Category Archives: German Literature

The Portrait of a Domestic Tyrant: Kafka’s Letter to His Father

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):

Dearest Father,

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.

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The Force of Gravity: Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks

I have reached one of the parts of Stach’s biography that I been eagerly anticipating—his discussions of Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks.  In the winter of 1916-1917, Kafka’s youngest sister, Ottla, rents a small house in Alchimistengasse (Alchemists’ Alley) in a section of Old Prague.  “A room with an open hearth in a tiny basement, grimy and dilapidated, for a mere twenty kornen,” Stach says.  Ottla rented it in secret and it was to serve as a little oasis, away from her parents, away from the family shop, for a few hours a day.  She generously shared her space with her brother and Kafka loved the quiet and solitude of this space; while visiting this simple hideaway, at the height of winter and world war, he had one of his most productive writing periods.  During this time, Kafka started writing in octavo notebooks instead of his diary.  As usual, Stach’s description of these notebooks is perfect:

Four unlined octavo volumes, each about eighty pages in length—a compact size suitable for carrying around town in his breast pocket—have been preserved from the winter of 1916 to 1917.  Two additional notebooks that Kafka must have used are missing.

These nondescript pads, which are filled with writing down to the last page (Kafka scholars refer to them as the Octavo Notebooks A through D), offer a startling and confusing sight: long, short, and very brief entries, prose and dialogue, a couple of lines of poetry, dated and undated texts, normal handwriting randomly alternating with shorthand, a scattering of headings, entire pages crossed out, word-for-word repetitions, disjointed sentences, fluid transitions and long dividing lines punctuated by doodles, mysterious names, an address, drafts of letters, a checklist of errands, torn out and mixed up pages, a random slip of paper…everything looking as though he had spread his papers out all over the floor while writing.

There is something decidedly different about reading these notebooks.  They are profound, sad and contemplative.  I have enjoyed reading them more than another other of Kafka’s writings.  I share with you a few of my favorite pieces from the first few notebooks:

October 18, 1917:

Dread of night. Dread of not-night.

November 24:

Celibacy and suicide are on similar levels of understanding, suicide and a martyr’s death not so by any means, perhaps marriage and a martyr’s death.

November 24:

It could be imagined that Alexander the Great, in spite of his youthful triumphs in warfare, in spite of the superb army he built up, in spite of the energies he felt in himself that were directed to transforming the world, might have halted at the Hellespont and not have crossed it, and this not from fear, not from irresolution, not from weakness of will, but from the force of gravity.

February 7:

Weariness does not necessarily signify weakness of faith—or does it?  In any case weariness signifies insufficiency.  I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me.  But if, for instance, I read a good book, say an account of travels, it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me.  Proofs that previously I did not include this book in my eternity, or had not pushed on far enough ahead to have an intuitive glimpse of the eternity that necessarily includes this book as well. —From a certain state of knowledge [Erkenntnis] on, weariness, insufficiency, constriction, self contempt, must all vanish: namely at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature what previously was something alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.

The edition of the Blue Octavo Notebooks I have were edited by Max Brod and translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins.

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A Drowning Man: Stach’s Insights on Kafka and World War I

The final installment of Reiner Stach’s expansive and compelling biography of Kafka begins with The Great War. I had mentioned on Twitter the other day that one of the most surprising revelations for me from Stach’s narrative is the fact that Kafka desperately wanted to enlist for the war, but his bosses at the Insurance Institute kept exempting him from service. His weak, frail constitution initially spared him from service, but as the war dragged on and more men were needed on the Austro-Hungarian front lines, Kafka was given a second medical evaluation that cleared him for the military. But his supervisors, whose staff had been wiped out by the draft, insisted that Kafka was indispensable to the continued operation of their business. He argued with the president on a couple of occasions to release him but to no avail.

Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter Books, left an interesting comment on Twitter in response to my reaction about Kafka’s desire for military service: “Knausgaard details a number of reactions of intellectuals to WWI in My Struggle Volume 6, and it seems so crazy knowing what WWI actually was. They didn’t get modern warfare until it was actually happening.” To prove his point, Chad sent me a quote from Thomas Mann that he aptly calls “wild”: “War! It was purification, liberation that we experienced, and an enormous hope…it set the hearts of poets aflame…how should the artist, the soldier in the artist not have praised God for the collapse of a world of peace that he had his fill, so completely his fill of?”

