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.
Her remarks on Kafka’s famous ‘Letter to his Father’, written in 1919, are a case in point. Ever since this remarkable letter was first published (in 1952) by Max Brod, Kafka’s friend, editor and literary executor, its status and importance have been acknowledged: nobody would dream of excluding it from ‘the work’. Indeed if, as an exercise in criticism, one wished to demonstrate one of the major enigmas of literature – its ability to transform private communication into work of art – it would be hard to find a better example than this document, which begins as a deeply embarrassing personal complaint and ends as a vindication of the creative imagination to which it owes its existence. The Jewish theme is certainly present: the letter contains several critical remarks about the merely formal and superficial Jewish beliefs and customs practised in the Kafka family, and accuses the father of professing his religion only when he thinks it is commercially and socially expedient to do so. But whereas Robert claims that ‘enormously amplified by the inaccessibility that his son found in him, Hermann Kafka took on stature enough to incarnate all Jewry, so that in his son’s eyes the community as a whole became guilty of his abuse of power,’ the ‘community’ Kafka implies, in the passage to which this remark alludes, has nothing to do with ‘all Jewry’. It is something simpler and more fundamental.
From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was right, every other opinion was crazy, unbalanced, meschugge, not normal. And with all this your self-confidence was so immense that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right. Sometimes it happened that you had no opinion whatsoever about something – therefore
– the transitions, here, from malicious gibe to eerie joke and the subsequent embodiment of the metaphor of the ‘ruler of the world’, are part of that literariness which sustains our interest in the passage –
all possible opinions on that matter were bound to be wrong. You could, for instance, run down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews – not only selectively but wholesale, in every respect – until at last nobody was left but yourself. You assumed for me that mysteriousness which belongs to all tyrants whose right is founded not in thought but in their person.
Here, as in most of his stories, Kafka’s characteristic device is metonymy: the father stands for himself and for ‘all tyrants’, as Josef K. stands for a very unremarkable young man and for all men who both seek and fear the law, as K. stands for a particular stranger and for all those who half-seek and half-fear communal recognition and acceptance. The terse, deliberately incomplete, almost entirely functional characterisations Kafka gives these figures are devised not to hide their Jewishness (as Mme Robert believes) but to give them the generality of figures who are marginally individual yet fully representative. Kafka does not say that this is so. On the contrary. A unique scrupulousness and anxiety made him deny that his work is concerned with, is even relevant to, crucial aspects of the condition of modern man, yet of course this concern is the first reason why we read him, why he is part of the modern canon. To say all this may be obvious, no more than a first move toward understanding and interpretation, but it is at least that. Mme Robert, however, is not interested in the broad human significance of Kafka’s work, if only because in her view the work consists of nothing but self-projections. Writing about ‘The Judgment’ (1911) she never mentions the rejection of solipsism which constitutes the climax of that story. Of the two warders who come to arrest Josef K. at the beginning of The Trial she observes that ‘they show certain peculiarities that the hero of The Trial would have profited by noticing (but of course his nature is such that they escape him). First of all, one is named Franz, for a reason obviously well-known to Kafka, though Joseph [sic] of course is unaware of it (by a supreme irony, their names taken together add up to Franz Josef [sic], the name of the aged Emperor whom the Jews of the Dual Monarchy revered).’ When the reading of a text is given such licence of association and such unsteadiness of focus, as this, it is hard to know what will not be put forward as valid interpretation.
