I cannot step into the future;
I can crash into the future,
grind into the future,
stumble into the future.
Franz Kafka, bat-eared Bar Mitzvah boy and gourmet of gloom, felt he was misfortune personified. Masochistic, guilt-ridden and tubercular, he needed pain and anguish to fuel his creativity. Filled with fear and loathing in Prague, he was tormented by every aspect of his personal life: family and work, food and health, sex and courtship, writing and publishing. In copious letters to friends he wrote about writing instead of writing about what he actually wanted to write. His pathological sensitivity, morbid introspection and self-hatred, his fanatical commitment to the devouring disease of literature, to creative agony and the sacrificial cult of art, precluded the possibility of a normal life. Despite these negative qualities Kafka, who died aged 40 in 1924, attracted many writers. They consider the influence of Prague, his father, Jews, Zionism and legal work; his guilt, attempts to marry, personal torments and self-punishment; his reverential attitude to writing, his imperfect unfinished work, the profound meaning of his fiction and order to burn his manuscripts; his tuberculosis, suffering, sainthood and astonishing afterlife.
The fourteen novelists discussed in this essay rescue the enigmatic and elusive Kafka from contentious and nit-picking academics, who shift the focus from the fiction to the ideological background. By contrast, the novelists are wide-ranging rather than narrow; respectful, even reverential; willing to describe his work with emotionally charged words such as heartbreaking, beauty and enjoyment. They emphasize the relation of Kafka’s character to his fiction, his creative power and artistic achievement, and use imagination as well as intellect to provide new insights. From his friend Max Brod to the contemporary novelist Nicole Krauss eighty years later, their essays and stories—like facets of a diamond—provide bright reflections, and their responses to his art illuminate and refashion the intriguing and ever-changing image of Kafka.
Kafka asked Max Brod (1884-1968), his closest friend from university days in 1902 until his death in 1924, to burn all his papers after he died. Some of his stories were imperfect, his three novels were incomplete, and his scrupulous standards made him ashamed of his faults and his inability to improve and finish what he started. But he did not want to destroy the slight reputation he had established in his lifetime and condemn himself to oblivion. Instead of burning them himself, he asked Brod to do so, knowing full well that his trusted friend would save the manuscripts that Kafka felt were not good enough to publish. In September 1939, just after World War II broke out, Brod took Kafka’s papers (leaving his own behind) on the last train out of Czechoslovakia and into Poland, and finally arrived by ship in Palestine. He then devoted the rest of his life to publishing Kafka’s works and creating his extraordinary posthu-mous reputation. Brod’s efforts resurrected him from virtually unknown to world famous. (Katherine Mansfield and Sylvia Plath also had most of their work published after their deaths, which greatly enhanced their fame.)
Brod knew Kafka better than anyone else. They shared a passion for literature, met almost every day and took many holidays together. (In September 1909, in a sultry and torrid Milan, they were threatened by the cholera epidemic that Thomas Mann described in Death in Venice.) Kafka’s three novels and major stories appeared in English before Brod’s biography (1937, translated in 1947), but his revealing Letters and Diaries were published afterwards. Brod (foreshadowing later descriptions of Simone Weil) portrays his friend as a Jewish secular saint: “The catego-ry of sacredness is the only right category under which Kafka’s life and work can be viewed.” He was not “a perfect saint … but was on the road to becoming one.” He longed “for intimate fusion with the Pure, the Divine.” He praises Kafka’s “sense of justice, his love of the truth, his simple honesty.” The worst thing Kafka ever did was refuse to take a laxative and then moan about his constipation. Every English-language writer who wrote about Kafka after Brod had to depend on but also con-front and challenge his apparently authoritative portrayal of Kafka.
Brod’s worshipful and adoring biography has a weak structure. It is patched together with long quotes from Kafka’s diaries, letters and accident-insurance reports, and with Kafka’s account of paternal conflict in his “Letter to His Father.” Brod also includes his own fictional portrayal of Kafka as Richard Garta in The Enchanted Kingdom of Love (1930), and letters to him from Kafka’s Czech lover Milena Jesenska. Like James Boswell in his Life of Johnson, Brod frequently shifts the focus from his subject to himself.
