Kafka: The Years of Insight, by Reiner Stach (translated from the German by Shelley Frisch)
Princeton University Press, 664 pages, $35
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Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, by Saul Friedlander
Yale University Press, 184 pages, $25
“Kafkaesque” is a term used so loosely that it has come to mean nearly anything that seems strange or dark. But Franz Kafka's work is filled with so many shades of darkness, routinely mixed with comic irony, that to invoke the name of the German-speaking Czech writer, who lived from 1883 to 1924, whenever a situation in literature or life is bizarre or gloomy demeans his extraordinary imagination and creativity.
The virtually unparalleled progenitor of European literary modernism is too richly complex to have his name pasted indiscriminately on every baffling event that fails to translate easily into a conventional simplification. Erich Heller, a prominent Kafka scholar cited by both Reiner Stach and Saul Friedlander, speaks of Kafka's writing as direct and simple and seared through with "ruthlessly compelling logic." But he also credits his subject with creating "the most obscure lucidity in the history of literature," a wonderfully apt description.
Stach, with this second volume of a projected three (the third, a study of Kafka’s youth, awaits the release of the Max Brod papers, which have been at the center of a highly public legal battle), is clearly on his way to producing the most comprehensive biography of Kafka yet written, and has masterfully dealt with some of the obscurity of the Czech-Jewish writer’s texts without sacrificing the clarity of his language. Friedlander, a widely admired historian of the Holocaust, has, in what he admits is only a “biographical essay,” a much narrower aim. He agrees that there is a superabundance of books and articles on Kafka, but none, he says, pays sufficient attention to the writer's sense of “shame and guilt” or to the personal anguish from which those dismal burdens stem.
Friedlander’s claim is overstated. Reiner Stach’s two massive volumes of Kafka biography, which by necessity overlap, are replete with references to the renowned writer’s torturous contrition, his yearning for, but “notorious fear of sex,” the repugnance he felt toward women (in his life and in his fiction), and his attraction to men and to children of both sexes. Although Stach’s Volume II has been available in German since 2008, neither of Stach’s titles is cited by Friedlander.
Still, it is valuable to have Friedlander's tightly focused, deeply thoughtful book. Written mostly in a probing voice, it focuses on Kafka's relentless longing for and simultaneous fear of physical intimacy, his homoerotic and sadomasochistic dreams and his psychosexual attraction to adolescents. Unsurprisingly, Friedlander finds sexual images everywhere. In “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka’s most deservedly remembered work, Gregor Samsa, who awakens one morning “transformed” into a “bug,” watches his sister Grete clear out his room. On the wall hangs Gregor’s last remaining possession – a picture of a woman offering the spectator a view of her “huge fur muff.” When Grete tries to remove the picture, Gregor, in desperation, throws himself upon it. Friedlander assumes that the fur muff symbolizes the dense pubic hair of female sexuality and enticement, and that Gregor’s clinging possessiveness indicates an incestuous desire for his sister.
That Gregor’s mother sheds her clothes down to her underwear as she flees from the sight of her radically altered son, and that the father tries to kill what his son has apparently become by heaving an apple at him, causing grave injury, certainly implies an oedipal drama. But in most of Kafka’s work, which is consciously and meticulously crafted, there is nothing so explicit, unless one assumes that the conflict between fathers (or other male authority figures) and sons in the writer's work is primarily psychosexual and that the unconscious desire of males to possess their mothers sexually is somehow a given, as it is in Freudian psychology, to which both Friedlander and Stach subscribe.
Conflict between father and son is most evident in one of Kafka's greatest short stories. Written feverishly, but with Kafka’s incomparable deliberation, in eight straight hours in 1912, “The Judgment,” as Stach shows, marked a self-recognized breakthrough for the writer into the high modernism with which he is now associated. What Friedlander seems most anxious for us to know, however, is that the conclusion of this breathtaking story, which scholars and presumably many readers see as related to the deadly serious generational struggles playing out among the 19th-century European bourgeoisie, is implicitly sexual. The very last line of “The Judgment” reads, “a truly unending stream of traffic.” The word “traffic” in German (verkehr), Friedlander points out, can also mean sexual intercourse (geschlechtverkehr). Maybe. But Stach, the German scholar, saturated in Kafka texts for more than a decade, pays this particular reading no attention.
’A violent ejaculation’
Kafka was indeed thinking of Freud when he wrote “The Judgment,” and he told his friend Max Brod, an energetic and ambitious writer and Kafka enthusiast, that the final sentence implied “a violent ejaculation.” But even if Kafka were serious, what do the final words of the story mean to readers, the vast majority of whom are unfamiliar with Kafka's diaries or letters? No matter. Whatever the answer might be has little relevance to the significance of the story’s ability to astonish and move us or to its enduring contribution to literature.
