Short story: “Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk”

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“Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk” (“Josephine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse”), by Franz Kafka

First published posthumously in 1924; translated here by Willa and Edwin Muir in 1948

6,935 words

I will never get tired of Kafka characters analyzing the fuck out of everything. Wikipedia tells me this convoluted style comes from Rabbinical discourse, so the full cultural context is probably lost on me, but I think I’m in agreement with Kafka in finding it wonderfully funny and pitiful. The characters’ logic is always elaborately clear and of no practical use whatsoever. Sometimes the object of this logic is authority, sometimes history, sometimes morality. Here it seems to be art, or artists.

Or actually maybe not, since the narrator raises the reasonable question of whether what Josephine does is art at all. Her singing is treated differently from all other “piping” (“Pfeifen,” which can also mean “whistling,” “booing,” and “not giving a damn”), but nothing else about it is noticeably different. She’s “famous for being famous,” or at least her cult of personality seems to have nothing to do with her talent or craft. So perhaps this story is about celebrity culture, if such a thing even existed in Kafka’s era. I don’t know.

Kafka’s animal characters always seem to me genuinely animal even though they have only a handful of obvious animal characteristics. I don’t know why. Maybe because they’re so constantly and openly beset by animal fears and hungers. Or maybe because they cling to certain aspects of their identities.

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