The most surprising fact about Kafka’s family is that his maternal uncle Joseph Löwy, like a character in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ran a trading station in the Congo. Kafka passed mathematics in grammar school only by pitifully “crying during the examination.” Brod tries to portray him as radiating an “unusual aura of power,” but also describes Kafka’s confession of “fear, weakness, and self-contempt.” He writes of Kafka’s longing for “loneliness,” though “solitude” would be more accurate. Kafka “lacked push” and Brod had to pressure him before he would even allow him to read or publish his manuscripts. By contrast to the exiguous Kafka, Brod poured out a torrent of now forgotten books and is mainly known as Kafka’s enabler and ennobler. Brod describes Kafka’s interest in the Yiddish theater and in Zionism. He shows that his friend not only knew German and Czech, but also Yiddish and Hebrew, French, Latin and Greek. Kafka tried to enlist in the Austro-Hungarian army, despite his exemption as an indispensable government employee and impossibly weak lungs. His military career would have been as bizarre as that of Gibbon, Coleridge and Proust.
The average man suffers when he cannot win the woman he loves; Kafka suffered when he could marry his putative and frequently jilted fiancée Felice Bauer. Brod reveals that Kafka, who longed to have children, had a son he never knew existed and who predeceased him, aged six, in 1921. In a grisly coda, the mother of this child was beaten to death by a German soldier. When Kafka finally met the great love of his life, Dora Diamant, in 1923 his flame burned with a new intensity. But he was by then hopelessly ill and it was too late to marry her. He was stoical about pain but, like D. H. Lawrence, fiercely resisted sanatoria and only submitted at the very end.
Brod also quotes Kafka’s striking aphorisms and explains his enigmatic works. Kafka observed of a lusty barmaid, “whole cavalry regiments have ridden on her body.” He compared his agonizing head-aches to “the sort of feeling a pane of glass must have in the spot where it cracks.” “What have I in common with Jews?,” he asked, with a characteristic sense of alienation. “I have almost nothing in common with myself, and should hide myself quietly in a corner satisfied with the fact that I can breathe.” “There is plenty of hope—for God—no end of hope,” he optimistically allowed, “only not for us.” When dying he begged for morphine and paradoxically told his doctor, “Kill me, otherwise you are a murderer.”
Kafka had mordant wit and a style that portrays the horror of modern life and his comic response to it. He was both amusing and sym-pathetic, even in the accident reports he wrote for his insurance company. He remarked, “All those young girls in China factories who incessantly hurl themselves downstairs with mountains of crockery give me a head-ache.” He also noted that workers crippled in dangerous factories “come to us and beg instead of storming the institute and smashing it to little pieces.” Kafka surprised his friends by laughing out loud when reading the first chapter of The Trial. Brod perceptively calls this novel and In the Penal Colony “documents of literary self-punishment, imaginative rites of atonement”—suitable for repentance on Yom Kippur. Referring to the last sentence of “The Judgment”—“At this moment passed over the bridge a truly unending stream of traffic”—Kafka stated, in a startling revelation, “When I wrote it, I had in mind a violent ejaculation.”
Klaus Mann (1906-49), the eldest son of Thomas Mann, was—like Brod—a prominent anti-Nazi exile. He emigrated to America and wrote the impressive Faustian novel Mephisto (1936). His 1940 preface to Kafka’s fragmentary fiction, Amerika, is one of the first critiques of Kafka’s novel in English. He notes that when Kafka began to write Amerika in 1913, he’d never met an American, knew very little English, and learned about that foreign country through Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Walt Whitman’s poetry. Though his description of American life is inaccurate, it has poetic truth. The main character, Karl Rossmann, had fled from Europe after a sordid liaison with a housemaid who seduced him and become pregnant. Guilt has followed him across the sea. Mann compares Kafka’s immaculate prose style to Flaubert’s, his spiritual yearnings to Kierkegaard’s. He admires Kafka’s frightening seriousness and bizarre sense of humor, his “compound of baroque and classic elements, of dreamlike romanticism and realistic exactness,” his lurid jocularity and sinister wit.
Another European novelist was an early interpreter of Kafka. Albert Camus’ “Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka” (1942) was added to the American edition of The Myth of Sisyphus. His novel The Stranger was strongly influenced by Kafka (he now calls K. in The Castle, “that stranger”), and he repeatedly connects Kafka’s astonishing contradictions to the existential concept of the absurd, which he mentions at least fourteen times in this short chapter. Along the way Camus offers telling aphorisms— “The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it”—and sensual lyricism: “those evening anticipations which make up our reason for living.” He brings Kafka’s characters to life with startling phrases: they are inspired automata, phantoms of regret, supernaturally anxious and burdened with lucid despair. He believes that Kafka’s lack of endings forces the reader to reread and that nothing is harder to understand than a symbolic work. Camus observes that Kafka achieves his effects by “perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, that are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning.” Camus treads more uncertainly when, “contrary to current opinion,” he tries to connect the absurd with the idea of hope and—in a leap of faith– dubiously claims “the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive that hope becomes.” He concludes by stating that despite Kafka’s vehement verdict against this hideous and upsetting world, “the very moles [in Kafka’s story] dare to hope.” Camus views Kafka through an existential lens and rejects his overwhelming despair.