In order to make good her central contention the author is obliged to argue that the city in which Kafka was born and in which he lived all but the last year of his life was a hotbed of anti-semitism. Here again she proceeds by way of heedless exaggeration. Prague before 1920 was certainly a city of strong, occasionally violent national antagonisms, and the discontent the Czechs felt about their status under Hapsburg rule did at times take the form of anti-semitic demonstrations. Of the two historical sources Mme Robert relies on, one (C. Stölzl’s Kafkas böses Böhmen, 1975) quotes numerous patriotic proclamations and anti-semitic threats as though they were reports of what actually happened. Her other source is an article by M.A. Riff in the Wiener Library Bulletin, Vol. XXIX. What Riff is describing, with scrupulous accuracy, is a small number of isolated anti-semitic outbursts, of which Kafka witnessed at least one: what Mme Robert infers from Riff’s article is an atmosphere of permanent violence and pogroms on a Polish or Ukrainian scale. This is a wholly misleading picture, which leaves out the fact that these outbursts were condemned and the attitude itself resolutely opposed by some of the most influential Czech politicians of the time. Throughout these observations Mme Robert’s grasp of history gives way to anachronism. Events in Bohemia before 1920 are presented as though they were of a piece with events in Germany after 1933. That there are connections is obvious. Within the context of the age, however, and without the lure of hindsight, Kafka’s Prague must be seen as the battleground where various kinds of internecine national strife took place (usually after the pubs were closed), not as a rehearsal of Hitler’s ‘final solution’.
In some ways, Kafka is likely to have experienced this hostility more acutely than did his family and friends: partly because he was more sensitive than they, but partly, too, because the Czechs’ hatred was directed above all against the Germans and the ‘Germanising’ Jews in their midst; and though he did not profess – or indeed feel – any specifically German allegiance, he did after all write in the language of their enemy. He spoke Czech less well than his father (who had come to Prague from a poor Czech-Jewish community in Western Bohemia), yet he understood and sympathised with the nascent Czech nationalalism. His remarks on ‘the literature of small nations’, occasioned by that visit of the Polish-Jewish actors in 1911, fit the contemporary state of Czech literature (which he knew well) much better than they do Yiddish literature (in which his interest was slight and intermittent – by 1917 it seems to have been reduced to a small collection of Hassidic stories, ‘the only Jewish things ... I can ever feel at home with, instantly and regardless of what condition I am in’). It is pointless to try to make of him anything other than a German writer. A German writer with a difference? Yes, but so were most of his contemporaries in Austria and Germany.
At this point Mme Robert raises the issue of Kafka’s attitude toward the German language. She quotes a few of his own remarks testifying to his qualms at being obliged to use a medium which he feels is not his own. ‘Not only did “the others” give him no real voice in social and national affairs,’ she writes, as though this most private of men had ever been intent on a public role, ‘he did not even have access to the deeper strata of the [German] language, where by his own admission the first words stammered by the child, even “father” and “mother”, were only a ludicrous approximation for his Jewish feeling.’ This is Robert’s paraphrase of a well-known passage from one of Kafka’s diary entries (24 October 1911), which undoubtedly reflects his ambivalent feeling toward the very substance from which his life’s work is fashioned. Yet once again these qualms, to be fully understood, must be placed within their appropriate context, which includes but goes beyond any specifically ‘Jewish feeling’. What Kafka is voicing is an aspect of the language-consciousness of Prague-German as well as Austrian writers, and indeed of linguistic scepticism as a major concern of modern German literature generally. Similar qualms are voiced, a good deal more strongly, by Rainer Maria Rilke, Kafka’s contemporary and fellow Prague German. In a letter of 11 January 1914 Rilke bitterly complains that the linguistic heritage to which he was born is ‘no better than verbal refuse’, a hotchpotch of verbal bits and pieces barely contained within ‘the deteriorating margins of the language’ – a medium so contaminated and compromised (Rilke concludes) that it taints even that which is sacred to the poet, his earliest, most tender childhood memories. Are we to conclude that Rilke too (who, to spell out the argument Mme Robert forces on her reader, was not a Jew) had no ‘access to the deeper strata of the language’? The wretched racial argument obscures the fact that two of 20th-century German literature’s most important writers – her greatest poet and one of her greatest writers of prose – built their very different oeuvres, from elements of a language-consciousness unparalleled in previous generations; and that the problematik of language is one of the hallmarks of modern German literature.