Stach argues that Kafka never showed this same amount of patriotic fervor as Mann and other writers, even at the beginning of the war. Kafka’s diary about this topic mixes the personal and mundane with the global and tragic: “Germany declared war on Russia—Swimming in the afternoon.” Because of his job at the Insurance Agency which become responsible for founding a sanatorium for wounded veterans, Kafka knew more horrific details about the physical and mental consequences of war than any other writer of his day. Stach argues that Kafka was neither naïve nor oblivious to the gruesome realities of modern warfare. So why the insistence on joining this catastrophe firsthand? Even Stach is flummoxed by this: “Kafka’s insistence on joining the military is one of the most baffling decisions of his life; psychologically motivated empathy will not get us very far. We would have an easier time understanding an act of desperation of a fleeting indifference to his own fate—and Kafka would not have been the first to seek refuge in barracks. But that was not the case. His endeavors to serve in the military were well thought out, purposeful, and spirited, and they were repeated for years on end.”

Even though Kafka fell into a deep depression during the winter of 1915 and 1916, Stach rules out suicide. So what is left? Kafka is greatly susceptible to guilt and as Kafka witnesses friends, family members, and fellow writers succumb to the tragedies of war, it is certainly possible that he felt terribly guilty for his continued exemptions. But the most compelling reason that Stach makes, I think, for Kafka’s desire for military service is also the simplest—he wanted to escape, even if it meant going to war:

He found himself careening down an inclined plane whose slope kept steepening, and everything was tugging him in the same direction. He was cooped up in the office for fifty-hour workweeks, his desire to write stifled by headaches, insomnia, and increasing isolation. Kafka welcomed any prospect at all of making a fundamental change and warding off the psychological decline he was experiencing with the agonizingly intensified sense of time of a drowning man. Vacation, marriage, military service…it mad almost no difference which one.

Vacation, marriage, World War I….whatever, any one will do! Oh Kafka! I know I keep going on and on about how extraordinary Stach’s biography of Kafka is. But I really must say it again. Stach has set a new, very high bar for writing intense, exhaustive, interesting and compelling stories. Kakfa, who loved to read biographies, would have most definitely approved of this one!

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The Eternally Dithering Kafka: Some Final Thoughts on Stach’s The Decisive Years

The Metamorphosis. First Edition cover, 1916.

So far I have read over 1,000 pages, about two-thirds, of Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka.  To be perfectly honest, I thought I would grow tired of such a long work and would want a break in between volumes, but this has not been the case.  I am completely absorbed in Stach’s narrative and I have been thinking about what, exactly, sets this extraordinary biography apart from not only other biographies of Kafka, but from other books in this genre as a whole.  Stach, in his preface to the second volume of his Kafka biography (which was actually the first to be published) answers this question for me.  He writes (trans. Shelley Frisch):

The magic word of biographers is empathy.  Empathy comes into play when psychology and experience fall short.  Even a life that is empirically very well documented remains elusive if the biographer fails to rouse the reader’s willingness to identify with a character, a situation, and a milieu.  Hence the curious sterility of some massive biographies that are bloated by data and references.  They purport to say everything that can be said but completely miss their subject and therefore fail to satisfy our curiosity.

There are two themes that consume Kafka and Stach’s biography between the years 1912 and 1914: Literature and Felice.  Stach progresses in his story by building on these themes layer by careful layer and the result is a riveting, impressive, stunning work;  Stach elicits empathy by highlighting Kafka’s indecision, inner turmoil and self-doubt in relation to his writing and his engagement with Felice.

