In the Fall of 1919, Kafka takes a two week vacation from his job at the Insurance Institute and spends it alone at an inn in Schelesen. His sole purpose for this time off is to write a letter to his father, what he himself calls a “legal brief”, that will serve as a thorough and frank description of their strained and contentious relationship. Kafka tried on previous occasions to broach the subject of his father’s awful behavior towards his children, but none of the letters he drafted were this comprehensive. Hermann Kafka’s constant verbal abuse of Kafka’s youngest sister, Ottla, in regards to her choice of suitor and profession, seems to have been one of the major catalysts for this epistolary undertaking. One of the recurring themes of the letter is fear, and that’s where Kafka begins (trans. Kaiser and Wilkins):
You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete, because, even in writing, this fear and its consequences hamper me in relation to you and because the magnitude of the subject goes far beyond the scope of my memory and power of reasoning.
Kafka never actually sends what turns out to be a 100-page letter to his father. He shows it to Ottla, who is his “co-defendant” in the brief, and he also sends it to Milena, and, of course, discusses it with Max Brod. I think he realizes that, no matter what he says, and no matter how skillfully he says it, he is never going to change his father. The writing of the letter seems to have been a purely cathartic exercise for Kafka.
As usual, Stach’s insights about the letter are invaluable. Reading the first volume of Kafka’s biography which details the long, troublesome father-son relationship is especially enlightening. In the final volume of his Kafka biography, Stach dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the letter as literature and as biography. He describes Hermann Kafka’s personality in chilling and horrifying detail:
When he ran out of ideas, he raised his voice or wallowed in self-pity, but even harder to bear was his social opportunism, his witless admiration for anyone who had more than a million in the back or could boast some sort of imperial title. And the hatred with which he persecuted his own youngest daughter revealed what his much-heralded sense of family really amounted to. These were not mere impressions or emotional reactions; they were facts. It was the portrait of a domestic tyrant.
And so what are we to make of this extensive, painful, heart wrenching letter? Why did Kafka continue to submit to this tyrant’s will? Should we view this letter as literature or autobiography? Once again, Stach’s interpretations greatly enhance the reading and understanding of this massive literary endeavor (trans. Shelley Frisch):
Kafka’s “Letter to His Father” has enjoyed enduring fame, but Kafka scholars have not quite known what to make of it. It is a core text of literary modernity, yet its manipulative element demands analysis of and commentary on its moral stance. It is an indisputable powerful analysis of bourgeois psychogenesis, in particular of the psychological roots of power and dependence. Kafka’s letter is on par with Freud’s case studies in its vividness, clarity, and intuitive grasp fo the exemplary, the perceptual value of which extends far beyond the individual. It is obvious that psychoanalytical literature influenced the letter, but Kafka never relies on general hypotheses or gives in to the temptation to curtail strenuous arguments with psychological constructs and terminology. He was at the height of his intellectual and linguistic powers, and his letter, read as autobiographical testimony, is one of the most impressive that has ever been published.
The most lasting impression I have of the letter is of a sensitive, kind, erudite man who desperately craves, but fails to receive affection and understanding from an overbearing, loud, obstinate father who is just not capable of giving to his son, or any of his children, what they need. To me it is one of the most tragic, stunning, and emotional pieces of Kafka’s writings.