking an authentic, non-western experience of Judaism and Jewish culture. Kafka in Prague by way of a Yiddish theater troupe from eastern Galicia, Langer in eastern Galicia in the Hasidic court of the Rabbi of Belz.
Although František himself never met Kafka, he tells how Kafka and his brother became friends during the war: “Kafka evidently found Jiří (Langer) a kindred spirit and the two men used to go for walks together in Prague.” Wolff shares František’s insights on his brother—among the good qualities, he possessed an easy-going and patient nature, with humour and uncommon talent as a linguist. On the downside, František relates how Langer disrupted the cozy family nest with his “religious exhibitionism” and ongoing unconventionality. And he praises Nine Gates somewhat faintly as a “work of the heart, not the brain, told naturally, vividly and personally…”
The Missing Piece of the Puzzle
Fuelled and even more determined, Wolff’s search for Langer’s book of poetry continued to prove unsuccessful. Neither the book nor the elegy were available online or in libraries. It was a trip to Israel that would manifest the missing piece of the puzzle.
Visits to used and rare books stores in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem still left her empty-handed. And although the book was listed in the system of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she was told it was in storage and could take several days to locate. If at all. With true serendipity and divine timing, the book magically appeared the day before her return to Toronto.
Wolff describes in tender detail, her meeting with Langer’s rare little book—a copy he surely brought with him on his escape from Prague to Tel Aviv on the eve of World War Two, and bequeathed to the library.
“There was not a single return-date stamped on the old-fashioned sign-out form pasted to the right-hand side of the next page. I felt like I was the first person to have opened the little book to air. A shyness overcame me and I turned each page carefully, checking its integrity – like a young mother examining her newborn’s fingers and toes. I came to the twelfth poem – “On the Death of the Poet” – after Franz Kafka, the name inserted plainly under the title, and I knew that I would read every one of these pieces in the way a poet wants to be read, and that my husband Menachem and I would do the work of translating the collection together.”
A Labour of Love
The Wolffs took on this project as a labor of love. Carefully translating each word of the 16 poems, committed to maintaining the integrity of the work of a gifted Hebraist, wanting to bring what they soon discovered as “Langer’s poems of profound loneliness and longing and undisguised, unrequited homo-romantic love” to the world. Twelve of the 16 poems are addressed to a male and the only male mentioned anywhere in the collection is Franz Kafka. Textual and contextual evidence suggested to the Wolffs that Kafka may have been the subject of more than just one of the poems, and Langer’s great unrequited love.
There is much speculation in both Wolff’s Introduction and Afterword, as to the true nature of Langer’s attraction to Kafka. Much remains unanswered. Perhaps it is meant to stay that way. As with readers of Kafka’s works, readers of this collection are left to make up their own minds. The gift of the poems, for now, may have to remain enough. It was important to the Wolffs to have the original Hebrew poems appear alongside the English translation and Guernica agreed, producing for the first time, a bilingual Hebrew-English edition of poetry.
Everything about the way this book was birthed to the world is a wonderful affirmation of how the universe works in strange and magical ways. How we never know who or what we’ll be called to in our lives and how someone else’s life and biography will intertwine with our own.
That Elana Wolff was so called to Langer through Kafka and that she acted on it, is a testament to trusting in our inner voice and saying yes to the unknown coming towards us — taking the leap and doing the exploration. Finding the authentic and compassionate way to share another person’s life with others — this is what biography work is truly about. Thanks to Elana Wolff for her curiosity and persistence, and to the Wolffs as a team for their loving translation, for breathing new life into the soul-filled poems of the little-known poet Georg Mordechai Langer.
This sounds similar to one of my first research projects when I returned to college. Kudos to Elana, because what she accomplished between the translation and keeping the work’s integrity intact was beyond simple research; it was a true act of love that so few people rarely see. Thank you for sharing this, Beverley. 🙂
Liz Benoit Cozby recently posted…A Letter to My Teenaged Self
Thanks for really getting the integrity and love that Elana put into this project Liz. It is really appreciated to know that you really have an inside view of how delicate this task she undertook really was. And now through her commitment to bring this to the world, we all have the opportunity to explore the previously unknown and brilliant work of Georg Mordechai Langer. Appreciate your comment to add to this conversation! 🙂
What a fascinating story of patience and perseverance. Elana’s determination to know more about Langer and Kafka should inspire us all…
Thank you for sharing Elana’s magical journey with us!