Felice Bauer is a middle-class, Jewish woman from Berlin whom Kafka meets just once before he engages in an intense, personal relationship with her through letters.  Other biographers have tended to depict Felice as a woman who is intellectually unworthy of Kafka’s attentions, but Stach’s discussion of her family and her own life is much  more balanced than this.  Not only do we feel empathy for Kafka’s indecision about marriage, but we also feel great sorrow for this woman to whom he was engaged twice. In addition to  an emotionally sensitive and unstable fiancé who writes her lengthy, daily letters, she was also dealing with working full-time, a sister who got pregnant out of wedlock and a profligate brother who was caught stealing money from his future father-in-law.  Stach writes beautifully and poignantly about Felice and Kafka’s extensive exchange of letters (wonderfully translated by Shelly Frisch):

When we try to get an overview of the tangled correspondence between Kafka and Felice Bauer, from their first attempts to establish a relationship in September 1912 to the “reception day” in Berlin, the official engagement celebration on Whitsunday 1914, we encounter an enormous emotional and mental ground swell.  The motif of repetition predominates: a kind of minimal music in which new elements are introduced with slight variations, while the main melody remains audible.  Still, it is fascinating to read these letters, because Kafka’s metaphoric richness and humor never fade, even in  moments of torpor.

The reading is also painful.  What is the source of our sympathetic torment?  Are we embarrassed at playing the voyeur?  Is it the disaster, the helplessness, the failure witnessed up close? These are people who walk over an abyss of psychosocial pathology. Yet procrastination, repression, the mix of emotion and cold calculation, regression, the alternation of advances and retreats, narcissism, undignified quarrels, fantasizing, and lost opportunities were all common phenomena in relationships in bourgeois society, which advocated an exceedingly binding ideal of love.

After writing Felice detailed and intimate letters for the better part of a year Kafka realizes that there are only two ways that this could end: in marriage or in the complete loss of this woman from his life.  The eighteen-page letter (or “treatise”—his own word for it) that describes the discontented, socially awkward, physically fragile, lonely man whom she would be marrying serves as his proposal to Felice and is a testament to his anguish over these choices.   It’s hard to believe that it took her less than two days to say yes to all of this!  Once again, Stach’s insights into this complex situation and Kafka’s paralyzing indecisions are incisive and balanced:

A biographer cannot dispense advice, and perfunctory long-distance diagnoses of human relationships that go back generations or even epochs, are among the vilest side effects of the historical leveling that has become prevalent among with the discursive predominance of psychology.  Nonetheless, if we work our way along the cascade of fears that plagued and eventually overwhelmed Kafka, more and more insistently once Felice and he had decided to marry, it is difficult to refrain from considering the could haves and should haves.  They ought to have met more often, on neutral territory, far away from their parents, bosses and guardians.  They needed to share experiences, define their common past, and somehow find a way of testing the waters of marriage.

But Kafka’s inability to make a decision and move forward prevented him from doing these most basic, logical things with Felice during both of their doomed engagements.

The period of his relationship and correspondence with Felice also coincides with his most productive phases of writing.  After meeting her, he sits down at his desk and in a single, overnight sitting writes “The Judgement.”  He also works on, but never finishes, his novel The Man Who Disappeared.  While writing larges pieces of this novel he takes a break and creates his masterpiece, “The Metamorphosis.”  After he breaks off his second engagement with Felice, he begins his second novel, The Trial, which will also remain unfinished,  and composes his short story “In the Penal Colony.”  But even as far as literature is concerned, his self-doubt and hesitation sabotage his chances for publication.  He had an agreement from Wolff, his publisher, to release three of his stories in one volume but Kafka failed to pull together this project and never sent the manuscripts to the publisher who eventually lost interest.  Stach writes, “We can imagine the advice Brod, Pick and Weiss gave the eternally dithering Kafka: If your major novel is not finished yet, get “The Metamorphosis” out of your drawer! Three-quarters of a year had passed since Kafka had promised his publisher a serviceable typescript of the story…”  It is no wonder that any of Kafka’s writing saw the light of day under these circumstances.

Finally, I have to mention one additional, pleasant side-effect of reading this second volume Stach’s biography.  He discusses, especially in relation to Kafka’s engagements, the author’s interest in the lives, failed love affairs and writings of  Flaubert, Grillparzer and Kierkegaard.  I have obtained some of the writings from these authors which I will also explore since they were so important to Kafka.  After reading Kierkegaard’s diaries Kafka writes, “As I suspected, his case, despite vital differences, is very similar to mine; he is on the same side of the world.  He supports me like a friend.”  How can we not experience sympathy, compassion or even empathy for this lonely, tormented man who identifies a long-dead, Danish philosopher as more of a “friend” than anyone who is actually around him?

