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Looking for Kafka




Stephen Carver goes in search of an author who 'remains as enigmatic as his fiction'.


For an author so revered and obsessively studied, Franz Kafka remains as enigmatic as his fiction. Like Shakespeare, he is a writer about whom so much has been written that it would now be impossible to read it all in a lifetime. And any scrap of textual evidence, however quotidian and inane – a laundry list, an address on an envelope – will be pored over by academics searching for hidden meaning.

His best friend and later biographer Max Brod likened Kafka to Goethe and Tolstoy. Brod characterised his writing as a metaphysical quest for God – an opinion shared by Thomas Mann ­– while the literary scholars Harold Bloom, Lothar Khan and Pavel Eisner all saw Kafka as the quintessential ‘Jewish writer’. Wikipedia categorises him as a ‘Modernist’ and his work has been claimed by the Expressionist, the Surrealists and Absurdists, just as an argument can also be made that he anticipates postmodernism, or perhaps, like Samuel Beckett, forms a conceptual bridge between the multiple and complex discourses of modernism and postmodernism.

W.H. Auden called Kafka the ‘Dante of the 20th century’, and Nabokov, William Burroughs and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have all cited him as a major influence. For Burroughs, Kafka’s literary focus was always the struggle, pain, and solitude of the human condition, and the search for connection. Fellow Czech author Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) reads Kafka as inverting Dostoyevsky’s view of crime and punishment, reflecting life in a totalitarian state. Conversely, the influential French post-structuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have argued that the themes of alienation and persecution in Kafka’s work seized on by generations of critics have been overemphasised at the expense of Kafka’s subversive sense of humour. Brod wrote, for example, that when Kafka read the final scene of The Trial to his friends, taught in universities around the world as a powerful symbol of the plight of modern man in a godless universe and the futility of the cosmos, he could barely speak for laughing. The Israeli literary critic, Dan Miron, has, meanwhile, made a case for Kafka the Zionist, and the National Library of Israel was able to acquire unpublished manuscripts bequeathed by Brod to his secretary – and probably lover – Esther Hoffe as ‘cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people’ after a lengthy court battle.

In his own day Kafka was largely unpublished, unknown and unread. As Brod put it, ‘Few writers have had the fate which was that of Franz Kafka: alive, to remain almost entirely unknown; dead, to become world famous almost overnight’. Occasionally publishing in small Expressionist journals, Kafka was admired by Der enge Prager Kreis (‘The Close Prague Circle’), a tight group of writers and intellectuals who hung around the Café Arco in Prague after the Great War as European Modernism flourished. But his hyper-critical dismissal of his own writing and his anxiety over dealing with publishers did not exactly broadcast his beautiful but confusing prose to a wider audience. Only later did it find favour with European and American Modernists between the wars after his three unfinished novels were posthumously published by Brod. As Kafka himself told the young Czech poet Gustav Janouch:

Max Brod, Felix Weltsch, all my friends always take possession of something I have written and then take me by surprise with a completed contract with the publisher. I do not want to cause them any unpleasantness, and so it all ends in the publication of things which are entirely personal notes or diversions. Personal proofs of my human weakness are printed, and even sold, because my friends, with Max Brod at their head, have conceived the idea of making literature out of them…

‘Publication of some scribble of mine,’ he concluded, ‘always upsets me.’

To the occupying Nazis, Kafka’s work was Entartete Kunst (‘Degenerate art’), and unpublished manuscripts in the hands of his last lover, the Berlin schoolteacher Dora Diamant, were seized by the Gestapo in 1933 and almost certainly burnt. After the war, the now Stalinist Czechoslovakia and her Soviet masters didn’t know what to do with Kafka’s legacy, defined by the influential Marxist critic Georg Lukács as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘aesthetically appealing, but decadent modernism’. Although obviously not conforming to the ideal of ‘Socialist Realism’, some Marxist critics read Kafka as a satire on the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, others arguing that his work embodied Marx’s theory of alienation and the rise of socialism, although Marxist critics nearly always argue this… (They banned him, anyway.) At a conference in Prague in 1963, Czech communists finally allowed Kafka a place in their literary history as a ‘humanist’ writer whose work challenged the rise of German Imperialism. To ordinary Czechs, however, who had lived under Habsburg rule, then German, then Russian, The Trial (Der Process) was a realist narrative, reflecting the political system in which they lived, where people of high and low estate alike were routinely accused of crimes they hadn’t committed and publicly convicted at show trials. After the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, Kafka’s books were once more banned by the Communist Government. Only after the sametová revoluce (the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’) of 1989 did Kafka return to Prague, now a as mainstay of the city’s thriving tourist industry, his haunted face looking out from posters, T-shirts, keyrings and novelty ashtrays, and a museum dedicated entirely to his life and work.

