Category Archives: German Literature

Our Love, Tell Me, What Is It?: The Completion of Love by Robert Musil (trans. Genese Grill)

“Our love, tell me, what is it?” Claudine asks this heavy, direct, honest, complex question in a letter to her husband.  She is on a short trip to see her daughter, who was conceived during a brief affair with a dentist, at boarding school but is snowed in at her lodgings.  There are so many layers to the philosophical language of Musil’s stream-of-conscious narrative; but the one that stood out to me the most was his reflection on love, and how we experience another person through the self and internalize emotions that are created through this experience.

Musil explores the fact that Love is such a complex human emotion, one that can oftentimes be confused or mixed with pity, nostalgia or physical desire.  The opening scene in the book depicts Claudine and her husband as quietly content and presumably in love—enjoying a cup of tea, discussing a book, relaxing in their home.  But on her  journey, as she leaves her husband behind and encounters another man on her trip she reflects on this love that, up until now it seems, she has not questioned.  The translation of such a complex text could not have been easy; Genese Grill’s rendering of Musil was wonderful to contemplate and absorb:

So, they drove on, close to each other, in the deepening dusk. And her thoughts began to take on that softly forward-urging restlessness again.  She tried to convince herself that it was just a delusion brought on by the confusing interior stillness of this suddenly lonely amid strangers; and sometimes she believed that it was just the wind, in whose stiff, glowing coldness she was wrapped, which made her frozen and submissive; but other times it seemed to her that her husband, strangely, was very close to her again, and that this weakness and sensuality was nothing more than a wonderfully blissful manifestation of their love.

As she is drawn closer to a man on her journey simply known as the “commissioner” these thoughts of her husband and her love for him as well as her life before her marriage keep flashing through her mind.

She felt that she could never again belong to a strange man. And precisely there, precisely simultaneous with this revulsion towards other men, with this mysterious yearning for only one, she felt—as if on a second, deeper level—a prostration, a dizziness, perhaps a presentiment of human uncertainty, perhaps she was afraid of herself; perhaps it was only an elusive, meaningless, diffuse desire that the other man would come, and her anxiety flowed through her, hot and cold, spurning on a destructive desire.

And when she is alone at night:

And then it came to her suddenly, from out of that time—the way that this terrible defenselessness of her existence, hiding behind the drams, far off, ungraspable, merely imaginary, was not living a second life—a calling, a shimmer of nostalgia, a never-before-felt softness, a sensation of I, that—stripped bare by the terrifying irredeemable fact of her fate, naked, disrobed, divested of herself—longed, drunkenly, for increasingly—debased debilitation.  She got lost in it, strangely confused by its aimless tenderness, but this fragment of love that sought its own completion.

Claudine’s thoughts are blurred to the point that I felt they could equally apply to her relationship with her husband, her love affairs before her marriage, or her current situation with the commissioner.  This fragment of love that sought its own completion.  This last sentence, in particular, has given me much to think about.

I found Claudine’s response  jarring when the commissioner asks her if she loves her husband: “The absurdity in this prodding, his assumption of certainty, did not escape her, and she said, “No; no, I don’t love him at all,” with trembling and resolution.”  She obviously has some love for her husband, so why tell this lie?  The hint to this, I think, comes a few pages later:

And then the cryptic thought struck her: somewhere among all these people there was one, one who was not quite right for her, but who was different; she could have made herself fit with him and would never have know anything about the person she was today.  For feelings only live in a long chain of other feelings, holding on to each other, and it is just a matter of whether one link of life arranges itself—without any gap in between—-next to another, and there of hundreds of ways this can happen.  And then for the first time since falling in love, the thought shot through her: it is chance; it becomes real through some chance or other and then one holds fast to it.

I felt as though Claudine came to the realization that the “completion” (or “perfection” in other translations) of love is never possible.  She never sends that letter I quoted to her husband.  She has to learn for herself that if love is not returned—in word, in action, in gesture—it will die out.  Sometimes it suffers a long, painful death.  But, unless it is tended to and nurtured, it will indeed die out.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Novella

Putting the Shaken House in its New Order: My Year in Reading-2018

There is no doubt that this was a tough year by any measure. The news, in my country and around the world. was depressing, scary and, at times, downright ridiculous. Personally, I had some very high highs and some very low lows. The summer was particularly hot and oppressive. And this semester was unusually demanding at work. More than any other year I can remember, I took solace and comfort by retreating into my books. I have listed here the books, essays and translations that kept me busy in 2018. War and Peace, Daniel Deronda, The Divine Comedy and Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka were particular favorites, but there really wasn’t a dud in this bunch.

