The real Franz Kafka, warts, whores and all

A new book smashes the myths shrouding Kafka, and allows us to appreciate his works anew.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Culture

This article is republished from the August 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Franz Kafka. Writer. Born 1883, died 1924. Published works include The Trial, Metamorphosis and The Castle. Many consider him the greatest writer of the twentieth century.

These are the bald facts. But Franz Kafka, the man, or better still the noun-phrase, conjures up far much more than that. The K-word evokes a beautiful soul tortured by human relationships; a lonely seer too saintly for this rank, sunken world; and consequently, a tragic genius for whom art beat life, every time. ‘I am literature and nothing else’, he once proclaimed. Beside ‘Franz Kafka’ all earthly creatures pale.

There’s more. As a German-speaking Jew adrift within a Czech-speaking enclave of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, we are told, his profoundly estranged perspective drove him to the darkest of insights. Persecution, dehumanisation, and torture; in Kafka, the Europe of the Gulag and the gas chamber found its baleful prophet.

Franz Kafka

And it’s all captured in the brooding, melancholy image of Kafka, the one which appears on his books, the one which sustains the international Kafka industry – the one, in other words, that everybody knows. And as James Hawes seeks to show in his wonderful Excavating Kafka, it is completely misleading. The ‘K-myth’, as Hawes calls it, is pure spin.

So what, you might ask? When reading, it’s usually possible to do so without knowledge of the author’s life intruding too much. Which in many cases is just as well. But the K-myth is strange. It does more than just footnote Kafka’s work – it engulfs it. The Trial ceases to appear as the tale of Josef K’s arrest, drawing on the inquisitorial as opposed to adversarial nature of European legal proceedings; it is instead presented as a forewarning of the Holocaust. The Metamorphosis stops being read as a black comedy in which Gregor Samsa wakes up as a giant bug and worries about how he’s going to get to work, and becomes instead a critique of anti-Semitism. Indeed, such is the potency of the K-myth that it has even generated its own adjective – Kafkaesque – to refer to anything that resembles oppressive state bureaucratic persecution.

This isn’t to say that such readings of The Trial are wrong, just myopic. And the cause, as Hawes argues, is the K-myth. It transforms Kafka’s works into pre-read, pre-packaged prophesies of totalitarianism, baleful intimations of the Shoah. The K-myth ‘makes people – even highly educated German scholars – incapable of reading what Kafka actually wrote’. ‘Superb writing’, says Hawes, is lost to idolatry.

For this reason, Hawes takes a ‘hammer’ to the idol, smashing the K-myth with the mundane reality of Dr Franz Kafka. The figure that emerges from this retelling is, thankfully, a little more down to earth.

Let’s look at the part that has generated the headlines, and which is, perhaps, the least interesting part of Hawes’ anti-hagiography: Kafka’s sex life (1). The K-myth has our hero down as an ascetic character, tortured by his relationships, first with the Berliner Felice Bauer and later with young Czech girl Milena Pollack. Demanding commitment while doing his best to evade it, Kafka is often presented as tormented, a saint unwilling to let those he loves suffer his life. Such is K-Myth Kafka’s ethereality, sex, involving ‘the uncovered flesh’ as Pollack puts it, is simply too much.

The real Kafka was not quite so chaste, however. Describing passing a bordello ‘like a lover passing his sweetheart’s house’, Kafka was far from an infrequent visitor to Prague’s brothels. On 19 August 1908, he wrote of his latest sexual transaction that she was ‘too old to still be melancholy, although she was hurt, if not surprised, that one is not so nice [lieb] to a whore as to a girl in an affair. Since she didn’t console me, I didn’t console her.’

Then there’s the grot mags, or, rather, prepaid subscription-only journals The Amethyst, and it’s post-ban incarnation Opals. Alongside pieces of fin-de-siecle erotica it featured pictures of anything from amphibians performing fellatio to lewd Lautrec-lite.

All of this is interesting, not so much in itself but insofar as legions of Kafka scholars, while poring over the minutiae of Kafka’s daily routine, have simultaneously erased Kafka’s porno stash and brothel-bothering from history. ‘[T]he gatekeepers of the facts don’t want the reader to know about the real Franz Kafka, warts, porn, whores and all’, concludes Hawes.

And so it goes on. For each myth, Hawes responds with fact (and no little wit). The Kafka that emerges is far from the ‘lonely seer of Prague’. He is wealthy, well-connected, and, during his twenties at least, very much enjoying life ‘warts, porn, whores and all’. Not only that, he is far from an unsuccessful writer, having been published and, more intriguingly, half-winning a prestigious German literary prize thanks to the backstage manoeuvrings of his friends.

