Kafka - Excavating Kafka
James Hawes, Excavating Kafka, 272 pp, Quercus, ISBN 978-1847245441
Review by Henry Hitchings
Published: August 29 2008 20:40 | Last updated: August 29 2008 20:40
By James Hawes
Quercus , 272 pages
The well-used adjective “Kafkaesque” remains a suggestive one, even to those who have never read a single sentence of Franz Kafka’s works. Kafka’s name has become a journalistic cliché, calculated to evoke nightmares, injustice, the perversions of bureaucracy, surrealism, mental breakdown and the uncanny.
While it would be no exaggeration to contend that Kafka is the major German-language writer of the 20th century, it is also fair to say that his writings are commonly misrepresented. “Isn’t he the one who wrote about the guy who turns into a bug?” asked a friend of mine, seeing me with a copy of James Hawes’s Excavating Kafka. Well, yes, but there is much more to him than that, and that particular image was lifted from a famous passage in Goethe.
In this compact, breezy book, Hawes aims to explode some of the myths surrounding Prague’s most famous literary son. He notes that Kafka is habitually presented as a “quasi-saintly” figure, a prude tormented by his sexuality and the tyranny of his father, a drudge crushed by tuberculosis and the boredom of a bad job, or a poverty-stricken genius whose talents were overlooked during his own lifetime.
Hawes points out that the reality is somewhat different: Kafka was an urbane and less than angelic figure, who frequented brothels, had an active social life, came from an affluent family and, without achieving fame, certainly enjoyed a sizeable reputation while he was alive. The myths, entrenched even among scholars, serve him ill.
Hawes’s central argument is that Kafka is known through a handful of images that occur in his books, rather than through the books themselves.
While the same could be said of other writers – Proust with his Madeleine, for instance – it is undoubtedly true that Kafka is a writer who is spoken about far more than he is read.
As Hawes comments, “It’s hard enough for Germans to escape the K-myth, but at least Germans have the clean, beautiful originals to read, if they can bear to take off their gloom-tinted biographical spectacles. Kafka’s translators have made it almost impossible for anyone else.”
Of crucial significance to Hawes’s debunking of myth has been the discovery of some of the pornography to which Kafka eagerly subscribed.
One of the writer’s favourite magazines was Opals, published by his friend Franz Blei. The material contained in Opals was, to say the least, an acquired taste. But when the latest copy failed to turn up on time, Kafka was deeply disappointed, lamenting, only half in jest, “Why is God punishing Blei, Germany and us? And especially me?”
The porn certainly comes as a surprise to anyone who thinks of Kafka as incorrigibly earnest. As Hawes remarks, some of it is “rather gay”, some recalls naughty Victoriana, and some “looks surprisingly like Barbarella”.
Hawes is well versed in Kafka scholarship, and it is no surprise, given his record as the author of five saltily satirical novels, that he knows how to pace his narrative.
Brisk and intriguing, Excavating Kafka is clearly intended to send readers hurrying off to read The Castle and The Trial. Partly influenced by Alain De Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, it promises to reveal “why you should read Kafka before you waste your life” – which is, indeed, its title in the US.
Hawes presents Kafka as a complex character. While he plainly admires his writing, the case for why we should read him is not made strongly. There are some exaggerations, such as the claim that “everyone” knows Kafka’s face, as well as a few irritating mannerisms, such as repeatedly referring to Kafka as “our hero”.
Nevertheless, this is an accessible and engaging study, and its dismantling of popular misconceptions is refreshing.
Henry Hitchings is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English’ (John Murray)
Review: Excavating Kafka by James Hawes
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 16/08/2008
Kafka was no tortured soul - he was a clubber with a penchant for porn. James Walton is entertained
The index of Ronald Hayman's K - a biography of Kafka published to some acclaim in 1981 - contains the following entries under the name of Kafka, Franz: "suicidal impulses"; "self-dislike"; "inability to remember pleasant experiences"; "tormented by noises"; "compulsion to think badly of himself"; and, rather more mysteriously, "refusal of the food that life offers".
There are plenty more along the same lines - but you get the idea.
This is the Kafka we're most familiar with: the neurotic self-hater whose work came from his tortured psyche and whose genius went unrecognised during his tragic lifetime.
"The K-myth", as James Hawes calls it in Excavating Kafka (perhaps with Hayman in his sights), is something we're oddly fond of. Yet it suffers from a major flaw: it's completely untrue.
Hawes is best known as a comic novelist, whose first book was the hugely entertaining A White Merc with Fins. Before that, as he firmly points out here, he was for 10 years an academic specialising in Kafka.
Somewhat more sheepishly, he also lets slip that he too once believed in the K-myth - which presumably explains the book's zeal.
Hawes's Kafka couldn't be more different from the anguished seer of Prague.
For a start, rather than the ground-down clerk of popular imagining, he was a successful and wealthy civil servant. He was also a man of the world, who enjoyed the city's more fashionable nightclubs, visited brothels and had an impressive stash of pornography - which, as Hawes says (and the book illustrates), certainly wasn't quaintly "naughty".
His writing wasn't only respected in Prague, but in 1915 won a prestigious prize in Berlin - not least because Kafka was such a well-connected literary player. Hawes later insists, among much else, that Kafka's Jewishness didn't greatly matter to him, and that his supposedly fearsome father was something of a pussycat.
The works are not the maverick products of an angst-ridden soul, but "have a clear ancestry and place within the story of Western literature".
One of Hawes's biggest objections to the K-myth is that it misleads us into reading the books merely as clues to that alleged inner torment. As a result, we don't realise The Trial and The Castle are dark social comedies - and nobody appears to have spotted that the most famous image of them all (the man who becomes an insect in Metamorphosis) is taken not merely from Goethe, but from the very first chapter of Goethe's best-known novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.
"This," writes Hawes, "is the cultural equivalent of two generations of English scholars simply not noticing that Joyce has quoted the start of Hamlet at the start of Ulysses. There can be no clearer evidence that the K-myth quite literally makes people - even highly educated German scholars - incapable of reading what Kafka actually wrote."
Like many polemics, Excavating Kafka does perhaps exaggerate its own originality as well as its own case.
Hawes mentions The Unbearable Lightness of Being a couple of times in passing, but not that Milan Kundera has put forward similar arguments about Kafka in his essays.
Kundera even has his own word for the K-myth, "Kafkology", which he defines in the same way, and blames for the same things. "Kafkology examines Kafka's books not in the large context of literary history (the history of the European novel) but almost exclusively in the microcontext of biography."
Likewise, Hawes's claims for Kafka as a pretty ordinary kind of guy aren't always entirely convincing. While he does a good job proving Kafka's fiction is more socially realistic, and funnier, than the K-myth allows, to read the novels purely in that way is to rob them of their genuine strangeness.
Still, if you're prepared to put up with the exaggerations, Excavating Kafka is undeniably an exhilarating read.
The heresy helps, but so does Hawes's pacy, non-academic prose and his sharp eye for fascinating snippets of literary and political history.
In the end, he hits more targets than he misses - and even when his arguments feel like only part of the truth, at least it's the part that corrects the sentimentality of the traditional picture.
Franz Kafka would have been shocked by our lack of privacy
By Glenda Cooper
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 18/08/2008
What item could Franz Kafka have been so ashamed of that he kept it in a locked safe on his bookshelf - even taking the key on holiday with him?
