Zeitgeister On Air Being Kafka #4 mit Marianne Kolb

Being Kafka #4 mit Marianne Kolb

Wie sieht es aus, wenn Franz Kafka dein Leben verändert? Die Malerin Marianne Kolb aus Kalifornien mit schweizerischen Wurzeln hat diese Erfahrung gemacht. Mit Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spricht sie über ihre grauen Schul- und Lehrjahre in einer strikten Schweiz der 1960er- und 1970er-Jahre. Ihre Rettung:  die Lektüre Kafkas, die ihr eine Kollegin empfahl. Noch nie zuvor wurde Kolb in ihrem Leben derart bewegt wie von dem tschechischen Autor. Kolbs weiterer Lebensweg zeigt, wie die Identifikation mit dem Ungeziefer in „Die Verwandlung“ einem Menschen den Antrieb geben kann, das eigene Leben auf den Kopf zu stellen.

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Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Welcome to the second season of ZEITGEISTER ON AIR, a joint project by Common Ground Berlin and Goethe-Institut. I’m your host, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. It’s been 100 years since the world-renowned Franz Kafka passed away. To honour his legacy and explore his relevance, we bring you Being Kafka – a fascinating series with articles you can find at goethe.de/kafka. You will also learn more about Kafka and people he influenced in audio episodes like this one. So what was your reaction the first time you read “Metamorphosis?” Were you shocked or fascinated? In the case of my Swiss born guest, Marianne Kolb, the book made such an impression that it turned her life upside down. I spoke to the figurative abstract artist in Sacramento via Zoom.

Marianne Kolb: I was born in a little town called Brüggelbach, and it is about 10 kilometres west of Bern [the de facto capital of Switzerland]. It [still] has the same amount of houses like when I grew up.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So tell me some more about your family life. Was your upbringing strict?

Marianne Kolb: Yeah, it was very strict, so the Germanic upbringing, you know, and my parents were farmers, and my brother ended up taking over the farm. And so that’s how I grew up. Even though it was only about 10 kilometres away from Bern, it felt incredibly isolated.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Were you the youngest child?

Marianne Kolb: I have a brother who is older, a year older, and two younger sisters.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Can you elaborate on some of the challenges of your childhood?

Marianne Kolb: Well, it was patriarchal. Switzerland was, or is a patriarchal society still, to some degree. And basically what my dad said, you know, that was the rules, and you couldn’t argue with it. He had a temper, he could fly off the handle, you know, like in seconds. And then he was wondering five minutes later, you know, what was happening, why we were all kind of like walking on eggshells of a sudden, because that was sort of the dynamic.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: You’ve spent most of your adult life as a painter, but did you paint when you were a child?

Marianne Kolb: No, it was when I came to the United States that I was introduced to the art world.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: We’ll talk more about your life in the United States in a bit. But let me first ask you about when you were in school in Switzerland, what did you dream of doing when you grew up?

Marianne Kolb: I think initially I wanted to become a teacher, but that kind of was very strict. You know, the school was three rooms – first through third grade, that was one room. And then from fourth to, I think, seventh grade, or sixth grade, and then from seventh grade to ninth grade, that was another room. It was all very small, you know, just local kids. And at one point I had Home Economics. It was for girls, so you would learn how to knit and all kinds of stuff like that. And the teacher was very, very strict. You had to do this in that year, then this the next year. And then she had a nervous breakdown. And when she came back to school, was allowed back into teaching, she just let the class go wild. We could do whatever we wanted to. And that made me at one point think about becoming a teacher. And in my last year, I tried to sign up for it, or register for it, to go to school for that. And I was too late, so I gave that up. And then I became a telephone operator for the only telephone and communications company in Switzerland. It was called PPP, it was connected to the post office. And that’s what I ended up doing, till maybe I was 18 or 19. And that was strict too, you know, the supervisors there wore like aprons and you couldn’t talk. I mean, it was just crazy the way they behaved, you know. To today’s standards they wouldn’t get away with that kind of stuff.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So not the Switzerland everyone is escaping to in the sound of music.

Marianne Kolb: Not quite. So that was my education. Usually what it ended up leading to was to become the operator, basically the operator for a company that would direct all of the phone calls. It’s not quite a secretary, but it’s just like you take the phone calls, you direct them, you have other kinds of jobs to do. That’s usually what it was. And that’s what I ended up doing at one point.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Were you happy?

Marianne Kolb: Not at all. I should maybe tell you a story. When I was about six years old, something like that, my mother would take us on the train, go to the city – it was about twice a year – to buy new clothes. And then at one of those trips, we boarded the train, we went into our compartment. At the opposite compartment was a young Black man. And I must have just stared at him – I had never seen a Black person before. But what it did to me was there was a bigger world out there and I needed to know. And I think that was sort of the first time that I realized that we were sort of isolated and that there was a bigger world out there.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: How did you come across Franz Kafka’s works?

Marianne Kolb: So at one point I went to business school for about a year. And that gave me a job as a wholesale buyer at Merkur, which is a company that used to have about 100 retail stores and about 20 restaurants all over the country. So I became the wholesale buyer for all of the goods that they needed. And it came into a warehouse at the headquarters and then it would get distributed. And I ended up being in charge of four people in that office. And one of the women, she was probably…I would say almost 20 years older than I am. She was a divorcee, Catholic and that was an absolute no-no, at the time a lot of women who got divorced didn’t end up with anything. And so she had three kids and she needed a job. So she put herself through those apprenticeships. And I worked with her and she [under]stands that I was really unhappy. And that’s when she said at one point, “I think you should read Kafka.”

