Originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 3-4, 2014
Reading about Franz Kafka’s life can make you wish, fervently, that you were reading one of his stories instead. His life was shot through with angst, self-torture and frustration. So was his fiction – but the fiction had an artistry that balanced out the despair. The fiction had humour, narrative verve, wicked moments of invention. The life mainly seems to have been a grim exercise in psychic agony.
Kafka was born in Prague in 1883. His father was – as Kafka saw it – a tyrant and a philistine. Kafka lived in his shadow, all too literally: he didn’t move out of his parents’ home until the untender age of 31. He worked as a lawyer in an insurance office, and hated the way his bureaucratic day-job encroached on his writing time. His romantic life was a nightmare of inertia. Engaged three times to two different women, he could never force himself up to the plate. He was a neurotic, a hypochondriac, an insomniac. He lived, as he said in his Diaries, “on the verge of insanity.”
When Kafka died of tuberculosis at the age of forty, only a handful of the works we now know him for had been published. He left orders for the rest of his writings to be destroyed, preferably unread. Max Brod, his friend and literary executor, disobeyed that edict. If he hadn’t, the world would have missed out on the Diaries, the letters, more than half the stories, and all three of Kafka’s novels: The Castle, The Trial, and Amerika.
Kafka is the most readable of great writers; he has a knack for getting you in from the first sentence. At the start of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa wakes up “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” It sounds like the opening of a folk tale; but by the end of the first page we’re in a world that nobody but Kafka could have created. It is a world in which nightmarish situations are described in low-temperature, matter-of-fact prose: the fantastic is blended uncannily with the mundane. Samsa, right after discovering that he has turned into a giant bug, starts thinking about how much he dislikes his job. Then he decides to roll over and get a bit more sleep.
In a way, Kafka’s fiction is perfectly able to speak for itself. But below their lucid surfaces, his stories are crammed with psychological mysteries. Why do characters like Samsa accept their grotesque fates with such weird docility? Do they feel, obscurely, that they had it coming? If so, why?
Saul Friedländer has written a slender but dense biographical essay examining the sense of shame and guilt in Kafka’s fiction, and looking for its sources in his private life. Friedländer is diligent, but in the end his book makes you wonder if the quest to demystify Kafka’s life isn’t inherently doomed. The deeper you plunge into the man’s psyche, the murkier things get. It’s like Loch Ness down there.
Friedländer spends most of his time seeking elucidation in Kafka’s Diaries and letters. These are more copious than his fictional writings, and you might expect them to be more candid about his private affairs. In a way they are. Then again, Kafka could be maddeningly imprecise about the nature of his neuroses. “I am dirty, Milena, infinitely dirty,” he wrote in the Letters to Milena. But dirty in what sense? Kafka doesn’t specify. Maybe he didn’t really know. If he baffles us, part of the reason may be that he baffled even himself.
Still, a few things can be said with confidence. Kafka undoubtedly had some hang-ups about sex. In the fiction, as Friedländer rightly says, “Kafka’s representation of women is grimacing at best.” Moreover, his reluctance to get married went well beyond a healthy, red-blooded fear of commitment. He seems to have feared sex itself – at least with any woman he respected.
Was he homosexual, then? Well, not exclusively, and not even mainly. “Throughout the years,” Friedländer says, “Kafka hinted at erotic feelings for a few male friends.” But he also made liberal use of female prostitutes, kept a stash of cutting-edge heterosexual porn, and habitually flirted with women he was in no danger of having to get emotionally close to.
The plot gets thicker, and more troubling, when Friedländer quotes a handful of rather icky diary entries that have only recently come to light. In one of them Kafka describes – with way too much relish – taking a “little girl” on his lap. Other entries make it clear that he also had a thing for young boys, although there is no evidence suggesting he ever acted on it. Friedländer chides Max Brod for “systematically” suppressing such material from early editions of the Diaries. But surely that was the least Brod could do, after he’d flouted Kafka’s express instructions to torch his archives in their entirety. (A tip for aspiring literary immortals: if you really want your diaries or letters to be destroyed, destroy them yourself.)
Friedländer is an historian by trade, and the best parts of his book deal with the hard facts of Kafka’s social milieu. In Prague in the 1920s, anti-Semitism was on the rise. Kafka was ambivalent about his Judaism to start with. Courtesy of anti-Semitic “theorists” and hooligans, his burden of irrational guilt grew. When anti-Jewish riots broke out in1920, he wrote to Milena about “the unsavoury shame of living under constant protection.” (Kafka didn’t live to see the rise of Hitler, but all three of his sisters were murdered in the Holocaust.)
Friedländer is on less solid ground when he speculates, with the aid of Freudian theory, about the contents of Kafka’s unconscious mind. Sometimes he is on no ground at all. Writing about Kafka’s story “The Judgment,” he proposes that Kafka may have named its protagonist “Georg” without ever noticing, at a conscious level, that Georg was also the name of his younger brother, who had died in infancy. When your theory leads you to suggest something as absurd as that, it’s time to wonder if the theory isn’t a bit absurd itself. Kafka himself, by the way, had a low opinion of psychoanalysis: he called it “a helpless error.”
Friedländer’s Freudian reading of Kafka’s gloriously strange “A Country Doctor” is slightly better – at least here there is some half-compelling evidence to go on. In the story, a horrifying “rose-red” wound mysteriously appears in the side of the doctor’s young patient. Friedländer argues that this represents a vagina, and a pretty scary one at that. “Kafka’s sexuality is once more barely hidden.” Then Friedländer alerts us to “the sluggish stride of the horses (like old men – after coitus).”
Right – and after a lot of other things, too. Freudians believe, as an arbitrary article of faith, that once you have reached the sexual explanation of something you have reached the correct one. But that is no reason for the rest of us to believe it. Indeed, the rest of us are entitled to wonder if reducing a story like “A Country Doctor” to any single interpretation, sexual or otherwise, is useful or desirable at all. Rational explication always seems to diminish, rather than deepen, our understanding of Kafka’s lurid nightmares.
Kafka’s declared aim, as a writer of fiction, was to “raise the world into the pure, the true, the immutable.” To put it another way, he tried to transcend his own peculiar psychological problems by universalising them. And he didn’t just try: he succeeded. He converted his private sufferings into stories and symbols we can all respond to.
Friedländer doesn’t stress that point enough. Kafka’s stories are not just about Kafka. They are about the rest of us too. We all feel oppressed, at least some of the time; we’ve all had jobs we hate, fears we can’t quite explain. So stories like “The Metamorphosis” resonate with us: at a gut level we can identify with poor old reviled Gregor Samsa, shamefully confined to his bedroom, waving his little legs helplessly in the air. You can’t blame scholars for wanting to analyse this resonance. But in doing so they tend to de-universalise Kafka’s art. They lead us back to the heap of private psychic wreckage that Kafka spent his whole writing life transforming into something more numinous.
“Very early on,” Friedländer says, “Kafka must have felt that he was different from most of those who surrounded him.” He was, but he also wasn’t. If he was entirely different from the rest of us, we wouldn’t find his mental atmosphere so chillingly familiar. He was like we would be if we were even weirder. “He is like a naked man among multitudes who are dressed,” his friend Milena wrote. The poor guy had his issues, all right. There was nobody else quite like him. If we say this in reference to his private life, we have to say it with a measure of pity. But when we say it about his work, we mean it as the highest possible compliment.