My dear son,

You wrote me a letter you never sent.

It wasn’t for me – it was for the whole world to read. (You and your instructions that everything should be burned. Hah!) You were never open and frank with me – that’s one of the complaints you say I was always making against you. You write it in the letter you didn’t want me to read; so what does that sound like, eh? But I’ve read the letter now, I’ve read it anyway, I’ve read everything, although you said I put your books on the night-table and never touched them. You know how it is, here where I am: not something that can be explained to anyone who isn’t here – they used to talk about secrets going to the grave, but the funny thing is there are no secrets here at all. If there was something you wanted to know, you should have known, if it doesn’t let you lie quiet, then you can have knowledge of it, from here. Yes, you gave me that much credit, you said I was a true Kafka in ‘strength ... eloquence, endurance, a certain way of doing things on a grand scale’ and I’ve not been content just to rot. In that way, I’m still the man I was, the go-getter. Restless. Restless. Taking whatever opportunity I can. There isn’t anything, now, you can regard as hidden from me. Whether you say I left it unread on the night-table or whether you weren’t man enough, even at the age of thirty-six, to show me a letter that was supposed to be for me.

I write to you after we are both dead. Whereas you don’t stir. There won’t be any response from you, I know that. You began that letter by saying you were afraid of me – and then you were afraid to let me read it. And now you’ve escaped altogether. Because without the Kafka will-power you can’t reach out from nothing and nowhere. I was going to call it a desert, but where’s the sand, where’re the camels, where’s the sun – I’m still mensch enough to crack a joke – you see? Oh excuse me, I forgot – you didn’t like my jokes, my fooling around with kids. My poor boy, unfortunately you had no life in you, in all those books and diaries and letters (the ones you posted, to strangers, to women) you said it a hundred times before you put the words in my mouth, in your literary way, in that letter: you yourself were ‘unfit for life’. So death comes, how would you say, quite naturally to you. It’s not like that for a man of vigour like I was, I can tell you, and so here I am writing, talking ... I don’t know if there is a word for what this is. Anyway, it’s Hermann Kafka. I’ve outlived you here, same as in Prague.

That is what you really accuse me of, you know, for sixty or so pages (I notice the length of that letter varies a bit from language to language, of course it’s been translated into everything – I don’t know what – Hottentot and Icelandic, Chinese, although you wrote it ‘for me’ in German). I outlived you, not for seven years, as an old sick man, after you died, but while you were young and alive. Clear as daylight, from the examples you give of being afraid of me, from the time you were a little boy: you were not afraid – you were envious. At first, when I took you swimming and you say you felt yourself a nothing, puny and weak beside my big, strong, naked body in the change-house – all right, you also say you were proud of such a father, a father with a fine physique ... And may I remind you that father was taking the trouble and time, the few hours he could get away from the business, to try and make something of that nebisch, develop his muscles, put some flesh on those poor little bones so he would grow up sturdy? But even before your barmitzvah the normal pride every boy has in his father changed to jealousy, with you. You couldn’t be like me, so you decided I wasn’t good enough for you: coarse, loud-mouthed, ate ‘like a pig’ (your very words), cut my fingernails at table, cleaned my ears with a toothpick. Oh yes, you can’t hide anything from me, now, I’ve read it all, all the thousands and thousands of words you’ve used to shame your own family, your own father, before the whole world. And with your gift for words you turn everything inside-out and prove, like a circus magician, it’s love, the piece of dirty paper’s a beautiful silk flag, you loved your father too much, and so – what? You tell me. You couldn’t be like him? You wanted to be like him? The khazer, the shouter, the gobbler? Yes, my son, these ‘insignificant details’ you write down and quickly dismiss – these details hurt. Eternally. After all, you’ve become immortal through writing, as you insist you did, only about me, ‘everything was about you, father’; a hundred years after your birth, the Czech Jew, son of Hermann and Julie Kafka, is supposed to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Your work will be read as long as there are people to read it. That’s what they say everywhere, even the Germans who burned your sisters and my grandchildren in incinerators. Some say you were also some kind of prophet (God knows what you were thinking, shut away in your room while the rest of the family was having a game of cards in the evening); after you died, some countries built camps where the things you made up for that story In the Penal Colony were practised, and ever since then there have been countries in different parts of the world where the devil’s work that came into your mind is still carried out – I don’t want to think about it.

