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About Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka; ( 3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was a German-language novelist, one of the most influential of the 20th century, whose works came to be regarded after his death as one of the major achievements of world literature, to the point that even the term "Kafkaesque" has entered the English language.
The name of Franz Kafka, a genius who brings in an overwhelming majority of people who read or merely heard of him, an attack of melancholy, associations with something gloomy, incomprehensible, illogical or, at best, it reminds of some mysterious depths of subconscious.
Kafka is not only a brilliant author, but also, certainly, one of unique Jewish prophets of the so-called "new era". As a writer, he brought about a complete revolution in thinking and in literature, having laid bare the bottom of consciousness, while as a tragic prophet (were there among Jews prophets-optimists?) he screamed out to all of us about that horror of the European new time, with which, as one of its most impressive achievements, the modern European civilization takes pride till today. The Holocaust was but a nightmare and logical continuation of that horror Kafka screamed about.
The nightmare of reason: a life of Franz Kafka By Ernst Pawel NYTimes "Kafka's Last Trial" "Kafka's Last Trial" The New York Times, September 22, 2010
NYT article…Kafka’s actual relationship to Zionism and Jewish culture was, like his relationship to most things, highly ambivalent...In a perfect world, Kafka could be both engaged with a specifically Jewish discourse and a foundational author of European modernity.
…Kafka, tall, dark and broodingly handsome, had fewer and more anguished relations with women…
...As early as 1912, he discussed a journey to Palestine with Felice Bauer, a dictating-machine representative with whom he was to pursue a long, anguished, mainly epistolary romance. (The two were twice engaged to be married before separating in 1917.)
...In 1923, Kafka met Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old runaway from a conservative Hasidic family in Galicia. She was his last and happiest love. The six-foot-tall Kafka at that point weighed 118 pounds. The couple lived for some months in a rental room in Berlin but moved in 1924 to a sanitarium in the Austrian town of Kierling, where Kafka, unable to eat, drink or speak, edited the proofs of his story “The Hunger Artist” and eventually died in Dora’s arms.
פרנץ קפקא (שם יהודי: אנשיל [אשר]; 3 ביולי 1883 – 3 ביוני 1924) היה סופר יהודי יליד פראג שכתב בשפה הגרמנית ונחשב לאחד מגדולי הסופרים של המאה העשרים. בין כתביו הבולטים: הרומנים "המשפט" ו"הטירה", הנובלה "הגלגול" ואחרים. כתביו עוסקים במצבו של האדם המודרני העומד מול מערכות בירוקרטיות רבות עוצמה, בהשפעת הטכנולוגיה על החברה וברגשות ניכור ואטימות ביחסים בין בני האדם.
כיום, בכמה שפות, נכנס לשימוש הביטוי "קפקאי" המתאר מצב של עמידה אל מול מערכת ביורוקרטית שרירותית ואטומה.
Recent Books just out about Kafka:
- Why you should read Kafka before you waste your life by James Hawes
- Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka by Rodger Kamenetz
- The Tremendous World I have inside my head--Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay by Louis Begley
What do we mean when we say 'Kafkaesque'?
The great Czech-Jewish writer was more than your garden-variety neurotic. But from to believing that his stories and novels were basically autobiographical is excessively reductionist
By Gerald Sorin
The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay, by Louis Begley
Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life,by James Hawes
Haaretz reported recently that scholars may soon have the opportunity to cast their eyes on previously unseen documents, postcards, letters and notes of Franz Kafka, the Czech-Jewish author and tormented genius who wrote in German. Researchers, in this the 125th anniversary of Kafka's birth, are ready to pounce on the Tel Aviv apartment of Esther Hoffe, who was once the secretary of Kafka's friend and literary executor, Max Brod, and who died last year, at age 101. These Kafkologists, as Milan Kundera more than half derisively, but unforgettably, called them, are fully expecting the materials to throw light on the work of one of the 20th century's most perplexing yet rewarding writers.
Begley and Joseph Hawes agree that Kafka's great theme is the abiding psychological tension of the modern world, particularly the frustrating, sometimes nightmarish sense of entrapment in bewildering circumstances over which the individual has no control. And both authors recognize what at first might seem paradoxical: Kafka's enormous sense of humor. But these two books are in almost no other way alike.
Begley, the novelist, gives us his mature ruminations while warning against over-interpretation. (Gregor Samsa turns into a giant insect. Although it's not unreasonable to read this as allegory, why deny this incident's terror by turning it into something symbolic?)
On the other hand, Hawes, also a novelist, clearly states that he wants to bring down, with "long-lost dynamite" that "no one has ever used before," the edifice of the "K-Myth." There are profound problems with his approach. Although Hawes' book (the unattractive cover of which looks like it belongs on something called "Kafka for Dummies") reads like a tabloid-style expose, it doesn't actually have much to expose.
