A Human Kafka
- The World of Franz Kafka edited by J.P. Stern
Weidenfeld, 263 pp, £9.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 297 77845 5
When Kafka died in 1924, not one of his novels had been published. He was known to a small circle – though Janouch’s testimony shows that that circle spread beyond his friends – as the author of a story about a man who turned into a beetle. Brod published The Trial in 1925, and followed it with The Castle (1926), America (1927) and a volume of short fragments and aphorisms, The Great Wall of China (1931). The first work of Kafka’s to be translated into English was The Castle, which the Muirs brought out in 1930. In the twenty years following his death, Kafka came to be known in Europe and America simply as the author of The Trial and The Castle. Those twenty years saw the destruction of the world Kafka had known, and his family with it, and they were years when it might have been thought Europe would have other things on its mind than the assimilation of the strange imaginative world of a Prague Jew writing in German. But it didn’t work like that. The very temper of those years made Kafka seem profoundly relevant and prophetic, and by the end of the war his reputation was as solidly established as that of Eliot or Joyce or Proust.
Yet the fact that it was a reputation based largely on the two novels did not really help Kafka. The novels had been edited by Brod according to his views of what Kafka was up to, and were prefaced by Brod’s interpretations. In the English versions, the Muirs pretty faithfully followed the Brod line – which was more or less to see Kafka as a modern Bunyan. Like all interpretations of Kafka, this one has a good deal of truth in it. One cannot read a page of Kafka without feeling that there is a strong religious sensibility at work, allied to the kind of violent honesty of which no more than a handful of writers are capable in any generation. Nevertheless, those who had come to know and love the works must have felt uneasy with this view, and here and there voices began to be raised which resisted such an interpretation and insisted on the ultimately mysterious and ambiguous texture of Kafka’s art. Chief among these were the voices of Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot, Marthe Robert and Erich Heller.
Heller’s essay on The Castle in The Disinherited Mind (1952) marked a real turning point. He argued persuasively that it was folly to go on debating whether Kafka was religious or anti-religious, Marxist or bourgeois, Calvinist or existentialist. For Kafka’s work is not the passive object of interpretation: it is itself actively concerned with the nature of interpretation, and is thus its own best commentary. This Archimedean revolution in the understanding of Kafka in a sense put paid to Kafka studies. There seemed to be nothing more to say. A few i’s might still need dotting and a few t’s crossing, but by and large the business of Kafka criticism was at an end. And yet, though in some sense Heller was right, he did leave the reader of Kafka with the feeling that something was missing: that more could and should be said. But how? Kafka, as Marthe Robert has remarked in her brilliant new book on Kafka’s relation to Judaism,[*] was never interested in ideas, only in people. It was the actor Löwy and the members of his troupe, not their ideas, which fascinated him; Steiner the man, picking his nose as he enlarged on his views, rather than the views themselves, which he felt constrained to comment on in his diary. And so with Kafka himself. There was something about the man which transcended the works, a quality glimpsed through the works which could neither be pinned down nor reduced to a simple (or complex) issue about interpretation.
At the time, it seemed difficult to bring this quality into focus. Was our curiosity about Kafka any different from our curiosity about Joyce or Scott Fitzgerald? It was, but how and why? Answers to these questions began to emerge as more and more of his writings began to appear: his diaries, his letter to his father, the batch of letters to Milena Jesenska and, finally, the enormous volume of letters to Felice Bauer, the woman he was twice engaged to and who, with his father, was surely the central external factor in his life. Of the 12 volumes of Kafka’s writings in the German edition, just over half are devoted to what might be called ‘non-fiction’. But the strange thing about these letters and diaries was not that they made us realise how much more autobiographical the novels were than we had thought, but that they forced us to revise our notions of where the boundaries might lie between fiction and non-fiction. They did not so much open Kafka up to us as give us a great many more examples of his perennial mysteriousness. And suddenly it seemed possible to talk about Kafka, the man and the work, without falling either into the Brod-Muir trap or into the self-destructiveness of the Heller approach. There was a whole world waiting to be explored, and one which could be explored with humanity and patience: the world of his relations with people, with his background, with his art. A new, much more varied Kafka was emerging, a human, humorous Kafka, alive to the world around him and not merely obsessed with inner anguish.
This book is a celebration of that Kafka. Its epigraph could well be this sentence from Roy Fuller’s splendid essay, which sets out to overturn Brod’s view that Kafka’s daily stint at the Insurance Office was totally destructive: ‘There are advantages,’ Fuller writes, ‘in a life, however disagreeable, that constantly pits such a writer against the varieties of the everyday – such as are displayed by office life in a large organisation.’ The book contains fascinating essays of a strictly biographical nature, studies of Kafka’s Prague and of his relations with women. It also contains poems by D.J. Enright and Jerzy Peterkiewicz (not the best work of either) and stories by Philip Roth and the editor on what might have been: a Kafka alive in America after the war, a bachelor schoolmaster; alive in the war and fighting with the partisans. These are not merely jeux d’esprit. By making us imagine what might have been, they lend depth and poignancy to what in fact was. For if Kafka could have survived his illness and the Nazis, it is possible that such a survival would have meant the loss to the world of the greater part of his writings: his fastidiousness and his growing sense of art as the essential sin might have led him to destroy all that in fact passed into Brod’s safekeeping.
There are also more standard essays and meditations on Kafka’s art by Roy Pascal, Erich Heller, Idris Parry, Tony Thorlby and Walter Sokel. But even these seem to have been lifted above the norm for such essays by the editor’s humanity and enthusiasm, and they all have a relaxed and sparkling quality rare in Kafka criticism, a willingness to abandon the central argument for the apparently peripheral insight which makes every paragraph exciting and thought-provoking.