According to a new book by Kafka expert James Hawes, it was the prophet of alienation's stash of hard-core pornography.
But German academics responded furiously this weekend, castigating Hawes for emphasising the porn and saying that the secret in the safe which Kafka really wanted to conceal from his family was, in fact, a savings book.
So, in such circles, it's apparently fine to reveal one possesses a picture of a hedgehog performing what (in a family newspaper) I can only call a sex act. A Post Office Instant Saver's account, however, is beyond the pale.
How did our notions of what should be private change so much? I am currently co-authoring a report into privacy for Ofcom and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
While looking at regulation - whether the Human Rights Act is becoming a de facto privacy law, for example - we are also considering whether sex, health and finance still remain off-limits when people are happy to open their hearts about affairs, health scares and share dealing.
The internet has changed everything: pasting up pictures of your friends, half-cut or half-naked, on Facebook is only the start.
One interviewee argued that the biggest threat to privacy was Google's plans to publish photographs of every street in the country. Meanwhile, a blogger I met for the first time was able to reel off my education, friends and even how quickly I can run a half-marathon - information I had freely given away online.
For most people, it is now increasingly acceptable to expose intimate details - if it's on your terms. The gold standard for this is the 1992 book Diana: Her True Story - in which the late Princess broke with royal tradition to (initially secretly) disclose her bulimia, suicide attempts and marital difficulties.
But the Princess's story was so incredible that it is hard to think of any later revelations with the same shock value. After a long debate with a tabloid expert, I came up with only one that seemed to fit the bill: Edwina Currie's affair with John Major - a story so outlandish that, when I first heard it, I had to pinch myself to ensure that my mind's dark recesses had not invented it. Surely a nightmare even Kafka's imagination would have rejected.
Meanwhile, a ghastly metamorphosis is creeping over us: the arrival of "souk Britain". To beat the spending slowdown, shops across the country are offering price cuts of up to 60 per cent for customers prepared to negotiate.
My heart sinks. I holidayed at home this year to avoid just this. I already have a drawer full of lace tablecloths from Cyprus, a cupboard's worth of green tea with jasmine flowers from Sri Lanka, more XXX Calypso Hot Sauce from the British Virgin Islands than even Michael Phelps could use on his fried-egg sandwiches, and a traditional knife from Banda Aceh - courtesy of my inability to walk away empty-handed from any shopping situation that requires haggling.
My bank balance will crash quicker than the crude oil price if such methods are implemented in John Lewis's Home Entertainment Department.
I was surprised to read yesterday that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne and former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell have been spotted deep in conversation at dinner parties.
Yes, it is exciting to talk to such a glamorous figure, who has achieved an astonishing amount at such a young age, who knows everyone and has been feted by the media. But at this crucial time, when a way back from the wilderness is well within reach, it is foolish to take advice from someone who is not an expert in your area. Indeed, it even risks holding the whole project up to ridicule.
Please think again, Geri; Osborne should not be allowed to put your future pop career at risk.
Sunday August 17 2008
Franz Kafka, party animal
Life wasn't really such a trial for the supposedly tortured artist, says his new biographer
Fiction writing is hardly a glamorous profession. True, novelists avoid the timetables of office work and can cultivate eccentric habits. But if they are going to get anything done, they still have to spend hours of each day hunched over a desk. The tedium of the writer's life means biographers either have to bore their readers senseless or fashion a 'myth' - exaggerating picturesque elements of the writer's personality, embroidering anecdotes and, in the end, rendering the writer as a fictional character. For every major literary figure, there are dozens of myths flying around.
In Excavating Kafka, James Hawes tackles some of the myths that have built up around the writer. He suggests that Kafka is generally touted - both in 'popular culture' and in the worthy avenues of academe - as a gaunt, melancholy, saint-like type, staring out of blurred black-and-white photographs with anguished eyes. He was a man who ordered in his will that his works should be destroyed, who languished in obscurity throughout his lifetime, who was 'crushed by a dead-end bureaucratic job' and, equally, by a tyrannical father. This Kafka was an all-round seer who had no interest in the reception of his work, so preoccupied was he by his 'Kafkaesque' imagination. 'These are the building blocks of the K-myth,' writes Hawes in his introduction. 'Unfortunately, they are all rubbish.'
Hawes, a former academic who spent 10 years studying and teaching Kafka, insists that he was not a 'lonely Middle European Nostradamus'. Rather, he lived with his parents and was set up with a relatively cushy job (six hours a day for the equivalent of £58,000 today), leaving him plenty of time to write. Thanks to his literary connections, he won a major literary prize in his early thirties before even publishing a book. He was not tragically unrequited in his love affairs; nor was he virtually unknown in his lifetime ('we see him named three times in two entirely different articles in a single edition of the Prague Daily News in 1918'). Hawes even proposes that Kafka didn't really want his work to be burned after his death and knew full well that the loyal Max Brod would never do it.
Hawes's Kafka is a canny, funny, worldly man who liked to relax by socialising with his many friends, visiting the occasional prostitute - and reading porn. The fact that Kafka subscribed to two erotic journals is presented as a grand revelation: 'No one has ever shown his readers what we are about to see: Kafka's porn.' There follow some pretty weird pen-and-ink drawings, fin de siècle in style, although Hawes also admits that 'Kafka's porn is no real secret. The mystery is that it should seem like one.' This aspect of the book has caused a furious row to erupt among German-speaking Kafka scholars, with several accusing Hawes of sensationalisation, prudishness and even anti-Semitism.
All of this is highly entertaining. Naturally, the idea that everyone has been completely gulled by the 'K-myth' is something of a rhetorical strategy and, ironically, considering Hawes's reservations about academia, owes much to the 'you all thought this but really it's different' structuring of academic argument. I doubt everyone thinks of Kafka in this way, but if you accept the polemical ruse, then you can settle in to enjoy Hawes's galloping, lucid prose.
There's real enthusiasm here too: Hawes strongly believes the myth surrounding Kafka has clouded the perception of his writing to the extent that his translators believe he should sound like 'some ghastly, plodding sub-Sartre' rather than someone whose 'black-comic tales of what happens to modern people who can't give up on the Old Ways could hardly be more timely'.
Meanwhile, all those 'reading their Kafka in lonely little apartments in cities where they know hardly anyone' should stop consoling themselves with the notion that Kafka too struggled in 'modern, metropolitan purgatory'. From the evidence of this witty anti-biography, he did nothing of the sort.
Saturday September 13 2008
The man behind the beetle
A novelist's study lays into the myths and misconceptions about Kafka. By Ian Sansom
This absolutely brilliant and utterly infuriating book has a simple purpose: to demolish a number of myths and misconceptions about the life and work of Franz Kafka. James Hawes compiles a long list of these myths at the beginning of his book and usefully lists them thus: "mysterious genius, lonely Middle European Nostradamus, ignored by his contemporaries, plumbed the depths of his mysterious, quasi-saintly psyche to predict the Holocaust and the Gulags".
Actually, no one I've ever met thinks about Kafka in these terms, but Hawes is clearly overstating for effect. As the title of the book perhaps suggests, Excavating Kafka is hardly a work of forensics: it's heavy-hitting, heavy-lifting spadework. This is no polite revisionism: it's graverobbing.