Classic Fiction and Non-Fiction (20th Century or earlier):

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (trans. Louise and Alymer Maude)

The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)

City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

A Dead Rose by Aurora Caceres (trans. Laura Kanost)

Nothing but the Night by John Williams

G: A Novel by John Berger

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Artemisia by Anna Banti (trans. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo)

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Flesh by Brigid Brophy

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (trans. by Ignat Avsey)

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Lyric Novella by Annmarie Schwarzenbach (trans. Lucy Renner Jones)

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

The Achilleid by Statius (trans. Stanley Lombardo)

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu (trans. Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell)

The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka (trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins)

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir (trans. James Kirkup)

Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography by Lesley Blanch

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger

Theseus by André Gide (trans. John Russell)

Contemporary Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard (trans. Chris Turner)

All the World’s Mornings by Pascal Quignard (trans. James Kirkup)

Requiem for Ernst Jundl by Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Years by Annie Ernaux (trans. Alison L. Strayer)

He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman

The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando (trans. Leland de la Durantaye)

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)

Essays and Essay Collections:

Expectations by Jean-Luc Nancy

Errata by George Steiner

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

The Poetry of Thought by George Steiner

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam

“George Washington”, “The Bookish Life,” and “On Being Well-Read” and “The Ideal of Culture” by Joseph Epstein

“On Not Knowing Greek,” “George Eliot,” “Russian Thinking” by Virginia Woolf

Poetry Collections:

The Selected Poems of Donald Hall

Exiles and Marriage: Poems by Donald Hall

H.D., Collected Poems

Elizabeth Jennings, Selected Poems and Timely Issues

Eavan Boland, New Selected Poems

Omar Carcares, Defense of the Idol

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Analicia Sotelo, Virgin

Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose and Letters (LOA Edition)

Michael Hamburger: A Reader, (Declan O’Driscoll, ed.)

I also dipped into quite a few collections of letters such as Kafka, Kierkegaard, Kleist, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. that I won’t bother to list here. I enjoyed reading personal letters alongside an author’s fiction and/or biography.

My own Translations (Latin and Greek):

Vergil, Aeneid IV: Dido’s Suicide

Statius, Silvae IV: A Plea for Some Sleep

Horace Ode 1.5: Oh Gracilis Puer!

Horace, Ode 1.11: May You Strain Your Wine

Propertius 1.3: Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another

Seneca: A Selection from “The Trojan Women”

Heraclitus: Selected Fragments

Cristoforo Landino, Love is not Blind: A Renaissance Latin Love Elegy

As George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.” My reading patterns have most definitely changed and shifted this year. I am no longer satisfied to read a single book by an author and move on. I feel the need to become completely absorbed by an author’s works in addition to whatever other sources are available (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Instead of just one book at a time, I immerse myself in what feels more like reading projects. I am also drawn to classics, especially “loose, baggy monsters” and have read very little contemporary authors this year. I image that this pattern will continue into 2019.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, French Literature, German Literature, Italian Literature, Kafka, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Novella, Poetry, Russian Literature, Tolstoi, Virginia Woolf

String of Beginnings: Michael Hamburger’s Autobiography

String of beginnings, a lifetime long,
So thin, so strong, it’s outlasted the bulk it bound,
Whenever light out of haze lifted
Scarred masonry, marred wood
As a mother her child from the cot,
To strip, to wash, to dress again,
And the cities even were innocent…
—Michael Hamburger

Of all the autobiographies I’ve read this year, Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings has been the most intriguing to me.  Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, “It was the month of the year when Kafka left Berlin to die. It was the day, March 22nd, of Goethe’s death and his cry for more light.  The year, 1924, was one of relative stabilization after the failure of a Hitler-Ludendorff ‘putsch’ and the success of Schacht’s measures against an inflation so extreme that it had turned most Germans into undernourished millionaires.”  Hamburger describes the autobiography, however, as “intermittent” since it only covers the years of his life between 1924 and 1954.

