The question has been asked: Was Franz Kafka human? He seems to have had doubts himself. Many of his most persuasive and most affecting literary representatives are animals: a burrowing mole, or Josefina the mouse singer, or poor Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find he has been transformed into a beetle. The creator of these changelings was himself an amorphous creature. Although photographs are not to be trusted–the camera always lies–it is remarkable how varied are the images we have of this singular man. The svelte and slightly sinister fiancé in the engagement portrait with Felice Bauer taken in 1917, and the pigeon-toed clerk in hat and overcoat pictured with his sister Ottla in the same year–who would take them for the same person? And the cool aesthete in the photo he sent to Felice in 1912–“I don’t actually have a twisted face, I only have a visionary gaze when taken with a flash”–surely this is not the same Franz Kafka we see in a snapshot from his student days, dreamy and faintly comical in a bowler hat?
He looked like no one but himself. One searches the family portraits for resemblances and finds hardly a trace. His father was a mustachioed merchant with a big, square head; his mother was fish-faced and mannish. Only in Ottla, the beloved sister, do we detect a likeness. He was six feet tall and not quite 140 pounds; at that time and in that place he would have been a beanpole, head and shoulders above most Praguers. Yet in his endless and agonized self-scrutiny there is no mention of self-consciousness in the matter of height. On the contrary, he seems quietly gratified to be so tall.
Such gratification was rare. For the most part his life was a shimmer of guilt, that ineradicable, universal and almost depersonalized guilt that weighed him down and at the same time made him light enough to float away into the airiest reaches of literary art. He would have appreciated what Beckett recalled a doctor saying of a girl who had died young, that she had not been properly born. “My life,” Kafka wrote, “is a hesitation before birth.” He fantasized continually about the ways in which he might be done away with. The conjunction of metal and flesh in particular obsessed him. Famously, he celebrated the morning when he had “after a long time the joy of imagining a knife twisted in my heart”; he imagined “a sausage maker’s knife which through one side enters the body with great speed and mechanical regularity.” With a kind of devilish glee he devises for himself ever more terrible punishments, tortures, eviscerations.
I am being dragged toward the windows on the ground floor of a house by means of a rope around my neck, and I am lifted, bleeding and dismembered, without regard, as if by someone who is inattentive, through all the ceilings of the rooms, the furniture, walls and attics, until high above on the roof appears only the empty noose, as the shattering of the roof tiles has destroyed even my remains.
And when he was gone, he felt, taking his work with him–he commanded his friend Max Brod to destroy his writings after his death–all that would outlive him would be the shame.
How much of this is real guilt, real torment, real self-loathing? Who speaks these terrible abjurations, Kafka the man or Kafka the artist? Pietro Citati, who has written the greatest of all books on Kafka, has him declaring: “‘I am like you, I am a man like you, I suffer and rejoice as you do,'” yet smiling “like a meticulous and buoyant angel,” a being who lives “far away, very far away, in a world that did not belong even to him.” This is the Kafka of whom might be said what was said of Nietzsche, that he lived in a place where no one else lived.
Nicholas Murray, the latest of Kafka’s many biographers, brings a healthy skepticism to the question of his subject’s sufferings. Of “the real Kafka, the 27-year-old accident-insurance lawyer in the Prague summer of 1910,” he writes: “The hopelessly introverted, damaged, lonely bachelor of his private fictional fantasies seems hard to square with the external reality of his life at this time.” He had a secure and well-paid job, had the privacy of his room to write in without interruption, was the center of a circle of loyal friends, and had begun to publish work the quality and originality of which was acknowledged by a small but influential number of critics; yet like his beloved Heinrich von Kleist, he was forever declaring that there was no help for him on this earth. Why so much self-pity, why the constant refusal to grapple with the ordinary business of living? His biographer sometimes loses all patience: “It is highly unlikely that Franz Kafka could boil an egg.”