Hawes is perhaps best known as a novelist, but he's also an academic and an expert in German literature. He establishes his scholarly credentials early on in the book: anyone for "Blind Resistance? A reply to Elizabeth Boa's reading of Kafka's Auf der Galerie" in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte (June 1995)?
Armed with both the necessary skills and obvious passion - he clearly relishes what he refers to as the "chthonic power" of Kafka's work - Hawes demonstrates how and why most people's ideas about Kafka are, in his words, "rubbish".
The facts certainly stack up. Drawing on the pioneering work of scholars such as Reiner Stach, Peter André-Alt and Jürgen Born, Hawes sets about tearing up the Prague picture postcard-image of Kafka with tremendous, crowd-pleasing vigour. Kafka was shy of publishing his work? He published extensively in journals, had four books out by the time he was 34, and had a horde of acolytes and imitators. Kafka was ignored by his contemporaries? Hawes lays out the early laudatory reviews and the machinations behind the awarding to Kafka of a prestigious literary prize. Kafka's father was a brute? Hawes reveals him to be generous, charming and a gentleman. Kafka was poor? He was loaded. Kafka's Jewishness is essential to understanding his work? What are you - schmucks? The aim is continually to delight the audience by confronting and denouncing the image of Kafka as a solitary, tortured genius.
Some of the ballyhoo backfires. The (illustrated) section on "Kafka's porn", for example, is not as shocking as it seems to think it is. And on a number of occasions Hawes commits the very sins he accuses others of committing. He claims that hindsight should be forbidden in judging Kafka's work, and yet a few pages later he writes: "On the day Adolf Hitler walked into Lansberg Castle to begin his grotesquely and fatally light sentence . . . Franz Kafka had only two months left before he died a few score miles away." This comes dangerously close to the kind of mysterioso post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments which Hawes rightly denounces.
Most contentious of all, though, is Hawes's risky argument that the central image of "Metamorphosis", a man turning into a beetle, derives from a passage in Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther ("One would like to turn into a june bug so that one could swim around in this sea of pleasant scents, getting all one's nourishment like this"). That no scholar has ever remarked upon this before, Hawes claims, proves that "the K-myth quite literally makes people - even highly educated German scholars - incapable of reading what Kafka actually wrote." But it could also simply prove that Hawes is one of the most audacious, obsessive and endlessly inventive critics of an author with whose work he is clearly and wonderfully obsessed.
Ian Sansom's Mobile Library series of comic detective novels is published by HarperPerennial
August 2, 2008
A stash of explicit pornography to which Franz Kafka subscribed has emerged for the first time after being studiously ignored by scholars anxious to preserve the iconic writer's saintly image.
Having stumbled by chance across copies in the British Library in London and the Bodleian in Oxford while doing unrelated research, James Hawes, the academic and Kafka expert, reveals some of this erotic material in Excavating Kafka, to be published this month. His book seeks to explode important myths surrounding the literary icon, a "quasi-saintly" image which hardly fits with the dark and shocking pictures contained in these banned journals.
Their additional significance is that the publisher, Dr Franz Blei, was also the man who first published Kafka in 1908 - a series of miniature stories later gathered in his book Meditation.
Hawes, an Oxford graduate and university lecturer, emphasises his total admiration for the literary Kafkaesque genius who wrote brooding classics such as The Metamorphosis, The Castle and The Trial, and argues that these discoveries merely show Kafka as more human than the popular image. He believes that "suppressing" them detracts from sensible assessment of his work, and has even led to nonsensical evaluation.
Even today, the pornography would be "on the top shelf", Dr Hawes said, noting that his American publisher did not want him to publish it at first. "These are not naughty postcards from the beach. They are undoubtedly porn, pure and simple. Some of it is quite dark, with animals committing fellatio and girl-on-girl action... It's quite unpleasant."
"Academics have pretended it did not exist," Dr Hawes said. “The Kafka industry doesn’t want to know such things about its idol."
He added: "Perhaps Kafka's biographers simply don't like the idea that their literary idol was helped out in this... way in the vital early stages of his career... Of the world's authors, only Shakespeare generates more PhDs, more biographies, more coffee-table books... Everything Kafka wrote, every postcard he ever sent, every page of his diary... is regarded as a potential Ark of the Covenant... Yet no-one has ever shown his readers Kafka's porn."
The journals' title - The Amethyst/Opals - reveal nothing about their contents, but Kafka kept his collection locked at his parent's house where he lived, taking the key with him when he went on holiday.
Perhaps he feared his father Hermann. But the obsession with a supposed brutal father and with being a Jew, are two other myths which Dr Hawes challenges. Hermann, a conventional Jewish businessman and ex- sergeant-major in the Hapsburg army, was probably "a father of his time", may indeed have been stern, but Dr Hawes - who is also senior lecturer in creative writing at Oxford Brookes University - argues that Kafka admits that he "hardly if ever actually hit" him. He also let him study what he wanted, live at home rent-free for years, when Kafka earned handsomely, and come and go "as he pleased".
As to the myth that Kafka's works are based on his experiences as a Jew in Prague, and that Kafka somehow predicted the Holocaust, Dr Hawes acknowledges that Kafka was very much aware of being Jewish. But "there is zero actual Jewishness" and no Jewish characters or scenes in his work. He was immersed in German culture.
Dr Hawes's biography also challenges the enduring popular portrait of Kafka as a tortured and lonely figure, neglected in his own lifetime, stuck in a dead-end job and struggling to write. The true Kafka could not have been more different, he said, describing him as a popular and well-paid state lawyer whose writing was supported by a prominent literary clique. It was only towards the end of his short life in 1917 that TB was diagnosed, and his poverty only occurred near the end due to economic collapse after the 1914-18 War.
Commenting on the book's discoveries, Ritchie Robertson, a professor of German at Oxford University and author of Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, said he was unaware of any academic actually looking at the pornography pictures, let alone reproducing them for biographies, even though they knew of his subscrition to Amethyst/Opals.
He added: "The many myths about Kafka circulating among the semi-informed public... do include the idea of Kafka as a kind of saint, originally propagated by his friend Max Brod. So it's salutary to assemble evidence that he was human."
Kafka's interest in pornography, which left traces in such works as The Metamorphosis, matters if it makes us look at any of Kafka's fiction in a new way, he said: "Kafka had a strongly visual imagination, and the importance of the visual arts for him hasn't yet been fully explored."
August 29, 2008
James Hawes is a gamekeeper turned poacher or, better yet, a gatekeeper turned burglar. As a bone fide academic – backed by a doctorate on Kafka and Nietzsche – he was a willing worker in what he calls the "Kafka industry". At the same time he got whiffs of "something rotten" on the production line. A little fishing netted the over-ripe truth: St Franz was no saint.
Kafka subscribed to a pornographic magazine (which he kept locked in a closet), frequented bordellos, and was a rat with women. Nor was he gifted with foresight, was no Nostradamus, hadn't a clue that his beloved sisters were destined to perish at the hands of Nazi murderers. Hawes boldly pinched the key to the closet and flung it open, immediately putting himself beyond the law – that is, the law laid down by his erstwhile employers.
"It seems the Kafka industry doesn't want to know such things about its idol," wrote Hawes, "which means, academics being the gatekeepers of the artifacts, that they don't want you, the reader, to know." But Hawes, the self-proclaimed outlaw, does. Interested readers will find the dirty stuff – Excavating Kafka is illustrated – between pages 62 and 68 (the permissive sixties, you might say). The images all come from a periodical called The Amethyst (later Opals). Alas, I'm no expert on the subject, but I'd guess a British equivalent would be The Yellow Book.
