Some Notes on Kafka

By Alan Gullette

 

[August 1999]

 

A Reason to Re-read Kafka

His Works and His Life: Better-Known and Lesser-Known Facts

Kafka's Instruction to Destroy His Unpublished Work

"Against" Brod

Kafka and Lovecraft: A Comparison

Table of Aspects

Literary Themes

"As Different as Hot and Cold"

References

 

 

Some Notes on Kafka

 

A Reason to Re-read Kafka

 

For those who don't know, the standard English translations of Kafka's novels The Trial and The Castle by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir and his wife Willa Muir (1890-1962) are likely to be supplanted by new translations based on restored texts.  It seems that a team of experts have been working for decades on establishing definitive versions, restored as closely as possible to Kafka's manuscripts, which were left unfinished.

 

The first published -- by Schocken, as always -- was The Castle (German, 1982 and 1990; English, 1998).  The Trial also appeared in English in 1998; Amerika in 2002.

 

Hearing of these new translations, I kept an eye out for them on used book shelves.  Recently, I found a paperback Castle as well as a copy of Max Brod's Franz Kafka: A Biography in hardback at a reasonable price.  Re-reading this biography after some twenty years has brought to mind a number of lesser-known facts about this seminal 20th century writer and his works; in addition, a number of sometimes striking similarities to Lovecraft spring to mind which I thought would be of interest to present company.

 

I.      His Works and His Life: Better-Known and Lesser-Known Facts

 

His Works

 

Most will remember Kafka as the author of:

¨     "Metamorphosis" ("Die Verwandlung"): the protagonist awakens transformed into a large beetle and thereby brings shame and hardship to his family;

¨     The Trial (Der Prozess): the nightmarish tale of Joseph K., who stands accused of -- of what, he never knows, try as he may to clear himself; and,

¨     The Castle (Das Schloss): K. seeks in vain to establish himself in a village ruled by the inaccessible Castle and its several mysterious levels of authority;

 

Others may remember these additional works:

¨     "In the Penal Colony" ("In der Strafkolonie"): a capital punishment device uses needles to inscribe on the victim's back the commandment he has broken; just before death the condemned realizes his crime and the justness of his punishment;

¨     "The Hunger Artist" ("Ein Hungerkünstler"): fasting as an art; here, the consummate artist starves to death while on display; before dying, he denies any honor in his art: he has simply never found food that is to his liking; and,

¨     Amerika: a young immigrant seeks happiness in the new world, from the city to the open plains of Oklahoma.

 

Facts that are perhaps not well known about his work:

¥      Amerika was originally entitled "The Man Who Disappeared;" it was his first-begun novel and was given the title it bears (why??) by Max Brod.  The first chapter, "The Stoker," was published as a short story in Kafka's lifetime (one of few).  Kafka acknowledged a debt to Dicken's David Copperfield. 

¥      All three of his novels, while substantial (e.g., The Castle is about 120,000 words), were abandoned in an unfinished state.

 

His Life

 

Kafka is perhaps known to have been: an anonymous clerk; an Austrian (Czech) Jew; and a man whose life-long struggle to redeem himself in the eyes of his father dominated his work psychologically (in this connection, his Letter to His Father, is also well known).

 

Not as well known:

¥      Contrary to his diminutive, unworthy self-image, he stood 6' high

¥      He was described as handsome, with "steel-blue" eyes, and always bore an "enigmatic" smile (Brod calls it "Egyptian") that seemed paradoxical in light of his many sufferings.

¥      "Kafka" (correctly spelled Kavka) means "jackdaw" or raven in Czech; he was raised German, educated in German gymnasiums, and wrote all of his works in German; only later in life did he acquire a thorough knowledge of Czech.

¥      Although the family was Jewish, Kafka's father sought to assimilate them into Austro-Hungarian customs; only later did Kafka show an interest in Hebrew and Yiddish and in Jewish folklore.