You were not blessed to bring any happiness to this world with your genius, my son. Not at home, either. Well, we had to accept what God gave. Do you ever stop to think whether it wasn’t a sorrow for me (never mind – for once – how you felt) that your two brothers, who might have grown up to bring your mother and me joy, died as babies? And you sitting there at meals always with a pale, miserable, glum face, not a word to say for yourself, picking at your food ... You haven’t forgotten that I used to hold up the newspaper so as not to have to see that. You bear a grudge. You’ve told everybody. But you don’t think about what there was in a father’s heart. From the beginning. I had to hide it behind a newspaper – anything. For your sake.

Because you were never like any other child. You admit it: however we had tried to bring you up, you say you would have become a ‘weakly, timid, hesitant person’. What small boy doesn’t enjoy a bit of a rough-house with his father? But writing at thirty-six years old, you can only remember being frightened when I chased you, in fun, round the table, and your mother, joining in, would snatch you up out of my way while you shrieked. For God’s sake, what’s so terrible about that? I should have such memories of my childhood! I know you never liked to hear about it, it bored you, you don’t spare me the written information that it ‘wore grooves in your brain’, but when I was seven years old I had to push my father’s barrow from village to village, with open sores on my legs in winter. Nobody gave me delicacies to mess about on my plate; we were glad when we got potatoes. You make a show of me, mimicking how I used to say these things. But wasn’t I right when I told you and your sisters – provided for by me, living like fighting-cocks because I stood in the business twelve hours a day – what did you know of such things? What did anyone know, what I suffered as a child? And then it’s a sin if I wanted to give my own son a little pleasure I never had.

And that other business you schlepped up out of the past – the night I’m supposed to have shut you out on the pavlatche. Because of you the whole world knows the Czech word for the kind of balcony we had in Prague! Yes, the whole world knows that story, too. I am famous, too. You made me famous as the father who frightened his child once and for all: for life. Thank you very much. I want to tell you that I don’t even remember that incident. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, although you always had an imagination such as nobody ever had before or since, eh? But it could only have been the last resort your mother and I turned to – you know that your mother spoilt you, over-protected they would call it, now. You couldn’t possibly remember how naughty you were at night, what a little tyrant you were, how you thought of every excuse to keep us sleepless. It was all right for you, you could nap during the day, a small child. But I had my business, I had to earn the living, I needed some rest. Pieces of bread, a particular toy you fancied, make wee-wee, another blanket on, a blanket taken off, drinks of water – there was no end to your, tricks and your whining. I suppose I couldn’t stand it any longer. I feared to do you some harm. (You admit I never beat you, only scared you a little by taking off my braces in preparation to use them on you.) So I put you out of harm’s way. That night. Just for a few minutes. It couldn’t have been more than a minute. As if your mother would let you catch cold! God forbid! And you’ve held it against me all your life. I’m sorry, I have to say it again, that old expression of mine that irritated you so much: I wish I had your worries.

