Bad Faith

J.P. Stern

  • Franz Kafka’s Loneliness by Marthe Robert, translator Ralph Manheim
    Faber, 251 pp, £12.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 571 11945 X
  • Kafka’s Narrators by Roy Pascal
    Cambridge, 251 pp, £22.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 521 24365 3
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka, translator Willa Muir and Edwin Muir
    Penguin, 255 pp, £1.75, October 1983, ISBN 0 14 000907 8
  • Letters to Milena by Franz Kafka, editor Willy Haas, translator Tania Stern and James Stern
    Penguin, 188 pp, £2.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 14 006380 3
  • The Penguin Complete Novels of Franz Kafka: ‘The Trial’, ‘The Castle’, ‘America’ translated by Willa Muir, illustrated by Edwin Muir
    Penguin, 638 pp, £4.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 14 009009 6
  • The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka edited by Nahum Glatzer
    Penguin, 486 pp, £3.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 14 009008 8

Marthe Robert is a well-known freelance among French Germanisten. She has written extensively on Freudian theory, on myth and Romanticism, and she collaborated with André Breton on a splendid volume of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms. She is deeply familiar with Kafka’s writings, having translated most of them into French: her knowledge of books on Kafka and the world he lived in is less impressive.

The scheme she follows here is neither chronological nor thematic, but is formed by abstract notions of her own devising (‘The Censored Name’, ‘The Identity Crisis’ etc); in this way she deprives herself of the opportunity to examine any one work of Kafka’s on its own, in the form he gave it. A mixture of biographical data, psychoanalytical surmise and literary interpretation is contrived round a simple central thesis: all that Kafka wrote (Mme Robert argues) is determined by his experience of loneliness, his feelings of isolation and defective sense of identity, which in turn were caused by his complex but essentially inauthentic attitude toward his Jewishness. What the book aims to elucidate, then, is not a specific literary undertaking, but the workings of a mind informed by a sort of mauvaise foi that veers between furtive denial, uneasy concern and covert anti-semitism. Everybody in Kafka’s Prague was a German Jew, everybody felt guilty, and everybody wrote – in order to disguise their guilt for being Jewish and not admitting it. Unsurprisingly, the tone of the book is lowering throughout. That Kafka happened to be better at the writing than all his friends and fellow authors is taken for granted, though why or how he was better at it does not emerge.

To prove this thesis Mme Robert begins her book by claiming that ‘one of the most striking features of Kafka’s work is that though it seems to revolve around the great themes of Jewish thought and literature – exile, transgression, atonement – or, in more modern terms, guilt as associated with uprooting and persecution – not a single Jew appears in it, nor is the word “Jew” so much as uttered.’ Now even if this claim were true, one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional Freudian reversal whereby denial turns into a proof of admission (‘no Jews mentioned – it must be all about Jews’) is a singularly unfortunate way to start a book. But the claim is not true at all. Anybody seriously concerned with Kafka’s ‘work’ – including of course Mme Robert herself – knows that its characteristic mode is fragmentariness; that in any valid and significant conception of ‘the writings’ (Kafka’s phrase is ‘mein Schreiben’), his diaries, notebooks, reflections and letters must be included; and that in that totality of fragments Jews, Jewish themes and images are freely and frequently mentioned.

Nor is there any evidence to show that Kafka ever denied his Jewishness, and the accusation of betrayal, thrown at one of the most truthful authors of our time, shows to what lengths Mme Robert allows her thesis to take her. This is not to deny that Kafka’s attitude toward the social, moral and religious implications of his racial descent was complex and important to him. For example, the great admiration he felt for the Polish Yiddish players who visited Prague in 1911 cannot be separated from his distaste for the mores of ‘Western’ Jews, itself a part of that deeply self-destructive mode from which he fashioned some of his most memorable images and scenes. The manner in which the central characters of his stories – Gregor Samsa in ‘The Metamorphosis’, Josef K. in The Trial and K. in The Castle – are related to the world in which they find themselves is often reminiscent of the manner in which Jews have related to a world of anti-semitic gentiles: these commonplaces have been expressed by numerous critics and taken for granted by many others. However, to place this relationship at the centre of Kafka’s work and to see the work entirely in its terms is a momentous exaggeration for which Mme Robert alone is responsible; and once that exaggeration is challenged, it is not easy to see what other new views she has to offer.

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[*] Vol. I: ‘Das Schloss’: Roman in der Fassung der Handschrift. Vol. II: Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe, Kritische Ausgabe. ‘Das Schloss’: Apparatband. Edited by Malcolm Pasley. Fischer Verlag, 1982.

[†] Picador, 1977. The translation is introduced by the present reviewer.