¥      Kafka was trained as a lawyer; for many years, he worked for an insurance company investigating workers' accident claims and inspecting factories for safety; he detested his work, which exhausted him and left time but little energy to write, but he feared quitting would appear as a failure to his family.

¥      According to Brod, Kafka in person was almost always basically bright and positive – not at all the despairing, self-abnegating persona of his fiction; even there, Brod argues, "He who reads Kafka's works with care must again and again catch a glimpse through the dark husk of this kernel that gleams, or rather beams gently through" (177).  (Others discard Brod's "beatification" of Kafka; see "'Against' Brod," below.)

¥      Kafka fathered a child without knowing it.  Brod claims that, had Kafka known this, "it would have exercised a beneficent influence" and would have "ennobled" him and in some sense justified his existence.  However, insofar as this is true, it could also be argued that Kafka would have turned out to be quite a different writer and probably would have felt he should support the child and his mother, reducing his time for writing.  (The boy was conceived around 1913-14 and died aet. 7 in 1921.)

 

Kafka's Instruction to Destroy His Unpublished Work

 

It is commonly known that Kafka entrusted his manuscripts to his friend Max Brod with the stipulation that they were to be destroyed and not published.  Brod himself promoted this sensational because disquieting "what if…" by quoting the stipulation in a postscript to The Trial:  "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread….Yours, Franz Kafka." 

 

However, in the biography Brod clarifies that these instructions were "written long before" the end of Kafka's life and were countermanded by Kafka himself: he had prepared a number of texts for publication (he worked on the proofs of the collection A Hunger Artist the night before his death).

 

At a later point (this not in Brod), Kafka fell in love with a woman (Milena Jesenská) and, happy at last, wanted to destroy his work up at that point (c.1922-3) and start anew; yet he did not, fortunately, and instead entrusted her with MSs to give to Brod.  In fact, he went on to write his last major story, "The Burrow," which remains… Kafkaesque!

 

"Against" Brod

 

Max Brod (1884-1968) was a novelist and essayist but is remembered as Kafka's friend and literary champion.  His "positive" spin on Kafka the person and the writer balances -- but should itself be balanced by -- the overall "negative" vision that seems to naturally emerge from reading Kafka's fiction.  Brod argues that Kafka's narratives "give free rein to his doubts and uncertainties" while his Meditations, Aphorisms and certain letters lay "stress on the 'Indestructible' in man, on faith and positive trust in God." (242)

 

In this biography, one also notices with slight suspicion that Brod is eager to point out that he, Brod, "inspired" Kafka to write, keep a diary, and publish; and he frequently mentions his own work -- relevantly, at times, for at least two of his novels and stories had characters based on Kafka and related biographical events.

 

II.    Kafka and Lovecraft: A Comparison

 

The following table summarizes the most obvious similarities between the writers, along with a few items given for contrast:

 

Aspect

Kafka (1883 - 1924)

HPL (1890 - 1937)

Died "young"

41

46 1/2

Long, painful death

tuberculosis for last 7 years; worse last year or two; comforted by morphine and pantopon

Bright's disease and intestinal cancer of unknown duration; most painful last year; comforted by morphine

Personal economics

poor towards the end, having quit work due to illness and to focus on writing; lived as adult with family for years

poor to the point of malnourishment; lived as adult with family for years

Physical condition

described as "delicate"; yet heartily engaged in sports; learned to swim though father could not(!); always "slim," later "thin"

sickly as child, suffered several nervous breakdowns; later, energetic walker; mostly "thin"

Marital status; sexual activity

single/abstinent except for: several brief affairs; one long, embattled engagement twice broken off; a second brief engagement; female companion during last year

single except for brief marriage; otherwise abstinent

Literary work written - years

1911-1922 (main oeuvre);

aet 28-39

1926-1935 (major fiction);

aet 36-45

Literary work written - time of day

late afternoons, evenings, night

often at night

Author appears as protagonist

"Joseph K." (The Trial) or simply "K." (The Castle)

"Howard Phillips" (also, portrays himself as Randolph Carter)