Elias Canetti (1905-94) was a Jewish, Bulgarian-born, German-language Nobel laureate, who devoted a whole book to Kafka’s strange courtship. In Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice (1969) he copiously quotes the letters with an extensive commentary that charts the seismic upheavals of Kafka’s heart. Cut loose from an arranged marriage, Kafka sailed into unknown seas. Canetti explains why Kafka, the best man and worst potential husband Felice Bauer ever knew, was torn between freedom and bondage. Despite two formal engagements, he never married her. Kafka met Felice at Max Brod’s flat in Prague in August 1912. The manager of a Dictaphone office in Berlin, she was commonsensical, self-confident and rather unattractive. Kafka confessed that the gleam-ing gold caps of her teeth–“a really hellish lustre for this inappropriate spot—so scared me at first that I had to lower my eyes at the sight.” He hoped she had the power to transform him into something resembling a normal human being. But he courted her by confessing the worst things about himself and tormented her to test her ability to endure him. As this Prague weirdo wooed the kind and lively girl, she absolutely refused to take him seriously or to believe that he could really be so strange.
Canetti finds the Letters more gripping and absorbing than any recent literary work, and is intrigued by Kafka’s character: “his predilection for silence and emptiness, the question of thinness, and his almost superstitious respect for fat people.” Since Felice threatens the tomblike solitude Kafka needs for writing and is not discouraged by his minatory letters, he wants to meet in order to confront and frighten her in person. His paltry proposal is burdened with crippling reasons why they cannot marry and he warns her that “I am basically a cold, selfish, callous creature, despite my weakness which conceals rather than mitigates these qualities.” He reveals his recent affair with a Swiss girl in Italy, but also confesses his fear of impotence and what he euphemistically calls the “terror of standing upright.”
As Kafka’s jagged courtship lurches forward, his family suspects the worst and insults Felice by hiring a detective agency to investigate her background. He complicates matters by asking Felice’s close friend, Grete Bloch, to act as his intermediary. But he begins to feel affection for Grete and she becomes jealous of Felice. As they edge toward marriage for the second time, he feels trapped and compares himself to the penitential heavy furniture they have bought, “which looked as if, once in position, it could never be removed.” He is humiliated when engaged and when he breaks the engagement.
Kafka’s letters to Felice Bauer, the model for Frieda Brandenfeld in “The Judgment,” Fräulein Bürstner in The Trial and Frieda in The Castle, inevitably encourage a biographical interpretation. In Part II of his book Canetti connects the Letters to Felice to Kafka’s fiction, especially what Kafka called the Berlin “tribunal,” which broke the engagement, to The Trial that ends in disgrace and execution. At the end Felice, though saved from Kafka, was humiliated and rejected; Kafka was characteristically miserable and guilty. Canetti concludes that Kafka’s tubercular hemor-rhage of August 1917, when his blood gushed out for several minutes, finally “freed him from Felice, from his fear of the marriage, and from the [legal] profession he hated.”
The Lectures on Literature (1980) by Vladimir Nabokov, another European exile, publish his teaching material at Wellesley and Cornell from 1941 to 1959 (when he was finally liberated from academic life by the tremendous success of Lolita). Like other novelist-critics, Nabokov (who lived near Kafka in Berlin in 1923) rejects Brod’s view of Kafka’s quasi-sainthood. Though an exacting scientist by training, he makes some factual errors: Kafka was a high-powered lawyer in the insurance company, not a “petty clerk”; he avoided, not “sojourned in,” sanatoria; and died aged forty, not forty-one.
Nabokov leads students scene by scene through Kafka’s greatest story, “The Metamorphosis,” emphasizing precise details of style, structure and plot, with long quotations, and sketches of the Samsas’ flat and Gregor’s insect state. A professional entomologist, Nabokov describes Gregor, quite different from a cockroach, as “convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small.” He reveals that Gregor has a wing case and could, if he wished, have escaped to freedom by flying out the window. But Nabokov must have left most students puzzled and frustrated by not explaining the meaning of this difficult story.