So if Kafka was neither saint nor prophet, what then was he? Certainly not a purveyor of the "gloomy stuff we Anglo-Saxons received via post-Auschwitz French existentialists", but rather the author of "wonderful black comedies written by a man soaked in the writings of his predecessors and of his own day." Now we have Kafka as he really was, a sort of Habsburg Kingsley Amis.
Indeed, early on in Excavating Kafka, the budding genius of Prague is described as a real Lucky Jim (the author's own translation of "a happy Hans"). It will come as no surprise to learn that the renegade gatekeeper is now a comic novelist of some repute. Sure enough, in the early chapters, well-heeled young Franz – boulevardier, whore-monger, and drooler over pornography – is presented as if he were the protagonist of just such a book.
But try as he might, our author just cannot sustain Kafka in the role of Lucky Jim. Our hero gets diagnosed with TB, no joke in pre-penicillin days. Hawes tells him to get on with his life, and prescribes a stay in the Alps. Poor Felice (Kafka's long-suffering fiancée) is described as too ugly to bed. Lovely Milena is dismissed as an unreliable witness. And Kafka's fearsome pater is revealed as a good egg. What is missing, you'll note, is the work.
Hawes is not out to debunk Kafka's work. On the contrary, the target of his satirical pen are those keepers of the flame, custodians of the "K myth", whose obsession with the life obscures the work. Hawes only wants to revoke the Special K privilege in order for that peerless work to be appreciated unimpeded.
But who are these kingpins of Kafka industry? Careful reading throws up two main suspects (setting aside Kafka's cronies such as Max Brod): biographers Ronald Hayman and Ernst Pawel. Set against them are Professors Ritchie Robertson and Peter-Andre Alt (to name but two), who are certainly in the Kafka industry, but just as certainly not in the business of myth-making. Could the "K-myth" be the biggest myth of all?
By the second half – when Lucky Jim has become Unlucky Jim – Hawes becomes less the comic novelist, and more the close reader of texts. Some readings are better than others. His interpretation of The Trial as an everyday story of Bohemian folk seems too single-minded, too dependent upon the image of himself as the man who has chased away the myth-makers. Kafka entered places into which Kingsley Amis didn't even dare look. Much more interesting is Hawes's reading of "The Judgement", in which he evokes both Sherlock Holmes and the story's impregnable insolubility.
When it came to women, Kafka demonstrated physical cowardice, but when it came to the written word he was both fearless and merciless. He pushed the text protesting to its ultimate destination. Perhaps Hawes could have followed Kafka's example, and gone the whole hog: jettisoned his academic gown, and whole-heartedly turned Kafka into a fully-fledged comic hero. Of course, his Kafka wouldn't have been the real Kafka. But if you want the real Kafka there is, as Hawes has shown, only one place to go.
Clive Sinclair's 'True Tales of the Wild West' is published by Picador
August 17, 2008
Ideas & Trends
By JENNY LYN BADER
Granted, it’s not as bad as waking up and finding you’ve become a big bug, as memorably happens in his novella “The Metamorphosis.” But somehow, even in 2008, Franz Kafka himself keeps morphing, inspiring generations of fans to imagine him anew.
Beloved writers often get reclaimed for a new readership. Oscar Wilde, best known for being a wit in his own time, would become a gay icon in ours. Long after his death, the Romantic poet Lord Byron would receive the diagnosis of manic-depression. Rudyard Kipling would be embraced during the British Empire and then criticized as imperialist and sometimes racist as the Empire collapsed. Ernest Hemingway, a beloved, swashbuckling figure in his day, would later fall out of favor for a time as a chauvinist.
Now it’s Kafka’s turn. In a new book, “Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life” (St. Martin’s Press), James Hawes, a British lecturer and satirical novelist, considers the man behind the literary myth. According to Mr. Hawes, the myth is all penniless failure and tubercular despair, struggle and saintliness. The man is more dashing. He held a high-paying job, visited brothels and enjoyed some popularity, romantic liaisons and literary admirers in his lifetime.
Oh, yes, and smut. A bit of a provocateur, Mr. Hawes, whose book is titled “Excavating Kafka” in its British edition, explores a hitherto uncelebrated “porn” stash kept in a locked bookshelf by the great writer. No, the magazines in question haven’t been hiding in a Prague garret. As academics already knew, they’re archived at the British Library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford. But no one mined them for publication until Mr. Hawes chose to now — which probably says more about who we are today than it does about who Kafka was.
Mr. Hawes has called the material “graphic,” stirring controversy in scholarly circles and enraging experts who believe the subject is irrelevant or overblown — either because of the “who cares?” factor or because the material itself is tame by today’s standards: decorative woodcuts, playful etchings and Art Nouveau pen-and-ink drawings. His book reproduces six illustrations, some surreal or satirical in nature. One has a wiry skeleton reaching for a cowering miniature nude; another, a frog’s mouth on a suggestively shaped plant.
Clearly, Kafka wasn’t reading Hustler. The journal in question — Amethyst (1905-1906), later retitled Opals (1907) — was more avant-garde than that: without photos and with a decadent, aesthetic sensibility. Privately published, it was available only via subscription in numbered, limited editions. It included reprints of material by Goethe, illustrations by artists like Aubrey Beardsley, and reprinted and newly translated erotic prose from old and recent Turkish, Indian, French, English and Italian texts, including writing by Casanova, Wilde, Rimbaud, Keats and the symbolist poet Verlaine. There was also cutting-edge fiction, like the debut of a seminal Expressionist novel, “Bebuquin” by Carl Einstein.
The shelf of volumes figured, if tangentially, in the interaction of figures important to Kafka’s writing career. When he first began acquiring them, Kafka was in Prague finishing his law degree, and had begun writing but had yet to have anything published. His friend Max Brod was already published, and was a contributor to Amethyst/Opals. Brod would soon convince him to send some of his work to the versatile literary maven Franz Blei, who not only edited the erotic journal but would be first to publish Kafka in the arty bimonthly Hyperion in 1908.
Mr. Brod would later become the executor of Kafka’s estate, ignoring his wishes to burn his work, and then writing a biography about him, thereby helping to establish the Kafka legend. In that biography, Mr. Brod includes a letter from Kafka mentioning their plan to split the cost of an expensive subscription to Amethyst, though he doesn’t go into detail about what that means. But in a later chapter he writes that he could never get Kafka “to read more than a line of two of Casanova,” since “what was dirty, immoral seemed to have no attraction for him.”
It has been said that each era imagines its own Shakespeare. It seems each age also creates its own Kafka. By the time he was putting out Kafka’s major works, Mr. Brod was already an established author and critic, and he would focus public attention on the image of the persevering, pure artist.
Today, when people are as likely to flip a garret as to move into one, the public can fixate on the mover-and-shaker Kafka. This time, he’s a man about town who balanced a prestigious career with finding time to write fiction.
Appropriately enough, a more worldly Kafka comes across in the work of two worldly career-balancers: Mr. Hawes, who teaches creative writing at Oxford Brookes University and has published six novels, and Louis Begley, an attorney who has published eight novels, most of them while still practicing law, in his new book “The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay” (Atlas & Co.).
