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The Human Stain | The Nation

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The Human Stain

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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."

About the Author

John Banville
John Banville is the author, most recently, of The Sea, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize.

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And then there were the girls. Throughout his short life, Kafka never lacked for romance. Women found him immensely attractive, despite his insecurity and self-doubt and general deprecation of sexual passion--a diary entry reads: "Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together." Wherever he went, on business trips, on visits to spas, even in his sojourns in hospital, he picked up girls as a magnet picks up iron filings. Staying at the fashionable health resort of Marienbad in the summer of 1916, he confided to his journal:

What a muddle I've been in with girls, in spite of all my headaches, insomnia, grey hair [he was 33], despair. Let me count them: there have been at least six since the summer. I can't resist, my tongue is fairly torn from my mouth if I don't give in and admire anyone who is admirable and love her until admiration is exhausted. With all six my guilt is almost wholly inwards.

The exact nature of his relations with these women, indeed, with all of his women, including his long-suffering fiancée Felice Bauer, and his late loves Milena Jesenská and Dora Diamant, is uncertain. His sexual drive seems to have been locked in low gear. He had too, as Murray points out, the good bourgeois's horror of sullying himself with females plucked from the lower orders. He was 20 when he lost, or was deprived of, his virginity. He took a shop girl, whose name he did not record, to a hotel in Prague's Malá Strana district. The experience was "charming, exciting, and horrible," and afterward, walking home over the Charles Bridge, "I was actually happy, but this happiness came from the fact that at last I had some peace from the ever-yearning body, and above all it came from relief that the whole experience hadn't been more horrible, more obscene." The girl's memory lingered, or at least the memory of what he had done with her lingered, and became another one among his many torments:

My body, sometimes quiet for years, would...be shaken to the point of not being able to bear it by this desire for a small, a very specific abomination, for something slightly disgusting, embarrassing, obscene, even in the best that existed for me there was something of it, some small nasty smell, some sulphur, some hell.

Kafka turned a version of this sexual revulsion upon his immediate family. Home life for him was an unending agony, with parents and sisters making their noises around him, eating their meals, diffusing their smells--a glimpse of his parents' nightgowns laid out on the foot of their bed filled him with disgust. He hid in his room, "the noise headquarters of the entire apartment," as he called it in his diary, the only place where, with pen in hand, he considered himself to be truly alive: "I am nothing but literature...and can and want to be nothing else." Yet not for a moment would he consider moving out to a place of his own, which he surely could have afforded. He was tied to the things he hated, or claimed to hate, like Prometheus lashed to his rock.

His affair, if that is the word, with Felice Bauer was another source of suffering. It was an extraordinary relationship, and in the history of difficult loves is similar only to, and perhaps half modeled on, Kierkegaard's on-off engagement to Regine Olsen. Kafka revered Kierkegaard--"He bears me out like a friend"--and took comfort from the example of the Dane's final rejection of Regine and the very idea of marrying. Yet Kafka, writhing in his loneliness, longed for what he knew he must renounce. Pietro Citati writes: "He had only to see a table with two chairs and a smaller one to think that he would never occupy one of those chairs with wife and child, and to experience a desperate desire for that joy."

The most remarkable thing about Felice Bauer, in relation to Kafka, is the fact that she was, so far as we can see, entirely unremarkable; as Murray puts it, she was "solidly middle class," and more interested in soft furnishings than in literature. The two encountered each other for the first time in August 1912, at the home of Max Brod's parents. She lived in Berlin, where she worked for a firm that manufactured dictating machines--a job Kafka might have invented for one of his female characters, that debauched and downtrodden band. After she had returned home they began a correspondence that was to continue for years, and through many misunderstandings and tribulations, until the famous "tribunal in the hotel" of July 12, 1914, when Kafka was confronted at the Askanischer Hof in Berlin by a thoroughly frustrated and vexed Felice, accompanied by her sister and a friend, the three of them "trooping into his hotel room," Murray writes, "like a prosecution team entering a courtroom." Kafka, although aghast, observed the proceedings with his usual beady candor: Felice "patted her hair with her hand, wiped her nose, yawned. Suddenly she gathered herself together and said very studied, hostile things she had long been saving up."

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