Nabokov succinctly defines art as “beauty plus pity.” Despite Gregor’s insect disguise, Nabokov shows that Kafka keeps “vivid and limpid before the reader’s eyes Gregor’s sweet and subtle human nature.” He discusses the mixture in the story of reality and fantasy, of heartless characters and human pathos, of Gregor’s pathetic and tragic struggle to flee from the absurd world into the world of humans. Nabokov concludes by observing that “the limpidity of his style stresses the dark richness of his fantasy. Contrast and unity, style and matter, manner and plot are most perfectly integrated.” Nabokov rightly says the metamorphosis is not complete unless Gregor abandons his human memories. But he can never do this because he retains his human sensitivity and perceives his own degradation. Nabokov understands the blend of tragedy and comedy in modern fiction, and sees Kafka as the prime example.
Roy Fuller (1912-91), an English poet and novelist, worked for years as a lawyer for The Woolwich Equitable Building Society. His contribution to The World of Franz Kafka, “A Normal Enough Dog: Kafka and the Office” (1980), reacts against Max Brod and defends his own legal and literary careers. He contradicts Brod’s idea that the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague had a malevolent effect on Kafka’s life and work, and compares him to Wallace Stevens (four years older than Kafka), who had a long and prosperous career as both a poet and a lawyer for a Hartford insurance company.
Fuller draws parallels between Kafka’s incisive legal writing and his fiction, and persuasively argues that his law work provided opportunities for creativity and deepened his art. He then digresses to his own novel Image of a Society (1956) and quotes long passages from that work, which draws rather vaguely on Kafka’s experience “to depict a writer who worked as a lawyer in a large organization.” Before his over-long concluding quote from “Investigations of a Dog,” Fuller contradicts himself by portraying a happy and rapturous writer (my italics): “Kafka’s greatness in his life and art arises from his joy in the world, despite the weakness in body and character that often made living in that world such an agony.” Like Camus, Fuller rejects the aspect of Kafka that does not match his own practice as a novelist.
Milan Kundera, born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 and writing in French, does not discuss Kafka’s Czech origins. In “The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta” (1973) he attacks Brod’s view of Kafka and academic critics, then offers his own brief interpretation in a Hegelian thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Kundera begins his blast against Brod by inaccurately asserting that our image of Kafka as the saintly religious thinker comes from Brod’s completely forgotten novel, The Enchanted Kingdom of Love, which he condemns as simpleminded garbage, rather than from his widely read biography. He praises Brod as a brilliant intellectual and generous man, but calls him a hopeless failure as an artist. Kundera’s second target is desiccated academic critics, whom he calls “Kafkologists.” In his view they remove Kafka from literary history and mistakenly emphasize his biography, philosophy and theology, his relation to modern art, Marxism, psychoanalysis and Existentialism, and turn him into the “patron saint of the neurotic.” Kundera then examines Kafka’s innovative and ambiguous portrayal of the exciting and repugnant aspects of sex in Amerika and The Castle. In the latter Kafka describes both the poetry and comic promiscuity of sex between K. and Frieda while they are observed by the other characters. Kundera argues that by rigorously analyzing the real world while engaging in the game of fantasy Kafka created a “radical aesthetic revolution.” This artistic vision clearly influenced Kundera’s own fiction. Both novelists were sensual and sharply critical of their society.
The brilliant young novelist David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) gave “Laughing with Kafka” as a PEN lecture in New York in 1998. This slight piece, not reprinted in his collections of essays, describes the difficulty of persuading college students—struggling to grasp the elusive meaning of Kafka’s fiction—to see that he is funny. (The same problem exists when teaching the comic elements in Ulysses and The Magic Mountain.) Wallace says that Kafka always arouses complex feelings in his readers and that his “authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but are always absurd and scary and sad all at once, like In the Penal Colony’s Lieutenant.” His comedy is also tragedy as his characters engage in a horrific struggle to establish their humanity. Like Kundera, Wallace understands the dual nature of Kafka’s vision.
“The Impossibility of Being Kafka” (2000) by Cynthia Ozick (born 1928)—which echoes the title of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest–emphasizes (unlike Kundera) the social and political roots that animated Kafka’s psychologically disturbing fiction. Emphasizing the influence of Czech Prague, a Jew-hating and German-hating city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ozick states that Kafka “attended a German university, studied German jurisprudence, worked for a German insur-ance company, and published in German periodicals.” She categorically states that his novels are “the sum total of modern totalitarianism.” His work, which taught us how to see the world differently, “is an archive of our era: its anomie, depersonalization, afflicted innocence, innovative cruelty, authoritarian demagoguery, technologically adept killing.” In The Trial, Joseph K. “drifts sporadically from confusion to resignation, from bewilderment in the face of an unnamed accusation to acceptance of an unidentifiable guilt,” to an avoidance of proof and impossibility of acquittal.