Mr. Hawes writes, “Things get far simpler if we forget the icon and, for once, just try to treat Kafka as a normal human being.” And that seems to be the overriding impulse of our own era: to humanize. We receive frequent reports of possible sins or foibles our idols may possess, from larger bad habits down to whether they snore. Turn-of-the-century erotica is sold as scandal. No hero is left unturned.
06.08.2008 17:10 Uhr
So, jetzt sollen wir auch das wissen: Franz Kafka war Besitzer pornographischer Schriften. Vielleicht nicht geradezu stolzer Besitzer, denn er soll sie sorgsam in einem Schrank verwahrt und den Schlüssel mitgenommen haben, wenn er fortging.
Diesen Teil des Nachlasses will sein angeblicher Entdecker James Hawes, Professor für Kreatives Schreiben an der Brookes University in Oxford, keineswegs besonders tief verborgen in der British Library und in der Bodleian Library in Oxford gefunden haben.
Es müssen aber, meint er, vor ihm schon andere darauf gestoßen sein; die Scham soll sie abgehalten zu haben, davon zu sprechen. Er selbst empfindet nicht so; und seine Forschungsresultate wird er demnächst in einem Buch mit dem Titel "Excavating Kafka" (Quercus Publishers, London) vorstellen.
Kaum haben wir uns von der Nachricht erholt, dass Kafka offenbar regelmäßig ins Bordell ging, müssen wir nun dies verkraften. "Franz Kafka's porn brought out of the closet", "Franz Kafkas Pornohefte aus dem Schrank geholt", meldet groß die Londoner Times.
Kafka war also normal, ja mehr als das, gewissermaßen normal-pervers, wenn es so etwas gibt. Noch immer, meint James Hawes, täten sich Forschung und Publikum schwer mit dieser Einsicht - als wäre es normaler, dass er ein Heiliger ist. Was die Forschung betrifft, hat James Hawes dabei sicherlich unrecht. Das Publikum hingegen hält es mit der Heiligkeit womöglich anders.
Das Bild von Kafka als Heiligem hatte einst sein Freund und Herausgeber Max Brod in die Welt gesetzt, mit erheblichem Erfolg. Man sollte ihn nicht allzu sehr verspotten dafür, denn es drückt sich darin das Gefühl von der Einmaligkeit dieses literarischen Werks aus, in denkbar unbeholfener Weise zwar, aber doch unverkennbar und achtungsvoll.
Wenn man sich diese Heiligkeit allerdings im Reich des Persönlichen zu Hause vorstellt und daraus bestimmte Erwartungen an den Lebenswandel herleitet, kommt man um Enttäuschungen nicht herum.
Dass ein Dichter besonders keusch leben sollte, ist ja ein gänzlich unangemessenes, sachfremdes Postulat, so wie wenn man für die Führerscheinprüfung den Nachweis der Musikalität verlangen wollte.
Bei einem Dichter reicht es völlig, wenn er gut dichtet, damit tut er genug für uns; ansonsten darf er im moralischen Bereich sogar unter dem Durchschnitt liegen, das ist seine Sache oder höchstens die Sache derer, denen er damit zu Lebzeiten beschwerlich fiel.
Wie steht es mit dem Amethyst?
Längst erregt alles Private, was mit Kafka zu tun hat, ein so eminentes allgemeines Interesse, wie es sonst die Stars unserer Gegenwart begleitet.
Man mag es zehnmal mit der Vernunft begriffen haben, dass Kafka nicht im liturgischen Sinn ein Heiliger gewesen sein kann: Die Reliquien üben ihren Zauber dennoch aus. Jeder banale Gegenstand kann als Reliquie gelten, sofern er nur mit dem Heiligen in leiblicher Beziehung gestanden hat. Die wird man den angeblichen Pornoheften schwer absprechen können. Kafkas Einhandlektüre! Da verblasst selbst Büchners Locke.
"Dark and shocking" soll das Material sein, behauptet James Hawes. Schon wer je pornographische Bilder der Zeit gesehen hat, wird sich angesichts dieser Behauptung erheitert fühlen.
Das, verglichen mit den heutigen Möglichkeiten, Unausgereifte der Technik verleiht ihnen etwas Unschuldvolles, und zwar gerade dort am meisten, wo sie so richtig verrucht sein wollen, wie bei einem der rasenden Automobile jener Zeit, wenn der Futurismus es malt.
Das Dämonische, das Tote, das Höllische, das seinen Weg in die jüngere Pornographie gefunden hat, steht der Zeit vor hundert Jahren noch fern; sie freut sich arglos daran, das Verbotene auch noch knipsen zu können.
Kafkas Magazine hießen Amethyst und Opale, und ihre Darstellung bei James Hawes ist durchaus unangemessen. "Girls on girls" gebe es darin zu sehen, berichtet er, ja "animals committing fellatio". "Quite unpleasant" seien diese Bilder - sagt entrüstet der, der bislang alleine über sie zu verfügen können behauptet, um die Neugier auf sein Buch anzufachen.
Tatsächlich handelt es sich bei diesen beiden, von Franz Blei veröffentlichten und der Forschung wohlbekannten Magazinen um Privatpublikationen, die neben Bildern unbekleideter Frauen Arbeiten von Aubrey Beardsley und Felicien Rops enthielten sowie Texte von Jules Laforgue und Paul Verlaine. In den Opalen, die jährlich in einer Auflage von achthundert nummerierten Exemplaren erschienen, wurde Carl Einsteins "Bebuquin" veröffentlicht, der erste deutsche expressionistische Roman überhaupt.
Diese Hefte (die preziösen Titel deuten es an) waren im Übrigen keineswegs billig; Kafka teilte sich mit seinem Freund Max Brod in die Kosten für das Abonnement. Und Franz Kafka schrieb im Februar 1906 an seinen Freund in einem Brief, der in Klaus Wagenbachs Biographie schon in der ersten Ausgabe von 1958 zitiert wird (Seite 132/133): "Wie steht es mit dem Amethyst? Mein Geld ist schon vorbereitet."
Das lehrt uns zweierlei: Zum einen, dass die Sensation, die der englische Professor nun unter die Leute bringen will, keine solche ist. Zum anderen, dass Max Brod zumindest für den Privatgebrauch die Sache mit der Heiligkeit doch etwas modifiziert zu haben scheint.
Die Großen Muss das sein?
Von David Hugendick
Biografieforscher an vorderster Front. Erst entdeckt einer Goethes heimliche Liebe zu Anna Amalia, jetzt das: Franz Kafka las Pornos! Da graust sich der Germanist. Zumindest, wenn er vom Buch des britischen Autors James Hawes gehört hat, das gerade in England erschienen ist. Excavating Kafka heißt es, “Kafka freilegen”. Es beschreibt unter anderem, wie der Schriftsteller seine Schmuddelhefte in seinem Schrank einschloss. Den Schlüssel nahm Kafka in die Ferien mit, damit die Mutter die Sammlung nicht fand. Und Hawes will Bilder zeigen! Sexbildchen: Mit Tieren! Pfui, Franz! Die Hefte hatte er von Franz Blei – demjenigen, der die ersten Werke Kafkas 1908 veröffentlichte.
