Review: Ernst Krenek's "The Three Overcoats of Anton K."
Not even seasoned readers and listeners are necessarily familiar with a novella Ernst Krenek wrote in German and later translated into English with the help of eminent Brecht scholar Eric Bentley and literary agent Barthold Fles, both respected translators. Among other helpful features, this edition of Die drei Mäntel des Anton K. / The Three Overcoats of Anton K., presented by the Ernst Krenek Institute, shows pictures of hotel stationery from cities all over Europe (p. 80); Krenek used the reverse sides to compose the novella during his forced wanderings, his way of giving literary shape and voice to the ordeal of confronting bureaucratic hurdles as an Austrian citizen holding an invalid passport after the Anschluss and so unable to produce legitimating documents when traveling from country to country. “Kafkaesque” is the term that leaps to mind at once, all the more in that the title character, Anton K.—and note the last name as the initial K.—makes a direct comparison. Anton feels “ . . . als sei ich in eine Maschinerie geraten, die mich nie mehr loslassen soll und die in beängstigender Weise an die Albträume jenes Autors [Kafka] erinnert” (p. 63). It would be too reductive to cast his work as merely a rehash of Kafka, however. Other elements and registers of this rich amalgam will presently be touched on.
The sheer profusion and variety of Krenek’s work as composer, belletrist, critic, lyricist, librettist, arranger, conductor, pedagogue, and memoirist makes it easy to lose sight temporarily of any particular achievement. How often, for example, does one think of, let alone encounter, Sestina (masterful poem text also by the composer, typically), though music historian Richard Taruskin calls it the ne plus ultra of stringent serialist technique? Krenek published the English version of his novella in a small literary journal in 1955, and the German first appeared in the volume of Krenek’s Prosa. Dramen. Verse of 1965, so it is no wonder that this admittedly peripheral—though noteworthy—achievement remains relatively unheralded.
The inherent quality of The Three Overcoats merits closer attention as a literary work on its own. The comprehensiveness and the painstaking precision of the editorial apparatus are indispensably valuable in placing the novella in its full context and providing a comprehensive history of the text and its provenance. Reflecting the bilingual nature of the text itself, the entire critical apparatus is in both languages as well, a sign that wide distribution is anticipated; Krenek is known throughout the world, after all. The volume is edited with great conscientiousness and precision by Matthias Henke, who prepared an informative foreword, “‘Die Passkrankeit’ oder: Ernst Krenek und seine Novelle Die drei Mäntel des Anton K. (1938)” / “‘Passport Sickness’ or: Ernst Krenek and his Novella Die drei Mäntel des Anton K. (1938),” a set of editorial remarks establishing the text precisely in both German and English besides providing information about Bentley and Fles (the latter having worked with Krenek on his first book in English), reproductions of pages from Krenek’s invalidated passport, and a map explaining his peregrinations through Europe from March through August of 1938, along with the hotel stationery already mentioned. This material is exhaustive in the best sense, anchoring and supporting the actual text of the novella in both languages. The English translations of the foreword, the editorial comments, and the photo captions are by Ada St. Laurent.
