Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk
|"Josephine, the Singer or the Mouse Folk"|
|Original title||"Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse"|
|Translator||Clement Greenberg (1942)|
Willa and Edwin Muir (1948)
|Published in||Prager Presse|
|Published in English||1942|
"Josephine, the Singer or the Mouse Folk" (German: "Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse") is the last short story written by Franz Kafka. It deals with the relationship between an artist and her audience. The story was included in the collection A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler) published by Verlag Die Schmiede soon after Kafka's death.
Josephine is a rarity among the mouse people, for she has the innate ability to sing, which no others in the community have displayed. Not only can she sing, but she can sing beautifully, helping all the mouse people tolerate their unusually hardworking lives. Some of the mouse people claim to dislike her and do not believe she is truly singing, while others adore her and consider her a communal treasure; regardless, all the mouse people gather round to listen to Josephine, and once she is singing, forget their reservations about her; they use her feeble vocal cords to their utmost strength, and treasure her delicacy.
Sometimes I have the impression that our people sees its relationship with Josephine rather like this: that she, this fragile, vulnerable, somehow distinguished creature, in her opinion distinguished by her song, has been entrusted to us and that we must look after her; the reason for this is not clear to anyone, only the fact seems to be established. But what has been entrusted to one's care one does not laugh at; to do so would be a breach of duty; the utmost spite that the most spiteful amongst us can vent on Josephine is when they sometimes say: "When we see Josephine it is no laughing matter."
Some of the mouse people wonder if Josephine is truly singing or simply whistling, which the narrator tells us all the mice people can do, and are indeed prone regularly to do. Throughout the story, the narrator, who at first purports that whoever has not heard Josephine sing does not know the true power of music, begins to doubt his own judgment, the judgment of the mouse people, and the ability of Josephine herself. He suggests that what is held so dearly by the mouse people is not Josephine's 'ability' but the silence that falls over the people and their settlement when she is singing or whistling. While he never ostensibly decries or criticises the beloved singer, he gradually whittles away at her character, finally describing her as someone of little talent who dislikes and often shirks her work, and even sometimes brings danger to her people (for her singing can act as a beacon to the many enemies of the mouse people, and when attacked some are killed, although Josephine is always rushed to safety). In spite of this she is considered a gift and adored by the community; yet when she 'disappears' (allegedly because she does not feel her music is appreciated, but this is not proven), while she is missed, little sleep is lost over the matter; the lives of the mouse people continue as normal.
So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all, while Josephine, for her part, delivered from earthly afflictions, which however to her mind are the privilege of chosen spirits, will happily lose herself in the countless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we pursue no history, be accorded the heightened relief of being forgotten along with all her brethren.
It is of note that the mouse people are not ever described as such within the story. It is uncertain if they are actually mice. Many aspects of their lives are mouselike—the fact that they are so very hardworking and practical, that danger is always imminent and enemies many, the practice of children being turned out from their families into the wider community very shortly after birth, that they keep no written records, the terrain they live in. They are described by the narrator, one of their number, as, when Josephine begins to sing, falling "quiet as mice"—aside from the title, this is the only time that mice are referred to. It is probable that Kafka intended the issue to be left up to our own judgment, the suggestion playfully bandied about but no explicit answer given. Either way, whether they really are mice is of little importance to our understanding of the story, while the necessity for the idea to be in the reader's mind is central to the reading experience.
Josephine the singer is part of the mouse people family. They love her, protect her and think she is vitally important to the community.
Josephine the singer suffers in the mouse community, for she is alone in her talent and mindset. Because she sings for the rest of the mice, she is looked upon as different—for better or for worse. When she eventually disappears, people soon forget her.
The story was adapted by Michael McClure into a play, with the altered title of Josephine the Mouse Singer. It won an Obie Award for Best Play of the Year. In 2014 Tangerine Dream produced an EP interpretation.
"Josephine is the sole exception, she loves music and also knows how to give a voice to it; she is the only one, and with her demise music will disappear—for who knows how long—from our lives."
- Kafka, Franz (1996). The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, trans. Donna Freed. New York: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 1-56619-969-7.
|German Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Dunn R., The Mystery of the Singing Mice, Smithsonian magazine, May 2011