All of a Tremble

David Trotter

His name was Franz Kafka, and he quite often went to the movies. Some such statement constitutes both the basis of Kafka Goes to the Movies and its primary impediment: the rock it has to roll up the hill. According to Max Brod, his lifelong friend and first editor and biographer, Kafka loved the movies; at times, Brod reported, he would talk about little else. For the most part, however, Kafka abstained from written commentary on the cinema. To be sure, there are scattered remarks in diaries and letters from the period 1908-13. But that’s about it. The challenge, for Hanns Zischler, is how to say no more than that Kafka quite often went to the movies, and make it worth saying.

Zischler seems to have decided to pin his hopes on biography. That Kafka quite often went to the movies is of interest if movie-going can be shown to have extended significantly the repertoire of behaviour and reflection available to a young would-be author in Prague in the years before the First World War. It might, for example, alter our sense of the state of the family romance to know that Kafka’s youngest sister, Ottla, was, as Zischler puts it, his ‘real cinematic companion and secret "movie queen"’. But Zischler’s primary hypothesis is that Kafka’s cinema-going helped to maintain the intricate system of displacements and mediations which was his courtship of Felice Bauer.

Kafka first met Bauer, who worked for a Berlin manufacturer of dictaphones, at Max Brod’s on 13 August 1912. His first impressions, recorded a week later, were nothing if not severe. ‘Bony, empty face, which wore its emptiness openly . . . Almost broken nose. Blonde, rather stiff, unalluring hair, strong chin.’ Kafka’s writerliness is evident, here, both in the unflinching adherence to physical fact, and in the recognition that even the most physical of facts cannot escape meaning (the empty face that intends its emptiness), and may contain or hint at a virtual existence (the unscathed nose which bears witness to the possibility of accident or assault). But the act of severity which announces writerliness is also its dissolution. Its double edge folds neatly up into the choice of a mate. ‘While I was sitting down, I saw her at close quarters for the first time, when I sat, I had already reached an unshakeable judgment’ (‘ein unerschütterliches Urteil’).

If the judgment itself remained unshakeable, at least for a while, everything around it immediately began to shake from the recoil. Productively, at first. An entry for 23 September 1912 records the completion the previous night of a story entitled ‘The Judgment’; and the author’s ‘trembling entrance’ (‘zitternde Eintreten’) into his sisters’ room the next morning to read it to them. Literature’s double edge keeps it in a tremble, forever awaiting confirmation (however fast the author might have sat down at his desk the evening before). At this point, Kafka evidently hoped that his new commitment to Felice would strengthen his old commitment to literature; that both would prove unshakeable, and the cause of much shaking. He trembles with ‘intolerable excitement’ while expecting letters from Felice, and then with joy once they have arrived. A long letter makes him wonder what he has done to deserve such bounty. ‘There is no choice but to tremble and read it over and over again.’ The very thought of communication by phone – of waiting to be put through, of eventually being summoned and rushing ‘all of a tremble’ (‘dass alles zittert’) to the apparatus – is enough to rule out such immediacy.

Agitation has a tendency to overspread its source. Kafka began to worry that Felice herself might recoil from so much recoiling: ‘it is objectionable to keep laying myself bare before you without knowing whether or not you tremble inside from it in horror, impatience or boredom.’ His desperate pleas for calm (‘das Gefühl der Ruhe’) make it clear that he had lost faith in the proposed reconciliation of literature with marriage. The correspondence with Felice had begun at the end of September 1912. Two months later, he turned down an invitation to spend Christmas with her in Berlin. The first thing to get shaken in this relationship, it seems, was one party’s desire to see the other again. The ‘madness of so many letters’ (more than 500, over a period of five years) became the relationship.

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