Franz Kafka was a great
chech writer who
has come to own a part of the human emotional spectrum, which we can now call
the Kafkaesque and which thanks to him we are able better to recognize and to
gain a measure of perspective over and relief from. Kafka’s world isn’t
pleasant. It feels in many ways like a nightmare and yet it’s a place where
many of us will, even if only for a time, in the dark periods of our lives, end up. We are in the world defined by
Kafka when we feel powerless in front of authority, judges, aristocrats,
industrialists, politicians and most of all: fathers. When we feel that our
destiny is out of our control, when we are bullied, humiliated and mocked by
society and especially by our own families. We are in Kafka’s orbit when
we’re ashamed of our bodies, of our sexual urges and feel that the best thing for
us might be to be killed or squashed
without mercy as if we were an inconvenient and rather disgusting
bed bug. Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883, the eldest child of a
terrifyingly, psychologically abusive father and a mother who was too weak and
in all of her husband to protect her boy as she should have done. Kafka grew up timid, bookish, meek and
full of self-hatred. He wanted to become a writer but it was out of the question
in his father’s eyes, so one of the greatest German literary geniuses since Goethe was forced to spend his brief life on Earth working in a series of
jobs utterly beneath him: in a lawyer office and then an insurance company. He had
a number of unsuccessful relationships with women, he couldn’t marry or raise a
family and was tormented by the strength of his sex drive, which made him
constantly turn to brothels and pornography. Kafka published very little
in his lifetime: just three collections of short stories including his
best-known work, The Metamorphosis, and he was entirely obscured and unnoticed. His gigantic posthumous reputation
is based on three novels: The Trial, The Castle and America, which were all
unfinished because Kafka was so dissatisfied with them. He gave orders
that they be destroyed after his death. Fortunately for Humanity, these were
disobeyed. It shouldn’t sound prurient or reductive to suggest that one of the
major keys to understanding Kafka is to fathom the nature of his relationship
with his father. Kafka never wrote directly about this man in any of his works but
the psychology of the novels is directly related to the dynamics he endured as
the very unfortunate son of Hermann Kafka Any boy who has ever felt
inadequate in front of, or unloved by a powerful father, will at
once relate to what Kafka went through in his childhood. In November
1919, at the age of 36, five years before his death, Kafka wrote a forty-seven page
letter to Hermann in which he tried to explain how his childhood had deformed
him. Like many victims of abuse, Kafka never stopped hoping for some kind of
forgiveness from the person who had so wronged him. “Dearest father”, went the letter. “You asked
me recently why I maintain that I’m so afraid of you. As usual I was unable to
think of any answer to your question partly for the very reason that I am
afraid of you and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear
would mean going into far more details than I could ever keep in mind while
talking”. The grown Kafka abased himself before this father. “What I would
have needed was a little encouragement, a little friendliness but I wasn’t fit for
that. What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for
the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and
judgments. It was as though you had no notion of your power”. Kafka complained
of one particularly traumatic incident when as a young boy he called out for a
glass of water and his irritable father pulled the boy out of his bed, carried
him out onto the balcony and left him there to freeze in nothing but his nightshirt. Kafka writes: “I was quite obedient after that period but it did me so
much incalculable inner harm. Even years afterwards
I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate
authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in
the night and carry me out onto the balcony and that meant I was a mere
nothing for him”. Boys need their father’s permission to
become men and Hermann Kafka didn’t give Franz a chance. “At a very early stage
you forbade me to speak. Your threat: “not a word of contradiction” and the raised
hand that accompanied it have been with me ever since”. Franz’s sense of inadequacy
was total. “I was weighed down by your mere physical presence, I remember for
instance how often we undressed in the same bathing hut. There was I: skinny,
weekly, slight. You: strong, tall, broad. I felt a miserable specimen. When we stepped
out, you holding me by my hand, a little skeleton, unsteady, frightened of the
water incapable of copying your swimming
strokes; I was frantic with desperation. It could hardly have been worse, except
it was. Kafka finished the letter, gave it to his mother Julie to pass to Hermann
but, typical of her weakness and cowardice, she didn’t. She held onto it for a few
days, then returned it to Franz and advised that it would be better if her busy,
hard working husband never had to read such a thing. The poor son lacked the courage ever to try
again. In The Judgment, Kafka’s great short story, written in 1912; a young
businessman, Georg, is engaged to be married and lives in a flat with his widowed
father. He’s about to get away from home, the father is old and frail. Georg tucks him up in
bed but then the father mysteriously regains his strength, springs upright,
towers over Georg and denounces him for betraying everyone. His friends, his
father and the memory of his mother. Georg can make only feeble protests.
