LITERATURE: Franz Kafka

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Franz Kafka was a great chech writer who has come to own a part of the human

emotional spectrum, which we can now call the Kafkaesque and which thanks to him

we are able better to recognize and to gain a measure of perspective over and

relief from. Kafka's world isn't pleasant. It feels in many ways like a

nightmare and yet it's a place where many of us will, even if only for a time,

in the dark periods of our lives,

end up. We are in the world defined by Kafka when we feel powerless in front of

authority, judges, aristocrats, industrialists, politicians and most of

all: fathers. When we feel that our destiny is out of our control, when we

are bullied, humiliated and mocked by society and especially by our own

families. We are in Kafka's orbit when we're ashamed of our bodies, of our sexual

urges and feel that the best thing for us

might be to be killed or squashed without mercy as if we were an

inconvenient and rather disgusting bed bug. Franz Kafka was born in

Prague in 1883, the eldest child of a terrifyingly, psychologically abusive

father and a mother who was too weak and in all of her husband to protect her boy

as she should have done.

Kafka grew up timid, bookish, meek and full of self-hatred. He wanted to become

a writer but it was out of the question in his father's eyes, so one of the

greatest German literary geniuses since Goethe was forced to spend his brief

life on Earth working in a series of jobs utterly beneath him: in a lawyer

office and then an insurance company. He had a number of unsuccessful relationships

with women, he couldn't marry or raise a family and was tormented by the strength

of his sex drive, which made him constantly turn to brothels and

pornography. Kafka published very little in his lifetime: just three collections

of short stories including his best-known work, The Metamorphosis, and he

was entirely obscured and unnoticed.

His gigantic posthumous reputation is based on three novels: The Trial, The

Castle and America, which were all unfinished because Kafka was so

dissatisfied with them. He gave orders that they be destroyed after his death.

Fortunately for Humanity, these were disobeyed. It shouldn't sound prurient or

reductive to suggest that one of the major keys to understanding Kafka is

to fathom the nature of his relationship with his father. Kafka never wrote directly

about this man in any of his works but the psychology of the novels is directly

related to the dynamics he endured as the very unfortunate son of Hermann Kafka

Any boy who has ever felt inadequate in front of,

or unloved by a powerful father, will at once relate to what Kafka went

through in his childhood. In November 1919, at the age of 36, five years before

his death, Kafka wrote a forty-seven page letter to Hermann in which he tried to

explain how his childhood had deformed him. Like many victims of abuse, Kafka

never stopped hoping for some kind of forgiveness from the person who had so

wronged him.

"Dearest father", went the letter. "You asked me recently why I maintain that I'm so

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 ever keep in mind while talking". The grown Kafka abased

himself before this father. "What I would have needed was a little encouragement, a

little friendliness but I wasn't fit for that. What was always incomprehensible to

me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could

inflict on me with your words and judgments. It was as though you had no

notion of your power". Kafka complained of one particularly traumatic incident

when as a young boy he called out for a glass of water and his irritable father

pulled the boy out of his bed, carried him out onto the balcony and left him

there to freeze in nothing but his nightshirt. Kafka writes: "I was quite obedient

after that period but it did me so much

incalculable inner harm. Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy

that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no

reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the

balcony and that meant I was a mere nothing for him".

Boys need their father's permission to become men and Hermann Kafka didn't give

Franz a chance. "At a very early stage you forbade me to speak. Your threat: "not

a word of contradiction" and the raised hand that accompanied it have been with me

ever since". Franz's sense of inadequacy was total. "I was weighed down by your

mere physical presence, I remember for instance how often we undressed in the

same bathing hut. There was I: skinny, weekly, slight. You: strong, tall, broad. I

felt a miserable specimen. When we stepped out, you holding me by my hand, a little

skeleton, unsteady, frightened of the water

incapable of copying your swimming strokes; I was frantic with desperation.

It could hardly have been worse, except it was. Kafka finished the letter, gave it

to his mother Julie to pass to Hermann but, typical of her weakness and cowardice,

she didn't. She held onto it for a few days, then returned it to Franz and

advised that it would be better if her busy, hard working husband never had to read

such a thing.

The poor son lacked the courage ever to try again. In The Judgment, Kafka's great short

story, written in 1912; a young businessman, Georg, is engaged to be married

and lives in a flat with his widowed father. He's about to get away from home,

the father is old and frail. Georg tucks him up in bed but then the father mysteriously

regains his strength, springs upright, towers over Georg and denounces him for

betraying everyone. His friends, his father and the memory of his mother.

Georg can make only feeble protests. Eventually the father condemns Georg to death

by drowning and Georg obediently rushes out and plunges into the nearby river.

After passing sentence, the father cries out: "You were an innocent child, really,

but at heart you were a diabolical human being".

The idea of horrific, arbitrary judgment was to be a constant in Kafka's fiction:

it reappears in the unfinished novel The Trial, written two years later. But now

Kafka had developed it away from a father to a vast legal apparatus with

judges, lawyers, guards and extensive bureaucratic procedures. When Joseph K is

arrested on the morning of his 30th birthday, he isn't told what he is

charged with. He barely makes any attempt to find out. He feel so guilty inside, he

just knows that he deserves punishment. He does try to declare in court that

he's innocent, still without knowing what the charge is and hires a lawyer but the

court gradually grinds him down. He becomes unable to think of anything.

Words fail him, he can no longer do his job properly and is defeated in the game

of office politics. Finally, a year after his arrest, two grotesque looking

officials come to Joseph case flat, they lead him to a quarry outside the city

and execute him by plunging a knife into his heart. Between The Judgment and The

Trial, Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, a short story in which a traveling

salesman, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning transformed into an insect akin

to a beetle or a bed bug. It's a story of self-disgust, about the treachery of

family and, like The Trial, about terrifying arbitrary power. When Gregor

crawls across the floor, he is in danger of being stamped on by his own father.

Gregor's family find they manage quite well without him. They can fine him to his

room and chuck rubbish at him. The family hold a council and decide that

the insect in the bedroom can't really be Gregor. They start to refer to the

insect as "it" instead of "him". They decide that somehow the insect has to go.

Gregor, listening, agrees and dies quietly. After Gregor's death, the family are

slightly ashamed of their behavior, but only slightly.

Kafka suffered from ill health for a lot of his life. In 1924 when he was

forty-one, he developed laryngeal tuberculosis, which prevented him from

eating almost anything without huge pain.

He wrote a short story, his last, called The Hunger Artist. It tells the story of

a public performer who makes his living undertaking fasts for the pleasure of the

public. One time he manages to fast for forty days but gradually the hunger

artist's audience gets bored of his work. However hard he fasts, they're no longer

impressed. He gets put in a dirty old cage and weakens terribly. Before he dies

he asks for forgiveness and confesses that he should never have been admired

since the reason he fasted was simply that he couldn't find any food he

enjoyed. Shortly after he dies, he's replaced in his cage by a panther, an

animal full of vigor whom the crowd love and who has a voracious appetite. A few

days after finishing The Hunger Artist, Kafka died and was buried in the

Jewish cemetery in Prague. Within a few years of his death, his reputation began.

By the Second World War, he was recognized as one of the greatest

writers of The Age. Notwithstanding, all his close family were gassed by the

Germans in the Holocaust. He is a monument in German literary history and at the

same time he is a sad, ashamed, terrified part of us all. Kafka once wrote that

the task of literature is to reconnect us with feelings that might otherwise be

unbearable to study but which desperately need our attention. "A book

must", he wrote, "be the axe for the frozen sea within us". His books were among the

most touching, frightening and accurate axes ever written.

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