Kafka at Las Vegas

Alan Bennett

There are many perils in writing about Kafka. His work has been garrisoned by armies of critics with some fifteen thousand books about him at the last count. As there is a Fortress Freud so is there a Fortress Kafka, Kafka his own castle. For admission a certain high seriousness must be deemed essential and I am not sure I have it. One is nervous about presuming even to write his name, wanting to beg pardon for doing so, if only because Kafka was so reluctant to write his name himself. Like the Hebrew name of God, it is a name that should not be spoken, particularly by an Englishman. In his dreams Kafka once met an Englishman. He was in a good grey flannel suit, the flannel also covering his face. Short of indicating a prudent change of tailor, the incident (if dreams have incidents) serves to point up the temptation to English Kafka and joke him down to size. The Channel is a slipper bath of irony through which we pass these serious Continentals in order not to be infected by their gloom. This propensity I am sure I have not escaped or tried to: but then there is something that is English about Kafka, and it is not only his self-deprecation. A vegetarian and fond of the sun, he seems a familiar crank; if he’d been living in England at the turn of the century, and not in Prague, one can imagine him going out hiking and spending evenings with like-minded friends in Letchworth. He is the young man in a Shaw play who strolls past the garden fence in too large shorts to be accosted by some brisk Shavian young woman who, perceiving his charm, takes him in hand, puts paid to his morbid thoughts and makes him pull his socks up.

Charm he certainly had, but not at home. Chewing every mouthful umpteen times so that at meals his father cowered behind the newspaper, Kafka saved his charm for work and for his friends. Home is not the place for charm anyway. We do not look for it around the fireside, so it’s not so surprising Kafka had no charm for his father. His father, it seems, had none for anybody. There is something called Home Charm, though. In the Forties it was a kind of distemper and nowadays it’s a chain of DIY shops. In that department certainly Kafka did not excel. He was not someone you would ask to help put up a shelf, for instance, though one component of his charm was an exaggerated appreciation of people who could, and of commonplace accomplishments generally. Far from being clumsy himself (he had something of the dancer about him), he would marvel (or profess to marvel) at the ease with which other people managed to negotiate the world. This kind of professed incompetence (‘Silly me!’) often leads to offers of help, and carried to extremes it encourages the formation of unofficial protection societies. Thus Kafka was much cosseted by the ladies in his office and in the same way the pupils of another candidate for secular sainthood, the French philosopher Simone Weil, saw to it that their adored teacher did not suffer the consequences of a practical un-wisdom even more hopeless than Kafka’s.

One cannot say that Kafka’s marvelling at mundane accomplishments was not genuine, was a ploy. The snag is that when the person doing the marvelling goes on to do great things this can leave those with the commonplace accomplishments feeling a little flat. Say such a person goes on to win the Nobel Prize: it is scant consolation to know that one can change a three-pin plug.

Gorky said that in Chekhov’s presence everyone felt a desire to be simpler, more truthful and more oneself. Kafka too had this effect. ‘On his entrance into a room,’ wrote a contemporary, ‘it seemed as though some unseen attendant had whispered to the lecturer: “Be careful about everything you say from now on. Franz Kafka has just arrived.” ’ To have this effect on people is not an unmixed blessing. When we are on our best behaviour we are not always at our best.

This is not to say that Kafka did not make jokes in life and in art. The Trial, for instance, is a funnier book than it has got credit for and Kafka’s jokes about himself are the better for the desperate circumstances in which they were often made. He never did win the Nobel Prize but contemplated the possibility once in fun and in pain, and in a fairly restricted category (though one he could have shared with several contemporaries, Proust, Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence among them). When he was dying of TB of the larynx he was fetching up a good deal of phlegm. ‘I think,’ he said (and the joke is more poignant for being so physically painful to make), ‘I think I deserve the Nobel Prize for sputum.’ Nothing if not sick, it is a joke that could have been made yesterday.

Dead sixty-odd years, Kafka is still modern and there is much in the present-day world to interest him. These days Kafka would be intrigued by the battery farm and specifically, with an interest both morbid and lively, in the device that de-beaks the still-living chickens; in waste-disposal trucks that chew the rubbish before swallowing it; and those dubious restaurants that install for your dining pleasure a tank of doomed trout. As the maître d’ assists the discerning diner in the ceremony of choice, be aware of the waiter who wields the net: both mourner and executioner, he is Kafka. He notes old people in Zimmer frames stood in their portable dock on perambulatory trial for their lives. He is interested in the feelings of the squash ball and the champagne bottle that launches the ship. In a football match his sympathy is not with either of the teams but with the ball or, in a match ending nil-nil, with the hunger of the goalmouth. He would be unable to endorse the words of me song by Simon and Garfunkel ‘I’d rather be a hammer than a nail’, feeling himself (as he confessed to one of his girlfriends) simultaneously both. And in a different context he would be concerned with the current debate on the disposal of nuclear waste. To be placed in a lead canister which is then encased in concrete and sunk fathoms deep to the floor of the ocean was the degree of circulation he thought appropriate for most of his writing. Or not, of course.

Kafka was fond of the cinema and there are short stories, like ‘Tales of a Red Indian’, that have a feeling of the early movies. He died before the talkies came in and so before the Marx Brothers, but there is an exchange in Horse Feathers that sums up Kafka’s relations with his father:

Beppo: Dad, I’m proud to be your son.

Groucho: Son, you took the words out of my mouth. I’m ashamed to be your father.

The Kafka household could have been the setting for many Jewish jokes:

Father: Son, you hate me.

Son: Father, I love you.

Mother: Don’t contradict your father.

Had Kafka the father emigrated to America as so many of his contemporaries did, things might have turned out differently for Kafka the son. He was always stage-struck. Happily lugubrious, he might have turned out a stand-up Jewish comic. Kafka at Las Vegas.

Why didn’t Kafka stutter? The bullying father, the nervous son – life in the Kafka household seems a blueprint for a speech impediment. In a sense, of course, he did stutter. Jerky, extruded with great force and the product of tremendous effort, everything Kafka wrote is a kind of stutter. Stutterers devise elaborate routines to avoid or to ambush and take by surprise troublesome consonants, of which K is one of the most difficult. It’s a good job Kafka didn’t stutter. With two Ks he might have got started on his name and never seen the end of it. As it is, he docks it, curtails it, leaves its end behind much as lizards do when something gets hold of their tail.

In thus de-nominating himself, Kafka was to make his name and his letter memorable. Diminishing it, he augmented it, and not merely for posterity. K was a significant letter in his own time. There were Ks on every banner, palace and official form. Kafka had two Ks and so, in the Kaiserlich and Königlich of the Habsburg Emperors, did the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Emperor at the time was Franz Joseph and that comes into it too, for here is Franz K writing about Joseph K in the time of Franz Joseph K.

There was another emperor nearer at hand, the emperor in the armchair, Kafka’s phrase for his father. Hermann Kafka has had such a consistently bad press that it’s hard not to feel a sneaking sympathy for him as for all the Parents of Art. They never get it right. They bring up a child badly and he turns out a writer, posterity never forgives them – though without that unfortunate upbringing the writer might never have written a word. They bring up a child well and he never does write a word. Do it right and posterity never hears about the parents: do it wrong and posterity never hears about anything else.

They fuck you up your Mum and Dad, and if you’re planning on writing that’s probably a good thing. But if you are planning on writing and they haven’t fucked you up, well, you’ve got nothing to go on, so then they’ve fucked you up good and proper.

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