"Editor" also a writer; took liberties

Max Brod prepared unfinished MSs for publication

August Derleth and various editors took liberties with HPL's texts

Translators

followed Brod in religious interpretation, though Christian rather than Zionist

Not applicable

Critical "dissenting opinion"

Edmund Wilson! ("A Dissenting Opinion", New Yorker [date?]; reprinted, Classics and Commercials)

Edmund Wilson! ("Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous," New Yorker, 11/24/45; reprinted, Classics and Commercials)

Definitive texts only recently established

Work restored to original state after many years, beginning in the 1970s, by an international team of experts

Work restored to original state after many years, beginning in the 1970s, by S.T. Joshi

Single primary publisher

Schocken Books (except for work published in his lifetime)

Arkham House (except for work published in his lifetime)

 

 

Literary Themes

 

A cursory description of Kafka's themes are does not sound too distant from that of Lovecraft's: his stories are suffused with a feeling of helplessness, of being trapped, with a dreamlike or even nightmarish quality; they employ highly crafted prose and precisely "realistic" descriptions of fantastic or surrealistic elements; the protagonist often feels he is an "outsider" not accepted by the general populace.  (Kafka was a German-speaking Jew in Prague, where 90% spoke Czech and most of the remainder were Gentiles.)

 

In general, I might add that absurd fiction employs illogic or irrationality to loosen up the reins of the rational (almost in Zen-like fashion!) and allows us to view human existence from outside our normal, culturally determined perspective -- compare this to the common "dislocation of time and space" and the "suspension of natural laws" of weird literature.  In Lovecraft, the "dislocation" often leads to madness -- "gibbering," "immitigable" madness as a kind of natural response to overwhelming cosmic horror.  That the universe is, in fact, meaningless (at least rationally meaningless, or irrational), is a hallmark of Lovecraft's cosmicism -- along with his astronomer's appreciation of the vastness of space and what he perceived as the concommitent inconsequentiality of human existence.

 

"As Different as Hot and Cold"

 

Interestingly, what may be Kafka's starkest contrast to Lovecraft, apart from his probable religious inclination (however defined), was his insensitivity to cold.  He would wear light clothing in cold weather and even took cold baths in winter, even later when ill.  Lovecraft, of course, had a horror of the cold, often complaining of "the grippe" (flu) in winter months.

 

Also unlike Lovecraft (as far as I know), Kafka slept poorly -- suffering from insomnia and "racking" headaches.  He was unusually sensitive to noise and stuffed cotton in his ears.  And apart from his tuberculin end, he was healthy, scrupulously clean, avoided germs and was a vegetarian (no years-old, possibly spoiled cans of Armour's Frankfort Sausage or Corned Beef Hash for him!). 

 

Finally, like Lovecraft, Kafka was basically a teetotaler.  At the end, he enjoyed watching others take long draughts of cold beer -- his tuberculosis had spread to his larynx and made it impossible to swallow without intense pain. 

 

Like Lovecraft, Kafka is a fascinating person as well as a fascinating writer.  This and the new translations of the definitive texts are sufficient reason to reread Kafka.  I'm enjoying The Castle at present (my favorite of the three novels) and will be hunting for the others…

 

References

 

Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography. 2nd, enlarged ed., New York: Schocken Books, 1960.

Harman, Mark.  "Digging the Pit of Babel: Retranslating Franz Kafka's Castle," New Literary History 27, no. 2, 1996.

Kafka, Franz.  Amerika.  New Directions, 2002.  Trans., Michael Hofmann

-----. The Castle.  New York: Schocken Books, 1998.  Trans., Mark Harman.

-----. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories: A New Translation New York: Barnes and Noble, 1996.  Trans. and ed., Donna Freed.

-----. The Trial.  New York: Schocken Books, 1998. Trans., Breon Mitchell.

 

 

NOTE: This item first appeared as a one-issue APA zine, A Kafka Edition, Mailing 107 (Lammas 1999) of the Esoteric Order of Dagon.

 

 

© 2004 by Alan Gullette

 

 

Alan Gullette > Essays