Everything that went wrong for you is my fault. You write it down for sixty pages or so and at the same time you say to me ‘I believe you are entirely blameless in the matter of our estrangement.’ I was a ‘true Kafka’, you took after your mother’s, the Löwy side etc – all you inherited from me, according to you, were your bad traits, without having the benefit of my vitality. I was ‘too strong’ for you. You could not help it; I could not help it. So? All you wanted was for me to admit that, and we would have lived in peace. You were judge, you were jury, you were accused; you sentenced yourself, first. ‘At my desk, that is my place. My head in my hands – that is my attitude.’ (And that’s what your poor mother and I used to look at, that was our pride and joy, our only surviving son!) But I was accused, too; you were judge, you were jury in my case, too. Right? By what right? Fancy goods – you despised the family business that fed us all, that paid for your education. What concern was it of yours, the way I treated the shop assistants? You only took an interest so you could judge, judge. It was a mistake to have let you study law. You did nothing with your qualification, your expensive education that I slaved and ruined my health for. Nothing but sentence me. – Now what was I saying? Oh yes. Look what you wanted me to admit, under the great writer’s beautiful words. If something goes wrong, somebody must be to blame, eh? We were not straw dolls, pulled about from above on strings. One of us must be to blame. And don’t tell me you think it could be you. The stronger is always to blame, isn’t that so? I’m not a deep thinker like you, only a dealer in retail fancy goods, but isn’t that a law of life? ‘The effect you had on me was the effect you could not help having.’ You think I’ll believe you’re paying me a compliment, forgiving me, when you hand me the worst insult any father could receive? If it’s what I am that’s to blame, then I’m to blame, to the last drop of my heart’s blood and whatever this is that’s survived my body, for what I am, for being alive and begetting a son! You! Is that it? Because of you I should never have lived at all!

You always had a fine genius (never mind your literary one) for working me up. And you knew it was bad for my heart-condition. Now, what does it matter ... but, as God’s my witness, you aggravate me ... you make me ...


All I know is that I am to blame for ever. You’ve seen to that. It’s written, and not alone by you. There are plenty of people writing books about Kafka, Franz Kafka. I’m even blamed for the name I handed down, our family name. Kavka is Czech for jackdaw, so that’s maybe the reason for your animal obsession. Dafke! Insect, ape, dog, mouse, stag, what didn’t you imagine yourself. They say the beetle story is a great masterpiece, thanks to me – I’m the one who treated you like an inferior species, gave you the inspiration ... You wake up as a bug, you give a lecture as an ape. Do any of these wonderful scholars think what this meant to me, having a son who didn’t have enough self-respect to feel himself a man?

You had such a craze for animals, but may I remind you, when you were staying with Ottla at Zürau you wouldn’t even undress in front of the cat she’d brought in to get rid of the mice ...

Yet you imagined a dragon coming into your room. It said (an educated dragon, noch): ‘Drawn hitherto by your longing ... I offer myself to you.’ Your longing, Franz: ugh, for monsters, for perversion. You describe a person (yourself, of course) in some crazy fantasy of living with a horse. Just listen to you: ‘... for a year I lived together with a horse in such ways as, say, a man would live with a girl whom he respects, but by whom he is rejected.’ You even gave the horse a girl’s name, Eleanor. I ask you, is that the kind of story made up by a normal young man? Is it decent that people should read such things, long after you are gone? But it’s published, everything is published.

And worst of all, what about the animal in the synagogue. Some sort of rat, weasel, a marten you call it. You tell how it ran all over during prayers, running along the lattice of the women’s section and even climbing down to the curtain in front of the Ark of the Covenant. A schande, an animal running about during divine service. Even if it’s only a story – only you would imagine it. No respect.