Louis Begley, Jewish and born in Poland in 1933, hid during the Nazi occupation, emigrated to America, and became a prominent lawyer and distinguished novelist. His short book, The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head. Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay (2008), scrupulously examines the evidence and includes many evocative quotations. He begins by describing how Brod rescued Kafka’s manuscripts–with acquisitions from his parents, his lovers Milena Jesenska and Dora Diamant, and his friend Robert Klopstock—and published them posthumously. Begley discusses the Jewish background and Kafka’s family in Prague; his German education in the third largest Hapsburg city; the pervasive anti-Semitism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Kafka’s sex life with whores, Felice, Julie Wohryzek, Milena and Dora; the bureaucracy of his insurance office and his handling of accident claims; his need to be miserable and secluded in order to write: “not like a hermit, but like the dead.” Begley paradoxically suggests that Kafka was better off living with his family and working for the insurance company, which left less time for writing, because “the ability to stare all day at the blank page might well have been unbearable for him.”
Begley’s personal experience matches Kafka’s in significant ways and leads to valuable insights about his life and writing. Begley observes that anti-Semitism causes a damaging “loss of confidence in one’s identity and its corollary, the unending need for self-reinvention”; “anyone who has been responsible for an aged parent will recognize [Georg Bendemann’s] feelings of embarrassment and guilt” in “The Judgment”; “it is rare that writers of fiction sit behind their desks, actually writing, for more than a few hours a day”; “every writer’s worst nightmare … is to be incapable of beginning or completing a work”; “writers’ work doesn’t always conform to their wishes.” He notes that Kafka was cut off from “the main artistic developments [in Paris] that shaped the cultural life of the twentieth century,” that he never met his close Prague contemporaries, Rilke and Hasek, and never read Mann’s Buddenbrooks. But he was a master legal “dialectician and seldom found himself on only one side of an argument.” Begley also makes a surprising assertion, in opposition to Canetti and almost everyone else, that Kafka’s personal diaries and letters (the bridge to his fiction and essential for our understanding of Kafka) should have been burned unread and that there would be little to remember him for without his stories and novels.
After quoting Kafka’s famous aphorism, “Coitus is punishment for the happiness of being together,” Begley writes that Kafka found sex fearful and disgusting, repulsive and obscene, and that self-denigration was his defense against intimacy. Kafka both pursued and escaped from Felice, trying to marry her while persuading her not to marry him. Begley compares Kafka’s self-laceration to a “fox biting off his own leg to free himself from a trap.” His letters lead up to meetings with Felice, which are often disappointing, even disastrous, and then resume against over-whelming obstacles. With supreme egoism, he laments his own torment but lacks sympathy and concern for her confusion, humiliation and shame. Begley explains that Felice, in her late twenties, continued to exchange letters with a maniac with whom she had little in common because Kafka was charming and brilliant, and she was desperate to secure a husband.
Kafka’s tuberculosis made his hypochondria superfluous. Linking love and disease in a morbid Liebestod, Kafka called his tuberculosis “a symbol of the infection whose inflammation is called F.” He did time in a series of sanatoria and called them “houses that literally cough and shake with fever day and night.” Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain—published in 1924, the year Kafka died–portrays the heightened sexual activity of feverish tubercular patients in a Swiss sanatorium, eager to seize a moment of pleasure before their inevitable deaths. It is ironic that Kafka’s greatest creative period, from 1912 to 1917, exactly matched his torturous involvement with Felice.
Begley’s interpretations of Kafka’s works are impressive. Kafka’s fictional innovations and strengths were the portrayal of a “dreamlike inner life,” the nonchalant treatment of implausible and impossible events, and “the tension between that counter reality and the pitch-perfect rendition of K.’s utterly banal existence.” His great modern themes are loneliness and loss. “The Judgment” is one of several closely related stories in which fathers banish or kill sons who transgress. In “The Metamorphosis” no crime seems to justify Gregor’s cruel punishment, which is temporarily alleviated when he presses his hot belly against the Venus in Furs picture of a woman with a fur muff. Begley relates “In the Penal Colony” to the Marquis de Sade and to Alfred Dreyfus (the subject of his next book in 2009). Without mentioning Canetti’s name, Begley rejects his connection of Kafka’s marriage “tribunal” in Berlin to The Trial, and argues (like Ozick) that the novel prefigures life under twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. He calls The Castle “heartbreakingly beautiful … a richer novel than The Trial in narrative breadth and the development of engaging and unforgettable secondary characters.” He believes it “should be read and enjoyed as a series of mesmerizing portraits and stories.”