Friedlander also tells us that Jacques Derrida, the French deconstructionist, reads the first three words of the title "Before the Door of the Law" (a section of “The Trial”) to mean "premature ejaculation." Well, whatever visceral or intellectual resistance we might experience in the face of this kind of interpretation, it is difficult to dismiss entirely Friedlander's emphasis on the psychosexual dimensions of Kafka's life and work. Many, if not most, of Friedlander’s excerpts, allusions and analyses of Kafka’s texts make a persuasive case that the writer’s sexual issues turned into an obsessive preoccupation.
Friedlander’s analysis of Kafka’s “The Country Doctor” is a brilliant illustration of his argument. It also demonstrates that Friedlander’s approach is not as single-minded as his subtitle. Yes, the story is filled with sexual imagery, but it also evokes Kafka’s dominant themes of a growing absence of moral responsibility in a hypocritical society, an evasiveness of truth, and the pervasiveness of brutality and evil in a world at war.
Friedlander’s approach to Kafka’s Jewishness is also richly layered. Kafka’s deep and abiding interests in Zionism, Hebrew, Yiddish theater, Hasidic folklore and increasing anti-Semitism in Europe following World War I, made him Jewish, according to Friedlander, down “to the marrow.” Moreover, his texts show unmistakable influences of Talmudic debate, and are filled with Jewish imagery, metaphor and legend. Friedlander argues, however, that to insist “on equivalence between a Kafka story and a specific theme, Jewish or otherwise, is to turn his literary creations into allegories based on a one-to-one relation to ‘reality.’” This category of story can be found in Kafka's oeuvre, but according to Friedlander, “none of his major texts belong to it.”
Stach’s “The Years of Insight” also makes a persuasive argument that Kafka, whose Prague milieu was almost exclusively Jewish, was himself deeply Jewish and that his work was clearly marked by this identity. Kafka said that most young Jews who began to write in German “wanted to leave Jewishness behind them, generally with a vague approval by their fathers… but with their hind legs they were still glued to their fathers’ Jewishness and they found no ground for their front legs.” Their apparent despair inspired a search for alternatives to the passive assimilation of their parents' generation.
Kafka's interest in East European Jewry and Zionism were alternatives. The Zionism waxed and waned, but as Stach insists, the interest was authentic, and resurfaced strongly near the end of Kafka’s life, when he planned to move to Palestine with Jerusalem-born Dora Diamont. Still, Stach like Friedlander, agrees that a narrowly Jewish or religious interpretation of Kafka’s work, which with rare exception lacks any explicit Jewish reference, cannot be justified.
Kafka’s dreams and fears
Although Friedlander begins his book by saying that Kafka's fiction is “heavily disguised autobiography,” his exploration, very much like Stach’s, has less to do with Kafka's reconstruction of actual events than with his dreams and fears, and his uncanny ability to use the emergent images to fashion a miraculous art, infinite, as Stach and Friedlander write, in its greatness. Unfortunately, Kafka also allowed these images, many of them terrifying, to sabotage nearly every relationship he had with women (he was engaged to three, one of them twice!), and to drown his self-esteem in shame and guilt.
This brings us back to Friedlander's central argument, and one of its important implied questions: Was Kafka homosexual? Throughout the years, Kafka passively manifested erotic feelings toward several adult male friends; and he recorded sexual fantasies about boys in his diaries. At the Jungborn nudist sanitarium in 1912, Kafka noticed “2 handsome Swedish boys with long legs, that are so shaped and tight that the best way to get at them would be with the tongue.” Such a homophilic observation was apparently not atypical in the diaries, and is cited by both Stach and Friedlander.
In addition, Kafka, from time to time, expressed revulsion over intimacy with women. But there were sexual consummations with at least four women who were not prostitutes, and innumerable flirtations with females old and young. A particularly revealing episode recounted by Stach in “The Decisive Years,” took place at the Goethe National Museum in Weimar, which Kafka and Brod visited in 1912. Kafka could not “keep his eyes off” Grete, the 16-year-old daughter of the caretaker, and soon, as Max put it in his travel notes, Franz was “successfully” flirting with the beautiful girl. Although there was not “the slightest thread of a connection” between them, Kafka said, he became obsessed with Grete and revisited the museum several times. Failing to arrange a “private meeting,” however, he resigned himself to sending her postcards.