Originally published in 1973 under a different title, A Mug’s Game, and reissued in 1991 as String of Beginnings, Hamburger discusses in an interview with Peter Dale his reasons for limiting the scope of this second edition of his autobiography and for not publishing a sequel:

At one time I had planned a continuation, but my publisher didn’t want another volume, not having done well with the first.  Also, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write a second book on the same lines, as a factual and chronological account.  I then planned an altogether different sort of book, organized by theme, rather than documentary sequence, and with more freedom of movement and association than the chronological presentation had given me.  It had also become clear to me that it is virtually impossible to write truthfully about living relatives and friends in a non-fiction book—or about one’s own life, for that matter.

In the first chapter of String of Beginnings, he also elaborates on his very strict approach to writing autobiography.  Hamburger feels that too many autobiographies read more like novels because of an author’s tendency to embellish the truth.  He says of this genre, “Neither the chronicler’s nor the novelist’s way is adequate, because too much of one’s life is beyond recall, and the experience that made us what we are lies neither in moments nor in recurrences, but in a fusion of both far too subtle to be retracted.”  Much of the text of his autobiography contains direct quotes from letters to friends, family and acquaintances or paraphrasing from diaries that he kept.  Hamburger never veers from his strict writing standards.

Despite the “chronological presentation” of  his autobiography there are three “strings” that he highlights throughout the book which, he implies, affect him for the rest of his life: writing his own poetry, interacting with other poets and traveling.  Although Hamburger is best know for his translations, especially those of Holderlin which he started work on at the age of fifteen, it is the composition of his own, original poems that occupies his mind more than anything else.  The original title of the book,  A Mug’s Game, was taken from a comment made to Hamburger by T.S. Eliot who was reflecting on the, oftentimes futile, life and career of a poet, “‘A mug’s game,’ T.S. Eliot called it, aware of the risk he shared with those whose persistence was a blind obstinacy, a waste of themselves and others.  Or wasn’t it—even at the worst?  Where even the best is for ever being reexamined and re-assessed, where any new development could be a falling-off or a final defeat, mightn’t it be enough to go on trying?”

And go on trying Hamburger did.  Before he enrolls in the army, he spends a few terms at Oxford where he kept writing poetry and subjecting himself to the feedback of other famous poets.  He knows that his biggest flow is that his verse is too mechanical and he is not really seeing enough of life will translate into good poetry: “Though I published early, and had made literary connections even at this time, without being award of looking for them, the only success I wanted was to write good poems…”  Furthermore, he admits that the influence of poets he worshipped, like T.S. Eliot, was too great on him and he had trouble finding his own voice: “It is easy enough in retrospect to see why it took me so long to write my own poems, good or bad.  All my responses were exaggerated, inwardly over-dramatized, as it were, and utterly unstable, because I was trying out one stance, one identity, after another.”

The number of  poets—famous, infamous and obscure—that he meets during his time at Oxford is astounding.  Hamburger argues, “To write about oneself is to write about other people…” and the “other people” whom he discusses most in his autobiography are poets.  He meets Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, David Gascoyne and Peter Hofler, just to name a few.  The  most intriguing writer of them all for me, however, was a close friend whom he simply refers to as “X.”  X is about ten years older than Hamburger and is an academic; they had a falling out over the publication of Hamburger’s autobiography so Hamburger keeps X’s identity a secret throughout the book.  But X’s impact on Hamburger’s career and life as a poet is inescapable and the entire autobiography would fall apart with the exclusion of this friend and fellow author.   (I’m still curious to know the identity of X and I’m sure that someone has figured it out.  So if you know his identity please leave me a comment!)

The final “string” that one follows through the thirty years of Hamburger’s life is that of traveling.  Even though he and his family emigrate from Berlin to London in 1933, he gets his first real experience of Europe when he is a soldier in the British army during World War II.  He is stationed in both Italy and Austria and his favorite activities in those places are those which take him away from tourist areas and off the beaten path.  After his first visit to Paris he decides that big cities are places he would rather avoid: “If I have no business in a large city, and no close friends, all I find there is ghosts—‘the soul of all those who have lived there.’ absorbed by walls.”  One of my favorite, amusing stories in the book is when he is traveling in Austria, after being released from the army, and he moves from one small town to the next.  In one of these backwater places he stays at a rather strange little hotel which he eventually realizes, after many days, is a brothel.   Italy becomes one of his favorite places to visit, especially the countryside around Florence and Fiesole: “What really captivated me about Italy was the least palpable of phenomena—the mere smells on the banks of the Arno, the precise colour of olive trees, silver-white-green-blue-grey, something about the landscape at Fiesole that I couldn’t describe. ‘Self-sufficiency of the landscape, architecture, people,’ I noted. ‘No need for transcendence.  How the sun melts the written word.'”