On to the final volume…

 

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The Bachelor of World Literature: Kafka-The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach

In a letter written while in his twenties, Rainer Maria Rilke describes his vision of what a good marriage ought to be (trans. John J.L. Mood):

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of is fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closet human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

This is one of the most beautiful descriptions I have ever read of what a good, supportive and loving marriage could be. I keep thinking about Rilke’s thoughts as I make my way through the second volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka. Stach begins The Decisive Years in 1910 when a twenty-eight-year-old Kafka is still a bachelor, is still living at home with his parents and sisters, and is still trying to find enough solitude to write. Even though he is the only member of the family to have his own room, the constant noise in the apartment and the proximity of his family hinders his writing during daylight hours. Kafka’s closest friends—Max Brod, Oscar Baum and Felix Weltsch—as well as his sisters have gotten married or are making plans to get married. As Stach points out, Kafka is certainly neither innocent nor sexually neutral—he visits prostitutes to satisfy his physical needs. But the thread we see running throughout his diaries and letters is an intense, obsessive, and urgent desire to write; a wife, and family would certainly not give him the solitude he needs for his literary endeavors. In the chapter entitled “Bachelors, Young and Old” Stach writes (translated Shelley Frisch): “Franz Kafka is the bachelor of world literature. No one, not even the most open-minded reader, can imagine him at the side of a Frau Doktor Kafka, and the image of a white-haired family man surrounded by grandchildren at play is irreconcilable with the gaunt figure and self-conscious smile of the man we know as Kafka, who blossomed and wilted at an early age.”

Kafka has two “relationships” of sorts before he meets Felice Bauer, the woman to whom he will become engaged. Hedwig Weller is his first girlfriend in his early twenties and he exchanges letters with her between 1907 and 1909. She lives in Berlin and so most of their contact is only through letters. In 1912, Kafka and Max Brod take a trip to Weimar to meet with publishers and visit Goethe’s home which has been turned into a museum. The caretaker of Goethe’s estate has a teenage daughter with whom Kafka becomes obsessed. It is sweet and endearing how he eagerly awaits for her outside of local shops and taverns to catch fleeting glimpses of her. He even has Brod run interference with her father so he can have a stolen moment with her in the orchard on the Goethe property. (This moment is captured in a blurry photograph that Wagenbach includes in his biography of Kafka.) He is sad when he has to leave her, but it’s interesting to note that Kafka keeps choosing women that live quite a distance from him and with whom there is never a realistic chance of pursuing a serious courtship. As Stach is leading up to the chapters on Felice Bauer in this second volume, these earlier precedents will serve to shed more light on his later, failed engagements.

Marriage and the distinct possibility of not having a partner for the rest of his life also weighs heavily on Kafka. In November 1911, in a fragment of a story called “The Bachelor’s Unhappiness” he depicts a pathetic, lonely, joyless, unmarried, older man: “It seems so strange to remain a bachelor, to become an old man struggling hard to preserve his dignity while pleading for an invitation when he wants to spend an evening with people, being ill and spending weeks staring into an empty room from the corner of his bed, always saying good night at the gate, never running up the stairs beside his wife…” Kafka’s diaries entries just two years later in which he lists the pros and cons of marriage reiterate this fear of perpetual loneliness: “I am incapable, alone, of bearing the assault of my own life, the demands of my own person, the attacks of time and old age, the vague presence of the desire to write, sleeplessness, the nearness of insanity—I cannot bear all this alone.” But sacrificing his solitude to write, even if it eases his loneliness, is not something is his willing to do. Not, at least, at this point in his life.

And so my mind returns to that lovely Rilke quote which, I think, is something that Kafka might have appreciated. If he could only find a wife that would have been that “guardian of his solitude,” It is tragic that this concept of marriage is something that would have been completely alien to him, especially given his social and religious upbringing. Even more than his relationships with Felice and Milena, I am eager to read Stach’s description of the last months of Kafka’s life when he doesn’t marry but does live with a woman named Dora Diamant, which is the closet he will ever get to a domestic life. Did she protect his solitude? Or did he finally decide that he didn’t want to die alone?

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