You go on for several pages (in that secret letter) about my use of vulgar Yiddish expressions, about my ‘insignificant scrap of Judaism’, which was ‘purely social’ and so meant we couldn’t ‘find each other in Judaism’ if in nothing else. This, from you! When you were a youngster and I had to drag you to the Yom Kippur services once a year you were sitting there making up stories about unclean animals approaching the Ark, the most holy object of the Jewish faith. Once you were grown up, you went exactly once to the Altneu synagogue. The people who write books about you say it must have been to please me. I’d be surprised. When you suddenly discovered you were a Jew, after all, of course your Judaism was highly intellectual, nothing in common with the Jewish customs I was taught to observe in my father’s shtetl, pushing the barrow at the age of seven. Your Judaism was learnt at the Yiddish Theatre. That’s a nice crowd! Those dirty-living travelling players you took up with at the Savoy Café. Your friend the actor Jizchak Löwy. No relation to your mother’s family, thank God. I wouldn’t let such a man even meet her. You had the disrespect to bring him into your parents’ home, and I saw it was my duty to speak to him in such a way that he wouldn’t ever dare to come back again. (Hah! I used to look down from the window and watch him, hanging around in the cold, outside the building, waiting for you.) And the Tschissik woman, that nafke, one of his actresses – I’ve found out you thought you were in love with her, a married woman (if you can call the way those people live a marriage). Apart from Fräulein Bauer you never fancied anything but a low type of woman. I say it again as I did then: if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. You lost your temper (yes, you, this time), you flew into a rage at your father when he told you that. And when I reminded you of my heart-condition, you put yourself in the, right again, as usual, you said (I remember like it was yesterday). ‘I make great efforts to restrain myself.’ But now I’ve read your diaries, the dead don’t need to creep into your bedroom and read them behind your back (which you accused your mother and me of doing), I’ve read what you wrote afterwards, that you sensed in me, your father, ‘as always at such moments of extremity, the existence of a wisdom which I can no more than scent’. So you knew, while you were defying me, you knew I was right!

The fact is that you were anti-semitic, Franz. You were never interested in what was happening to your own people. The hooligans’ attacks on Jews in the streets, on houses and shops, that took place while you were growing up – I don’t see a word about them in your diaries, your notebooks. You were only imagining Jews. Imagining them tortured in places like your Penal Colony, maybe. I don’t want to think about what that means.

Right, towards the end you studied Hebrew, you and your sister Ottla had some wild dream about going to Palestine. You, hardly able to breathe by then, digging potatoes on a kibbutz! The latest book about you says you were in revolt against the ‘shopkeeper mentality’ of your father’s class of Jew; but it was the shopkeeper father, the buttons and buckles, braid, ribbons, ornamental combs, press-studs, hooks-and-eyes, bootlaces, photoframes, shoehorns, novelties and notions that earned the bread for you to dream by. You were anti-semitic, Franz; if such a thing is possible as for a Jew to cut himself in half. (For you, I suppose, anything is possible.) You told Ottla that to marry that goy Josef Davis was better than marrying ten Jews. When your great friend Brod wrote a book called The Jewesses you wrote there were too many of them in it. You saw them like lizards. (Animals again, low animals.) ‘However happy we are to watch a single lizard on a footpath in Italy, we would be horrified to see hundreds of them crawling over each other in a pickle jar.’ From where did you get such ideas? Not from your home, that I know.

And look how Jewish you are, in spite of the way you despised us – yes, your Jewish family! You answer questions with questions. I’ve discovered that’s your style, your famous literary style: your Jewishness. Did you or did you not write the following story, playlet, what-d’you-call-it, your friend Brod kept every scribble and you knew he wouldn’t burn even a scrap. ‘Once at a spiritualist seance a new spirit announced its presence, and the following conversation with it took place. The spirit: Excuse me. The spokesman: Who are you? The spirit: Excuse me. The spokesman: What do you want? The spirit: To go away. The spokesman: But you’ve only just come. The spirit: It’s a mistake. The spokesman: No, it isn’t a mistake. You’ve come and you’ll stay. The spirit: I’ve just begun to feel ill. The spokesman: Badly? The spirit: Badly? The spokesman: Physically? The spirit: Physically? The spokesman: You answer with questions. That will not do. We have ways of punishing you, so I advise you to answer, for then we shall soon dismiss you. The spirit: Soon? The spokesman: Soon. The spirit: In one minute? The spokesman: Don’t go on in this miserable way ... ’

Questions without answers. Riddles. You wrote: ‘It is always only in contradiction that I can live. But this doubtless applies to everyone; for living, one dies, dying, one lives.’ Speak for yourself! So who did you think you were when that whim took you – their prophet, Jesus Christ? What did you want? The goyischke heavenly hereafter? What did you mean when a lost man, far from his native country, says to someone he meets, ‘I am in your hands,’ and the other says: ‘No. You are free and that is why you are lost’? What’s the sense in writing about a woman: ‘I lie in wait for her in order not to meet her’? There’s only one of your riddles I think I understand, and then only because for forty-two years, God help me, I had to deal with you myself. ‘A cage went in search of a bird.’ That’s you. The cage, not the bird. I don’t know why. Maybe it will come to me. As I say, if a person wants to, he can know everything here.