Michael Hamburger lived until the age of 83 and I am so sad that there is no autobiographical account of the years between 1955 and 2007.  How did his life evolve in his last forty years?  What other poets did he meet?  How did he view the development of his poetry?  To what other places in the world did he enjoy traveling?  And in his interview with Peter Dale he alludes to his marriage with poet Ann Beresford and some of the troubles they had over the years which I would also have been interested to learn more about.  Maybe some day there will be a thorough biography of Michael Hamburger which will continue with his string of beginnings.

For the extra curious, these are the editions of the books I’ve discussed in my post:

A Mug’s Game by Michael Hamburger. Carcanet Press, 1973.

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger. Skoob Books, 1991.

Michael Hamburger, A Reader.  Declan O’Driscoll, ed. Carcanet Press, 2017.

Michael Hamburger in conversation with Peter Dale. Between the Lines, 1998.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, German Literature, Nonfiction

Building and Connecting the Honeycombs: Reiner Stach’s Three Volume Biography of Kafka (trans. Shelley Frisch)

There are just certain books that change you.  After spending the last month reading all 1557 pages (excluding notes and index) of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka, I will never look at the author, his writings, the early 20th century, marriage, Prague, Zionism, biography, friendship or World War I the same again.  For my readers who are used to my relatively short posts, I apologize for this rather lengthy piece of writing.  I felt that Stach’s profoundly enlightening book and Shelley Frisch’s meticulous, thoughtful translation of it required more time and attention to capture the depth and complexity of all three volumes when viewed as a whole.

Although I read Stach’s comprehensive and astonishing three volume biography of Kafka in chronological order, this was not the order in which they were written and published. Stach was waiting for access to the extensive papers in the literary estate of Max Brod, which were hung up in years of litigation, in order to finish writing the first book about Kafka’s earliest years. Thus it is in the second volume, The Decisive Years, which was released first, where we find Stach’s eloquent introduction to the entire project. He describes the onerous task of writing a biography of Kafka:

Most biographies, even the best among them, are composed in this way, through a kind of honeycomb technique. The picture of how a life was lived breaks down into a number of thematic segments, each of which is relatively independent of the others and calls for separate research: background, education, influences, achievements (or misdeeds), social interactions, religion and political and cultural background. Ultimately some interdependences blur this initially clear picture, but if the biographer does not want to subject readers to a hodgepodge, the fiction of topical clarity must be maintained, each subject must be synthesized separately, each cell of the honeycomb must be closed. Only then, in a second step, will the biographer try to merge the cells in such a way as to minimize the empty spaces: a synthesis of syntheses. The result is a portrayal of a life whose events are narrated in linear fashion, their causal connection thus made evident. The honeycomb cells lie in a row, and the conceptual paradigm of this kind of biography is the journey through life.

Kafka, born into a Jewish family in Prague at the end of the 19th century, was named after Franz Joseph I, the kaisar of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was survived by three younger sisters who were all murdered in concentration camps by the Nazis during World War II. He earned a doctorate in law, but had no intention whatsoever of being a lawyer. He was excellent at his job at the Worker’s Insurance Institute and wrote many legal documents that advocated for workers’ safety. He had a strained relationship with his father to whom he wrote a 100-page letter but which he never delivered. When he broke up with his fiancé, Felice Bauer, for the final time he went to his best friend Max Brod’s office and sobbed uncontrollably. He desperately wanted to join the fight in World War I, but his employers kept exempting him from service. After Felice, he was engaged for a second time to a woman named Julie with whom he broke it off when he met Milena, a Czech journalist who lived in Vienna. Milena’s pet name for him was “Frank.” Shortly after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, he also came down with a horrible case of the Spanish flu which he miraculously survived. He loved swimming, going to the movies and slapstick comedy. He, himself, had a droll sense of humor. He was a naturalist and a vegetarian and enthusiastically took up an interest in gardening. He was not a practicing Jew, but towards the end of his life he developed a renewed interest in Jewish culture and history and learned Hebrew.  When he lived in Berlin, he would put on a suit and tie every day to go out and buy his milk.  He was shy, introverted and brooding but he was also kind, empathetic and generous. In the last, painful days of his life his laryngeal tuberculosis prevented him from speaking, eating and drinking and his only communication was done by writing on slips of paper. He requested on one of these notes to a friend that he be given some ice cream to try. When he awoke on June 3rd, 1924 in excruciating pain and could not breath, he asked his friend, a physician, Robert Klopstock to euthanize him with morphine. Klopstock did give him a dose of an opiate, but we are not sure how much. Dora Diamant, the third and final woman to whom he proposed marriage, held his hand and consoled him with the smell of his favorite flowers as he died.