Thanks so much Robin. It is a very fascinating story of patience and perseverance and trust that the path you are being led along, is indeed one you are meant to follow. Elana has done a great service to Langer, as she has breathed life into him and his work, even though he is no longer physically here. Thanks so much for your comment and glad you enjoyed the magical journey as well.
What an intriguing and ambitious journey Elana Wolff embarked upon on her mission to unveil the friendship between Kafka and Langer.
Your blog gives much insight into the personality of these two kindred spirits through František’s observations of the two men who clearly developed an unbreakable intellectual and spiritual bond.
I resonated with Wolff’s fervent spirit as she pieced together the missing pieces of the puzzle, refusing to give up her search for Langer book of poetry. Your account is so well written that I could almost feel myself standing right next to her in jubilation as the book magically appeared just before her departure to Canada.
The painstaking process of deciphering and translating Langer’s poems could only be described as a Labor of Love. But as the reader, I was empathetic to Wolff’s desire and determination to unlock the mystery of this ‘forbidden friendship’ and to get in to Langer’s head and heart space for a deeper understanding thereof.
As I re-examine my own life long belief in the super-natural and my spiritual framework, the message of this story for me is much more pragmatic. It speaks to the quality of determination and dedication. Following through to the end despite the hurdles and challenges one encounters along the way. It speaks to addressing human injustices and righting the wrongs of the past. Of giving voice to the little man and leaving no stone unturned in one’s unrelenting quest for truth. It speaks to the unabated love that reveals itself in every condition throughout the ages.
I thank you for introducing us to the unsung hero’s in your usual skilful way Beverley. For expanding our minds beyond the reaches of the monotony and mundane. I enjoyed it immensely.
Michelle Williams recently posted…Why Self-Love Should Be The Centre Of Your Life!
Love how you read something I truly take it in in its entirety Michelle. This is a story of how our destiny and our biography often intertwine. Who would imagine that a man who died so long ago, would be “discovered” in our time by someone who was so divinely led to this journey and undertaking. It really speaks to Elana’s trust in what was calling her and how she took it own and carried through with it, regardless of the obstacles and roadblocks she was faced with on the way.
The story does speak to persistence and determination, and also on a higher spiritual level, to really trusting how our destiny intertwines with others regardless of whether they are still here on the earthly plane or not. It’s hard to imagine now what would have happened to Langer and his poems. Would someone else have discovered them had Elana not, or would he have remained an obscure reference in future writings about Kafka. It certainly does add a very mystical and magical aspect to our lives and how very large our energies are in their reach.
Glad you enjoyed the story and found it enjoyable! It truly is a fascinating story.
Thank you Beverley for introducing me the two interesting books. As you commented, “The opportunities that are presented to us in life, are incredible, and ultimately it is up to us to keep saying yes to those that resonate and call us to dig deeper and explore further.” that’s so true and you just reminded me. Thank you for sharing!
Kaz recently posted…Lower Back Pain, Poor Balance… Why? – Should Know About Core Stability
Thanks so much for getting how important it is to keep saying yes to life and to see what amazing opportunities are always there for the taking when we do open ourselves to them. I don’t think not having read the books is a detriment, as the essence of the story is how trust and following where you are led, can lead to unimaginable experiences in life. Appreciate your support, Kaz and glad you found something in this piece that spoke to you too.
I have never heard of these books before. But I would agree that the universe works in very mysterious ways, I must admit 🙂 To be honest, I am really not much for a literature reader and understanding all about this, but I will say that you always find a way to give me some interesting things to think about….thank you for that 🙂
Joan Harrington recently posted…Review Of Insta Lead Magic
I also am not a literature person myself, Joan, however, the essence of this story has more to do with destiny which we often don’t see as we are moving through it. The tenacity and how Elana was “drawn” to know more about Langer and Kafka truly confirms how amazing the Universe is and how we really never know who and what our own biography will mean in the grand scheme of it all. Thanks for always being interested and finding something interesting in my writings.
Individuals that remain obscured may by nature be very humble and private.
