On learning to write
I was wondering what friendly way I might end an old year and begin a new one, and I thought, Of course, with a poke in the ribs and a good laugh at the hands of Franz Kafka. Without Kafka, we would lack the concept of “the Kafkaesque.” Love to you, dark humor, dark light on all the time. This piece has been developed from a meditation on Kafka, published in The Village Voice in 1982.
From now until mid-night, please enjoy a 20% discount on new paid subscriptions—that’s $3.33 a month if you sign on for a year. Huge thanks to all who are floating this boat.
Everything is Personal is a reader-supported literary publication, alternating memoir, commentary, fiction, and hybrid texts. Love and gratitude to all readers and to those lending paid support.
Before his death in 1924, Franz Kafka told his friend Max Brod to burn his unpublished writing. Brod said he would not. Kafka gave his writing to Brod, anyway. To be of one mind might be tragic. Having two minds is comic. Does anyone have one mind?
Thus the masterpieces, the fragments, the diaries and letters, all the extant expressions of this still, sad man have been preserved, cherished, and poured over like prophesy. Like the prophesy of your dreams. Without Kafka, what would we call the knowledge we wake up with every day—I’m never going back to my former life as a human being?
Kafka’s father Hermann was a man who could not be pleased, and so to please him Kafka earned a law degree, spent a year working in the courts, and in 1907 at age 24 took a job he detested in the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. It was the kind of job you would rather become a giant insect than go to. It was at this office, ironically, filing reports and preparing briefs, that Kafka mastered his neutral, narrative style—a dry, sometimes collective voice that is humorously detached from the horror it recounts. With this trick of narrative, Kafka could write about his life in a way that makes you think it’s about your life. The Kafka narrator asks neither for sympathy nor understanding, freeing the reader to enter the story without strings or obligations.
Kafka went to his job in the morning, napped in the late afternoon, wrote through the night, then napped again before leaving for work. He writhed inside the intrusions of family life yet managed to live at home until he was 32. His father called his friends “garbage” and the women he cared for “prostitutes.” Hermann was that kind of guy, and Kafka’s mother Julie was all about her husband.
Kafka met Max Brod at university. Brod thought he was brilliant and remained devoted to him throughout his life. Kafka was close to his younger sister Ottla. They had the same pointy fox faces and high cheekbones, the same mild natures. (Twenty years after her brother’s death, Ottla divorced her gentile husband to protect him and their children from the concentration camps. She died at Auschwitz, having volunteered to accompany a transport of children.) Kafka was involved with several women but didn’t marry. During his life, he published only the story collections Contemplation and A Country Doctor, and individual stories, among them “The Metamorphosis,” came out in literary magazines. No one paid them much attention.
Franz spat blood for the first time in August 1917 and disregarded the symptom. He washed and exercised each morning before an open window and believed fresh air, no matter how freezing, was healthy. Through all seasons, he walked the streets of Prague in a light, summer suit. Two weeks after spitting blood, he hemorrhaged. His doctor told him TB was unlikely.
Had he sought better treatment early on, he might have been saved. The TB eventually lodged in his larynx, and it became difficult for him to speak or eat. Finally, he could do neither. He was tended in his last illness by his friend Robert Klopstock and by Dora Dymant, who loved him. Kafka wrote to them on slips of paper. “What a pest I am. It’s quite mad,” he said on one. “Let me have your hand on my forehead for a minute, to give me courage,” he wrote. And surrounded by flowers, he wrote, “How wonderful . . . the lilac still drinks while it’s dying, still swigs away.”
The proofs of A Hunger Artist arrived a few days before he died, and he corrected them with tears rolling down his cheeks. He felt his life was precious, perhaps for the first time. Unable to take in nourishment, he starved to death on June 3, 1924, at the age of 41. In the newspaper announcement of the funeral, his parents said they did not want condolence visits.
Writers about Kafka like to theorize about the real crime, the real punishment, the real trial behind the ones he created. To Ronald Hayman, author of Kafka: A Biography (1982)—the first full-length treatment following Brod’s memoir of 1937—animal existence was the trial, and the crime was being born. It’s a case that’s easy to make. Maybe for everyone? Kafka wanted and didn’t want things. People, sex, food, and life. He wanted and didn’t want, trained on his division. In some accounts, he’s an ascetic saint. To me he looks anorexic.
A picky eater and strict vegetarian, he fretted about his skinniness, his constipation, this symptom and that symptom. He liked to fantasize about binging. “If I see a sausage labeled as old and hard,” he recorded in his diary, “I bite deeply into it in my imagination, and swallow quickly, regularly, ruthlessly, like a machine. The despair immediately induced by this action, albeit imaginary, increases my haste. I shove the long hunks of rib-meat into my mouth, devour them unchewed, and pull them out behind, tearing through stomach and intestines. Dirty delicatessen shops I eat completely empty. Stuff myself with herring, pickled cucumber, and all the old acid foods. Sweets . . . are shaken into me like air. So I enjoy not only my wealth but also a suffering which is painless and soon over.”
