Möbius Strip

Dan Jacobson

  • K: A Biography of Kafka by Ronald Hayman
    Weidenfeld, 349 pp, £16.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 297 77996 6
  • Stories 1904-1924 by Franz Kafka, translated by J.A. Underwood
    Macdonald, 271 pp, £7.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 354 04639 X

The Möbius strip is well-known to topologists and to those fond of performing simple party tricks. By twisting a strip of paper through 180° before pasting its ends together, you can produce a hollow shape with only one surface and one edge. To convince the onlookers that the shape has only one side, you can start drawing a line down the middle of it at any point and continue the line without lifting the pencil from the paper, until you return to your starting-point. You will then have shown that the single line has passed through what were, before the strip was pasted together, the two sides of the original strip of paper. The trick is both elementary and confusing: obvious and yet an irresolvable affront to one’s sense of order and logic.

The writings of Franz Kafka, I would suggest, are the literary equivalent of the Möbius strip. Consider this tiny sampling of passages from his letters and diaries quoted in Mr Hayman’s biography:

[Of a present sent to a correspondent] Keep it in your pocket, it will protect you, leave it in a drawer, it will not be inactive there either, but throw it away, that’s best of all.

[Of his sense of failure in life] The spirit that achieved that must be celebrating its triumph; why won’t it let me join in?

[Of his self-hatred] This opinion is my only good point.

[Of suicide] If you were capable of it, you certainly wouldn’t need it.

[Of the TB which was to kill him] It’s a special illness which has been, if you like, conferred preferentially, quite unlike any I’ve previously had. In the same way a happy lover might say: ‘Everything else was just infatuation. I’m in love for the first time.’

[Of himself] A segment has been cut out of the back of his head. The sun, and the whole world with it, peep in. It makes him nervous, it distracts him from his work, and moreover it irritates him that he should be the one debarred from the spectacle.

Several things can be said about these utterances, and the numberless others like them to be found in Kafka’s informal writings. But perhaps one should say first of all that they are funny. They are desperately miserable as well, obviously: yet they appeal directly to our love of the incongruous and paradoxical, out of which all humour is born. The same is true of the best of Kafka’s stories, many of which seem to be highly elaborate extensions or explorations of remarks like those quoted above: the stories, too, are funny and terrible, and the more terrible the events described in them, the funnier they become. This I think is the case even with The Trial and ‘The Penal Colony’; let alone with Gregor Samsa’s waking from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach, in ‘The Metamorphosis’; or with the anorexic hero of ‘A Hunger Artist’ who wins fame and acclaim through his amazing feats of self-starvation, but knows inwardly that there’s nothing to it – he just doesn’t like eating. It should not really come as a surprise to us that the author of these stories – melancholy and self-hating almost to the point of madness though he may have been – was greatly admired by his friends for his coolness, his reserve, and his wit.

Nor should it surprise us, however, that his diaries and letters are ultimately stifling and infuriating when read in bulk. ‘If a neurotic tries to drag you down with him, spit in his face,’ wrote D.H. Lawrence, himself not unacquainted with both neurosis and tuberculosis. That wasn’t exactly what I felt like doing while reading Mr Hayman’s biography: but only an exceptionally kind-hearted reader would be able to go through it without occasionally feeling a strong urge to shake of kick its subject. In fact, Kafka is peculiarly ill-served by Ronald Hayman’s methods as a biographer, which accentuate, without explaining or illuminating, everything that is most claustrophobic about the man’s consciousness and his work. Large parts of the biography resemble nothing so much as a close, anxious running commentary on the diaries and letters; important new characters (like Felice Bauer, the first of several women to whom Kafka became unsatisfactorily engaged) are introduced into the book without a word of explanation by the biographer as to who they are or what they did or where they lived; virtually the only information on such people we are vouchsafed at any stage is that provided by Kafka’s elliptical jottings to himself or his tormented letters to them, Kafka may have often felt himself to be more wraith than man: in Mr Hayman’s biography many others have that status.