These are, to me, some of the most surprising and enlightening bits and pieces of these honeycomb cells that Stach constructs throughout the course of his extensive biography. Stach argues that Kafka’s struggled with the same issues throughout his life and though there are only a few themes on which to focus—marriage, family, literature— each one of these threads can be connected in a complex number of ways. Kafka’s views on marriage, for instance, can first be analyzed in light of his parents’ own union which took place with the help of a professional marriage broker. Stach describes in The Early Years how Hermann Kafka decides that he is in need of a Jewish bride with a decent dowry who could co-manage his fancy goods store and that’s exactly what the professional matchmaker finds for him in Julie Lowy.  Love, in the very beginning at least, has nothing to do with it.  As a Jewish man who grows up in a petit bourgeois family, in Prague, at the beginning of the 20th century Kafka has certain expectations placed on him as far as marriage is concerned.  He has to be a good provider, his wife has to have a spotless reputation, the dowry has to be the right amount, and, most importantly, his family has to approve of the match.

And, of course, a thorough discussion of Kafka’s views on marriage also requires Stach to look into the marriages of Kafka’s closet friends.  Kafka’s best friend, Max Brod, was a notorious womanizer and even when he finally decides to settle down into marriage, he still has numerous affairs with women in different cities to which he would frequently travel.  Kafka appears to have known all of the nitty gritty details of Brod’s amorous adventures and even becomes friends with some of Max’s lovers, which makaes seeing Max’s wife rather awkward.  Oscar Baum, a fellow author and music teacher, seems to have a happy marriage but he is heavily dependent on his wife for many of his needs because of his blindness.  Kafka is also a witness to Felix Weltsch’s marriage which is a bad match and a miserable disaster from the beginning.

Although there appears to be a dearth of happy marriages for Kafka to emulate, he very much wants to get married, but on his own terms.  He rejects the traditional expectations placed on him and wants a union that will be both emotionally intimate and physically fulfilling.  He envisions a domestic partnership in which he and his future wife will have common interests and he particularly wants his wife to share his passion for literature and to support his writing.  His biggest fear in marriage is that a wife and family might hinder his writing and intrude on the solitude he required to carry out his work.

As I was reading Stach’s various threads about Kafka’s views on and attempts at marriage I kept thinking about some advice I received once from a dear, kind friend (who, like Kafka, is a great correspondent) about marriage.  He wrote: “I was reading a book by a member of the Clapham Sect recently and was struck by this passage: ‘Nothing so soon, and so certainly wears out the happiness of married persons, as that too common bad effect of familiarity, the sinking down into dullness and insipidity; neglecting to keep alive the flame by the delicacy which first kindled it; want of vigilance in keeping the temper cheerful by . . . discipline, and the faculties bright by constant use. Mutual affection decays of itself, even where there is no great moral turpitude, without mutual endeavours, not only to improve, but to amuse.’  The idea of making an effort to amuse and entertain one’s spouse is certainly unheard of these days. But I do think the point of the passage is a good one. Marriage should be deliberate, and if it is deliberate, it can be fun.”

My friend’s thoughts are not new—he brings up age old questions—why do we marry and when we choose a partner, what keeps us in that marriage for the long-term? How do we know when it’s over and when do we decide that things are hopeless and the only option left is to leave?  Stach keeps circling back to all of these questions that consume Kafka throughout his adult life.  In Kafka’s letters to Felice, some of which I think are didactic in tone, he constantly talks about literature, what he is reading, what she is reading, what he is writing.  He so desperately wants her to be a part of his literary life and the illusion that she is capable of doing this for him is a big part, I think,  of what keeps him from breaking it off with her for five years.   In their later correspondence he encourages her to volunteer at a Jewish Home for children, a common cause, he thinks, that they can develop together.  He is always searching for that mutual endeavor and he never quite finds a satisfactory one to share with her.  Their engagement party in Berlin is described by Kafka as anxiety inducing, he feels suffocated and the event has more of the tone of a funeral, an ending for him, than a beginning of a new life.