Eventually the father condemns Georg to death by drowning and Georg obediently rushes out
and plunges into the nearby river. After passing sentence, the father cries
out: “You were an innocent child, really, but at heart you were a diabolical
human being”. The idea of horrific, arbitrary judgment
was to be a constant in Kafka’s fiction: it reappears in the unfinished novel The
Trial, written two years later. But now Kafka had developed it away from a
father to a vast legal apparatus with judges, lawyers, guards and extensive
bureaucratic procedures. When Joseph K is arrested on the morning of his 30th
birthday, he isn’t told what he is charged with. He barely makes any attempt
to find out. He feel so guilty inside, he just knows that he deserves punishment.
He does try to declare in court that he’s innocent, still without knowing what
the charge is and hires a lawyer but the court gradually grinds him down. He
becomes unable to think of anything. Words fail him, he can no longer do his
job properly and is defeated in the game of office politics. Finally, a year after
his arrest, two grotesque looking officials come to Joseph case flat, they
lead him to a quarry outside the city and execute him by plunging a knife into
his heart. Between The Judgment and The Trial, Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, a
short story in which a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one
morning transformed into an insect akin to a beetle or a bed bug. It’s a story of
self-disgust, about the treachery of family and, like The Trial, about
terrifying arbitrary power. When Gregor crawls across the floor, he is in danger of
being stamped on by his own father. Gregor’s family find they manage quite well
without him. They can fine him to his room and chuck rubbish at him. The
family hold a council and decide that the insect in the bedroom can’t really
be Gregor. They start to refer to the insect as “it” instead of “him”. They
decide that somehow the insect has to go. Gregor, listening, agrees and dies quietly.
After Gregor’s death, the family are slightly ashamed of their behavior, but
only slightly. Kafka suffered from ill health for a
lot of his life. In 1924 when he was forty-one, he developed laryngeal
tuberculosis, which prevented him from eating almost anything without huge pain. He wrote a short story, his last, called
The Hunger Artist. It tells the story of a public performer who makes his living
undertaking fasts for the pleasure of the public. One time he manages to fast for
forty days but gradually the hunger artist’s audience gets bored of his work.
However hard he fasts, they’re no longer impressed. He gets put in a dirty old
cage and weakens terribly. Before he dies he asks for forgiveness and confesses
that he should never have been admired since the reason he fasted was simply
that he couldn’t find any food he enjoyed. Shortly after he dies, he’s
replaced in his cage by a panther, an animal full of vigor whom the crowd love
and who has a voracious appetite. A few days after finishing The Hunger Artist,
Kafka died and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Prague. Within a few
years of his death, his reputation began. By the Second World War, he was
recognized as one of the greatest writers of The Age. Notwithstanding, all
his close family were gassed by the Germans in the Holocaust. He is a monument
in German literary history and at the same time he is a sad, ashamed, terrified
part of us all. Kafka once wrote that the task of literature is to reconnect
us with feelings that might otherwise be unbearable to study but which
desperately need our attention. “A book must”, he wrote, “be the axe for the frozen
sea within us”. His books were among the most touching, frightening and accurate
axes ever written.