889: Short Talk on Waterproofing by Anne Carson

889: Short Talk on Waterproofing by Anne Carson

889: Short Talk on Waterproofing by Anne Carson

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Jason Schneiderman.


I’m Jason Schneiderman, and this is The Slowdown.

In my freshman year of college, I dated someone whose name was so similar to mine, that whenever I saw his email address, I thought it was my email address. I’d get messages from him, or see his responses on forums, and for a moment I wouldn’t be able to remember when I wrote the words I was reading, before remembering that I hadn’t written them at all. I would have to remind myself that I am in fact, an entirely different person, although one with a very similar email address.

So when I decided it was time for a personal email not associated with the University of Maryland, I became “Kafkaboy at yahoo dot com.” The address announced my love of Czech writer Franz Kafka with what I hoped was a touch of superhero glamor — ironic of course. But more importantly, I was eager to avoid the identity vertigo of thinking I was someone else I couldn’t remember having been.

Of course, in telling this story now, it seems not just counterintuitive but downright perverse to use someone else’s name so that I could be sure I was me. It also makes me think about how my favorite thing about Kafka is the way in which his characters don't feel like the protagonists in their own stories. Over and over again, the main characters are forced to see themselves from the outside, to adopt someone else’s judgment in order to survive, or in order to perish while assuring the survival of someone else who seems more important.

One of the things I love about Kafka is that, while we think of him as being both a tragic figure and a depressing writer, during his life he was considered quite funny. There are accounts of people falling out of their chairs with laughter when he read The Metamorphosis out loud.

In today’s poem, Anne Carson engages Franz Kafka, but not directly. The story takes place in 1942, almost two decades after Kafka’s death in 1924. And the story is not about Kafka, but his sister. Carson calls our attention to a small act of care, the tiny detail of a loving act taking place against a background of atrocity. It reminds us that sometimes the best way to see clearly is to look from the side.

Short Talk On Waterproofing
by Anne Carson

Franz Kafka  was  Jewish.  He  had  a sis-
ter,    Ottla,    Jewish.     Ottla    married   a 
jurist,  Josef  David,  not  Jewish.  When 
the  Nuremberg  laws   were  introduced 
to   Bohemia-Moravia    in    1942,    quiet 
Ottla   suggested  to   Josef  David   that 
they  divorce.   He  at   first  refused.  She 
spoke about sleep shapes and property 
and  their  two daughters  and a rational 
approach.      She      did     not     mention, 
because    she   did   not   yet   know   the 
word,  Auschwitz  where  she  would  die 
in   October   1943.     After    putting    the 
apartment  in  order  she packed  a ruck-
sack  and was given  a good  shoeshine 
by  Josef  David.   He  applied  a  coat  of 
grease.   Now  they  are  waterproof,   he 

"Short Talk on Waterproofing" was first published by Brick Books. Reprinted by permission of Anne Carson and Aragi Inc. All rights reserved.