So, und jetzt atmen wir mal durch. Der Amethyst und Die Opale, so hießen die Zeitschriften. Sie erschienen um die Jahrhundertwende, Franz Blei war ihr Herausgeber. Das Groteske, das Erotische wollte er in ihnen zeigen. In den Heften standen Texte richtiger Schmuddelautoren: Goethe, Rimbaud, Wilde und Robert Walser. Die Zeichnungen kamen von Künstlern wie Alfred Kubin oder Theodor Thomas Heine. Wird Ihnen schon heiß?
Der Kafka-Biograf Reiner Stach sagt zu den Heften: “Es waren zwar pornografische Darstellungen dabei, aber Sie dürfen sich das nicht so vorstellen wie die harte Pornografie heute. Das sind Zeichnungen, keine Fotos. Das sind spielerische Darstellungen, die haben zum Teil karikaturistischen Wert.” Die Zeitschriften waren also nicht die Praline und St.Pauli Nachrichten der Jahrhundertwende, und dass Kafka sie las, ist lange bekannt. Er hatte sie abonniert, als er 24 war. Das schrieb bereits Klaus Wagenbach vor 50 Jahren auf.
Was ist denn jetzt erstaunlich daran? Dass Kafka diese Hefte las, die damals zwar als erotisch, nicht aber als obszön galten und sogar in Bibliotheken liegen? Oder dass 100 Jahre später ein englischer Forscher, ihrer ansichtig geworden, “Porno, Porno” schreit? Hawes sagt, er möchte endlich die Kafka-Forschung aus ihrer Verlogenheit führen, den Teppich lüften, unter dem die schmutzigen Details liegen. Er will den Mythos zerstören vom keuschen Dichter. Toll: Diejenigen, die selbst viel schlimmere Heftchen vor ihren Ehefrauen verstecken, können sich Kafka nun nahe fühlen. “Der ist ja wie ich! Den les ich jetzt!” So bringt man die Literatur ins Volk.
Vielleicht kann Hawes aber einfach kein Deutsch lesen. Denn Kafkas schmutzige Seiten, seine Bordellbesuche, seine Flirts mit Wirtsmädchen sind doch schon längst aufgeschrieben worden. Den Schrank schloss Kafka übrigens aus anderen Gründen ab. Dort lag sein Sparbuch. Und das durften seine Eltern wirklich nicht sehen.
Mon., November 24, 2008 Cheshvan 26, 5769
'Sadness in Palestine?!'
By Dan Miron
Kafka couldn't stand modern national Jewish culture and the literature that cultivated and promoted it, especially the Hebrew-Zionist brand. Not only did he outright say he had no interest in this kind of literature, but he was totally opposed to it
Franz Kafka, who was supposedly interested in Zionism and its cultural manifestations, and who lived in the eye of the storm, so to speak, never wrote a single word about Hebrew literature. It was as if he didn't know it existed. Neither did he have anything to say about the Hebrew play performed at the 11th Zionist Congress, in 1913, by Nahum Zemach, later the founding father of Habimah Theater in Moscow.
Kafka, who had been so enchanted by the Yiddish theater two years earlier, evinced no interest whatsoever in seeing a play whose actors spoke the language of the Bible on a Viennese stage, even though he had always expressed a desire to learn Hebrew and declared himself jealous of those who were able to master it. When Felice Bauer, later his fiancee, claimed she knew Hebrew, when they first met at the home of Max Brod's parents, he took perverse pleasure in her inability to translate or explain the name "Tel Aviv" - which did not stop him from proposing that same evening that he and Felice travel to Palestine together.
His silence encompassed all the heroes of the Hebrew literary renaissance and the new Hebrew literature as a whole. While Kafka took great pains to read the French dissertation of Meir Pines on Yiddish literature (and even jotted down notes in his diary to help him remember key points), it never occurred to him to read Nahum Sluschz's dissertation on modern Hebrew literature, also submitted to the Sorbonne as a doctoral thesis and published in French in 1903.
In his diary, Kafka frequently mentions Yiddish writers, naming both well-known figures (Mendele Moycher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Mordecai Spektor, Morris Rosenfeld) and complete unknowns, as if there were no difference between the canonic and the non-canonic in Yiddish literature. He speaks respectfully of Jacob Adler, aka the Great Eagle of New York, one of the leading Yiddish actors of the time (also noting the rumors that Adler had become a millionaire). On the other hand, there is not one word about Hebrew writers and intellectuals, whose work he could have read in German and presumably heard about from his Zionist friends: Ahad Ha'am, for example, whom Martin Buber spoke about at length, albeit not without criticism, in his first lecture on Judaism at the Bar Kochba club (Kafka attended the lecture but was not impressed with Buber's remarks, which he describes as an eclectic and unconvincing hodgepodge of ideas); and Micha Josef Berdichevsky, who not only published stories and articles in German, but even a whole book on the social and cultural world of the Jews of Eastern Europe (1918), as well as two collections of legends and folktales (a subject Kafka was supposedly very interested in), which went on to become classics (one is "Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales," translated into English by I.M. Lask).
The search for some hint of the work of this Hebrew author, who was so close to German culture and so accessible to someone who grew up on the writings of Nietzsche, is a search in vain. The same is true for the stories of Shmuel Yosef Agnon, several of which were translated into German during Kafka's lifetime. Kafka does, however, mention one famous Hebrew writer: Yosef Haim Brenner, the author of "Breakdown and Bereavement," a novel that Kafka tried to wade through in an attempt to learn Hebrew.
Kafka brought the book with him from Prague to Berlin, and began to read it under the tutelage of Pua Bat-Tovim, a university student from Palestine. Using Brenner as a tool for learning the language seems to have been a pedagogic innovation of Bat-Tovim, who thought that an educated person with refined literary tastes like Kafka would progress more quickly when given a serious and challenging piece of literature to read, instead of some inane text from a Hebrew reader. Brenner's novel, which was the "last word" in artistic Hebrew prose back in the early 1920s (it was first published in New York in 1920), seemed fitting to her, also, perhaps, on account of Brenner?s reputation as a poet of suffering, self-doubt and sadness.
Bat-Tovim assumed that Kafka would "identify" with him (later, in her memoirs, she did, in fact, write that Kafka empathized with the pain of Yehezkel Hefetz, the book's protagonist). These were also days of shock: Brenner had been murdered on the outskirts of Jaffa in the riots of May 1921, and elevated into a kind of "Zionist saint."
Bat-Tovim was greatly mistaken if she thought that Kafka liked the book. He found it extremely hard to read and boring. Kafka, with his genteel European manners, did not tell his young, enthusiastic tutor (whom he liked) what he told his friends Max Brod and Robert Klopstock (the latter a medical student from Budapest who became so attached to Kafka that he quit his studies to be at his side and nurse him through his final illness; Klopstock was the one who gave in to Kafka's demands and injected him with the fatal dose of morphine that put an end to his suffering).
To Brod, he wrote that reading 30 or so pages of Brenner's work was more effort than it was worth, and he did not enjoy the book. "Sadness in Palestine?!" he wrote, challenging the cliches about Brenner's sadness. He found the book tiresome, off-putting and altogether not very good. There is not a word about it in his diaries.