Joyce Crick’s essay on Kafka and the Muirs is typical of the spirit of the book. The subject does not sound very promising, yet we get a splendid study not just of the Englishing of Kafka but of a whole range of problems and issues of quite general significance. There is, for example, the question of a minority language, so central to Kafka, which, she points out, was also of prime significance for the Muirs, coming as they did from the Shetlands and Orkney. There is the question of the almost inevitable bias of the literary imagination of this country (despite Dickens and Eliot) towards the rural, the natural, which exerts its pull, however faithful the Muirs try to be to Kafka’s drab, urbanised language and imagery: ‘The flimsy leichtgebautes Haus, where Georg Bendemann lives, is ruinously “ramshackle” in English. The pallid schwaches Grün he looks out onto becomes a warm and springlike “tender green”.’ And the picture Crick gives of Central Europe in the interwar period is particularly good just because she is not directly concerned with that: we only glimpse it out of the corner of the eye, so to speak. How fascinating, and what a splendid instance of the evocative power of detail, to learn that a chance meeting with Willa’s old friend, A.S. Neil, led to the Muirs moving to join his experimental school at Hellerau – the very school to which Kafka had urged his sister Elli to send her ten-year-old son: ‘You should send young Felix there. It will save him from the mean, lukewarm, squinnying spirit so strong in well-off Prague Jews.’
The same ability to speak seriously about Kafka without turning him into Modern Man or The Artist is to be found in Roy Fuller’s essay. Fuller rightly compares Kafka with that other insurance lawyer, Wallace Stevens, who, when the time came to retire, insisted on carrying on, since he felt that only by having his regular, quite unpoetical job to fill up his day could he go on being the instinctive and prolific writer he was. And he quotes Stevens’s marvellous letter of 17 February 1930, to Thomas McGreevy, which should be pinned above every fretful writer’s desk:
If Beethoven could look back on what he had accomplished and say that it was a collection of crumbs compared to what he had hoped to accomplish, where should I ever find a figure of speech adequate to size up the little that I have done compared to that which I had once hoped to do? Of course, I have had a happy and well-kept life. But I have not even begun to touch the spheres within spheres that might have been possible if, instead of devoting the principal amount of my time to making a living, I had devoted it to thought and poetry. Certainly it is as true as it ever was that whatever means most to one should receive all of one’s time and that has not been true in my case. But, then, if I had been more determined about it, I might now be looking back not with a mere sense of regret but at some actual devastation. To be cheerful about it, I am now in the happy position of being able to say that I don’t know what would have happened if I had had more time. This is very much better than to have had all the time in the world and have found oneself inadequate.
And yet there is a danger in this sort of argument. It can all too easily turn from a critique of banal Romanticism to a vindication of smug mediocrity. Would Joyce have been better off with an office job? Would Proust? I mean no disrespect to Roy Fuller in asking if Virginia Woolf is not a better novelist than him, or Rilke a better poet. But I feel the issue needs to be raised, because it is one that goes to the heart of this whole collection. Salutary and welcome though it is, it is perhaps in danger of assimilating Kafka a little too readily to a cosy pragmatism which is characteristic of the best and worst in English letters. There is a perfect example of what I mean in Professor Stern’s own admirable introduction. He says: ‘There is about the man Franz Kafka a charm, a good-natured resignation, an uncommon kindness and thoughtfulness for others, which come across in his letters and in the testimonies of friends ... There is, every now and then, a mocking exasperation with himself and a gentle sense of humour ... a humour which should not bear the brunt of “deep” interpretation.’ He then proceeds to give examples of this sense of humour, including the following: ‘On a rainy day in Marienbad Kafka watches a famous rabbi with his solemn entourage in search of medicinal waters after the springs have all been shut for the day, the bottle brought for the purpose meanwhile filling with rainwater – a Marx Brothers scenario which Kafka ends with a comment on one of the rabbi’s followers who “tries to find or thinks he finds a deeper meaning in all this: I think the deeper meaning is that there is none, and in my opinion that is enough.” ’ This would seem to be justification enough for Stern’s general remarks. But the actual letter may not quite bear out his interpretation. Kafka writes:
He [the rabbi] inspects everything, but especially the buildings; the most obscure trivialities interest him. He asks questions, points out all sorts of things. His whole demeanour is marked by admiration and curiosity. All in all, what comes from him are the inconsequential comments and questions of itinerant royalty, perhaps, somewhat more childish and more joyous. At any rate they reduce all thinking on the part of his escort to the same level. Langer tries to find or thinks he finds a deeper meaning in all this; I think that the deeper meaning is that there is none and in my opinion this is quite enough. It is absolutely a case of divine right, without the absurdity that an inadequate basis would give to it.
This is altogether more mysterious. Kafka talks about the holy rabbi of Belz just as he does about his father. There is nothing in his outward appearance or his actions which would indicate holiness. On the contrary. Yet that is precisely what is so terrifying and authoritative about him. His very childishness is proof of the gap that lies between him and us. He is imbued with a totally mysterious power and authority, whose source we can never hope to understand. All we can say for certain is that we don’t have it. He moves lightly, like a child or a king, with no tension between inner and outer. Only we, like Kafka, carry our burden with us: the need to relate the two, the need to interpret.
I feel that the new, human Kafka Stern is offering us is in danger of turning into a Hume or Dr Johnson, of being assimilated to the temper of English thought in rather the same way that Wittgenstein was assimilated for a while. That may be a necessary stage in our attempt to see him for what he is. Meanwhile, his radiance shines for us as the holy rabbi’s did for him: he is a presence in our midst, and will remain untouched by any act of appropriation on our part. This splendid book does a great deal to bring that presence to life.
[*] Seul Comme Franz Kafka (Calmann-Levy, 1979).