All that talk about going away. You called your home (more riddles) ‘My prison – my fortress.’ You grumbled – in print, everything ended up in print, my son – that your room was only a passage, a thoroughfare between the living-room and your parents’ bedroom. You complained you had to write in pencil because we took away your ink to stop you writing. It was for your own good, your health – already you were a grown man, a qualified lawyer, but you know you couldn’t look after yourself. Scribbling away half the night, you’d have been too tired to work properly in the mornings, you’d have lost your position at the Assicurazioni Generali (or was it by then the Arbeiterumfallversicherungsanstalt für das Königreich Böhmen, my memory doesn’t get any better, here). And I wasn’t made of money. I couldn’t go on supporting everybody for ever.

You’ve published every petty disagreement in the family. It was a terrible thing, according to you, we didn’t want you to go out in bad weather, your poor mother wanted you to wrap up. You with your delicate health, always sickly – you didn’t inherit my constitution, it was only a lifetime of hard work, the business, the family worries that got me, in the end! You recorded that you couldn’t go for a walk without your parents making a fuss, but at twenty-eight you were still living at home. Going away. My poor boy. You could hardly get yourself to the next room. You shut yourself up when people came to visit. Always crawling off to bed, sleeping in the day (oh yes, you couldn’t sleep at night, not like anybody else), sleeping your life away. You invented Amerika instead of having the guts to emigrate, get up off the bed, pack up and go there, make a new life! Even that girl you jilted twice managed it. Did you know Felice is still alive somewhere, there now, in America? She’s an old, old woman with great-grandchildren. They didn’t get her into the death camps those highly-educated people say you knew about before they happened. America you never went to, Spain you dreamt about ... your Uncle Alfred was going to find you jobs there, in Madeira, the Azores ... God knows where else. Grandson of a ritual slaughterer, a schochet, that was why you couldn’t bear to eat meat, they say, and that made you weak and undecided. So that was my fault, too, because my poor father had to earn a living. When your mother was away from the flat, you’d have starved yourself to death if it hadn’t been for me. And what was the result? You resented so much what I provided for you, you went and had your stomach pumped out! Like someone who’s been poisoned! And you didn’t forget to write it down, either: ‘My feeling is that disgusting things will come out.’

Whatever I did for you was dreck. You felt ‘despised, condemned, beaten down’ by me. But you despised me; the only difference, I wasn’t so easy to beat down, eh? How many times did you try to leave home, and you couldn’t go? It’s all there in your diaries, in the books they write about you. What about that other masterpiece of yours, ‘The Judgment’. A father and son quarrelling, and then the son goes and drowns himself, saying, ‘Dear parents, I have always loved you, all the same.’ The wonderful discovery about that story, you might like to hear, it proves Hermann Kafka most likely didn’t want his son to grow up and be a man, any more than his son wanted to manage without his parents’ protection. The meshugener who wrote that, may he get rich on it! I wouldn’t wish it on him to try living with you, that’s all, the way we had to. When your hunchback friend secretly showed your mother a complaining letter of yours, to get you out of your duty of going to the asbestos factory to help your own sister’s husband, Brod kept back one thing you wrote. But now it’s all published all, all, all the terrible things you thought about your own flesh and blood. ‘I hate them all’: father, mother, sisters.

You couldn’t do without us – without me. You only moved away from us when you were nearly thirty-two, a time when every man has a wife and children already, a home of his own.

