Tag Archives: German Liteature

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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Filed under German Literature, Nonfiction

Love Stories Must Never be Left Unfinished: Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane

“Love stories must never be left unfinished and when harsh reality has cut the thread before its time, then it must be spun out artificially.” This seems to capture perfectly the sad fate that Fontane writes for the married couples in both Effi Briest and Irretrievable. Each story features a marriage in which, although a minor indiscretion has occurred, one of the spouses chooses a desperate and unnecessary end to their relationship, their family and their lives.

Set between 1859-1861 in Schleswig-Holstein, five years before the German-Danish War, the novel  deals with Count Helmut Holk who has been married to his beautiful and devout wife Christine Arne for twenty years. Even though they have very different personalities—he is easygoing, indecisive and not spiritual, she is moralistic, self-righteous and cold— their attraction, admiration and affection for one another, at first, was rather strong.  They build and move into a beautiful castle that overlooks the sea.  And they have two teenage children, a boy and a girl, for whom Christine is searching out boarding schools that will provide them the best education.  Schleswig-Holstein at this point in time is still ruled by Denmark and the Count has an important position as an attendant at the court of the Danish princess.  Just before the Count leaves his family to serve the princess in Copenhagen for several months, there are signs that the Holks’ marriage is starting to show signs of wearing thin on both of their nerves.  Fontane describes Christine’s thoughts just before the Count is called to Denmark:

In spite of having the best of husbands whom she loved as much as he loved her, she yet did not possess that peace for which she longed; in spite of all their love, his easy-going temperament was no longer in harmony with her melancholy, as recent arguments had proved to her more than once to an ever-increasing degree and even though she would strive with all her might to resist her tendency to disagree.

I felt that Holk was the more sympathetic of the two characters throughout the story.  Fontane lets us view the marriage from the outside, through the eyes of Christine’s brother and two local clergymen, who all agree that her moralizing and constant judgment of her husband is too much and is driving them further apart.  When Holk goes to Copenhagen, the time, distance and experiences with the Princess force him to realize that what he really wants is a partner who gives him warmth, affection and understanding;

Ah, all that bickering and nagging! I’m longing for a new life, one that doesn’t begin and end with religious tracts, I want harmony in my home, not a harmonium, joy and mutual understanding and air and light and freedom.  That’s what I want and that’s what I have always wanted, ever since the first day I arrived here, and now I’ve been given the sign that I’m going to be allowed to have it.

I also found the Count’s naivete, especially when he encounters the women in Copenhagen, to be amusing and even endearing.  He is especially captivated by Ebba, the princess’s lady-in-waiting, who flirts with him and uses him for one night of unbridled passion which the Count is clearly not accustomed to.  But he figures out too late that Ebba is just using him as a temporary amusement and his wife, for the better part of a year, will not forgive his indiscretion.  Holk is a character that develops a great deal of personal knowledge and growth in Fontane’s narrative so I found it disappointing that he would even consider going back to Christine; she is still the same dour, melancholy woman he married and their time apart didn’t change that.  He learns the hard way that any happy times that they had previously are irretrievable, there is no way back to the past.

As Fontane says in the novel, a love story can’t have a non-ending—the author couldn’t possibly allow Holk and Christine to live together in their castle, no matter how miserable they make each other.  It’s interesting to note that in Effi Briest, it is Effi’s husband that is the morally stringent, destructive force in the novel because in Irretrievable it is the wife that plays this role.  It is Christine that makes a fatal, ruinous decision (I won’t give it away) that brings a definitive end to their love story, their marriage and the novel.

I am thoroughly enjoying Fontane’s novels and I have a volume of his shorter works that is published by The German Library to look forward to.

(I read the NYRB Classics translation entitled Irretrievable but this novel has also been translated into English as Beyond Recall and No Way Back.)

 

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books