As for the circumstances in Kafka’s life which made him the kind of person he was, Mr Hayman writes, as any biographer must, of Kafka’s much-hated and feared father; of the position of German-speaking Czech Jews like the Kafkas, sundered, on the one hand, from the religious traditions of their forebears, and doubly isolated, on the other hand, from the largely Czech-speaking Christians around them; of the situation of Prague as a provincial capital within the remote yet autocratic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Inevitably, these circumstances account for Kafka’s life and his writings, and fail to account for them: there were hundreds and thousands of such half-assimilated, German-speaking Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, some of whom no doubt had boorish, overbearing fathers – only one of them became Franz Kafka. The biography is successful, however, in showing how strong was Kafka’s attachment to many aspects of Jewish life: he loved the sentimentalities of the Yiddish theatre; he dreamed of starting a new life in Palestine, as his literary executor and first biographer, Max Brod, was eventually to do; all his men and women friends were Jewish. But only in one (Kafkan) sense can his Jewishness be called hopeful or positive: for him, a life lived without the kind of sanction once provided by the Mosaic Law remained for ever intolerable. As Jorge Luis Borges puts it, in his introduction to the new translation by J.A. Underwood of the stories published in Kafka’s lifetime: ‘His stories ... presuppose a religious conscience, specifically a Jewish conscience ...’ He ‘saw his work as an act of faith, and he did not want it to discourage other men.’

However, in considering this dimension of the life and work, there is one pitfall to be avoided. Many of Kafka’s stories are about people who are tortured and done to death, for reasons which the hypnotised victims can never establish, by an incomprehensibly malign authority. When we read the stories today, it is impossible for us to put out of mind the fate that befell Kafka’s sisters, his friends and sweethearts, indeed the entire community of which he was a member. But to speak of his work as if it were directly ‘prophetic’ of the catastrophe which was to overwhelm the Jews of Central Europe seems to me not only to coarsen the stories but to do much less than justice to the victims of the Nazi massacres. The greatness of Kafka’s best tales is that at every moment they open themselves simultaneously to theological, political and psychological interpretation; it denatures the stories to regard any one mode of interpreting them as ‘primary’, and to imagine that it can be vindicated by historical events of which Kafka himself had no inkling. (That he believed the position of the Jews in Europe to be ultimately hopeless is demonstrated by his support for the Zionist cause: but only hindsight can translate that feeling of hopelessness into a foreknowledge of what was actually to occur.)

Moreover, to assimilate the millions whom the Nazis killed to the protagonists of Kafka’s tales, all of whom are more than half in love with the tribunals that condemn them, is in effect to accuse the Jews of complicity in their own murder, and by the same token to exonerate the Nazis of some of the guilt they bear. The Jews of Central Europe may have been timid, short-sighted, simple-minded, politically obtuse, incapable for many reasons of organising resistance to their murderers. But they did not want to die, and they fled whenever they could and wherever they could. To suggest otherwise, even by implication, and even in the most high-toned ‘literary’ fashion, is not to confront the nature of recent European history but to indulge in a quasi-pornographic reverie.

Though Kafka is one of the major figures of literary Modernism, we can perhaps gain a better understanding of his work by looking back rather than forward, and by trying to see it in relation to two great 19th-century masters of paradox and self-contradiction whom Mr Hayman invokes, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was preoccupied with the transformation (in individuals, classes, and races) of weakness into strength, and with the modes in which or through which strength could be prevailed on to submit to weakness; Kierkegaard proclaimed dread and faith, the absurd and the absolute, to be wedded indissolubly together. However, each of these men saw himself ultimately as a servant of the ‘positive’ element – strength in Nietzsche’s case, faith in Kierkegaard’s – of the conjunction which he put at the centre of his work. Kafka, by contrast, takes no sides in his fiction: or rather, by expressing them both with an extraordinary purity and intensity, he reveals that for him the two sides – strength and weakness, the absolute and the absurd – are one. Even on his protracted, painful deathbed his thoughts faithfully traced the endless line or loop along which they had always moved. He had already instructed Max Brod to burn all his writings, knowing that Brod had said he would disobey this instruction. Then he asked the friends who had come to be with him during the last days: ‘How long will I be able to bear it that you’re bearing it?’ And at the very end the following exchange took place between him and a man named Klopstock:

Kafka: Don’t go away.

Klopstock: I’m not going away.

Kafka: But I’m going away.