Kafka the man is also wildly subject to interpretation. The psychologist Marino Pérez-Álvarez has claimed that Kafka may have been schizophrenic, citing evidence in Kafka’s diaries and his seminal short story ‘The Metamorphosis’ (‘Die Verwandlung’). The Italian psychiatrists Alessia Coralli and Antonio Perciaccante, on the other hand, have downgraded this to a borderline personality disorder, exacerbated by the insomnia of which Kafka complains frequently in his diaries. This is further developed by the American psychologist Joan Lachkar, who described ‘The Metamorphosis’ as ‘a model for Kafka’s own abandonment fears, anxiety, depression, and parasitic dependency needs,’ concluding: ‘Kafka illuminated the borderline’s general confusion of normal and healthy desires, wishes, and needs with something ugly and disdainful’. German psychiatrist Manfred M. Fichter, meanwhile, believes that Kafka was in fact anorexic.

David Zane Mairowitz, in his book on Kafka (illustrated by another neurotic and controversial genius, Robert Crumb), wryly notes that the psychoanalytic open season on the bones of Franz Kafka include published papers arguing that his work denotes an unconscious desire to have sexual relations with his father as well as interpreting the ‘Door to the Law’ in The Trial as the unattainable entrance back into the womb. But perhaps Kafka’s first English translator, Edwin Muir, came closest to capturing the essence of this troubled and brilliant artist. Kafka was, wrote Muir, ‘a strange and disconcerting genius’.

Although the speculative psychological diagnoses would have almost certainly appalled the private and shy author, it is tempting to think that the wildly various critical trajectory of his work through an equally mad century would have raised a smile. In an ultimate application of the term ‘Kafkaesque’, Brod, who made it to Israel and lived a long life, wrote that one day the 20th century will be labelled ‘the century of Kafka’, not so much because of his literary standing, but because the surreal horror of modern history closely resembled the plot and setting of many of Kafka’s stories and, let’s be honest, still does. This idea was made more concrete and universal by Gustav Janouch in later life, as a Jew and former Czech resistance fighter now living under the yoke of the Warsaw Pact:

Then came long years of restless wandering, culminating in the misery of the second world war and the confusion and troubles of the present day. I experienced deadly fear, persecution and imprisonment, animal hunger, filth and cold, the stupid brutality of officialdom, and chaos as the principle underlying an apparently rational world; Kafka’s twilight kingdom of shadows became a perfectly ordinary day-to-day experience.

Kafka’s three sisters and his lover Milena Jesenská, a Czech journalist, all died in Hitler’s death camps. Had Kafka not died in 1924, he would have almost certainly shared their fate.

But beyond the crushing weight of history and, indeed, literary criticism, the real Franz Kafka can still be glimpsed in the fragments of texts he left behind, in his surviving and highly self-deprecating diaries and correspondence, and of course his short stories and incomplete novels. Then there are the portraits by those that knew him personally or claimed to have. Janouch’s description of meeting Kafka for the first time, albeit embellished by memory or, as some have argued complete invention, remains particularly vivid:

Behind one of two desks standing side by side sat a tall, shy man. He had black hair combed back, a bony nose, wonderful grey-blue eyes under a strikingly narrow forehead, and bitter-sweet, smiling lips.

Janouch goes on to describe Kafka’s famously semaphoric physical gestures:

Kafka speaks with his face. Whenever he can substitute for words a movement of his facial muscles, he does so. A smile, contraction of his eyebrows, wrinkling of the narrow forehead, protrusion or pursing of the lips – such movements are a substitute for spoken sentences … The eyes always looked at people a little from below upwards. Franz Kafka thus had a singular appearance, as if apologizing for being so slender and tail. His entire figure seemed to say, ‘I am, forgive me, quite unimportant. You do me a great pleasure, if you overlook me.’