Begley agrees with Kundera’s condemnation of “Kafkologists,” of the heavy artillery that exegetes use to storm the meaning of the fiction and of theoretical explicators who “upstage the text, deflect attention from its beauty, or narrow its import.” By contrast, Begley seeks to “enrich the text and enable the reader to discover in it a new intelligent meaning.” At his best when he is personal, Begley explains his emotional attraction by stating, “one’s feelings for Kafka easily become fraternal, so that his missteps, defeats, and sorrows affect one deeply, as though they were one’s own.”
“A Friend of Kafka” (1970), the title story in a collection by the Polish-born Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, portrays Kafka’s keen interest in the Yiddish theater in Prague in 1911. In a story that emphasizes the friend rather than Kafka, Singer satirizes the down-and-out dandy Jacques Kohn, based on the cosmopolitan and once-respected actor Isak Löwy. Kohn suffers from impotence, cold and hunger, and like Kafka, from “poverty, sickness, and, worst of all, hopelessness.” But one night a scantily dressed countess, fleeing from her violent lover, pounds on the door of Kohn’s small attic room and begs to stay the night. They get into bed together and, in a social and sexual miracle, he becomes her lover.
Through the jaundiced voice of Kohn, Singer provides a few insights about Kafka as a frustrated and disappointed man: “young as he was, he was possessed by the same inhibitions that plague me in my old age. They impeded him in everything he did—in sex as well as in his writing… . Kafka wanted to be a Jew but he didn’t know how. He wanted to live, but he didn’t know this, either.” When Kohn takes the virginal Kafka to a whorehouse, he is as shy as a yeshiva boy, runs away and vomits in the street. Kohn then offers to introduce the narrator to the once-beautiful and now aged actress Madam Tschissik, once Kafka’s great love. But the narrator, clinging to his pristine image of Kafka, refuses to meet her. Kohn, Kafka’s alter-ego, survives on handouts by recycling stories about his old friend, but he also tries to corrupt the narrator’s ideal hero by degrading Kafka to his own level.
Singer distances himself from Kafka; Philip Roth identifies with and reveres him. In Roth’s novel The Professor of Desire (1977) the hero dreams of visiting Kafka’s old prostitute in Prague and questioning her about her client, but her answers are vague and unrevealing. This dream echoes Kohn’s offer to visit the old Madam Tschissik in Singer’s story. The title of Roth’s essay, “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting” (1973), comes from Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” whose anti-hero is different from normal people and starves to death while publicly exhibit-ing himself in a cage. (At the end of his life Kafka’s tuberculosis of thelarynx prevented him from eating.) In his novel Roth wonders if there’s a relationship between Kafka’s whore and that story.
Roth begins his essay by describing Kafka’s physical appearance, imagines the possibility of his escape from the holocaust to America, and portrays his “oedipal timidity, perfectionist madness, and insatiable longing for solitude and spiritual purity.” He then shifts to Kafka’s last two impoverished and moribund years in Berlin with the devoted Dora Diamant. She finally freed him from “his excruciating visions of defeat,” from “the self-loathing, the self-doubt, and those guilt-ridden impulses to dependence and self-effacement that had nearly driven him mad.” Roth cunningly connects the subterranean penetration in “The Burrow”—a grim tale of obsession, entrapment and punishment—to Kafka’s sexual desire for Dora: “Certainly a dreamer like Kafka need never have entered the young girl’s body for her tender presence to kindle in him a fantasy of a hidden orifice that promises ‘satisfied desire,’ ‘achieved ambition,’ and ‘profound slumber, but that, once penetrated and in one’s possession, arouses the most terrifying and heartbreaking fears of retribution and loss.’”
The second part of Roth’s work contains an autobiographical story about his father’s hopeless attempt to marry his middle-aged sister-in-law to Roth’s old and ludicrous Hebrew-school teacher, named “Dr. Kafka.” Roth’s father invites the lonely teacher to dinner, but Aunt Rhoda is repelled by his old age, bad breath, heavy accent and superiority complex. Nevertheless, she accepts his invitation to see a movie and, inspired by his attention, resumes her career as an amateur actress in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. “Dr. Kafka” faithfully attends her rehearsals. In a bold maneuver they spend a weekend in Atlantic City, where their attempt to have sex goes horribly wrong. The story ends with “Dr. Kafka’s” obituary notice and with the unfulfilled lives—like that of the Hunger Artist—of the aged teacher and spinster aunt. Roth’s relations with his father are a perverse parallel of Kafka’s. Instead of being crushed by paternal criticism, he loathes his father’s excessive love. “Dr. Kafka’s” failure to marry Rhoda is a tragicomical version of Kafka’s failure to marry Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenska and Dora Diamant.
