Kafka is one of the most inventive geniuses of our age, and yet his personal life belies the truth about our society’s treatment of those who could truly enrich it with their ideas. Franz Kafka lived a life of consecutive and unending tragedy, repetitive and brutal torment, ending with the contraction of fatal tuberculosis at the age of 40, unable to communicate outside of the written word. A prolific epistler, Kafka wrote many volumes worth of letters to friends and family and his few ill fated lovers, including a 40 page letter his mother wisely never delivered to his father, or the hundreds of missives through which he conducted his almost entirely remote romance with his twice-engaged fiance Felice Bauer.
This extract is taken from PN Review 10, Volume 6 Number 2, November – December 1979.
IT IS a consummate irony that the man who could “see nothing clearly, except my own wretchedness” and who requested his posthumous papers to be “burned unread” should stand more nakedly revealed to us than even Stendhal, Tolstoy or Kierkegaard, and yet remain profoundly enigmatic. This is, no doubt, how Kafka would have wished it, a perfect illustration of how even the most vigilant self-scrutiny defeats itself, and how an atmosphere of mystery engulfs even the most unmitigated candour. As an exponent of what he called “this inescapable duty to observe oneself – Kafka is unequalled in modern literature; yet to enter the world of his personal writings is like arriving at the village in The Castle or waking up to find oneself arrested. There is no key to unlock the prison finally, the land refuses to be surveyed. “There is”, in Kafka’s aphoristic formulation, “a goal, but no way; what we call a way is hesitation”. Yet the reader of Kafka’s letters nevertheless feels what Kafka himself felt on reading Herzen’s memoirs, that somehow “the whole of the unconscious man emerges, purposeful, self-tormenting, having himself firmly in hand and then going to pieces again”. Perhaps this is why Kafka stands, as Auden said, in the same kind of relation to our age as Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe did to theirs; and why, when Kafka writes of Strindberg: “We are his contemporaries and successors; one has only to close one’s eyes and one’s own blood delivers lectures on Strindberg”, we cannot help but substitute his own name.
The profile of Kafka’s life has only genius to recommend it: three broken engagements, a scatter of love affairs, a tedious series of office jobs from which he could not break away, an almost total alienation from his family, chronic insomnia, a fatal contraction of tuberculosis. There are lives, like Marina Tsvetaeva’s, more tragic than this, as Mrs Mandelstam has recently reminded us, but none before which all words fail one with such alacrity. It is as if the fates had conspired to confirm Kafka’s own bad opinion of himself, and let him die like a dog, as K. dies in The Trial. But, for all its intractable difficulties, it was the only kind of life he could have lived, the only destiny his “inner conspiracy” against himself permitted him. The purity of style and imperturbability of manner that make his narratives so compelling were predicated upon a single-minded commitment to literature that made anything resembling a normal life out of the question. No wonder he found Flaubert such an inspiration, and no wonder he consistently compared himself to Robinson Crusoe and found himself (as he wrote to Milena Jesenská) “more Robinson than he”. The jagged diary entries and the turbulent letters made the fiction possible. The raw materials are raw indeed, and all of them-except the letters to his sister Ottla-are now available in English.
When Kafka speaks in his diary of “having lived through what is for Europe so extreme an experience of solitude that one can only call it Russian”, he does not exaggerate. Only by sitting at a desk and writing does he find it endurable. But this is also at the same time a form of punishment, as in the fourth letter collected here, from as early as 1904:
I sat at my fine desk. You don’t know it. How could you? You see it’s a respectably-minded desk which is meant to educate. Where the writer’s knees usually are, it has two horrid wooden spikes. . . If you sit down quietly, cautiously at it, and write something respectably, all’s well. But if you become excited, look out-if your body quivers ever so little, you inescapably feel the spikes in your knees, and how that hurts.
By December 1910, he has only his diary left to cling to: “I must hold on here. It is the only place I can”. In January 1913 he tells his first (and his second) fiancée, Felice Bauer, that it is “through writing that I keep a hold on life”. But the spikes are not so easily appeased and, however cautious and quiet he is, the pain continues, transferred to the very medium that offers him some respite from his solitude.
In the last entry in his diary, after a lifetime of such nakedness, Kafka sharpens the image still further, as if remembering the spikes in his desk once more: “Every word . . . is a spear turned against the speaker”.
The spectacle of Kafka trying, with infinite care and patience, to guide Max Brod through the toils of a prolonged extra-marital affair offers an ironic counterpoint to the torture and self-torture of his own emotional entanglements. But even with Brod the written word becomes “a spear turned against the speaker”:
not only can’t I talk, but I can’t write. I have a lot to tell you, but I cannot fit it together or it goes off in a wrong direction. In fact, I have not written anything for two weeks. I keep no diary, write no letter. The thinner the days trickle away, the better.
It seems as if the only person to whom Kafka could write with a modicum of satisfaction was his final companion, Dora Dymant, who brought him contentment as his health deteriorated. But none of his letters to her survive. We are spared therefore, as perhaps she also was, the macabre rationalizations of the letter to Felice which Elias Canetti calls “the most disagreeable Kafka ever wrote”, but which pleased Kafka enough for him to copy out part of it in a letter to Brod, and also into his diaries. A less elaborate, and more touching version of this is printed here, in a letter to Max Brod, the main recipient of the letters in this volume:
I am constantly seeking an explanation for this disease, for I did not seek it. Sometimes it seems to me that my brain and lungs came to an agreement without my knowledge. “Things can’t go on this way”, said the brain, and after five years the lungs said they were ready to help.
“It was as though, through all those years”, he later wrote to Milena, “I had done everything demanded of me mechanically, and in reality only waited for a voice to call me, until finally the illness called me from the adjoining room and I ran towards it and gave myself to it more and more”.
But although the serious haemorrhage of 1917 represented a kind of freedom for Kafka-from Felice, from his family, and from the “old crone” Prague-it proved to be only another, and more inexorable, form of enslavement. The disease reduced him to the “conversation slips” that conclude this volume, when he was too ill to speak but could not cease from writing. These sometimes quite inconsequential jottings are heart-rending to read, not least when his frailty is greatest: “Put your hand on my forehead for a moment to give me courage”. But even at the end his candour is bound up with paradox, as in the very last words he wrote: “So the help goes away without helping”. One cannot help but be reminded here of a letter of 1904, to Oskar Pollak:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us . . . we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
Anyone who reads this collection in conjunction with Kafka’s other letters will share this belief, and so confirm the truth of Milena Jesenská’s insight: “His books are amazing. He himself is far more amazing”.