At the same time, then, that Kafka was admiring the Swedish boys at Jungborn, he was corresponding with young Grete. He knew he was of “no more consequence to her than a pot,” but “wished it were true that one can bind girls to oneself by writing!”
Girls and women, men and boys. There was surely more than a touch of the homoerotic in Kafka. But in the end, Friedlander says that the foundation of Kafka’s shame and guilt can more easily be credited to his “polymorphous sexual fantasies” in what was after all a homophobic culture, than to his having had sexual relations with men. Stach never mentions even the possibility of such relations.
In any case, whether he was homosexual or not (and who really cares?), Kafka's sadomasochistic and psychosexual fantasies involving physical intimacies with males and females were harvested by him and turned, through the rarest of creative imaginations, into literature. Stach comes to a similar conclusion about Kafka's ability to turn his inner life (not exclusively psychosexual) and his outer life of daily experience, acute observation and wide reading, into art. In doing this Stach enriches the conventional definition of "autobiographical fiction." Even in “The Castle,” Kafka's last and most autobiographical novel, it is not easy to match fiction to real life or pick out the consciously self-referential allusions. The notion that Kafka walked through his "psychological storeroom" plucking out the most useful pieces “to furnish the parallel universe of his fiction,” Stach writes, “misses the essence of literary invention completely." In “The Years of Insight,” Stach repeats Kafka’s insistence that authentic "literature comes only from within and anything that does not have deep roots there is merely an elaborate 'construction.'"
It's the deep roots that Stach seeks. But the marvel of his two volumes is his ability to give us not only detailed close-ups of Kafka's inner and outer personal life, but also to place the writer in the larger context of a world destabilized, badly wounded by World War I, and marred by the helplessness of a population impacted by disease and rampant inflation. Although Kafka saw no action on the military front, his job with the Czech Workers' Accident Insurance Agency brought him face-to-face with the realities of war. Witnessing firsthand the grave injuries and grim miseries suffered by soldiers likely reinforced Kafka's inclination to fantasize about sadomasochism, and to write about it - most powerfully in “In the Penal Colony” – but also in many other works that display Kafka’s sense that life is a fatal illness filled with unexplainable material and metaphysical punishment from which there is no escape.
Stach makes it clear that Kafka was neither oblivious to reality nor remote from politics, even if in his diaries and fiction he focused less on the details of great calamities than on their larger significance. The seemingly endless war, for example, was very much on his mind. To his father’s unrelenting pressure on him to be “normal,” Kafka retorted, "Abnormal behavior is not the worst thing, because normality is the world war."
’Charged’ with hypocrisy and betrayal
The war not only trapped Kafka in Prague, it severed many of his relationships with members of his literary circle. Franz Werfel and Robert Musil, for example, were involved in one way or another with the great conflict, and others were killed in battle. These separations virtually coincided with the termination of Kafka's engagement to Felice Bauer in the summer of 1914, an event very much like the proceedings of a court in which the writer-defendant sat listening (mostly in agreement) to charges of hypocrisy, opacity and betrayal, from a team of prosecutors, including Felice, her sister and a friend. Soon thereafter Kafka initiated his work on the “The Trial,” which begins, "Somebody made a false accusation against Joseph K." False perhaps for Joseph K. But Kafka's self-recriminations never ended. He had wanted solitude, but not so profound an emptiness as he was now experiencing.
It was in 1914, too, that Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and though not uncommon, the illness added to his personal shock over his lost relationships. He worried too about the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the increased anti-Semitism of the postwar period. From 1916 to his death in 1924, Kafka suffered recurrent ailments, and his writing grew more reflective, posing broader existential questions. Continuing also to suffer a decline in his sense of self-worth, Kafka at times expressed guilt simply for being alive. Indeed, the reemergence of tuberculosis (1916-17), now diagnosed as incurable, was deemed “punishment” by Kafka, a final defeat for wishing, during his struggles with Felice, to whom he had become engaged a second time, that a “violent solution” would liberate him from the pressure to marry.
Kafka experienced a constant tension between his fear of marriage, which he believed would destroy his ability to write, and his equally desperate yearning for a wife and children. He craved sex, but was terrified of human contact, and was unable to associate physical intimacy with tenderness. In bourgeois circles this was not so unusual, but the problem for Kafka seemed more pronounced. The sight of his parents’ crumpled bed sheets, for example, made him “retch.”