Singer through Kafka’s friend, Roth through his prostitute, vicariously resurrect the writer. But Brod and Kafka, as well as Kafka’s father and mother, Hermann and Julie, actually appear in a contemporary family in Alan Bennett’s short play Kafka’s Dick, the first of Two Kafka Plays (1987). The title mocks absurd Freudian analyses that attribute all of Kafka’s psychological problems to his supposedly small penis. Bennett (born 1934) dramatizes Kafka’s relations to Brod and to his father. Hermann Kafka vigorously defends himself against the lies in Letter to His Father and insults Kafka by calling him a column of piss, a prick and a turd. The husband in the contemporary family, an insurance agent, identifies with Kafka and is writing an article about him. He presents a positive view of Hermann and calls it a revolutionary breakthrough that could transform fifty years of Kafka studies. Bennett’s play, a mad riff on Kafka, is a mixture of comedy, fantasy and farce, with many amusing allusions and witty jokes. Explaining why he never married, Kafka says, “I was on such bad terms with my own body there was no room for a third party.” And Hermann tells his wife, “You played about as big a part in our son’s genius as Ivy Compton-Burnett did in the 1966 World Cup.”
Kafka, living in the contemporary world, thinks his own works are worthless and has burned the letters from Felice and Milena. He asks Brod if he really destroyed the manuscripts and Brod tries to deceive him, but Kafka finds copies of his books in the house. He’s also resentful that Brod, a mediocre novelist, has achieved world fame over his dead body. Bennett gently satirizes Kafka as an elusive vegetarian crank and potential stand-up comic in Las Vegas who mocks his Jewish family. He concludes that Kafka is so celebrated because “his life conforms in every particular to what we have convinced ourselves an artist’s life should be. Destined to write, he dispenses with love, with fame and finally with life.”
Bennett described the plot of his second play in his Diary: “The hero of The Insurance Man is Franz, a young man who contracts a mysterious skin disease, seemingly from his job in a dyeworks. As a result he is sacked and comes to the Workers Accident Insurance Institute to claim compensation. He fails to get money, but Kafka, anxious to do him a good turn, offers him a job in his brother-in-law’s asbestos facto-ry.” Bennett quotes a telling remark to illustrate Kafka’s compassionate attitude toward the injured workers: “How modest these people are,” he remarked to Max Brod. “Instead of storming the building and smashing everything to bits they come to us and plead.” The humane play is not mainly about Kafka, but about his office milieu and the maimed laborers who come to his office for help.
In the factory the young Franz (not Kafka) is splashed by dye and suffers a severe rash. Humiliated, he paradoxically says, “I didn’t want anybody to see my skin. At the Institute where I did want somebody to see my skin, nobody would look.” He begs for medical help and financial compensation in that place of torture, but no one will sympathize with or assist him. As one of the clerks remarks of an injured boy: “Having fed himself into his machine, we now feed him into ours. Ha!”
In his final speech Kafka condemns his office’s “blindness to genuine need, deafness to proper appeal and hardness of heart.” Though Kafka is a “good imitation of a human being,” Franz damns him as worse than all the others: “If you understand and you don’t help, you’re wicked, you’re evil.” Though Kafka was eager to help, Franz’s work in the asbestos factory condemns him to fatal lung cancer. The play subjects Franz to the kind of inhuman bureaucratic nightmare and cruel punishment (including the comic elements) that Kafka portrays in The Trial. As the hostile and angry officials abuse their petty power, he’s shunted from floor to floor, room to room, without being given any help. Franz’s injury symbolizes his guilt.
Like Singer, Roth and Bennett, Nicole Krauss (born 1974) brings Kafka back, through a kind of metamorphosis, to the contemporary world. In her intelligent and stylish novel Forest Dark (2017) Kafka has left Prague, traveled secretly to Palestine (his unfulfilled dream), worked happily as a gardener (his avocation in Prague) and died in Israel in 1956. Nicole, the novelist-narrator, does not actually portray Kafka or describe his unfinished work, but merely reveals that he had a second life in Palestine. She wants “to believe it could be: that Kafka really might have finally crossed the threshold, slipped through a crack in the closing door, and disappeared into the future,” where he lived and died for the second time. If he had not escaped from Prague, he would have been murdered, like his three sisters, by the Nazis. Nicole-the-narrator thinks her version of his life is more subtle and closer to the truth. He becomes, in her view, like the translation of the German title of Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared.