You were always dependent on someone. Your friend Brod, poor devil. If it hadn’t been for the little hunchback, who would know of your existence today? Between the incinerators that finished your sisters and the fire you wanted to burn up your manuscripts, nothing would be left. The kind of men you invented, the Gestapo, confiscated whatever papers of yours there were in Berlin, and no trace of them has ever been found, even by the great Kafka experts who stick their noses into everything. You said you loved Max Brod more than yourself. I can see that. You liked the idea he had of you, that you knew wasn’t yourself (you see, sometimes I’m not so grob, uneducated, knowing nothing but fancy goods, maybe I got from you some ‘insights’). Certainly, I wouldn’t recognise my own son the way Brod described you: ‘the aura Kafka gave out of extraordinary strength, something I’ve never encountered elsewhere, even in meetings with great and famous men ... the infallible solidity of his insights never tolerated a single lacuna, nor did he ever speak an insignificant word ... He was life-affirming, ironically tolerant towards the idiocies of the world, and therefore full of sad humour.’

I must say, your mother who put up with your faddiness when she came back from a day standing in the business, your sisters who acted in your plays to please you, your father who worked his heart out for his family – we never got the benefit of your tolerance. Your sisters (except Ottla, the one you admit you were a bad influence on, encouraging her to leave the shop and work on a farm like a peasant, to starve herself with you on rabbit-food, to marry that goy) were giggling idiots, so far as you were concerned. Your mother never felt the comfort of her son’s strength. You never gave us anything to laugh at, sad or otherwise. And you hardly spoke to me at all, even an insignificant word. Whose fault was it you were that person you describe ‘strolling about on the island in the pool, where there are neither books nor bridges, hearing the music, but not being heard’. You wouldn’t cross a road, never mind a bridge, to pass the time of day, to be pleasant to other people, you shut yourself in your room and stuffed your ears with Oropax against the music of life, yes, the sounds of cooking, people coming and going (what were we supposed to do, pass through closed doors?), even the singing of the pet canaries annoyed you, laughter, the occasional family tiff, the bed squeaking where normal married people made love.

What I’ve just said may surprise. That last bit, I mean. But since I died in 1931 I know the world has changed a lot. People, even fathers and sons, are talking about things that shouldn’t be talked about. People aren’t ashamed to read anything, even private diaries, even letters. There’s no shame, anywhere. With that, too, you were ahead of your time, Franz. You were not ashamed to write in your diary, which your friend Brod would publish, you must have known he would publish everything, make a living out of us – things that have led one of the famous Kafka scholars to study the noises in our family flat in Prague. Writing about me: ‘It would have been out of character for Hermann Kafka to restrain any noises he felt like making during coupling; it would have been out of character for Kafka, who was ultra-sensitive to noise and had grown up with these noises, to mention the suffering they caused him.’

You left behind you for everyone to read that the sight of your parents’ pyjamas and nightdress on the bed disgusted you. Let me also speak freely like everyone else. You were made in that bed. That disgusts me: your disgust over a place that should have been holy to you, a place to hold in the highest respect. You you are the one who complained about my coarseness when I suggested you ought to find yourself a woman – buy one, hire one – rather than try to prove yourself a man at last, at thirty-six, by marrying some Prague Jewish tart who shook her tits in a thin blouse. Yes, I’m speaking of that Julie Wohryzek, the shoemaker’s daughter, your second fiancée. You even had the insolence to throw the remark in my face, in that letter you didn’t send, but I’ve read it anyway, I’ve read everything now, although you said I put In the Penal Colony on the bedside table and never mentioned it again.