Brenner, tedious bore
Neither is there any hint that Kafka ever discussed Brenner with his last lover, Dora Diamant, a fervent Zionist and a lover of Hebrew and Yiddish national culture, who was quizzed by Bat-Tovim when she visited their apartment in Steglitz on the outskirts of Berlin and pronounced knowledgeable enough in Hebrew to help Kafka read the book. While Diamant and Kafka may have read a few pages together, she makes no mention in her diaries or interviews of Kafka's response to the book, despite the fact that she was completely attuned to every thought and feeling projected by the man she loved and admired. Reading Brenner's novel was evidently a tedious bore, but it was something they refused to stop because learning Hebrew was part of their dream of a shared life in Palestine. At the same time, they saw no need to spoil their talks with discussions of a book of which neither of them was enamored. Indeed, only a casual observer would say there was any real affinity between the worlds of Brenner and Kafka, and think it possible to place them side by side on some hypothetical map of the modern Jewish "canon."
Kafka's connection to Zionism is too complex and multi-faceted to discuss here. It seems that those who claim that there was such a connection and that Zionism played a central role in his life and literary work, and those who deny the connection altogether or dismiss its importance, are both wrong. The truth lies in some very elusive place between these two simplistic poles.
There is no question that Kafka found Zionism, as a political and social option for the Jews, very interesting, and even exciting, despite his aversion to the organized Zionist establishment. Kafka may have been uncomplimentary and mocking in his description of the 11th Zionist Congress but he was curious enough to give up a whole week of holiday for it, although it was a holiday he badly needed after his break-up with Felice Bauer.
Dreams of visiting and eventually settling in Palestine remained with Kafka for years, although he never did anything to make them come true (apart from his feeble attempts to learn Hebrew). They were an inseparable part of his desire to escape from the claws of witchy Prague and his fantasy of a strong and practical woman rescuing him from the labyrinth in which he was trapped. His sense was that such a woman would mean the end of his writing career, so while, on the one hand, it was imperative to establish such a relationship, it was also necessary to do everything possible to break it up. In much the same way, he revived his dream of going to Palestine from time to time, but also made sure it would never materialize.
That being the case, some of Kafka's most important stories, among them "A Report to the Academy" and "Investigations of a Dog," might be legitimately interpreted from a Zionist perspective (along with other equally valid interpretations). Obviously one might also see these stories as a satiric comment on Zionism. For example, "A Report to the Academy," first published in Martin Buber's Der Jude and interpreted by Kafka's Zionist friends as a Zionist satire on assimilated Judaism, could also be read as a brutal lampoon of the Zionist concept of "normalization."
The tale, about Red Peter, an ape who delivers a report to the academy (in another version of the story he is interviewed by a journalist) and finds that the only way he can get out of his cage is to make friends with his captors and become more and more like them, might be seen as a metaphor for the assimilated Jew, for whom there is no "way out" (of the cage, i.e., the ghetto), unless he transforms himself into a German or Frenchman of the Mosaic faith.
But Red Peter could also represent the Herzlian Jew, who is forced to adopt the dubious solution of collective existence in a nation-state |like all other nations" as the only way of escaping from the cage of anti-Semitism and the humiliation of not being socially accepted into the non-Jewish society he wants to join.
This interpretation illuminates the story as a brutal parody not only of Herzl's "Altneuland," but of "Der Weg ins Freie," the only novel written by the Austrian Jewish playwright Arthur Schnitzler (whose work Kafka detested), which describes the stifling atmosphere in which Jewish Viennese intellectuals and artists lived, and proposes Zionism as a solution to their emotional and social distress. The same is true of the farmer motif (how to promote faster growth of food crops) that plays such a central role in "Investigations of a Dog." Kafka did indeed read the reports of the Jewish agricultural colonies in Palestine with great interest, but the motif might also be comic or grotesque in the context of a satire on the Zionists, devotees of the return to the soil, to agriculture, to the "simple" life of the farmer, who brought to the task their Talmudic brain and have turned farming into a pseudo theological-philosophical exercise with an inquisitive dog to represent them.
The issues, as we have said, are complex. Kafka's narratives can be interpreted in so many contradictory ways that the questions raised by his work will probably never receive a clear answer.
And yet we can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that Kafka's gut reaction to the modern national-cultural Jewish enterprise, whether or not he was a Zionist, was one of distaste. Proof can be found across the spectrum, from his almost roaring silence to a variety of criticisms, some harsher in tone than others, such as his remark that Bialik's poetry "exploited" the Kishinev pogrom to promote a certain agenda.
To put it bluntly, Kafka couldn't stand modern national Jewish culture and the literature that cultivated and promoted it, especially the Hebrew-Zionist brand. Not only did he say outright on several occasions that he had no interest in this kind of literature (as opposed to Talmudic legends and mainly Hasidic tales, which he probably read in Buber's famous adaptations), but he was totally opposed to it. Not that this opposition simplifies the matter or clarifies Kafka's attitude to Zionism: It actually makes things even more complicated.
Because how could Kafka be positive toward the Zionist enterprise in Palestine to any degree at all while "opposing" the literature and culture that articulated the desire for a "new Jewish future"? Was a Zionist or national renaissance possible without the literature and culture that promoted its aims? Of course, this is not the only question that goes unanswered here, although it could be that Kafka, if asked, would say that there must be a total separation between political trends, which one may or may not support, and art and literature, whose authenticity depends solely on a desperate and unrelenting search for pure existential truth, free of all utilitarian considerations or desire to promote social agendas. Literature must strive for what Heinrich von Kleist sought in "Michael Kohlhass" and "Die Marquise von O," or what Flaubert achieved in "Sentimental Education." It must not be guided by the kind of goal that Kafka ascribes to Bialik in his poem "In the City of Slaughter."
Indeed, this comment on Bialik's poem is fascinating because of the seeming contradiction it contains. The phrase "Jewish future" has positive connotations. On the other hand, Kafka's claim that Bialik used the Kishinev pogrom to promote this future is clearly negative. But is this necessarily contradictory? It is not the future of the Jews he objects to, but the fact that the poet is making ideological-literary hay from the suffering of the weak and downtrodden. In fact, the same duality can be seen in Mendele Moycher Sforim's harsh criticism of the poem: "Hear this tale and gasp in disbelief! Brutes, beasts, the dregs of human society, have attacked me and my wife and children. They have murdered and massacred and committed repulsive deeds of every kind, and then this man gets up and preaches to me, pouring salt on my wounds ... I writhe in the dust and he stands over me, whip in hand, lashing and lashing ..."
Kafka also mocked Bialik for "disgracing" himself by descending from the heights of Hebrew to the lows of Yiddish. Kafka's positive attitude toward Yiddish and Yiddish literature would seem to challenge our assumption that he was critical of the entire modern Jewish national-literary enterprise. There is no question that Kafka was sympathetic and even warm toward Yiddish, despite the fact that he did not speak the language and never tried to learn it. In fact, it was much closer to his heart than modern Hebrew, which he made an effort to learn but without success.
When an intelligent and determined person like Kafka fails to learn the basics of a foreign language after several years of trying, and cannot accomplish what any schoolchild can do with the proper instruction and effort, one begins to ask why. There must be some psychological explanation (although Kafka himself was not at all a fan of psychology).
It looks very much like a subconscious or semi-conscious attempt at self-defeating behavior. Why should Kafka "allow" himself to master Hebrew if it would lead to undesirable contact with texts like "In the City of Slaughter" or "Breakdown and Bereavement"? True, becoming proficient in Hebrew would also give him access to the "ancient sources" and the Bible, in which Kafka was certainly interested (he derived great pleasure in the last year of his life from the Bible and Talmud lectures he attended, when his health permitted it, at the Leo Baeck Jewish Studies Institute in Berlin; the Bible lectures were delivered by the philologist N. H. Torczyner, later Prof. Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem).
