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
"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.