Tag Archives: German Literature

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 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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Filed under German Literature, Kafka, Letters, Nonfiction

Educating Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach

The first volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka, entitled The Early Years, is mesmorizing.  It is not easy to make a biography about the formative years of any human being—birth, family life, education—interesting, but Stach most definitely achieves this through a variety of techniques.  He incorporates the complex history of the city of Prague, including its Czech, German and Jewish aspects, into this story of what is arguably its most famous inhabitant.  Since it covers Kafka’s childhood there is, naturally, a discussion of his education at German language elementary, middle and high schools, a topic about which I feel compelled to comment.

What struck me about Stach’s discussion of education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Prague is that the issues and struggles that students, teachers and families were facing are still being confronted today.  Kafka was an anxious, shy student who was constantly terrified of the litany of tests and exams that were always required of him.  Stach, however, is very careful in not making grand, sweeping generalizations about the educational system in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or even about the city of Prague itself.  Like any reasonable education,  Stach argues, a plethora of factors will affect a student’s success including a pupil’s attitude, the teachers’ attitudes, the learning environment and the support from home.  Stach writes:

But how did the humanistic high schools in “old” Austria actually work?  Was such a destructive, or at least demotivating pressure to preform engendered here systematically; did the fault lie with the educational system itself or with the inability or ill will of individual teachers who appointed themselves judges?  That is a matter of debate even among those who attended these schools.  Experiences at school leave a deep emotional mark on children, especially in the sensitive years of puberty, and even in retrospect they seem strongly tinged by a student’s individual circumstances.  It would be difficult for a former star pupil to empathize with the situation of other pupils whose lesser achievements could not shield them from pedagogical harassment.  The same was true of pupils whose educational experiences enjoyed encouragement from their own families and who could not begin to picture a father like Hermann Kafka, for whom only report cards counted.  And many of the pupils later looked to their school days with rose-colored glasses: Cheery anecdotes remain in their memories and are happily recounted; humiliations, fears of failure, and the torments of pointless cramming for tests, on the other hand, are often suppressed or go unmentioned for the sake of self-respect.

Stach’s observations about education are issues that I think about and that consume me on a daily basis.  Our current educational system is filled with high stakes, standardized tests that inflict a great amount of anxiety on students.  Every time a new test is implemented, or a standard test is altered, this anxiety escalates even more.  But how else, the powers-that-be argue, will we know if a school/student/teacher is successful?  Or what other way is there to judge whether or not a student should be admitted to a certain college or university?

The details in Stach’s biography are stunning, but they are presented in such a way that we are not overwhelmed or bored with them.  Facts and statistics about Kafka’s life—he had 8 hours of instruction in Latin and classics per week—are altered with personal anecdotes from Kafka’s own letters and diaries or those of his friends and contemporaries; Stach quotes Kafka’s latter to Felice in which he includes a story about his Latin teacher, Emil Gschwind, who was “the most influential authority during Kafka’s high school years..”:

Children should not be pushed into things that are utterly incomprehensible to them. Although we should bear in mind that even this can bring out very good results in some instances, such results are completely unpredictable. I am reminded of a teacher who often used to say, as we read the Iliad, ‘Too bad that one is obliged to read this with the likes of you. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand it, even if you think you do, you don’t understand a word of it. A person has to have experienced a great deal before being able to understand even a bit of this.’ At the time, these remarks (delivered in the tone of voice he always used, of course) made a far greater impression on the insensitive youth that I was than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. This impression may have been far too humiliating, but it was a crucial one all the same.

Like Kafka’s teachers, I must give assessments and follow a curriculum—but I’ve learned along the way that I can control the experience that students have in my classroom. When I first started teaching my laser focus was to pound declensions and verb tenses and Latin grammar into my students’ heads. (It’s really embarrassing to think of my first few years of teaching.) But as I had more interaction with students and developed in my career it suddenly dawned on me that in a year or two or ten the students are not going to remember first declension or the subjunctive! This thought forced me to reevaluate what my purpose is in teaching what people call a “dead language.”

My philosophy of teaching shifted greatly when I started thinking about students in a broader context. Yes, my pupils still have to learn verb conjugations and vocabulary, they still have to translate Catullus and Ovid and Vergil, but it is worth the time if we have had a good discussion about Homer or the Roman Empire or Epicurean philosophy. Or, better yet, they like it when I talk about music, football, or the myriad of issues important to a teenagers at any given time. They like it when I greet them with a smile, ask how things are going with them, and reward them with stickers on their stellar papers.  And I do understand that many of my colleagues disagree with this approach and view education more narrowly. But, as Lucretius points out, it is easier to swallow bitter medicine if one rubs a little honey on the edge of the cup.

It has been a good yet difficult experience for me to constantly be asking what kind of a long-term impact I have on my students.  My influence over them as an educator in the formative years of their lives is a great responsibility; my hope is that even years from now they will have an appreciation for classics and an ancient language and that they will remember a positive feeling they had when stepped into my classroom. But this is a tall and overwhelming goal to achieve when so many other factors come into play, as Stach perceptively notes in his descriptions of Kafka’s education. How can I reach that child, like Kafka, who is anxious, shy, nervous?  Today, in particular, was a tough day. But I will go back tomorrow and try again.  I would certainly be horrified to find myself the subject of a such a dreadful story as that which Kafka relates about his Latin teacher!

Reading Kafka, even a biography of Kafka, ought to come with a stern warning about the self-reflection that will be a result.

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in the kitchen it is cold: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

Friederike Mayröcker and Ernst Jandl lived together from 1954 until Jandl’s death in 2000. They were lovers, companions, friends and creative partners; as we read Mayröcker’s elegy to Jundl the feeling of being lost and bewildered without him pervades her text. In a partnership that spans more than forty years, it’s fascinating to see what images and thoughts she brings to her poetic reflection on their time together. After spending so much of her life and her passions with him, how could she possibly choose what to write about in order to honor properly their memories?

One of my favorite pieces in the book is a reflection on a poem fragment that Jandl writes that is stuffed, with many other literary fragments, into his desk. In the winter of ’88 the two are painstakingly excavating the contents of his desk and Mayröcker recollects:

Afternoon after afternoon, actually the entire
winter of ’88, we are absorbed in
viewing, approving, conserving what
has been written down. And then, suddenly,
one day I come across four lines
dashed off in pencil:

in the kitchen it is cold
winter has an awful hold
mother’s left her stove of course
and i shiver like a horse.

She goes on to connect the poem to her current state of grief over Jandl’s passing:

The last line, which informs of the most
profound abandonment, aloneness, exclusion
seeking solace in an attempt
to identify with that mute creature—a carriage
horse in winter’s cold depths, standing
in one place for hours, head hanging, in no
one’s care, waiting for a human to get it
going—is so poignant.

And it is the very last line of the poem that haunts Mayröcker:

This line: mother is not at her stove:
conveys the damnable utterly graceless
transience and finiteness of this life, mother
is not at her stove—where did she go.

I’ve read two other books on grief recently: Will Daddario’s To Grieve and Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers. Of all these, Mayrocker’s text elicited the most emotional response from me. Her multifaceted response to grief in all its forms—emotional, philosophical, social—struck a nerve.

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