Friday, March 10, 2006


Early flight.

Peter Demetz, The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002).

The summer of 1909 found young Franz Kafka working as an Aushilfskraft -- a temporary assistant -- for the General Accident Insurance Company in Prague, a job with office hours from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., which gave Kafka plenty of time once the work day was done, but which left him ineligible for vacation time. He had not taken a vacation for three years. Claiming that he was suffering from a nervous condition, Kafka obtained permission to take a nine-day vacation. He and two friends, Max and Otto Brod, set off by train for Riva, "on the north shore of Lake Garda, the last outpost of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and deep in Italian-language territory."
Between swims they liked to read, enjoying their little Italian, and the Sentinella Bresciana, the Italian daily published across the border. The issue of 9 September, to which Kafka later referred, immediately caught their interest. It would have been impossible, anyway, to ignore the headline splashed over page one: La Prima Giornata del Circuito Aereo (The First Day of the Air Show).
In 1909, aviation was new, modern, unreliable, dangerous, exciting, and the Brescia airshow was the first chance many Italians had to see the new aviators. Louis Blériot was the first to fly across the English Channel; he was there. American aviator Glenn Curtiss was there too. And so were cultural figures. Kafka and Brod had not published their novels yet, but Giacomo Puccini and Gabriele D'Annunzio were well-known, and wanted to see the new new thing. (Indeed, both Puccini and D'Annunzio both wanted to experience flight. Puccini was too large for the planes of the day, but D'Annunzio prevailed upon Curtiss to take him along, and when that flight barely left the ground, he persuaded Italian avaitor Mario Calderara to take him.)

Peter Demetz has done an admirable job of piecing together a picture that week in Brescia, and of something of the lives before and after of many of aviators and other figures who were there. But it's plain that he had to work with disparate sources, none of them as comprehensive as one might wish. You can see him working within the limits of his sources, straining to gain speed, and then he's up off the ground for a few graceful moments before he touches back down. Had he been Curtiss, almost a hundred years ago, one might watch him and think that time was on his side. But the Circuito Aereo is falling behind us now as we gain speed and altitude.

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