Nothing new here
Kafka, Hawes tells us, as if we were hearing it for the first time, was not shy about publicity; was well known in Prague literary circles; and was admired and promoted by Rilke, Hermann Hesse and Robert Musil. Kafka smiled often and wrote many things that were funny, despite (because of?) their macabre dimensions.
Kafka was a strong swimmer, a frequent visitor to all-night cafes and literary soirees, as well as to brothels. His work is not autobiographical. He was not crushed under the weight of an intellectually undemanding job. His Jewishness is not vital to an understanding of his writing; and Kafka, who died in 1924, did not uncannily predict Auschwitz.
Okay, Hawes, a novelist, with a doctorate in German literature, does reveal that Kafka was intrigued by pornography and kept a library of "dirty" books and pictures under lock and key. And Hawes' take on "The Metamorphosis," in which Samsa is transformed into a cockroach (literally "vermin," in German, but variously translated as bug, beetle, etc., take your pick), is original in seeing one of its sources in Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther." But, when we read in Hawes' introduction that "never in the history of literary scholarship have so many written about so little [Kafka's oeuvre is relatively small]," we are entitled to ask, why then, yet another book? Unfortunately, one is left with that same question at the end of Hawes' effort at myth demolition.
What a different and more valuable contribution is Begley's. He too deals with the problem of the "perceived autobiographical." Writers, he tells us, "seldom -- perhaps never -- think of only one experience ... concept ... or person, when they create a work of fiction." But Begley also talks about Kafka's work, which Hawes, despite his exclamation that "Kafka was a writer, for God's sake," really does not.
While Hawes' book fails to fulfill the promise inherent in his title "Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life," Begley's "The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head" (a line from Kafka), succeeds brilliantly. Shrewdly allowing Kafka to speak in his own words as much as possible (through the diaries, the works, the letters), Begley also gives us intelligent readings of the stories and novels rather than overheated autobiographical interpretations.
There are, of course, legitimate questions to be asked about Kafka's life, the answers to which might tell us more about his sense of himself and his times, even if not what he "meant" in his work -- such as Kafka's infamous, "What do I have in common with Jews?" Both Hawes and Begley cite instances of Kafka's "negative" remarks about Jews.
After attending a strictly Orthodox wedding, Kafka told Max Brod, for example, "If you look at it properly, it was just as if we had been amongst a tribe of African savages. Sheerest superstition."
But as Begley shows, by quoting copiously from the diaries and letters, this statement was unrepresentative of Kafka's relationship to Judaism. As Kafka wrote to Milena Jesenska (one of his many women "friends," and the only non-Jew among them), "If I'd been given the choice to be what I wanted, then I'd have chosen to be a small Eastern Jewish boy in the corner of a room, without a trace of worry."
Fascinated by Zionism
Kafka obviously romanticized the life of the relatively unacculturated East European Jews. He did, however, take Jewishness and Judaism seriously and he attempted to redefine his identity by reading Jewish books, visiting Hasidic rebbes, studying Hebrew and kabbala, and meeting with Martin Buber. He was also "fascinated" for a short time with Zionism, and was delighted that Felice Bauer (to whom he wrote 511 letters and postcards, and to whom he was engaged twice) shared his enthusiasm for Jewish nationalism.
At one point Kafka thought that he would settle in Palestine with Dora Diamant, yet another woman (there were also a Julie and a Grete) with whom Kafka was intimately involved. This notion faded, however, and Kafka never joined a Zionist organization nor did he ever attend a Zionist meeting.
Neither Hawes nor Begley, however, discusses Kafka's attendance at 20 Yiddish plays in Prague in 1911 and 1912, where once he even played the role of impresario, by introducing the noted actor Yitzhak Lowy. Kafka told the German-Jewish members of the audience that despite their "dread of Yiddish," they would "intuitively" grasp the language of their East European co-religionists. Yiddish, and particularly Yiddish theater, was for Kafka an expression of a direct, passionate, earthy Jewish culture. Just the kind of culture his merchant-father Hermann and most of the other German-speaking Jews in Prague wanted to distance themselves from.
Kafka wrote that Jews of his generation, the sons, had their "posterior legs ... still glued" to their fathers' kind of Jewishness, but that "their waving anterior legs ... found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration," and led, in Prague at least, to a general reawakening of interest in things Jewish.
In Kafka's "Letter to His Father" (1919), which he handed to his mother Julie (no doubt knowing it would never be delivered), Franz took his father to task for depriving him of true Yiddishkeit. He complained that he had received only an "insignificant scrap of Judaism," including "the bar mitzvah that demanded no more than some ridiculous memorizing." Whatever little Jewishness he had inherited, Franz wrote, was "trickled away with the few flimsy gestures" father and son had performed from time to time in the name of Judaism. The mood, tone and meaning of the "Letter" (at more than 60 pages, probably the longest kvetch ever written) is neatly represented by Begley with a page from Kafka's diary, which the author gives us early on:
No one denies that for years, as a result of insufficient winter clothing, [father] had open sores on his legs, that he often went hungry, that when he was only ten he had to push a cart through the villages [delivering kosher meat] even in winter and very early in the morning -- but, and this is something he will not understand, these facts taken together with the further fact that I have not gone through all this, by no means leads to the conclusion that I have been happier than he, that he may pride himself on these sores on his legs, which is something he assumes and asserts from the very beginning, that I cannot appreciate his past sufferings, and that, finally, just because I have not gone through the same sufferings I must be endlessly grateful to him. [Brackets are mine.]