I have to talk about another matter we didn’t discuss, father and son, while we were both alive – all right, it was my fault, maybe you’re right, as I’ve said, times were different ... Women. I must bring this up because – my poor boy – marriage was ‘the greatest terror’ of your life. You write that. You say your attempts to explain why you couldn’t marry – on these depends the ‘success’of the whole letter you didn’t send. According to you, marrying, founding a family was ‘the utmost a human being can succeed in doing at all’. Yet you couldn’t marry. How is any ordinary human being to understand that? You wrote more than a quarter of a million words to Felice Bauer, but you couldn’t be a husband to her. You put your parents through the farce of travelling all the way to Berlin for an engagement party (there’s the photograph you had taken, the happy couple, in the books they write about you, by the way). The engagement was broken, was on again, off again. Can you wonder? Anyone who goes into a bookshop or library can read what you wrote to your fiancée when your sister Elli gave birth to our first granddaughter. You felt nothing but nastiness, envy, against your brother in-law because ‘I’ll never have a child.’ No, not with the Bauer girl, not in a decent marriage, like anybody else’s son; but I’ve found out you had a child, Brod says so, by a woman, Grete Bloch, who was supposed to be the Bauer girl’s best friend, who even acted as matchmaker between you! What do you say to that? Maybe it’s news to you. I don’t know. (That’s how irresponsible you were.) They say she went away. Perhaps she never told you.

As for the next one you tried to marry, the one you make such a song and dance over because of my remark about Prague Jewesses and the blouse etc – for once you came to your senses, and you called off the wedding only two days before it was supposed to take place. Not that I could have influenced you. Since when did you take into consideration what your parents thought? When you told me you wanted to marry the shoemaker’s daughter – naturally I was upset. At least the Bauer girl came from a nice family. What I said about the blouse just came out, I’m human, after all. But I was frank with you, man to man. You weren’t a youngster any more. A man doesn’t have to marry a nothing who will go with anybody.

I saw what that marriage was about, my poor son. You wanted a woman. Nobody understood that better than I did, believe me, I was normal man enough, eh! There were places in Prague where one could get a woman. (I suppose whatever’s happened, there still are, always will be.) I tried to help you; I offered to go along with you myself. I said it in front of your mother, who – yes, as you write you were so shocked to see, was in agreement with me. We wanted so much to help you, even your own mother would go so far as that.

But in that letter you didn’t think I’d ever see, you accuse me of humiliating you and I don’t know what else. You wanted to marry a tart, but you were insulted at the idea of buying one?

Writing that letter only a few days after you yourself called off your second try at getting married, aged thirty-six, you find that your father, as a man of the world, not only showed ‘contempt’ for you on that occasion, but that when he had spoken to you as a broad-minded father when you were a youngster he had given you information that set off the whole ridiculous business of your never being able to marry, ever. Already, twenty years before the Julie Wohryzek row, with ‘a few frank words’ (as you put it) your father made you incapable of taking a wife and pushed you down ‘into the filth as if it were my destiny’. You remember some walk with your mother and me on the Josefsplatz when you showed curiosity about, well, men’s feelings, and women, and I was open and honest with you and told you I could give you advice about where to go so that these things could be done quite safely, without bringing home any disease. You were sixteen years old, physically a man, not a child, eh? Wasn’t it time to talk about such things?

Shall I tell you what I remember? Once you picked a quarrel with your mother’ and me because we hadn’t educated you sexually – your words. Now you complain because I tried to guide you in these matters. I did – I didn’t. Make up your mind. Have it your own way. Whatever I did, you believed it was because of what I did that you couldn’t bring yourself to marry. When you thought you wanted the Bauer girl, didn’t I give in, to please you? Although you were in no financial position to marry, although I had to give your two married sisters financial help, although I had worries enough, a sick man, you’d caused me trouble by persuading me to invest in a mechullah asbestos factory? Didn’t I give in? And when the girl came to Prague to meet your parents and sisters, you wrote: ‘My family likes her almost more than I’d like it to.’ So it went as far as that: you couldn’t like anything we liked, was that why you couldn’t marry her?

A long time ago, a long way ... ah, it all moves away, it’s getting faint ... But I haven’t finished. Wait.

