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The Human Stain | The Nation

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The Human Stain

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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?

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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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."

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."

Kafka's work, Maurice Blanchot observes, "is not always only literary. Salvation is an enormous preoccupation with him, all the stronger because it is hopeless, and all the more hopeless because it is totally uncompromising." It is no accident that shortly after the ordeal at the Askanischer Hof, Kafka set to work on The Trial, which begins, "Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K."

A certain symmetry was in operation here. Two years before, just after he had met Felice for the first time, Kafka sat down at his desk at 10 o'clock on the night of September 22, 1912, and wrote without a break until 6 am. The next day he described the experience:

I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water. Several times during this night I heaved my own weight on my back. How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again.

The story he completed that night was "The Judgement," the breakthrough work that convinced him at last of the validity of his artistic vocation. It is a highly autobiographical text--"thoughts about Freud, of course," Kafka noted--in which, Murray writes, "the looming presence...of Georg Bendemann's father echoes the overwhelming presence in Kafka's life of his own father." At the close of the story the father commands the son to drown himself, and Georg eagerly complies. "The alternative to slaying the father," Murray shrewdly observes, "is self-destruction."

In a sense, art was for Kafka a means of immolating the self. He disappears into his writing like snow falling on water. What other great writer has written with such clarity, directness, simplicity and, above all, such impersonality? Erich Heller, one of Kafka's closest readers, speaks of the "ruthlessly compelling logic" of his writing. Kafka, according to Heller, "is the least problematic of modern writers," whose "thinking is a reflex movement of his being and shares the irrefutability of all that is."

Like sorrow in the tenth of Rilke's Duino Elegies, despair is given a home of its own in Kafka's works, faithfully made in the image of customary life, but animated by the blast of the curse. This gives to Kafka's writings their unique quality. Never before has absolute darkness been represented with so much clarity, and the very madness of desperation with so much composure and sobriety.

Surely it is this sense of absolute and terrible calm that convinces us Kafka is speaking directly to us, and about us, and about our world.

Murray notes that there have been dissenting voices in the matter of Kafka's reputation, which Edmund Wilson, for instance, considered "wildly overdone," describing The Trial and The Castle as "rather ragged performances," which are damaged by not having been finished or properly worked out in the first place. There is something to this argument. Many, including the present writer, believe that Kafka is at his greatest not in the novels but in the short stories, the parables and even, or especially, in the diaries.

Nicholas Murray, scrupulous as ever, does not join this argument. His biography is eminently sensible on a subject about which much high-flown transcendental nonsense has been written. He gives a good, straightforward account of the life, and of the work. Where Kafka's self-condemnations are concerned, he lays out the evidence and leaves the judgments to others. His portrait is all the more moving for the measured fashion in which it is executed. Murray's Kafka is thoroughly human and yet more than human, too, one of those whom Kafka himself had in mind when he wrote: "No people sing with such pure voices as those who live in deepest Hell; what we take for the song of the angels is their song."

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