In these diary entries, he’s shocking himself and laughing at the same time, just as he does in his stories. The notes he takes in the diaries become prompts. Sometimes he sees himself as food to be eaten or as something inanimate to be dismantled. “The regular diet of my imagination is fantasies like this one,” he wrote to Brod. “I’m lying outstretched on the floor, sliced up like roast meat, and with my hand I am slowly pushing a slice towards a dog in the corner.” In a note to Felice Bauer, to whom he was engaged, he imagines himself a large piece of wood pressed against the body of a cook who is “holding the knife in both hands and with all her strength drawing it along the side of this stiff log (somewhere in the region of my hip) slicing off shavings to light the fire.” Kafka really knew how to charm a girl.
Many of his stories are about animals and about characters who compare themselves to animals or are transformed into animals, among them: “The Metamorphosis,” “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” “Investigations of a Dog,” “A Village Schoolmaster,” and “A Report to the Academy,” the last about a captured ape who learns language and is afterward estranged from himself. Martin Buber thought the story portrayed Jewish assimilation into a gentile world as an escape from persecution. The story is brilliant, surprising, and moving. The ape’s voice is so intimate we are him, which was Kafka’s point. All people become human by learning a language that others have devised, a language that carves treacherous meanings on us.
Kafka mocks the idea that suffering ennobles anything. It’s part of the greatness of his work—and part of what makes it feel so modern and immediate. At the end of “The Hunger Artist,” the starving man tells the overseer he’s not a saint. He’s not devoted to art or sacrifice. He’s just a finicky eater. “I have to fast. I can’t help it,” he says. “I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”
In the story “In the Penal Colony,” condemned men are laid out under needles that inscribe on their bodies the law they’ve unwittingly broken. The device impales them until they die. In the climax, the officer, who has always believed that suffering ushered in illumination, decides to undergo the torture himself, only to discover absolutely nothing. Kafka used to laugh while reading the story aloud to his friends.
In As Lonely as Franz Kafka (1982), translated from the French by Ralph Manheim, Marthe Robert explores Citizen Kafka and his relationship to Judaism and the German language. Kafka’s Prague was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, “a city of endless social, ethnic, and linguistic complexity,” Robert writes. Officially Austrian, Prague’s ruling class spoke German, while the majority of the population, which had no political power, considered themselves Czech and spoke their native language. Jews were neither true Czechs nor true Germans, but there had long been a tradition of German-speaking Jews in Bohemia, and Jewish salonières, with their love of literature, made German de rigueur among Jewish intellectuals. For an ambitious bourgeois like Hermann Kafka, the essential issue was upclassing. He wanted his children to have a German education. It was impossible to enter the professions without it.
By the time Kafka was born in 1883, Czech nationalists and socialists were agitating for political change. They identified Germanized Jews, who had rejected the Czech language, as the enemy—not that they needed more incentive for anti-Semitism. Jews were no longer physically segregated in a ghetto, but there was still little socializing between Jews and non-Jews. Extreme nationalists, like the Young Czechs, provoked anti-Jewish riots by distributing pamphlets stating Jews performed ritual murders of gentile women and used their blood in Passover matzohs. (Because gentile blood is a good seasoning?)
Jewish intellectuals with socialist interests had a choice between Zionism and assimilationist nationalism that was also anti-Semitic. Kafka was active in neither movement, but he sympathized with socialism and Zionism. Kafka put his energies into writing, not politics. Still, Robert argues, questions of ethnic identity and language shaped what he wrote and the way he wrote it. Taking her turn at “the real trial” game, she pins it on Kafka’s feeling he was “a Jew but not a Jew.” He was a Jew, an Other, because the Czechs said he was. He was also not a Jew because he’d been Germanized through language. “This twofold fault was the direct source of the guilt without a crime that led Joseph K. to destruction without a judgment,” she writes. What she says here is reductive, but she has other things to say that are intriguing.
According to Robert, Kafka, as a floating Jew, was missing a familial, tribey context, since Jews like Hermann Kafka, wanting to identify with Germans, had no religious feeling and scorned the only extant, integrated Jewish culture, that of the Eastern Jews, who spoke Yiddish and for whom Jewish law and ritual were alive in daily life. Germanized Jews saw these people as violent and primitive, a caste of uncultivated, huddled separatists, and Kafka was thus cut off from this alternate Jewishness. His Jewish awakening wasn’t aroused by God or observance. He described the few times he was compelled to go to synagogue as “rehearsals staged by hell for my future office life.” What made him feel like a Jew was discovering Yiddish theater.