Brod’s 1937 biography of Kafka also mentions his friend’s hands constantly in motion when he spoke, which was not often and was always very measured, if not downright profound. Janouch makes a similar point:

He spoke both Czech and German. But more German. And his German had a hard accent … It seemed angular because of the inner tension: every word a stone. The hardness of his speech was caused by the effort at exactness and precision.

Janouch’s father worked in the same office as Kafka, to whom he had shown some of his son’s poetry. A mentoring relationship grew out of this, and Janouch published a memoir of this period called Conversations with Kafka in 1951, with the support of Brod, who recognised his old friend in every line. Academics nowadays view this as part of the legend rather than a primary source, but they are perhaps asking too much of the memoirist. (That the men knew each other is not in doubt.) Janouch certainly captures the essence of the mysterious writer, as well as the relationship between master and pupil (we do tend to idealise).

In his first description, Janouch writes that Kafka’s way of talking ‘resembled his hands’, which, he continues, were ‘strong’ and ‘broad’ but with ‘fine fingers’ and ‘prominent yet very delicate bones and knuckles’. He concludes this image: ‘When I remember Kafka’s voice, his smile and his hands, I always think of a remark of my father’s. He said, “Strength combined with scrupulous delicacy: strength, which finds the small things the most difficult”.’ This, in a line, is Kafka: a brilliant, driven, and meticulous man who never saw in himself the qualities that his friends, lovers and admirers did, and who found the everyday business of life and basic social interaction to be cripplingly hard. ‘What an effort to keep alive!’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Erecting a monument does not require the expenditure of so much strength.’

Kafka was born in Prague on July 3, 1883, the oldest of six children, to a prosperous middle-class Jewish family. Then the capital of Bohemia, Prague was a melting pot of different nationalities, languages, politics and customs, all of which existed uneasily side-by-side, trying to find a clear and unified cultural identity. To be a Jew in Prague at the turn of the century was to walk a tightrope. The Kafka children were encouraged to speak German to distance themselves from the immigrant Jewish diaspora; Germans looked down on Czechs; Czech nationalism was on the rise, so they hated the Germans, and, as ever, everyone hated the Jews. As one of the oldest ghettos in Europe, Prague had its own Talmudic saints, and Kafka grew up in the city of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who was said to have raised the Golem, the Jewish Frankenstein. For the young Kafka, his hometown was seeped in Yiddish legend and mysticism, as well as rabid nationalism, growing Zionism and virulent anti-Semitism, all of which would influence his writing.

Although not a political activist, Kafka flirted with anarchy before becoming a not particularly committed socialist. He did, however, attend rallies and riots thrown by various factions, apparently drawn by the need to observe extreme human behaviour. He was fascinated by Yiddish texts and his own writing has a similar sense of magic realism and arcane mystery. But he declared himself an atheist and never really came to terms with his own heritage, writing in his diary: ‘What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe’.

Kafka studied literature and medicine before settling on the law as a profession that he believed would allow him most time to write, which was now increasingly important to him although he was never satisfied with the results. He graduated from Prague University with a doctorate in law, going first into insurance and then the semi-governmental Worker’s Insurance Office, where his intelligence saw him quickly rising through the ranks, though he always resented office work and admired artisan labourers. (In his most optimistic novel, Amerika ­– Der Verschollene – it is notable that the protagonist is a blue-collar worker rather than a bureaucrat.) He was also a partner in Prager Asbestwerke Hermann & Co, an early asbestos factory, which is probably what killed him.

His two brothers dying in infancy led Kafka’s father, Hermann, to invest the wrong kind of effort in his only son and heir. Hermann was an overbearing and self-made man who never understood the bookish, intellectual sensibility of young Franz, who more closely resembled his more educated mother and related to his sisters. In trying to make a man out of the boy, Hermann instead broke his child’s spirit forever. Franz never rebelled, and instead lived with his parents almost his whole life, even after he became financially independent. This Freudian inversion is dramatised memorably in his short story ‘The Judgment’ (‘Das Urteil’, (literally ‘The Verdict’), and oppression by patriarchal authority figures is a recurring theme in his work. Kafka also wrote a fifty-page letter to his father explaining his fear of the man and the effect on his life with a tragic insight into his own paralysing neuroses, but it was never delivered.

