At a village auction near St Albans, I noticed, among a job lot of stamps, an envelope from Austria postmarked "18-VI-54". The sender's name and address was printed in the corner: "Franz Kafka, Ebreichsdorf Bei Wien". It seems that the great prevaricator has seen a lot more of the world since his untimely death than he ever did in his lifetime. In Philip Roth's lecture-cum-story, I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting; or, Looking at Kafka, he makes it to New Jersey, where he becomes the younger writer's Hebrew teacher. Others (including myself) have relocated him in many countries, including Israel.
Now here comes Tamar Yellin with a new sighting in (of all unlikely places) Haworth, erstwhile home of that other consumptive, Emily Brontë. These two writers - the fastidious Jew and the uncorseted Romantic - are the polarities between which all Yellin's stories oscillate in Kafka in Brontëland.
Kafka also makes a guest appearance in Shalom Auslander's first collection of stories, Beware of God, as an eminence grise. It is not hard to spot the story of which he is the godfather, since it is called "The Metamorphosis". Young Motty Aranson wakes one morning from impure dreams to discover that while his Yiddisher kopf remains as was, his body from the neck down has been transformed into that of a goy. The story proceeds with the merciless logic of its model, albeit in a more rumbustious manner.
Unlike Yellin, Auslander has no issues with restraint. "The Metamorphosis" gleefully satirises the religion of which the turncoat was once an orthodox adherent. Even so, it is more playful than vicious, and I cannot see the charedi of Stamford Hill demanding his decapitation. Then again, Auslander doesn't stop at mocking the keepers of the 613 commandments (and you thought there were but 10). He goes for their boss, the pie-in-the-sky they worship. In these blasphemous riffs God is a hit-man, a creator in need of a new advertising campaign, and a giant chicken. He also says "Fuck" a lot more than a deity ought.
If His followers won't, will He strike down this disrespectful scribe? Why should He? Had he wanted an eternity of po-faced praise and politesse he wouldn't have created comedians. In short, Auslander comes from a long tradition that has experienced a long efflorescence in America. Nods are given to, and borrowings taken from the usual suspects, plus favoured gentiles, notably Samuel Beckett.
Perhaps the cleverest and most profoundly funny story is "It Ain't Easy Bein' Supremey", an amalgam of the golem legend and Waiting for Godot. Two mud-men fall out over how best to serve their creator, and cause him to abandon them. They spend their time praying for forgiveness, and for his return.
A whole volume of such fare, however brilliant, does raise the question of variety. How many sacred cows can one shocket slaughter? Perhaps it is time for the iconoclast to seek inspiration from within, and pull rabbits (not rabbis) from his kishkas or even his gutkas.
The outstanding story in Yellin's well-mannered collection concerns a man eager to look anywhere but within. The eponymous Mr Applewick is a piano tuner and amateur astronomer. He knows everything about pianos except how to make them produce beautiful music. He has mapped the heavens, but knows nothing of his inner life. He is an Adam too fearful to sink his teeth into the forbidden fruit.
In the end, chaos overtakes him. If the story has a flaw it is that this turmoil has no correlative in the prose. Maybe this is the point at which Yellin should let her hair down, go a bit Brontë. Kafka may have been a scaredy-cat in life, but never in his writing.
Not that Yellin is unaware of this blockage. She faces it in "A New Story for Nada": the writer addresses a friend (her opposite, impulsive, sensual, and chaotic) and apologises for her failure to live up to the other's expectations. It could be Kafka addressing Emily B.
As well as Kafka, both Yellin and Auslander pay homage to the Holocaust. The former, with characteristic restraint, does not mention it by name in "Dr Stein", but still manages to convey with some force the eternal impact upon its living victims. Auslander is less delicate, filtering the facts through the half-comprehending consciousness of an American child. This of course serves to magnify their true horror. Auslander and Yellin might gain from studying each other's books. And you, dear reader, would ensure much pleasure by acquiring both.
Clive Sinclair's latest novel is 'Meet the Wife' (Picador)Reuse content