Hawes is yet more scathing when it comes to those who solicit Kafka as a prophet of the Holocaust. Retelling the complex concatenation of events and trajectories that interceded between Kafka’s death in 1924 and the catastrophe of the 1940s, Hawes is resolute: ‘the Holocaust is utterly meaningless when considering the writings of Dr Franz Kafka (1883-1924) of Prague’. Aside from anything else, he adds darkly, it’s a gross insult to the six million who did not ‘foresee’ it.

So does the myth-exploding work? As the dust settles, do Kafka’s works, liberated from the fictions that surrounded them, appear afresh? This is certainly the aim, says Hawes: ‘What we need is a brand new theory of how to read Kafka’s writing. The oldest theory of all. The theory used by Kafka’s first readers, who – lucky them – knew nothing of Felice, Milena, Hermann Kafka, the diaries, deconstruction, structuralism, postmodernism, or (especially lucky them) the Holocaust.’

Of course, it’s impossible to have an entirely unmediated reading experience. One always reads or beholds art in context, aware of allusions and background, be it the Nazi bombing informing Picasso’s Guernica or 9/11 in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. But inasmuch as the K-myth has suffocated Kafka’s writings – especially, as Hawes notes, in translation – Excavating Kafka makes a decent fist at resuscitating Kafka’s works, too.

Suddenly, for me at least, certain aspects of Kafka’s fiction, long dulled by pre-conception, become clearer. Take Josef K in the The Trial. He is 30 years old at the time of his arrest. This is not some insignificant detail. It marks, rather, a particularly angst-ridden stage of life. The freedom one enjoyed during one’s twenties, as the haute-bourgeois Kafka certainly did, suddenly comes to feel a burden. As friends pair off, bachelordom appears increasingly empty, with only fleeting temptations to stave it off, be it the young servant girl, Lemi, or Fraulein Burstner’s paid-for wares.

In Kafka’s world, such angst, such unease generates its opposite: a longing for certainty, for absolutes, for something to commit oneself to. It demands, in short, a search for the law. Hence, Josef K is informed in The Trial that the court does not have to seek out offences, it is attracted by guilt, a recognition that one’s life is not as it ought to be. As the priest tells K in the closing cathedral scene, ‘the court asks nothing of you. It receives you when you come and it releases you when you go.’ (2) Josef K’s angst, his guilt, if you like, means that he has started to find the law – everywhere, in fact, but especially in attics.

The need to submit and simultaneously to resist battle it out in The Trial. This, predictably, does not lead to a joyful reconciliation with what is; it is far too dark, far too bleakly ironic for that. For earthly power in Kafka’s fictions is never benign; it is arbitrary and cruel. In The Castle he writes:

‘Sometimes, orders were issued here that were easy to comply with, yet such ease gave K no joy… above all because it offered K a glimpse of the futility of all his endeavours. The orders were issued over his head, the unfavourable ones as well as the favourable ones and even the favourable ones no doubt had an ultimately unfavourable core; at any rate, they were all issued over his head, and he was far too lowly to be able to intervene in them, let alone silence them and make his own voice heard.’ (3)

Between individual freedom and the unfathomable ratio of authoritarian social institutions, there exists a chasm. What Kafka does is to create a reality in which the psychological longing for certainty, for submission to the way of the world, plays itself out. ‘On the evening before his thirty-first birthday’, begins the final chapter detailing Josef’s final abandonment of his previous carefree, commitment-lite existence. But this is no rites of passage, no realisation that the real is rational; it is rather a psychology of suicidal obedience. Hence the last, dying words of Josef K: ‘“Like a dog!” he said, as if the shame of it would outlive him.’

‘What makes Kafka’s stories so memorable is the way he shows that the basic chasm between the world we want and the world we’re in, is as vast in the age of electric lights, cars and planes as it is in the Book of Job’, concludes Hawes. He is right. In Kafka we can often see the Sein and the Sollen fight it out like father and son, sometimes literally. That we might be able to see this again, rather than the officially sanctioned interpretations of Kafka, demands that we read Kafka anew. Whereas literary biography usually reduces the work to the peccadilloes of its author, Hawes’ glorious piece of iconoclasm uses the same technique to save it.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Excavating Kafka, by James Hawes, is published by Quercus. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the August 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

(1) Porn claims outrage German Scholars, Guardian, 14 August 2008

(2) p202, The Trial, Franz Kafka, (tr) Richard Stokes, Hesperus, 2005

(3) p243, The Castle, Franz Kafka, (tr) JA Underwood, Penguin, 1997

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Topics Culture


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