Looking for Kafka

Extract of a piece for Wordsworth Editions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read the entire essay please click here

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