For this reason, along with his dream of settling in Palestine, Kafka persisted in his Hebrew studies until the very last months of his life. At the same time, he "took pains" to make very slow progress, balk at his lessons and treat the whole matter as boring. His on-and-off relationship with Felice Bauer fits in quite well with this theory. In any case, Kafka's remarks about Hebrew in his letters and diary show not a trace of the warmth with which he wrote about Yiddish, whose cadence and inflections he associated with the "Jewish temperament."
Dan Miron holds the Leonard Kaye chair for Hebrew and comparative literature at Columbia University, and professor emeritus at the Hebrew University.
January 4, 2009
Most writers take years to become themselves, to transform their preoccupations and inherited mannerisms into a personal style. For Franz Kafka, who was an exception to so many rules of life and literature, it took a single night. On Sunday, Sept. 22, 1912, the day after Yom Kippur, the 29-year-old Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote “The Judgment,” his first masterpiece, in one all-night session. “Only in this way can writing be done,” he exulted, “only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.”
Everyone who reads Kafka reads “The Judgment” and the companion story he wrote less than two months later, “The Metamorphosis.” In those stories, we already find the qualities the world would come to know as “Kafkaesque”: the nonchalant intrusion of the bizarre and horrible into everyday life, the subjection of ordinary people to an inscrutable fate. But readers have never been quite as sure what to make of the third major work Kafka began writing in the fall of 1912 — the novel he referred to as “Der Verschollene,” “The Missing Person,” which was published in 1927, three years after his death, by his friend and executor Max Brod, under the title “Amerika.”
The translator Michael Hofmann, whose English version of the book appeared in 1996, correctly called it “the least read, the least written about and the least ‘Kafka’ ” of his three novels. Now Schocken Books, which has been the main publisher of Kafka’s works since the 1930s, hopes to reintroduce his first novel to the world with a new translation, by Mark Harman. “If approached afresh,” Harman promises in his introduction, “this book could bear out the early claim by . . . Brod that ‘precisely this novel . . . will reveal a new way of understanding Kafka.’ ”
Harman offers a compromise between Kafka’s intended title and Brod’s more familiar one by calling his version Amerika: The Missing Person. And he follows previous English editions by retaining the German spelling of America, with a “k.” This lends the name, in American eyes, a more ominous and alien quality than it would have for the German reader. That “k” is hard to resist, however, and not just because readers have come to expect it. No writer has ever annexed a single letter the way Kafka did with “k.” Between the two in his own last name, Joseph K. of “The Trial” and K. of “The Castle,” the letter seems imbued with his own angular essence. Amerika is not America; it is a cipher for Kafka’s dream of a country he never visited.
The difference becomes clear in the very first paragraph, when Karl Rossmann sails into New York Harbor and sees the Statue of Liberty: “The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.” The torch of liberty has metamorphosed into a punishing sword, an omen of the many chastisements in store for Kafka’s victim-hero. Indeed, America itself is a punishment for Karl, who was sent there by his parents after he got a servant girl pregnant back home. What Kafka actually writes, however, is that “a servant girl had seduced him,” and when Karl remembers the fatal episode, it is clear he was more the victim than the aggressor: She “shook him, listened to his heart, offered him her breast so that he too could listen but could not induce Karl to do so, pressed her naked belly against his body, searched between his legs with her hand — in such a revolting manner that Karl shook his head and throat out from under the quilts — then pushed her belly up against him several times; it felt as if she were part of him; hence perhaps the terrible helplessness that overcame him.”
Taking into account the fact that Karl is 17 and Johanna, the “girl,” about 35, this sounds less like seduction than rape. And it is a template for the way everyone Karl encounters in “Amerika” will ignore his desires and overpower his will.
In the first chapter, Karl tries to intercede with the ship’s captain on behalf of a stoker who has been mistreated, but his rich American uncle simply waves off his protests. Later, when Karl pays a visit to one of his uncle’s friends, Mr. Pollunder, his uncle treats it as a terrible transgression and cuts him off — even though Karl made sure to get permission beforehand. (This arbitrary rewriting of the rules looks forward to the unwritten laws of “The Trial.”)
While at Pollunder’s house, Karl is nearly raped once again, this time by a teenage wrestler named Klara. (“I won’t stop at one slap,” she threatens, “but shall go on hitting you left and right until your cheeks start swelling.”) When he escapes, he falls in with a couple of tramps, Delamarche and Robinson, who rob and bully him. He becomes an elevator boy at a luxury hotel but gets fired for crimes he didn’t commit. So it goes, humiliation after humiliation, until Karl ends up a virtual slave to Delamarche’s grotesquely obese mistress, the singer Brunelda.
It is enough to make the reader want to ask Karl what he demands of the stoker: “So why don’t you speak out? . . . Why do you put up with everything?” “Amerika” never provides a good answer to this question: Karl is simply helpless, unable to make sense of the world or get along in it. Not until the last chapter, when he finds a job in the enigmatic Theater of Oklahama (Harman preserves Kafka’s misspelling), does Karl seem to find a home in America — and even then, it’s possible that Kafka would have had other torments in store for him, if he had completed the novel.
Karl’s innocence is the main reason “Amerika” remains less persuasive a parable than “The Trial” and “The Castle.” To be sure, in his first novel Kafka lighted instinctively on many of the techniques he would later use to such great effect. So similar are all three novels in structure and mood that they can be seen as the successively widening turns of a spiral; each time, Kafka surveys the same spiritual territory, but from a more commanding height.
But the crucial innovation of the later novels, which makes their dream-worlds so convincingly uncanny, is the way Kafka’s avatars always seem to be colluding in their own punishment. In the first chapter of “The Trial,” when the officers come to arrest Joseph K., he thinks, “If he were to open the door of the next room or even the door leading to the hall, perhaps the two of them would not dare to hinder him.” But he doesn’t make a move to escape, just as, later on, he freely obeys the summons of the court and finally submits to his execution. It is his own sense of guilt, especially sexual guilt, that makes Joseph K. accept his trial.
Karl Rossmann, however, refuses to accept responsibility for his desires, and it is a mark of Kafka’s own immaturity that he allows Karl to be constantly seduced and abused, never to act as seducer or abuser. Compare Karl’s childlike description of sex with K.’s wholly knowing, wholly mutual encounter with Frieda, in “The Castle”: “She sought something and he sought something, in a fury, grimacing, they sought with their heads boring into each other’s breasts; . . . like dogs desperately pawing at the earth they pawed at each other’s bodies.”
Klaus Mann, introducing an edition of “Amerika” in 1946, wrote that Kafka “deeply and simply loves his innocent creature, his favorite dream, his heir,” Karl Rossmann. But it was not until Kafka accepted the guilt of his “creature” and “heir,” and confiscated all but the first letter of Karl’s name as punishment, that he could become the poet of the inexpungible guilt in all of us.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and the author of “Benjamin Disraeli.”
THE NEW REPUBLIC
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Before the Law
Franz Kafka: The Office Writings
Edited by Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg, and Benno Wagner
(Princeton University Press, 394 pp.)
Read this review here