There were moments during Kafka’s years of ordeal when doors seemed to open for him; but as in several of his works, doors that were not fully closed remained impassable. He had a passionate romance with Milena Jesenska, his Czech translator, a free-spirited, good-looking non-Jewish journalist, with a checkered past, including abortions and suicide attempts. The affair ended when it became clear that Kafka once again, “in my conspiracy against myself,” could not fully commit. Later, after two dead-end dalliances with Julie Wohryzek and Grete Bloch, Kafka’s impending death slammed the door on an intimate relationship with Dora Diamont, who nevertheless remained lovingly loyal to the end.
Stach intermittently raises the question of Kafka’s psychological stability. That the great, but neurotically obsessive writer suffered nervous breakdowns, and spoke of suicide at least twice, suggests mental illness. But Stach shows Kafka as neither psychotic nor delusional. He successfully interacted with lawyers, businessmen and engineers at work, and was considered invaluable by his superiors, so much so that he was given endless leaves for health reasons and extended vacations. Regular hours, dispassionate paperwork and conversations with colleagues, Stach writes, brought stability and helped blunt Kafka’s sporadic fears of “looming insanity.”
Still, only literature, Stach argues, could keep Kafka from suffering “the next and perhaps definitive psychological breakdown.” Kafka himself said that “a non-writing writer is a monster inviting madness,” and apparently he started writing “The Castle” as self-therapy, a way to figure out why he rejected Milena, who seemed to offer him life itself. And in his last eighteen months, he was still working on “The Castle” and “The Trial” and “The Man Who Disappeared,” novels Kafka never considered finished. But he had completed several extraordinary stories, including “The Burrow,” a haunting tale that depicts the joys, sorrows and ironies of protectiveness, which in Kafka’s case, after a decade of his own burrowing, created what he called “my prison cell, my fortress.”
If Kafka’s life, which included friends and lovers, the intermittent joy of successful writing, exercise, a valued job and even laughter, was not one long bout of pain, his final weeks, during which he was no longer able to eat or speak, were hell. Yet on his next to last day, he wrote a conciliatory letter to his parents, wanting especially to make peace with his father, whom, as Stach recognizes, he both feared and admired. On the same day, he was working on proofs of “The Hunger Artist,” a story, ironically enough, about a man who would not eat, written by a man who could not; but more importantly, a story that focuses on an “artist” who performs by refusing to perform, thereby calling into question the entire value of artistic endeavor. Why create, why write, in an aimless world for an aimless humanity? Kafka clearly had no choice. In one of his more than 500 letters to Felice, he wrote, “I am literature,” meaning that he was made of nothing else.
Before Kafka died in 1924, he made a request of Max Brod. “Burn everything… diaries, manuscripts, letters.” Brod famously disobeyed his friend, and when the Nazis approached Prague in 1939, he fled on the last train out of the city and headed toward Jerusalem, lugging suitcases filled with Kafka’s materials.
The darkness in Kafka’s writings, combined with Brod’s dramatic escape, the murder in Nazi extermination camps of Milena Jesenska, Grete Bloch and all three of Kafka’s sisters, has produced the illusion that Kafka was one of the first to predict the mass murderous violence of the twentieth century.
It is hard, I suppose, for the modern reader of “The Castle” and “The Trial,” or of “In the Penal Colony,” not to think of the Gulag or the Holocaust. But this overlooks Kafka’s attempt to wrestle imaginatively with his own era and society, which were filled with war, depersonalized technology, bureaucratic authoritarianism and anti-Semitism. Even with this last, we need to take care. Although anti-Semitism contributed to Kafka’s bleak vision of the incomprehensible and cruel forces to which humanity is subject, to read Kafka’s tales as parables of Jewish victimization, rather than reflections on the human condition, is to underestimate his genius.
Reiner Stach wrote that his work would not give us Kafka’s “life,” but only a fleeting glance or at best an extended look. He has succeeded beautifully in giving us that and more. Will this bring the Kafka enterprise to an end? Don’t bet on it. Kafka, and thus “kafkaesque,” contain too many meanings for that to happen. There will be continual reinterpretation, even if nothing really new turns up in the soon to-be-released Brod papers. Kafka’s self-punishing impulse to feel shame and guilt is real enough – and Stach gives it plenty of room, but despite Friedlander’s valiant and immensely interesting effort, I am not persuaded that this impulse is definitive. Even with Stach’s much larger Kafka, who looked keenly and with foreboding at the stultifying effects of bureaucracy, and at humanity’s loneliness in a godless world, we may not yet have heard the last word.
Gerald Sorin is a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz. His most recent book, “Howard Fast: Life and Literature I n the Left Lane” (Indiana University Press), won a National Jewish Book Award.