He was 28 the first time he saw Jizchak Löwy’s ragtag troupe perform their exaggerated Hasidic tales. Instantly, Kafka championed their work and poured over histories of Yiddish literature. It was a revelation to learn that Jews could make art from their rituals and folklore. The parables and fables he discovered shook his imagination and gave his writing a form.
So Kafka had a subject: the Jew but not a Jew (the criminal without a crime). He had a detached, comic style developed at the insurance office. He had a form adapted from Hasidic parables, but he didn’t have an authentic language, Robert argues, because, as a Jew, he felt guilty perfecting German—the language of a culture that despised his people. What to do? What to do? Back to the problem of the ape. The language in your head is how you know things, although the language in your head cannot possibly know you. So you have to invent a language that didn’t exist before you came along, and that’s what Kafka did. He invented an original, pared down German, using words stripped of indications of when they entered the language or of their social and literary usage, words that could be puzzles, saying one thing and its opposite at the same time. The German word for trial, Prozess, for example, means both “a judicial action and a morbid process.” Thus, writes Robert, “there is no way of knowing whether K is guilty or sick, guilty because sick in some corner of his body or mind, or sick as punishment for some unexpatiable fault.” Personally, I don’t care, because it’s both and neither.
Writing in German, while possibly a burden, couldn’t compare to the conflict Franz had to feel about expressing his true feelings. “Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, and such a complete opening out of the body and soul,” he wrote. For a Jewish boy to make German literature, yes, that was a shonda. For a bourgeois son to expose to the world the family’s intimate deceits, well, now we’re talking crime. Hermann would berate his son when he saw him writing through the night, knowing, of course, there was no safety with a writer in the house. (In this regard, you would need a heart of stone not to feel sympathy for Hermann.) Kafka’s subject was weakness, but there was nothing passive about his narrative voice. It is sharp and relentless, and Kafka hurled it in happy malice at everyone.
Kafka’s Other Trial (1969) is Elias Canetti’s brief meditation on The Letters to Felice, written between 1912 and 1917 and weighing in at over 500 pages. Kafka had his first sexual experience at 20 with a woman who worked in a shop. Nine years later, Brod introduced him to Felice Bauer, who lived in Berlin, and although Kafka hardly spoke to her, he decided to marry her that night.
He did not see her again for seven months. Instead, he wrote to her, pouring out his thoughts and fantasies. During their relationship, there were two broken engagements. He also had sex with Felice’s friend Grete Bloch, to whom he wrote passionate letters. He wrote as well to Milena Jesenská-Polak, the only woman he loved who was an intellectual equal. (She was married and eventually ended their relationship.) In 1919, Kafka became engaged and quickly unengaged to an 18-year-old named Julie Wohnyzek.
Kafka liked looking at naked bodies and swimming in public pools. He once spent time in a nudist colony, although he kept his shorts on because he thought his skinniness was repellent. His room in the family home was next to his parents’, and he could hear them having sex. While traveling, he would change hotels if coughs and sneezes came through the walls. He once described intercourse as “a punishment for the happiness of being together,” and in a letter to Milena, describing his first sexual experience, he wrote: “My body, often silent for years, would again be shaken beyond endurance for this longing for a slight, for a quite specific vileness, for something slightly repulsive, painful, filthy; even in the best things there were for me here, there was something of that, some kind of slightly bad smell; some sulphur, some hell. This drive had in it something of the eternal Jew, senselessly attracted, senselessly wandering through a senselessly filthy world.”
Well, okay, back to Felice. Canetti argues that the meeting with Felice released Kafka’s creativity in a burst. Lucky for Franz. Not so lucky for Felice, if you think about the girl, which Canetti does not. Two days after writing to her for the first time, in 1912, Kafka completed “The Judgment” in one exhausting and ecstatic 10-hour sitting, and he felt confident of his powers as never before. During the first three months of their correspondence, Kafka also finished five chapters of Amerika, including the exceptional piece “The Stoker.” And during a two-week break from the novel, he composed “The Metamorphosis,” one of his most haunting and poetic works.
“He was feeling what he needed to feel,” Canetti writes, “security far off, a source of strength sufficiently distant to leave his sensitivity lucid, not perturbed by too close a contact—a woman who was there for him, who did not expect more from him than his words, a sort of transformer, whose every technical fault he knew and mastered well enough to be able to rectify it at once by letter.” No, Elias, no woman is there for anyone, really, expecting nothing but words. This cannot possibly be true. And it wasn’t.
Kafka had another productive burst in 1914, during which he wrote The Trial. Again it was prompted by Felice but this time it was because she ended their engagement at a public “tribunal”—a hotel room where witnesses had been gathered. The closer the marriage loomed, the more desperate Kafka became. Thus, Canetti writes, “in the letters and confrontations with Felice,” Kafka learned to plead the case against himself, “like an advocate using all available means,” and the emotional content of his nonmarriage went into The Trial. “The engagement becomes the arrest in the first chapter; the ‘tribunal’ appears as the execution in the last.”