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Had you heard of him before?

Marianne Kolb: No, not at all. And at one of the lunch breaks I went to the bookstore and I bought “Metamorphosis,” or “Die Verwandlung,” and it just blew my mind. It just, I could really relate to the bug, you know. So I think it was the last push to make the decision to go to the United States, which I always wanted to do – ever since I was maybe 13, 14 years old.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: But this book inspired you to do that.

Marianne Kolb: Right. That was sort of the last push. You know, it was almost like maybe you should try to just go and see what happens.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: You read “Metamorphosis” in German, correct?

Marianne Kolb: Yes.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Was there a particular passage or section you recall connecting with?

Marianne Kolb: No, it was just the oppression that Gregor felt, right? Being locked up in a room. And that’s what I really kind of felt growing up, that as a girl you didn’t really count for much.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: It was a harsh reality of the time, to be sure. And I’m wondering, do you see other parallels with Kafka? I mean, he had a really tough relationship with his dad, so I’m wondering, do you draw parallels to your own life?

Marianne Kolb: Oh, yeah. I have always felt like I didn’t fit in, that they were not part of… they didn’t smell like me. [laughing] I mean, I’m serious about the smell thing, because it was just – there was something not right. And after, you know, going through therapy here in this country, it was just like she ended up telling me at one point, as a six-, seven-year-old, you don’t have the vocabulary to express yourself. And then she said that other senses kick in. I don’t know whether that’s true, you know. But I certainly felt like I didn’t fit in. In school, I’d always sit by myself, even though the tables were for two kids. Yeah, it was just awkward. My father was very, very strict. So those are the parallels, you know, it was just really difficult. He was a man of his time. That’s just the way it was.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: As you mentioned, Kafka inspired you to emigrate to the United States, but why the West Coast?

Marianne Kolb: Well, I went to the American Embassy in Bern. You had to sign up for an ESL program – English as a Second Language. And I picked the cheapest one and it happened to be in Berkeley. I mean, I could have been in any other state, right, of the United States, and things could have turned out completely differently. But it was in Berkeley and they gave me a student visa for five years. The plan was to go for six months for ESL to learn English and then travel back across the country for six months and then go back to Switzerland. But that ended up not happening. I ended up overstaying my visa. It was in 1983, you know, that kind of stuff wouldn’t happen today. It’s much more strict.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Did you become an American citizen eventually?

Marianne Kolb: I ended up getting my green card, and then in 2001, I think, I got divorced. But we ended up waiting for me to get the citizenship.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: I’m sorry if I sound like the INS [United States Immigration and Naturalization Service].

Marianne Kolb: No, I was legitimately married for 15 years, you know. So it wasn’t like one of those “getting married for a green card or citizenship.”

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So did you begin painting in the U.S. right away when you moved to Berkeley to get your language training?

Marianne Kolb: So what happened was the night before I left Switzerland, my cousin, who was at the equivalent of the MIT in Zurich, where he met American students there. And at one point they had a party and they exchanged addresses. And, you know, like you do, “If you ever come to the States, you know, come look me up.” And the night before he came to my house and said, “Well, if you get in trouble, here is an address.” So I landed in San Francisco and – actually, no, it was in Oakland. And I had no idea where I was. The same night I hooked up with a couple of guys and we stayed in a hotel in San Francisco. And the next day I ended up walking to Fort Mason to the youth hospital. And I was completely lost. I couldn’t speak English. So I had a little dictionary that I used to look up words and show them to a clerk if I wanted something. And so I ended up calling that number I got. And the woman who answered was like, “Well, you can come stay with us, but you have to take part.” And I was like, “What’s part?” You know, like the train. And so she ended up picking, she picked me up. And then I went into that household. It was a big house. And there were all young people, about six of them, were just living there. And I ended up becoming really good friends with who’s still my friend, Kim Keyworth. And she grew up in a household that was art oriented. And we ended up making stained glass mirrors, kaleidoscopes…in the basement of that house. And at one point she said “Well, you should take a live drawing class. If you can draw the human figure, you can do anything else in terms of design.” And at one point she asked for my drawings to see them. And she said, “You ought to paint.” And that’s when I signed up for a painting class at what was called CCAC, California College of Art and Crafts at the time. And I was lucky enough to have a teacher by the name of Lee Hines. It was just like, you know, a light bulb went off in my head. And I can’t describe it any other way. And I was going to pursue that.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So that takes me to my last few questions about Franz Kafka, who helped you change your life. Do you think his works are relevant to people’s lives today?

Marianne Kolb: Well, if they can change my life, they can change other people’s lives.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Is it because we are all isolated? Is it difficult to sort of find society, if you will?

Marianne Kolb: Yeah, and I think it’s even stronger now than it used to be. Certainly, I feel like the pandemic has made us isolated, even more so than we were. And it’s hard to make friends or build a community. You have to really look for it. It’s even with artists, you know, everybody is sort of separated and things seem fragmented to me, that we could come together in another way. So I think somebody like Kafka can really shine a light on that, if one takes the time to process it.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: That was figurative abstract artist Marianne Kolb, and I’m Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of Common Ground Berlin. Thank you for listening to this interview in our Being Kafka series. Next week, we hear from composer Gerald Barry, and his composition dedicated to Kafka and his…earplugs? Be sure to give a listen.

Host: ZEITGEISTER ON AIR is brought to you by the Goethe-Institut. Thanks to all of our friends and partners for making this series possible. [Music]