With Milena, who was a writer and a journalist, Kafka seems to have found this mutual endeavour in literature and in a physical attraction but she could never break free from her tumultuous marriage.  He seems to have learned his lesson with Felice that a prolonged, hopeless relationship will only waste his time and cause him more anxiety.  He is much more decisive and quicker to break things off with Milena.  Finally, Kafka meets Dora, with whom he has several mutual endeavours—literature, Zionism, Jewish history and Culture, a physical and emotional intimacy he had always craved.  And, what I think is most important, is that their affection for one another is very deliberate, especially under strained circumstance.  Dora takes such tender and devoted care of Kafka when his tuberculosis is becoming worse, and despite the fact that his health is poor he moves away from his family to be with her in Berlin.  Just at the time when he finds the perfect partner, his life is cut short.  It is nice to think that their relationship would never have sunk down into dullness and insipidity.  But who knows…

Stach continually points out in his narrative that an examination of Kafka’s views on marriage are also closely related to his writings—the greatest and best source for his relationships is his own writings in the form of letters and diary entries.  In addition, many of Kafka’s short works deal with marriage, family and bachelorhood.  Stach meticulously and deftly connects both of these thematic threads, these “honeycombs” at several points in the biography.  Many scholars have attempted to track down and comment on every piece of autobiographical information that Kafka weaves into his writing.  Stach argues that this is exhausting, and futile, and doesn’t necessarily give us more insight into Kafka’s stories.  Instead, Stach focuses his attention on Kafka’s most productive time periods and shows that the more pressure and anxiety that is placed on him the more productive he becomes.

By placing Kafka’s novels and short stories in the broader context of what is happening in his life,  Stach’s discussion of Kafka’s body of literature proved invaluable for me.  For example, “The Judgement” which I had read only once and has never really stood out in my mind among Kafka’s writings, was considered by the author his best piece of work.  He writes it in a single, sleepless night after he meets Felice.  After reading this entire biography, I understand better why animals, frustrating government officials, and feelings of helpless and despair abound in Kafka’s writings.  The most enlightening chapters for me as far as Kafka’s writings are concerned are those in which Stach guides us through the process and circumstances under which all three of Kafka’s novels remained unfinished. I assumed because he died young he never had time to complete any of them. But after reading Stach’s thoughts on The Castle, Amerika, and The Trial I am now of the opinion that even if he lived another 40 years these books would not have progressed much further. Kafka’s crippling self-doubt, his nagging sense of perfection and a myriad of other circumstances which caused him to endlessly dither would never have gone away.

Finally, Stach’s treatment of marriage and literature are also closely connected to his analysis of Kafka’s relationships with friends and family.  Stach, once again, is always attempting to attach these honeycombs. For example, a great deal of information we know about Kafka’s early years is from the author’s 100-page letter to his father and Stach quotes the letter extensively in the first volume. Hermann Kafka was an authoritarian patriarch who yelled often and berated his son for his perceived failings and inadequacies. Kafka’s bachelorhood must have irritated Hermann to no end and been a constant source of tension at the family dinner table. Marriage and his failure to go through with one was another topic that Kafka brings up in his letter to his overbearing pater familiae.

Kafka has one of his most productive periods during the final winter of World War II despite cold and starvation, in large part due to his sister Ottla’s providing a comfortable place for him to write and tending to all of his needs.  He also writes in the famous Blue Octavo Notebooks during this phase. In the end, even though he had his issues with his intrusive, pushy family, they support him financially when his illness is at its worst. He composes a lovely, tender and heartbreaking letter to both of his parents the day before he dies. Although he could be shy, brooding and introverted, his kindness and empathy attracts the best and most loyal friends. Most of what he publishes during his life was done through the efforts and interventions of Max Brod. It was Max who travels from Prague to Berlin to escort Kafka to the proper hospital to get the medical treatment he so badly needs at the end of his life. And, of course, it is Max we have to thank for saving and publishing the vast amounts of letters, diaries and manuscripts that Kafka left behind. Everyone ought to have a true friend like Max.

In hindsight Kafka’s life is judged as a success because of the wide and enduring popularity of his literature. But after reading Stach’s magnum opus, I think that a better measure of a good and successful life is the kind of love and respect we receive from the types of people with whom we surround ourselves. Stach’s depictions of people like Max, and Robert Klopstock, and Ottla, and Dora and their interactions with Kafka are full of love, tenderness, mutual admiration and respect; I would say that his short life was indeed rather successful. Stach has forever altered my view of Kafka for the better.

 

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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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