The Three Overcoats is assuredly modeled on Kafka, but to stop there is to do this complex, many-layered story a disservice. The endless loop of bureaucratic frustration, the shunting from office to office, the dismissal by condescending, fake-sincere officials ready to cite legalities as impediments, the reduction to facelessness and consuming loneliness, the raising and dashing of false hopes: readers are well acquainted with these aspects of Kafka’s art, along with the occasional encounters that seem to promise friendship or other intimacies that never materialize. But the differences are notable, and they testify to Krenek’s deft and sophisticated requisition of other sources. The plot of this novella is more linear and sequential than is typical for Kafka; while Kafka’s longer fictions can have their chapters rearranged or transposed almost at will, The Three Overcoats depends on a succession of events, the next arising from what came before. The range of tones is also markedly more varied than in Kafka. There is overt, biting parody which, along with the title of the Krenek story, strongly suggests another great narrative of inhuman bureaucracy, Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, with its occasionally almost buffoonish hilarity amidst cruelty, a tone Krenek develops effectively. There is an unsettling, effective humor in Krenek that brings Gogol to mind more quickly than Kafka. Also, Anton K.’s reflection after visiting the woman (p. 49-50 German; p. 119-120 English) reads like a close paraphrase of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, with its blanket diagnosis of stultified human passivity. There is grotesquerie; there are lyricism and squalor; there is requisition of standard plot devices from detective stories, although with some mysteries never solved. It is also as if Krenek were anticipating the sovereign, piquant irony of a later author like Albert Drach, who could so brilliantly take legal and bureaucratic language to almost surrealistic improbability within a seemingly straightforward context. Readers of a novel like Drach’s Das große Protokoll gegen Zwetschkenbaum will find Krenek equally skilled at this fusion of the everyday and the outrageous.
Aside from these characteristics of style, there is rich ambiguity in the ending, the place at which Anton K.’s chosen fate departs most strongly from that of Krenek himself. K. chooses to remain where he is, to destroy documents that would solve his legal problems, and to remain where he is. He seems content at that point, and perhaps he is indeed acting with newly gained wisdom and profound insight. But has he simply given up, capitulated, embraced passivity like the Grand Inquisitor’s dull human breed? The ambiguity raises K.’s plight to an active problem for the reader, who is left to ponder what the ending might mean. Nirvana or Stockholm Syndrome? Once more unlike Kafka, K. in Krenek’s novella makes a deliberate decision, but, once more like Kafka, what are we to make of it?
Because Krenek did not translate The Three Overcoats entirely on his own, it is not possible to make a definite judgment about that aspect of his achievement here. To be sure, he was already well versed in English at the time, but not so much that he didn’t require help, and he became even more adept later. He wrote extensively in English; not many are aware, for instance, that his monumental autobiography (published as Im Atem der Zeit), was written in English and then translated into German. There are inspired renderings, such as “furlough” (p. 113) for “Urlaub” (p. 42), but then why leave untranslated the next word, “Galgenfrist” (p. 113)? To translate “peinlich” (p. 37) as “obnoxious” (p. 109) is a masterful instance of finding le mot juste. And yet there are awkward passages, possibly arising from an unsuccessful effort to capture the emptiness of bureaucratese; “necessary of establishment” (p. 117) as a parallel to “ . . . das die Gesellschaft für gut fand, aufzurichten” (p. 47) is feeble and clumsy, not doing justice to the pompous rotundity of the German. And translating “Polizist” (p. 72) as “cop” (p. 136) makes for a jarring descent into unintended slanginess. The present reviewer, himself a translator, finds a great deal to praise as well as much to question, but how much of the English version is Krenek’s and how much that of Bentley and Fles makes it hard to ascertain who did what to produce this uneven result.
It should be noted in passing as well that the two versions are not always parallel. The English has no mention of Kafka. Although he had been translated into English as early as 1927 in experimental journals, he remained mostly unknown in the English-speaking world until after 1945. It was therefore practical to omit reference to him in a translation produced earlier (see p. 77 and p. 139), and it surely was not of the essence to include him when the translation was published in 1955 (p. 76 and p. 138), though he would have resonated at that time. Other changes from the German to the English do not alter the course or character of the story, though comparing them can make for an intriguing study.
It is very fitting that this fine volume appears under the imprint of a publisher called Edition Memoria, dedicated to works produced in exile, because it rescues The Three Overcoats / Die drei Mäntel from comparative obscurity and places it firmly in the mainstream of memory. An excellent publication from every standpoint; admirers of Ernst Krenek are indebted to all who worked so expertly on it.
Vincent Kling is an American literary scholar and translator. He is Professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia and has specialized above all in Austrian literature.