Kafka speculated throughout the "Letter," rather credibly, about how his father might have responded to his accusations. (For a brilliant, poignant and humorous fictional "posthumous response" from Hermann, see Nadine Gordimer's "Letter from the Father," in "Something Out There," 1984). For the rest of his short life Kafka remained trapped in admiration as well as fear of his father's strength, an ambivalence Hawes seems to miss altogether. Kafka tried as late as 1922, at the age of 39, to imagine, in his diary, what he looked like then in his father's eyes:
A son incapable of marriage, who could not pass on the family name; pensioned off at 39; occupied only with his weird kind of writing, the only goal of which is his own salvation or damnation; unloving; alienated from the Faith so that a father cannot even expect him to say the prayers for the rest of his soul....
Begley rightly focuses on the father-son relationship, and, much more so than Hawes, on Kafka's Jewishness as reflected in his diaries and letters, and even in his novels and short stories. Both authors are alert to the danger inherent in using historical context and biographical detail to "explain" fictional text, and they reject what some biographers have called what biographer Nicholas Murray calls "a striking congruence of themes in Kafka's life and art." Begley, however, while dismissive of this kind of reductionism, is often very helpful in making connections between Kafka's work and his cultural surroundings.
In the short story "Red Peter," for example, in which the eponymous ape gives speeches before learned societies, we forget that apes, however gifted or trained, do not address educated audiences. And our thoughts are turned to the vast shame of the abuse of animals as well as to man's cruelty to other men. But, Begley insists, a persuasive argument can be made that Kafka intended Red Peter's public humiliation as a metaphor representing the failure of Jewish assimilation: "... Jews persecuted ... everywhere giving up the faith and traditions of their fathers and making an immense effort to mimic goyim."
Still, although anti-Semitism (which blatantly marked the worlds of Central and Eastern Europe from the 1880s onward) contributed to Kafka's bleak vision of the incomprehensible and cruel forces to which humanity is subject, for us to read Kafka's tales as parables of anti-Semitic experience is to underestimate and undervalue him. In his fiction, Kafka transcended, without jettisoning, his Jewish experience and his Jewish identity. He wrote about the human condition.
This of course does not make Kafka a model of mental health. Begley and Hawes have given us too much evidence for readers to dismiss Kafka as merely one of your garden-variety neurotics. Kafka did experience long bouts of self-loathing, severe mood swings, paranoia, hypochondria (although he was often ill), as well as self-disgust, especially after engaging in sexual activity with women he saw as beneath him, prostitutes, for example. (Hawes seems surprised by the connection of "dirt" with "sex" in Kafka's mind, and is apparently neither aware of the prevalence of that connection in human imagination, nor of Augustine's famous lament, inter faeces et urinam nascimur -- "between shit and piss are we born?").
Kafka also suffered what seems to be a case of obsessive perfectionism, which was probably one of the factors that kept him from completing his novels. And last but not least was Kafka's classic indecisiveness, mostly mirrored in his inability to stick with commitments to marry.
But, Kafka's life certainly seems to have included intervals of good humor, peace, sociability and beauty. And from time to time, he admitted in letters and conversations with friends that he had been overjoyed, indeed "ecstatic," by the way his writing was going. He remained, however, a very tormented soul. His life, Kafka wrote, "consists, and has essentially always consisted, of attempts at writing, largely unsuccessful." Ultimately, he said, "I have always been discontented even in my contentment." But the absurd question, "Who was the real Kafka?" is relevant only to those who think it essential in understanding Kafka to square the external "normal" reality of his life with the private fictional fantasies and exaggerations of the diaries and letters. Kafka had a real inner life, and the genius and imagination to tell us about it in his fiction.
Joseph Hawes may be correct in saying "the less you know about Kafka's alleged life, the greater chance you have of enjoying his superb writing," but it is only after finishing Louis Begley that I felt compelled to return to the writings of this Czech-Jewish genius.
Gerald Sorin, Distinguished Professor of Jewish and American Studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz, is the author of many books, including "Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent," which won the National Jewish Book Award in History.
Haaretz Books Supplement, August 2008
Franz Kafka's Timeline
July 3, 1883
Prague, Hlavní město Praha, Hlavní město Praha, Czech Republic
June 3, 1924
Klosterneuburg, Wien-Umgebung, Niederösterreich, Austria
June 11, 1924
Prague, Czech Republic