They reveal who they really are only to those that they feel a close bond with.
Joe Butka recently posted…How to Build Customer Trust
In this case Joe, it was Langer’s poetry that truly revealed who he was and that was actually buried deep until Elana unearthed it and was able to uncover all of the history behind the friendship. Thanks for reading and for your insight!
The universe sure does work in strange and magical ways, Beverley, taking each of us on wild adventures when we open our hearts. This story demonstrates the power of perseverance and how wonderful it is when we continue working to share stories. Love the post ~ thought-provoking as always. Congrats and thanks to you for taking us on a journey with you.
Deb Nelson recently posted…Three Lessons Salt Institute Has Taught Us
This is truly a story of destiny and biography and following your heart, Deb. Elana is a friend of mine and the work we both are trained in as Biography Coaches, speaks to the importance of tuning in to the other, listening and honouring their biography. This task she took on is quite amazing and how the Universe not only presented it to her, but conspired to help her, confirms for me how magical and mystical a world we live in. She brought to life a man, a great poet, who had been dead for a very long time and because of her perseverance, she was able to introduce him anew to the world. Appreciate you reading and glad you enjoyed the journey!
I don’t believe anything in this story was coincidence, but rather a concerted effort by the universe to bring this work to man. The amount of dedication shown by Elana in pursuing the connection between the two authors and finding out more about Langer shows what the power of commitment can bring. Great story Beverley, this shows how following something important with passion and energy will bring results. Cheers, Ian
Ian Campbell recently posted…Writing Great Blog Posts – A Step By Step Guide
Thanks so much for your very wise insight into this story, Ian. There is nothing coincidental at all and I also believe there was a higher purpose to each thing that unfolded for Elana. And that Elana, was open to take it on and carry it through to this amazing end. Her commitment is indeed admirable and she has done a great service to both Langer and to all of us! Appreciate your comment very much!
Sadly I haven’t read the books, but I was impressed on how determined Elana was to get all the information that she needed for her project. Patience and perseverance kept her going.
Gisele Grenier recently posted…How to Photograph your Pet for Artwork
The beauty of this story is the fact that not only was Elana, drawn to Kafka originally, but that ultimately it was Langer’s biography that she was also meant to explore and uncover, Gisele. The opportunities that are presented to us in life, are incredible, and ultimately it is up to us to keep saying yes to those that resonate and call us to dig deeper and explore further. Thanks for your support on this post! Definitely patience and perseverance are part of Elana’s DNA it seems.
“Everything about the way this book was birthed to the world is a wonderful affirmation of how the universe works in strange and magical ways. How we never know who or what we’ll be called to in our lives and how someone else’s life and biography will intertwine with our own.” I was having similar thoughts as I read through your article. It affirms how open we need to be to explore interests, meeting people, ideas, mental stimulation and following through. It is often a shame that so many talented people die undiscovered, but this discovery reminds us, it could happen, maybe long after death, but it could happen.
There is something quite magical about the power of biography and destiny, Roslyn. This is why this story is so very important, as even though we have “free will” we do have a destiny that in many ways is playing out as our lives unfold. The challenge for us humans is to trust the future that is coming towards us and to say yes to ideas and people and even sometimes to things we want to say no to. There is a very mystical quality to this story and Elana’s discovery truly offers us a glimpse at what is possible long after our physical lives end. There is a continuation into infinity, I believe.
I am thinking, Beverley, was Elana’s quest to find Langer’s poems via Kafka and to re-introduce them to the world a Divine intervention?
So many coincidences to bring this work back to life for a new generation that can understand Langer’s pain over Kafka that his contemporaries could not?
Your post has me thinking and I wonder aloud, what would have happened if Elana had not had the resolve to follow through her project?
Vatsala Shukla recently posted…Are You the Missing Link on LinkedIn?
My sense is you also hit on the very essence of what this quest truly brings us to ask. Many questions on how destiny and Divine intervention led her to this project and to be so committed to it that she actually brought Langer’s life to us all. What would have happened had she not carried through? A great question and one that will remain an unknown, as for some higher purpose, the destiny played out in this wonderful way for us all to now be able to be a part of. Thanks for your thoughtful comment on this post too, Vatsala!