In her novel Krauss explains that Kafka left his unpublished papers to Max Brod, who left them to his lover Esther Hoffe. She then left the papers to her daughter Eva, who fiercely and fanatically guarded and hid them. Beginning in 2009 Eva engaged in a protracted lawsuit with the Israeli government, which claimed them as part of the national patrimony. In August 2016, after many appeals, the Israeli Supreme Court finally decided that Kafka’s manuscripts belonged to the National Library of Israel. (Ben Balint gives a detailed description of this lawsuit in his excellent book Kafka’s Last Trial, 2018.)
In Forest Dark Eliezer Friedman—who claims to have been a Mossad agent and a literature professor—wants Nicole, in the midst of the Israeli trial, to write a film script based on an unfinished play by Kafka. As she waits in his car, Friedman manages to penetrate Eva’s fortress in Tel Aviv and steal a bulging suitcase with Kafka’s papers. When they are stopped at a military roadblock and separated by suspicious soldiers, Nicole is taken away in an army truck with Friedman’s dog and the suitcase. The soldiers leave her alone with a typewriter and stack of paper in an austere shack in the Negev desert, which she imagines once belonged to Kafka, and is told to fulfill her writing assignment. Though she doesn’t open the suitcase and read Kafka’s papers, his ghostly presence occupies her thoughts.
Krauss is perceptive about Kafka’s life and character. She re-peats Milan Kundera’s condemnation of Brod’s novel as “garbage” and of the “Kafkologists” who follow Brod and misinterpret Kafka’s life. She believes that since Kafka was not made for marriage, his resistance was actually a sign of health. Though his tuberculosis (slowed down in the mild Mediterranean climate) would inevitably suffocate and kill him, she sees it (like Canetti) “as the fulfillment of a profound wish… . It was his reprieve: from marriage, from work, from Prague and his family.” Kafka’s dominant theme is “conflicted inner desire… . Because we lack the capacity to act in accordance with our moral knowledge, all our efforts come to ruin, and in the end we can only destroy ourselves trying.”
At the conclusion of the novel Friedman disappears forever, and there is no trace of him at Mossad or at Tel Aviv University. Nicole, lacking the hubris to finish Kafka’s work—“the transgression would be intolerable”—never writes the film script. But, in love with the handsome Kafka, she wants to write the real end of his life. Forest Dark becomes a prelude to that work and a fictional Kaddish for Kafka.
The fourteen penetrating portraits by novelists, who know how a work of art is created, deepen our understanding of the many-faceted Kafka. Endlessly fascinating, he sharpens their critical appetites and provides rich material for original but not contradictory interpretations. He is a secular saint, man of mystery, absurd existentialist, disastrous suitor, supreme stylist, efficient executive, fantastic realist, laughing comedian, Jewish victim, seeker of misery, hopeless failure, frustrated lover, vegetarian crank and secret survivor.
Begley, Louis. The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head. Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay. NY: Atlas, 2008.
Bennett, Alan. “Kafka’s Dick” and “Insurance Man.” Two Kafka Plays. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography. 2nd ed. Trans. G. Humphrey Roberts and Richard Winston. 1937; NY: Schocken, 1947.
Camus, Albert. “Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka.” The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien.1942; NY: Knopf, 1955. Pp. 92-102.
Canetti, Elias. Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice. Trans. Christopher Middleton. 1969; NY: Schocken, 1974.
Fuller, Roy. “A Normal Enough Dog: Kafka and the Office.” The World of Franz Kafka. Ed. J. P. Stern. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. Pp. 191-201.
Krauss, Nicole. Forest Dark. NY: HarperCollins, 2017.
Kundera, Milan. “The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta.” Testaments Betrayed. Trans. Linda Asher. 1993; NY: Harper,1996. Pp. 37-53.
Mann, Klaus. Preface to Amerika. 1940; NY: New Directions, 1946. Pp. vii-xviii.
Nabokov, Vladimir. “The Metamorphosis (1915).” Lectures on Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. Pp. 250-283.
Ozick, Cynthia. “The Impossibility of Being Kafka.” Quarrel and Quandary. NY: Knopf, 2000. Pp. 42-58.
Roth, Philip. “ ‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka.” Reading Myself and Others. 1973; NY: Penguin, 1985. Pp. 303-326.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “A Friend of Kafka.” A Friend of Kafka. Trans. Isaac Singer and Elizabeth Shub. NY: Delta, 1970. Pp. 3-16.
Wallace, David Foster. “Laughing With Kafka,” Harper’s, July1998. Pp. 23, 26-27.