Canetti is so much of Kafka’s party, he thinks that stringing Felice along was just fine for the sake of art. “You once said you would like to sit beside me while I write,” he quotes Kafka writing to Felice. “Listen, in that case, I could not write. For writing means revealing oneself to excess . . .. This is why one can never be alone enough when one writes . . . . I have often thought that the best mode of life for me would be to sit in the innermost room of a spacious, locked cellar with my writing things and a lamp. Food would be brought and always put down far away from my room . . .. And how I would write! From what depths would I drag it up!” Sure, Franz. We’re all looking for this room. But who is going to carry the tray? I think we can guess.
Franz dangled Felice for five years, knowing they would never marry. What was in it for her? What is ever in it for the hers of this world? We do not have her letters. She’s forever frozen in Franz’s view. During the dangle, he gave her directions about what to read, what to think, how to shape her career. He minded that she wrote at night. That was his thing. If they did, marry, he said, she would have to give up meat, the idea of spending time with him, and the hope of living in a heated, comfortable apartment. Kafka may have felt like an insect. But even the wormiest male insect can find a smaller female insect to crush. It hardly needs pointing out.
During the five minutes Kafka spent with actual women is the only time he sounds bossy. In his writing, he’s at the bottom of the well of family, not marriage, studying power from underneath, the way women do. He saw that Hermann Kafka, who was contemptuous of Eastern Jews, was, in the Christian world, an accommodating lackey. He saw that victims practiced bigotries and cruelties as soon as they found beings who were weaker than them. He understood that bureaucratic labyrinths were modeled on family law.
According to Brod, Kafka would have liked to call his work as a whole An Attempt to Escape from the Paternal Sphere. A Letter to his Father, written in 1919 when Kafka was 36, pretty much encapsulates this position. Franz’s mother read it, then returned it to her son without delivering it to Hermann. In the piece, Kafka recalls incident upon incident when he felt degraded by his father. One night when he’s four, he asks his father to bring him some water. Hermann refuses. Franz cries, and Hermann charges into his room, plucks him from his bed, carries him onto the cold, dark balcony, and leaves him standing there alone in his nightshirt. Franz recalls the dialogue exchanged in these incidents, the way voices quivered or thundered, how the furniture looked, the smells in the room, the river of his emotions. The insights aren’t fresh. They have been gathered from his diaries and letters.
The point of the confession, it seems to me, isn’t to free himself. It’s to become intimate with his entrapment. First he charges Hermann with terrible crimes, then he absolves him of blame, believing Hermann couldn’t help himself. At 14, Hermann had been sent away by his parents to make his way in the world. And Hermann had done that. In 1882, at age 30, he’d saved enough money to open a dry-goods business in the old quarter of Prague, selling umbrellas, hardware, gloves, etc. Sadly for Franz but happily for literature, he saw in Hermann a pitiless God, a totalitarian despot, a Nazi commandant, and a case of terminal cancer. He proves his father cannot love him, and he continues to want this love until he dies. Kafka can’t accept what’s apparent to any reader—that Hermann is too stupid and insensitive to appreciate his talented child.
Kafka’s characters, like him, experience, at best, only partial illumination on the way to their defeat. What makes them comic and tragic is they are destroyed by their own weakness. The Hunger Artist by a perverse aversion to food. Joseph K. by compliance with an irrational and immoral system. The case against K., he learns, proceeds because he doesn’t protest.
To make Kafka a philosopher, a religious thinker, a neurotic analysand, or a prophet foreseeing the Holocaust, as some people have done, diminishes his art in my mind. He wasn’t trying to illustrate anything. What he did was dramatize the truest sense he had of himself. Really, that was his subject. “My talent for portraying my dream-like inner life has relegated everything else to the incidental,” he wrote in his diary. He turned his eye inward, censored nothing, and with his wildly original imagination and insistence on concrete detail, he transformed his experience in the family into astonishing parables about authority, the pleasures of passivity, and the cruelties beneath the surface of daily life.
Who has not at some time felt impotent rage and squirmy self-disgust? Who would deny such emotions in the face of Kafka’s candor? “We need the books that affect us like a disaster, which pain us deeply,” he once wrote to a friend. “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea in us.” He could be as quivery as any woman unselved by her life, but he claimed the freedom that had been claimed for centuries by men to write whatever they pleased. His self-exposure, without any wish to fix it, is his great gift to modern life.
That frozen lake! That axe! Has there ever been such a good metaphor for writing?
So glad to discover your blog. A brilliant essay on Kafka. I was particularly taken with your perspective on his relationship to women, his Jewish heritage, his father, and use of German language. There’s much of Kafka’s work I haven’t been able to bring myself to read because it’s so dark and troubling. Perhaps it’s time to give it another try.