Alas, even the premise which I mentioned at the beginning of this review – Mme Robert’s view of Kafka’s work as an expression of his loneliness and sense of isolation – is not entirely true. The last story he himself published, ‘Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Nation’, which is certainly among his greatest, is not only a gently humorous, at times playful and ironic rejection of isolation and solitude as the attributes of the artist: it is also a paean in praise of community and art, of art as performance inextricably connected with community. Since Mme Robert barely mentions it, it is good to be able to record that this story is at last coming into its own.
When Roy Pascal died in 1980, he had all but completed a manuscript on the various kinds of narrative point of view that are to be found in Kafka’s stories and fragments. The book begins with a succinct and outstandingly interesting account of the evolution of the different techniques used by narrators of prose fiction through the ages. In the course of this account Kafka is shown to anticipate Sartre’s protest in Qu’est-ce que la littérature? of 1948 against the finished, fully rounded story and the omniscient narrator who makes such an ending possible and thus falsifies (Sartre argues) ‘what happens in real life’. Following the chronology of Kafka’s stories (he leaves out the novels), Pascal shows in fine detail all the changes in the narrator-‘hero’ relationship, emphasising the element of indeterminacy and unreliability which plays such an important part in Kafka’s narrative strategy. It is this element of indeterminacy which yields the strange attraction Kafka has for his readers: from it arises the special appeal for interpretation which almost every one of his stories makes, rebuts, makes again. These are technical analyses, deliberately confined to a single aspect of Kafka’s art, yet the search for meaning is never lost sight of.
Though it is unfinished, the last chapter of Pascal’s book points toward that serenity which Kafka was able to achieve, as a writer, if not as a man. The chapter describes the narrator of ‘Josephine the Singer’ and his attitude toward the heroine. Here the narrator is no longer opaque and unreliable, as he is in earlier stories, yet he ‘is not a privileged fiction’ either, in the sense of the old omniscient narrator. He reminds the reader of the limits of his knowledge, ‘frequently by qualifying much of his information, as well as the thoughts he builds on it, by the prudent addition of a “perhaps” or “this is how one might understand the implications.” Instead of claiming the licence of the traditional narrator of a fiction, this narrator-mouse only claims the sort of veracity that a real person might aspire to. This sort of veracity might not be sufficient to serve a story the centre of which is the personality of Josephine; but its limitations turn into its strength when, as here, the objective is to show how the community comes to terms with the strange phenomenon of the bard.’ ‘This,’ says Pascal at the end of the chapter, ‘is no tragic story of the misunderstood artist, but the very contrary, the story of the triumph of art.’ There are signs in the text that Pascal intended to qualify – but not to undermine – the generalisation with which the chapter ends.
Elsewhere Pascal speaks of Kafka’s ‘search for the appropriate narrative perspective, and for a story without definite contours, without fulfilment, endings, conclusions’. It is not very likely that he ever saw any of Kafka’s manuscripts, yet the new critical edition that is now under way (only The Castle, edited in two volumes by Sir Malcolm Pasley, has so far appeared) shows very clearly the search to which Pascal refers.What I have called Kafka’s ambivalent attitude toward the publication of his writings may now be retraced in fascinating detail in his manuscripts, witnesses of his unwillingness to allow a story to take on definite contours, endings, conclusions. Correction after correction reflects the dilemma of one who wished to present his most intimate vision to a public of strangers, again and again drew back in a mixture of fear, pride and shame, and only rarely felt confident that the language he fashioned in his writings was appropriate both to the vision and to that public of strangers without which (as the ‘Josephine’ story tells us) there is no such thing as art.
The republication of Willa and Edwin Muir’s Kafka translations recalls that it was they who made Kafka’s name famous and his texts accessible in the English-speaking world, albeit in a translation which was unduly coloured by their own interpretation of his writings. A more recent translation of The Trial, by Douglas Scott and Chris Waller,seems to me a rather more successful attempt to render the special kind of sobriety of Kafka’s style – at all events this translation avoids the slightly fairy-tale atmosphere which occasionally reflects the Muirs’ reading.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.