You say you wrote your letter because you wanted to explain why you couldn’t marry. I’m writing this letter because you tried to write it for me. You would take even that away from your father. You answered your own letter, before I could. You made what you imagine as my reply part of the letter you wrote me. To save me the trouble ... Brilliant, like they say. With your great gifts as a famous writer, you express it all better than I could. You are there, quickly, with an answer, before I can be. You take the words out of my mouth: while you are accusing yourself, in my name, of being ‘too clever, obsequious, parasitic and insincere’ in blaming your life on me, you are – yet again, one last time! – finally being too clever, obsequious, parasitic and insincere in the trick of stealing your father’s chance to defend himself. A genius. What is left to say about you if – how well you know yourself, my boy, it’s terrible – you call yourself the kind of vermin that doesn’t only sting, but at the same time sucks blood to keep itself alive? And even that isn’t the end of the twisting, the cheating. You then confess that this whole ‘correction’, ‘rejoinder’, as you, an expensively educated man, call it, ‘does not originate’ in your father but in you yourself, Franz Kafka. So you see, here’s the proof, something. I know you, with all your brains, can’t know for me: you say you always wrote about me, it was all about me, your father; but it was all about you. The beetle. The bug that lay on its back waving its legs in the air and couldn’t get up to go and see America or the Great Wall of China. You, you, self, self. And in your letter, after you have defended me against yourself, when you finally make the confession – right again, in the right again, always – you take the last word, in proof of your saintliness I could know nothing about, never understand, a businessman, a shopkeeper. That is your ‘truth’ about us you hoped might be able to ‘make our living and our dying easier’.

The way you ended up, Franz. The last woman you found yourself. It wasn’t our wish, God knows. Living with that Eastern Jewess, and in sin. We sent you money; that was all we could do. If we’d come to see you, if we’d swallowed our pride, meeting that woman, our presence would have made you worse. It’s there in everything you’ve written, everything they write about you: everything connected with us made you depressed and ill. We knew she was giving you the wrong food, cooking like a gypsy on a spirit stove. She kept you in an unheated hovel in Berlin ... may God forgive me (Brod has told the world), I had to turn my back on her at your funeral.

Franz ... When you received copies of your book In the Penal Colony from Kurt Wolff Verlag that time ... You gave me one and I said: ‘Put it on the night-table.’ You say I never mentioned it again. Well, don’t you understand – I’m not a literary man. I’m telling you now. I read a little bit, a page or two at a time. If you had seen that book, there was a pencil mark every two, three pages, so I would know next time where I left off. It wasn’t like the books I knew – I hadn’t much time for reading, working like a slave since I was a small boy, I wasn’t like you, I couldn’t shut myself up in a room with books, when I was young. I would have starved. But you know that. Can’t you understand that I was – yes – not too proud – ashamed to let you know I didn’t find it easy to understand your kind of writing, it was all strange to me.

Hah! I know I’m no intellectual, but I knew how to live!

Just a moment ... give me time ... there’s a fading ... Yes – can you imagine how we felt when Ottla told us you had turberculosis? Oh, how could you bring it over your heart to remind me I once said, in a temper, to a useless assistant coughing all over the shop (you should have had to deal with those lazy goyim) he ought to die, the sick dog. Did I know you would get turberculosis, too? It wasn’t our fault your lungs rotted. I tried to expand your chest when you were little, teaching you to swim. You should never have moved out of your own home, the care of your parents, to that rat hole in the Schönbornpalais. And the hovel in Berlin ... We had some good times, didn’t we? Franz? When we had beer and sausages after the swimming lessons? At least you remembered the beer and sausages, when you were dying.

One more thing. It chokes me, I have to say it. I know you’ll never answer. You once wrote: ‘Speech is possible only where one wants to lie.’ You were too ultra-sensitive to speak to us, Franz. You kept silence, with the truth: those playing a game of cards, turning in bed on the other side of the wall – it was the sound of live people you didn’t like. Your revenge, that you were too cowardly to take inlife, you’ve taken here. We can’t lie peacefully in our graves; dug up, unwrapped from our shrouds by your fame. To desecrate your parents’ grave as well as their bed, aren’t you ashamed? Aren’t you ashamed – now? Well, what’s the use of quarrelling. We lie together in the same grave – you, your mother and I. We’ve ended up as we always should have been, united. Rest in peace, my son. I wish you had let me.

                                    Your father,

                              Hermann Kafka

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences