The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel (2)

The doubts and misgivings fought back, locked his head in a vise grip, kept him from sleeping, and once again drove him to the edge of madness.
(The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel, page 346)

Pawel’s enjoyable 466-page biography of Franz Kafka falls roughly into two parts. Part one deals with the deep historical roots of the Jewish communities in Austro-Hungarian Bohemia, explaining Kafka’s father, Herrmann, as part of the generation of Jews from poor often rural communities who migrated to the cities, adopted modern urban dress and manners, and tried to make a go of various business ventures. Their children grew up alienated from traditional Jewish culture but not accepted by, in fact often fiercely rejected by, the Germanic minority in Bohemia and the growingly nationalistic Czech majority.

It was into this fraught political and cultural situation that young Franz Kafka (born 1883) grew to adulthood, part of an entire generation of young Jewish writers and artists and composers who lived in an embattled position, between two worlds (between their abandoned Jewish heritage and the Germanic culture they were trying to assimilate to), feeling at home in neither, feeling:

the infinite loneliness of the Western Jew adrift on hostile seas, with no land in sight and neither hope nor faith to sustain him. (p.249)

This big historical fact explains why such a disproportionate number of the fathers of Modernism in the arts and sciences were Germanised Jews, heirs to two great traditions, but outsiders to both, at home nowhere.

The list would include father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (b.1856 in Moravia), the father of Zionism Theodor Herzl (b.1860 Budapest), Gustav Mahler (b.1860 in modern-day Czech republic), the father of the atonal music Arnold Schoenberg (b.1874, Vienna) and, in the succeeding generation, a rush of talent including the novelists Max Brod (Prague 1884) and Hermann Broch (Vienna, 1886), the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Vienna,1889), and so on.

In Pawel’s view, they all inherited the Jewish tradition of extremely scrupulous attention to language and meaning, heirs to generations of rabbis and teachers who had devoted their lives to poring over the meaning of the Torah, the Talmud and practicing Midrash:

a Jewish mode of interpretation that not only engages the words of the text, behind the text, and beyond the text, but also focuses on each letter, and the words left unsaid by each line. (Vanessa Lovelace quoted on Wikipedia)

Except that, having largely been deprived of the actual teachings and content of that religious worldview, they applied the same fanatical attention to the conditions of modern life, and to language itself.

In the final analysis, the novel is language, and language has been a matter of life and death among Jews ever since the errant desert tribe smashed its idols and enshrined instead the word as its God. (p.323)

Thus the paradox that Kafka, born in Prague, surrounded by ethnic Czechs, from a strong Jewish tradition, nonetheless developed into what most experts agree was the greatest writer of German prose in the twentieth century.

So much for part one. It also, of course includes detailed accounts of Kafka’s father, mother, sisters, of his junior and high school career and his interest in contemporary political and social movements (Zionism and communism being the two most distinct and powerful), as well as fascinating pen portraits of Kafka’s contemporaries, friends, and many of the key writers, thinkers and journalists, the ‘Prague litterateurs‘, of the time.

Part two

However, about half way through the book everything changes: very quickly, Kafka simultaneously gets a serious girlfriend, writes his breakthrough piece of prose, begins to hobnob with literary circles, and first starts to get short pieces published in magazines. With this dramatic change in plot and tone I found the book becoming distinctly less interesting.

Take the girlfriends. We know that Kafka was an astonishingly regular visitor to brothels, and had sex with a large number of serving girls and waitresses, because he says so in his diaries (and he told his friends and girlfriends; and also, because all the men he knew did the same). In the classic style of his day, however, he struggled to form relationships with ‘nice’ girls. The key ones were:

  • Felice Bauer (1912-17) to whom he got engaged – ‘a woman whom he desperately wanted to love but seldom even liked’ (p.393)
  • Julie Wohryzek (1919) to whom he got engaged
  • Milena Jesenská (1919-20) tough Bohemian, rebel, and translator of his works into Czech
  • Dora Dymant (1923-24) devoted carer for the last year of his life, as Kafka wasted away and died

The thing is, the stories of his relationships with them are boring. Or, more precisely, they are interesting and surprising and sometimes shocking – but in a normal kind of way. They sound like the troubled relationships between any famous writer and his girlfriends. With a few changes we could be reading about John Keats and Fanny Brawne, or George Orwell and Sonia Brownell. They meet, they sort of fall in love, they write numerous letters to each other, there are disagreements and hesitations and fallings out. It’s boring, it’s everyday. It’s like reading the Daily Mail describing Kim and Kanye’s ups and downs. It’s like every other literary love affair you’ve ever read. They belong to the world, our kind of world.

Whereas, the whole point about Kafka is the off-the-scale weirdness of his writings, a strangeness and intensity which can make a critic like Walter Benjamin conceive of him as creating fragments dragged from the primordial experiences of proto-humans, from a dark prehistory before writing or maybe even stories existed.

That is how some of his texts make you feel, a:

primordial awe of the mystery of things, of the miraculous and the enigmatic inherent in every facet of what others took for granted, source of his genius and agony… (p.282)

Reading the pathetic letters in which Kafka spent five years coming up with every excuse in the book not to marry Felice Bauer, sort of interesting and occasionally funny in itself, nonetheless feels like a crashing descent from the giddy heights of his actual works.

Same goes for the major new theme which enters the biography, which is close attention to the chronology of his works, to explaining what was begun when, where it was continued, when it was broken off, and so on.

Two days after writing his first letter to Felice (who he had been introduced to at a soiree held by Max Brod), Kafka had a massive creative and psychological breakthrough, staying up all night on 22 September 1912 to write The Judgement (p.270). Within weeks he had written another short story, and was also writing letters to Felice at a phenomenal rate (he was eventually to write her no fewer than five hundred letters). From this point onwards the biography becomes increasingly cluttered with the dates and times of his innumerable letters, cross-referenced against the dates when he wrote, dropped, picked up, published or returned to his numerous stories and fragments.

It has a sort of trainspotter level of interest but I couldn’t get that excited to learn that, for example, he wrote so and so chapters of The Trial on such and such dates, pausing to knock off so and so story (he wrote In The Penal Colony in three days in October 1914), or that in November 1914 his on again-off again relationship with Felice hit yet another snag because in a letter dated 26th she asked him x and in his reply he …

The deep historical and social background which lay behind the artistic flowering of his entire generation, now that was riveting. And the role of the Jewish tradition that lay behind much of Kafka’s mindset, that was riveting. But the fact that when his relationship with Felice hit a low point she despatched a girlfriend to Prague (she lived throughout their relationship in distant Berlin) to try and intercede with Kafka on her behalf… this seemed like silly shopgirl gossip. It doesn’t have anything like the same weight and significance as Pawel’s earlier insights.

Girlfriend trouble and the fear of marriage

Well, when I say normal, nothing about Kafka was normal. The agonising five-year relationship with Felice was characterised by astonishing anxiety, self-pity, hypochondria, alienation, complaining and proclamations of despair on Kafka’s part.

Unmarried, he was neither a man nor a Jew – a non-Jew, non-German, non-Czech, none but his own naked self adrift in a cold and hostile world. (p.289)

Felice, by contrast, came from a sensible successful family, and was solid and straightforward. She thought his ailments could be cleared up by fresh air, exercise and the tender loving care of a woman like herself. What on earth did she see in him?

The mismatch between her stolid bourgeois spirit (epitomised by the revolting heavy, stuffed Biedermeyer furniture she wanted to buy to fill their apartment with, once they were married) and the world-class anxiety, terror, dread and super-sensitivity of her boyfriend, tips over from being pitiable and tragic, into becoming almost funny.

In fact Pawel does eventually begin to satirise Kafka’s unrelenting self-pity, mocking the absurd lengths Kafka went to in order to avoid meeting his ‘fiancee’. And indeed, as the reader ploughs through the stream of excuses and self-criticism and the endless, whining hypochondria, it’s hard not, eventually, to lose patience and start smiling:

  • ‘I am just barely healthy enough for myself, but not healthy enough for marriage, let alone fatherhood.’ (quoted page 285)
  • ‘What I need for my writing is seclusion, not ‘like a hermit’, that would not be sufficient, but like the dead.’ (p.295)
  • ‘I am desperate like a caged rat, racked by headaches and insomnia…’ (p.341)
  • ‘I wake after bad nights with my mouth wide open and my abused and tortured body like an alien and disgusting presence in my bed.’ (p.313)

(You don’t have to be a genius to connect this last quote, a description of himself waking after troubled nights to be disgusted at his own physical presence in bed, with the mindset of The Metamorphosis.)

Above all, Kafka didn’t want to ever actually meet Felice, developing a huge list of reasons why it would be a bad idea. And, indeed, on the few occasions when they did actually meet in the flesh, it was a catastrophe of sullen silence and misunderstandings..

Kafka was drawn to marriage yet terrified by it. He needed someone to look after him and yet, like every writer, wanted to be left utterly alone with the complete freedom to create. He had a horror of intimacy, of the invasion of his private space, of the disgusting rituals of copulation (p.265).

His repeated likenings of marriage to death, Death, DEATH, eventually become ludicrous. ‘The request threw him into a panic’ Pawel writes on page 395 and this could refer to just about any request any of his women made to meet him, let alone the terrifying possibility of one of them actually marrying him. And the mortifying possibility of having to live with a woman!

It is entirely characteristic that when Kafka had his first major pulmonary haemorrhage in 1917, coughing up blood in his apartment, he was relieved! Now he didn’t have to marry Felice, and he was so relieved at the thought that, after the bleeding died down, he had the first good night’s sleep he’d had in months!

And when the diagnosis of tuberculosis was confirmed by specialists, Kafka was thrilled to be able to finally break up with Felice definitely, after five long years of self-torture and recrimination. He went to stay with his sister in the countryside for what he later thought of as the happiest period of his life.

Chronology of the works

It is interesting up to a point to learn about the conditions under which he wrote various works. It is a little bit interesting to learn about the origins of the plot for Amerika. It is incongruous to learn that he began writing The Trial as the First World War broke out and continued writing it up till January 1915. Sort of.

It is quaint to learn the the bulk of the short stories published in his lifetime (in the Country Doctor volume) were written in a little old cottage on a thoroughfare improbably named Golden Lane, built up behind Prague castle by order of King Rudolf II in 1597, so poky he had to bend over to get in the doorway, but which he found blessedly quiet (p.352).

Quaint in a tourist itinerary sort of way, but it doesn’t in the slightest help you appreciate the works. On the contrary, gossipy titbits like this tend to short-circuit the mental energy which really entering into the worldview of Kafka’s fiction requires of the reader.

My point is that knowing precisely when he wrote a particular story or chapter doesn’t at all help you understand or penetrate deeper into its meaning. The rough order, especially of the novels – America 1912, Trial 1914, Castle 1922 – probably helps.

It’s certainly interesting to learn that the big spurt of writing The Trial took place in a prolonged lull in his relationship with Felice Bauer (August – December 1914) and that, when she finally got back in touch and they started corresponding towards the end of 1914, this threw him into such emotional turmoil that he lost concentration and that is why writing of The Trial got weaker and then fizzled out altogether.

But these facts don’t help you enjoy or understand The Trial, though, do they?

So a lot of the second half is taken up with nailing down on precisely which days, weeks or months he wrote, or probably wrote, or started or abandoned this or that story, and it’s sort of interesting in a Sudoku, jigsaw sort of way. But not as interesting as the big ideas in the first half.


Highlights and notes

Hypochondria In the second half of the book Kafka’s hypochondria and mental disturbance become acute. Almost every letter to Felice is filled with accounts of his misery, unhappiness, the torture of work, his unhappiness at home and so on.

‘My life has shrunk horribly and will go on shrinking.’ (Letter to Felice, 1914)

In 1917 he had his first massive pulmonary haemorrhage. But his doctors weren’t wrong to point out that most of the population of Prague had traces of the tubercle bacillus in their lungs and that, with good food and complete rest, he stood every chance of overcoming it. According to Pawel, it was the flu epidemic of 1919 which did for Kafka. He spent weeks in bed with a fever and struggling to breathe. The flu severely exacerbated the underlying TB and probably made his death inevitable.

Certainly he never recovered enough to return to work at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute of Prague. Pawel chronicles the a complicated series of leaves of absence and sick leaves which went on for the next three years, until he was finally moved to the inactive list with a company pension in July 1922.

Thus his next major girlfriend after Felice, Milena Jesenská can write to Max Brod, within weeks of meeting Kafka in 1920, that Franz will never get better – and he never did.

In various places Pawel refers the notion that Joseph K is a walking sense of guilt looking for a crime: he has been charged, but he needs to find out why he is guilt. The same thought can be applied to Kafka and his TB. From adolescence onwards he is convinced he is ill, life is a disease, he flirts continually with thoughts of death, sometimes of suicide. The dagnosis of TB came as a huge relief, because the sense of illness – his morbid hypochondria –  finally found its cause, found an objective fact in the real world which justified it.

At some point – after working through all the letters and diary entries and analyses of his mounting illness through the last seven years of his life – it dawned on me that Kafka’s fiction is the way it is because he tried to live outside life for so long, for decades. He was someone who was ‘incapable of living’. He permanently lived in a state of terror and fear and anxiety far beyond what normal people can cope with or imagine, and the writing comes from that place.

  • ‘When you speak to her about me, speak as of someone already dead.’ (letter to Max Brod re. Milena)
  • ‘The chase drives me outside humanity’ (1922)

Švejk Joseph K. is the antithetical twin brother of Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk. Joseph feels guilty about everything; Švejk feels guilty about nothing. Joseph (and K. and Gregor Samsa) sink down, down, down to a inevitable death; Švejk floats happily through the world, surviving the worst the Great War has to throw at him, with a bland smile on his face.

Prose king Every critic seems to agree that Kafka was arguably the greatest prose stylist in German of the entire 20th century. Pawel refers to his ‘classically simple yet highly charged prose’ (p.321). But they also all agree that almost nothing of this superhuman control of language comes across in translation.

This is more than frustrating. It makes you realise that however much of Kafka you read in translation, you are missing the lion’s share of his achievement, which was to craft the purest German prose of the century. Damn! Damn.

And also makes you realise the huge limits placed on all our attempts to understand ‘literature’. If most of us can’t even appreciate the literary excellence of one of the most famous writers in Europe, how can any of us hope to achieve anything more than a partial, restricted, limited and ultimately provincial view of the entire global situation? (Can you read Russian? Mandarin? Urdu? Well then.)

Kafka and the novel

Kafka quietly, and without fanfare, without stylistic extravagance or verbal excesses, demolished the solid, taken-for-granted certitudes of nineteenth century realism with its black-and-white contrasts and sharply defined outlines… In fact, he all but demolished the structure of the novel itself as he pursued guilt into the realm of the universal… (Ernst Pawel p.322)

The Trial Not only was pursuing his case all the way up to the highest court and to the final arbiter beyond the ability of Joseph K. – it was beyond the ability of his creator, Franz Kafka. It is beyond the ability of any of us! This is what the fragmentary and abandoned state of the novel’s manuscript itself tells us about the condition of the universe.

Kafka’s work Despite the war, Kafka continued to be an invaluable senior manager at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute of Prague. He was continually exempted from conscription during the Great War because his work was literally irreplaceable. Not only that, but Pawel describes how he selflessly worked to create new processes to deal with the astonishing number of wounded and maimed soldiers returning from the Front. Kafka played a key role in the establishment of a hospital for soldiers with traumatic shock in 1916 (p.333). In fact the Veterans Association nominated him for a medal for his war work.

This is all so at odds with the neurasthenic who writes that he can barely get out of bed in the morning without doubling up in disgust and/or terror, that it seems like a different person. It’s one of the oddest things about this spectacularly odd man.

Czechs versus Germans I had no idea that the Czechs and the Germans who lived in Bohemia were at such daggers drawn. In the early part of the biography, Pawel describes the communal riots which broke out occasionally in the last years of the nineteenth century, and makes it clear that both communities harboured a seething dislike, fear and hatred of the other. But this really comes into its own during the last year of the Great War, as Austria’s fortunes visibly sank.

When he describes the way the centuries-old Austro-Hungarian empire simply disappeared almost overnight (well, within the course of a few weeks in October and November 1918) I was reminded of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc: similarly sudden and complete, vanishing like morning fog (p.373).

Very quickly a Czech nation was proclaimed (on November 14 1918) and the eminent nationalist leader Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk declared president, installing his administration in Hradčany Castle. Within days all Germans were removed from the administrative, civil service, army, and even commercial positions which they had held, in some instances, for decades, and were replaced across the board by ethnic Czechs. Kafka’s employer, the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, changed its name into Czech overnight, as did all other public institutions (p.375).

In November 1920 Prague erupted into a three-day orgy of anti-German and anti-Jewish rioting, during which the mob sacked the offices of German-speaking newspapers, attacked anyone who looked Jewish in the streets, broke into the German Theatre and the Jewish Town Hall and burned ancient Jewish manuscripts and holy books in front of the synagogue.

Kafka is quoted observing this at first hand.

Judaism Kafka was fascinated when a troupe of travelling Jewish actors arrived in Prague in 1911, and spent several weeks putting on performances of traditional Jewish folk stories. He commented to friends that this was the real Jewish thing, not the dessicated bookish tradition which lingered on among the intelligentsia.

Similarly, when the Russians advanced deep into Austro-Hungarian territory they prompted a flight of refugees from the East, many of them Jews, who arrived in Prague, and Kafka was, again, delighted by the ‘authentic’ traditions, dress and speech of these Ostjuden (pp.334-339). In fact, observing a group of East European Jews who had been put up in the Jewish Town Hall in Prague while they waited for their US visas, Kafka wrote:

‘Had I been given the choice to be whatever I wanted, I would have chosen to be a little Eastern Jewish boy in the corner of that room, without a care in the world.’ (Letter to Milena, quoted page 339)

In 1917 he began teaching himself Hebrew, in one among many attempts to reconnect with the lost Jewish tradition (p.356). Pawel repeatedly emphasises that, deep down, Kafka never abandoned the hope of visiting Jerusalem.

‘I had to do something quite radical, and so I decided to emigrate to Palestine.’ (letter to his sister, October 1923)

After teaching himself the basics, Kafka began to take Hebrew lessons from a young woman named Puah Ben-Tovim (1903-1991, who went on to become an accomplished and celebrated educator in Israel) (p.428).

In the last year of his life, Kafka received a generous invitation from his old schoolfriend Hugo Bergmann to go and live in the latter’s home in Palestine (p.430). But by then he was too ill to even climb a flight of stairs let alone contemplate a train and boat trip to a different country.

Hypochondria become real I had no idea Kafka was so very ill for the last four or so years of his life. It is a distressing litany of symptoms caused by tuberculosis and exacerbated by the 1919 influenza pandemic, which meant he had to give up work, and was cared for by a succession of close ones, his indefatigable sister Ottla (who emerges as a tower of strength) and, for the last year of his life, by the fiercely devoted and protective Dora Dyment.


The Holocaust

Personally, I find it difficult to read much contemporary literature because I am mesmerised by the catastrophe of the twentieth century, which began with the First World War, spawned the disastrous Bolshevik Revolution, led to the ruination of Europe through the 20s and 30s, rise of Stalin and Hitler and then the inferno of the Second World War, and on into the long Cold War, with its miserable litany of conflicts, dictators, insurgencies and civil wars all round the world until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

And at the pitch black-heart of the filthiest century in human history lies the wriggling inhuman bestial horror of the Holocaust. I’ve written fairly extensively about it in reviews of the following books (they’re all important, but This Way For The Gas sticks most in my mind).

Anyway, Pawel’s biography introduces us to a wide array of contemporaries of Kafka’s, not only friends and family, but many of the Prague or Vienna writers, thinkers, journalists, activists and so on whose path crossed his, or who he read, or heard lecture and so on.

With a large number of them, as and when they exit from Kafka’s story, Pawel gives a thumbnail portrait of their later lives. And quite a few of them, seeing they were Jews like Kafka, ended up being arrested by the Nazi authorities and murdered in concentration camps.

Not to mention the numerous girlfriends and women in his life, including his three sisters, who were all sent to Terezin concentration camp and died there, and Milena Jesenská, murdered in Ravensbrück concentration camp.

This is all very harrowing and I’m not sure it’s a good idea. On the one hand it means that the book builds up into a sort of memorial to an entire generation of European Jewry and I can understand the piety and honourableness of such a motive.

On the other hand, nobody knew this was going to happen, least of all Kafka who died in 1924. This repeated leaping forward to the Holocaust creates a teleological feel to the narrative, a sense of inevitability, as if everything was fated to head in this direction.

And above all, the huge blunt fact of the Holocaust tends to blot out and eclipse the reader’s responses to the subtler twists and turns in Kafka’s biography, let alone to the subtle themes and details of his fiction.

I realise it is meant to pay respect and act as a baleful warning, but the continual reminders of the looming Holocaust risk deadening our responses to Kafka the very-much-still-alive hero of his own life story in 1912 or 1917 or 1922.

Conclusion

The Nightmare of Reason is a long book packed with facts about Kafka, his times, his relationships, his obsessions and his writings.

For me the single most important thing I learned about Kafka was his off-the-scale, self-centred, tortured, self-obsessed solipsism. Of course he notices things like the war or the ethnic riots or his family’s ups and downs: but all of this is constantly being pushed aside so he can focus on his One Great Subject which is himself, and his endless tortured guilt and fear and paranoia and hypochondria.

I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear which we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as well as of the smallest, fear, paralysing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing for something greater than all that is fearful. (Letter to Milena, quoted page 96)

Fear spread to everything. Kafka carried this tortured investigation of himself to unparalleled lengths and, in doing so, found words and phrases and ways of thinking about himself, and about what it is to be a self, which approached the intensity of religious revelations. When he writes:

What I need for my writing is seclusion, not ‘like a hermit’, that would not be sufficient, but like the dead

he really means it.

He is obsessed with death as an escape from the intolerable burden of his guilt-stricken and terrified daily consciousness. And the extremity of his psychology led him to devise mental frameworks and forms of expression, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, and situations (as in the situation of the investigating dog, or the terrified burrower, or the mouse academic, or the ape who becomes a man or, most famous of all, the man who changes into a beetle), which express this deranged sense of detachment from the ‘real life’ which most of us experience, to an unparalleled degree, to an almost incomprehensible degree.

And it is the extremity and yet at the same time the purity of the mental worlds he created in his fictions which allows so many critics to rush in and impose whatever system of values they are promoting: from psychoanalytical interpretations about his father, the Oedipus complex or buried homosexual fantasies, to sociological interpretations about the faceless bureaucracies of the modern world; from existential interpretations – the Sartrean notion of the individual adrift in a godless universe and crushed by the weight of their freedom – to Max Brod’s view that he was a saint and a holy man; from Marxist claims that his work portrays the soul of man alienated by capitalism, to Walter Benjamin’s notion that Kafka’s work drills down so deeply into the Jewish tradition that it draws on feelings and visions which are in fact prehistoric and preliterate.

Quite obviously the fact that so many different – and completely opposed – ideologists and critics can all claim to be the authentic interpreters of Kafka’s works points towards the conclusion I’d prefer to make: that his work was so utterly about himself and about his deepest feelings and fears – ‘an obsessive self-scrutiny that drove him beyond the self’ (p.322) – so utterly bereft of external details about contemporary society or conventions or manners, as to achieve a kind of uncluttered purity rarely found in literature.

As Auden comments, Kafka was the greatest modern writer of parables and the point of a parable is that it is so clean, so devoid of distracting detail or contemporary references, so focused on the essentials of the situation – that more or less anyone can apply it to themselves, project their reading onto it – it is this combination of extremity and conceptual purity which gives them their universal appeal and power.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

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