Kafka never married, although he liked women and was engaged several times. His diaries cover some of these relationships and their ends, which could provoke a sense of relief alongside suicidal despair. He had a complex relationship with his own sexuality, a muddle of what reads in the diaries as low self-esteem, body dysmorphia and general self-loathing crossed with a high libido. ‘Sex keeps gnawing at me,’ he wrote, ‘hounds me day end night. I should have to conquer fear and shame and probably sorrow too to satisfy it; yet on the other hand 1 am certain that I should at once take advantage, with no feeling of fear or sorrow or shame, of the first opportunity to present itself quickly, close at hand, and willingly.’ He visited brothels to satisfy this need but was unable to ever truly commit to marriage, being torn, as with the day job, between the need for security and the space to write. Everything was subordinate to literature, which was another insufferable trial. He hated writing, he hated not writing, he hated having written… he kept writing. As James Baldwin later wrote, ‘The terrible thing about being a writer is that you don’t decide to become one, you discover that you are one.’ Inconclusive relationships with well-built and powerful women, with much foreplay but no climax, became another recurring theme in his fiction, the subject of which was always himself. His protagonists were often represented by cryptograms of his name, or simply the letter ‘K’, which his inwardly turned and self-harming depression despised. ‘I find the letter K offensive,’ he wrote, ‘almost disgusting, and yet I use it…’ At other times, he made himself small, writing from the perspective of animals and insects.

As is well known, his most famous works concern the hopeless yet oddly hopeful struggle of the individual against the machinations of omnipotent, anonymous and elusive bureaucracies that seem to at once determine his existence and block him at every turn, like some terrible, Manichean destiny. And in this, we might read his struggle with his own mental illness, that great crush of anxiety, despair and self-hatred that made even the most straightforward tasks exhausting, or his art, or his father, or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, anti-Semitism, nationalism, his own Jewishness… or Life, God, and/or the Universe. These are quests that always fail, realism becoming surrealism as the hero approaches but never reaches a conclusion aside from his own death, each notionally simple but beautifully observed and wilfully opaque episode adding to an overall air of menace and uncertainty. Humour there is, but it is very, very black. It’s the gallows humour of the generation that had survived the trenches, the subsequent pandemic, and the death of God, and knew that there was no other human response to the waiting grave but to laugh at it.

I was born, Kafka seems to say, into a world I didn’t want, understand or comfortably fit, only to be randomly killed by it (The Trial) or given a place in it – provisionally – only after death (The CastleDas Schloss). And who’s to say this isn’t exactly what happened to him? Like life then, aside from death these stories seem to have no end. Kafka’s novels were never finished, just abandoned, although the final chapters were written or planned. His episodic narratives are potentially infinite.

Having been diagnosed with laryngeal tuberculosis in 1917, Kafka died on June 3, 1924, aged forty, in a sanitorium just outside Vienna, a city he loathed. He had literally starved to death, the pain in his throat so severe he was no longer able to eat. He was editing ‘The Hunger Artist’ (‘Ein Hungerkünstler’) until the end, although predictably he left instructions that all his papers should be burnt, unread, by his executor, Max Brod. Brod, of course, did not comply, writing in a postscript to The Trial that he had always told his friend that he would never destroy his work, and if Kafka really wished it so he could have chosen a different executor.

Although a successful writer himself, Brod’s literary legacy is Kafka. Brod, like everyone else, had his own personal Kafka, whose work he interpreted in a specific and spiritual way, editing as best as he could incomplete drafts and Da Vinci-esque notebooks filled out of order, sometimes even written backwards. It was Brod who saw Kafka’s major works to print and secured his place in history as one of the most significant and influential writers of the 20th century – something that Brod always knew but which Kafka, tragically did not. Would he have cared for fame? Who knows? For all his poetic insight into his own psychological processes, Kafka never learned to manage his anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, so may have continued to find the experience of publication profoundly negative, despite the compulsion to keep writing. Or perhaps the exuberant Yiddish storyteller in him would have seen the funny side, because that too is what it is to be Kafkaesque… It isn’t all doom and gloom!

But in the end, you must make up your own mind. Forget the scholars and critics; pick up a copy of Kafka’s collected works and immerse yourself in some of the deepest, crisp, darkly comic and evocative prose you will ever read. And as for the man himself, let’s let him rest in peace. In the end, that’s probably all he wanted. 

Image: Franz Kafka-themed graffiti Zizkov District, Prague, Czech Republic

Peter Forsberg / Alamy Stock Photo


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