Article

The Kafka Myth

The Kafka Myth

I’ve been repeatedly accused by Nicholas Murray of simply making up the idea of a popular myth about Kafka’s life. I’ll  let the start of  the FT’s very pleasant review answer him:

Kafka’s name has become a journalistic cliché, calculated to evoke nightmares, injustice, the perversions of bureaucracy, surrealism, mental breakdown and the uncanny.

Quite. So why has the vast academic Kafka-industry failed to undercut this myth? Kafka’s business memoranda get their own Critical Edition, entire exhibitions are mounted about the factories he inspected, whole books published about the cafés he sat in or the distant relatives he occasionally met. Yet the standard German reference guide, the Kafka Chronik (1999) used by every scholar, still maintains on its back cover the hoary myth that Kafka was “almost unknown in his lifetime”, and in 2004 the UK’s top Kafka-scholar (Oxford Chair of German Ritchie Robertson) felt moved to praise Germany’s top Kafka-scholar (Berlin Chair of German Peter-André Alt) for countering “the notion, still widespread today, that Kafka was hardly noticed by fellow-authors and reviewers in his lifetime”. 

The image of a struggling middle-European Nostradamus, largely unnoticed by his blind contemporaries, perfectly fits the Romantic myth of The Artist – but it is also handy for literary theorists. After all, nothing so clearly demonstrates the value of literary theory as its ability to rediscover Great Lost Writers, forgotten or ignored by the theory-less benighted!  The truth -  that Kafka’s  talent was at once recognized by his peers despite their lamentable ignorance of terms like hermeneutic,  proairetic or différance (sic) - is less flattering to the theory industry.

In a field awash with theories of repression, gender and sexuality,  it’s really quite bizarre that no one has ever published, or even discussed the porn indubitably owned by Kafka. There’s no doubt at all that it’s porn, by the way. In 1958 Klaus Wagenbach called these publications  “a collection of the finest - and often, the coarsest – erotica”.  Even today, as the FT’s reviewer put it, they are “to say the least, an acquired taste”.  When the last academic count was done in the mid-‘nineties, it was estimated that there were already over 10,000 publications on Kafka. Nothing about his life (including the most intimate parts of his now-uncensored diaries) is regarded as too personal, banal or abstruse for publication and examination - except this material. It is thus fatuous for Murray et al to deny that there is some kind of  double standard being applied. That is precisely why I chose to publish it (in a small section of the book!): to show simply and graphically that there is much about Kafka that is still unsaid.

For example: that the publisher of this porn in 1906 was the same man who, in 1908, was to become Kafka’s own first publisher – and the same man who would, in 1915, arrange for Kafka to very publicly receive the prize-monies from the most prestigious German literary award of the year.  That Kafka was a millionaire’s son backed by an influential clique, his writing admired (and he knew it) by almost every major German fellow-author of his day. That far from being a sort of multiculturalist avant la lettre (as many of his readers want him to have been), he was a loyal Habsburg citizen with a senior state-sector job who undoubtedly hoped for a Germano-Austrian victory in the First World War, right to the end. That he was a leading light in the founding of a hospital for war-wounded soldiers (but only for German-speaking ones) in Frankenstein.

That hospital stands today, largely as Kafka’s appeal built it: but is now, just, in the Czech republic, and no one on either side of that border wants to be reminded about its history. When I went there with the BBC earlier this year, we were told we were the first film crew ever to visit the place.  Kafka’s hospital exclusively for the German-speaking wounded of Kaiser Franz Josef’s multi-ethnic army is as unpalatable to modern prejudices as is Kafka’s interest in porn, his lifelong addiction to whores, or his literal investment (about £25,000 in today’s money, in November 1915) in the Austro-Hungarian war-effort. 

To understand Kafka’s work as his contemporaries did - at the first reading of The Trial, all Kafka’s friends, and he himself, fell into “helpless laughter”, records Brod -  we need to re-imagine a world now tragically, almost unimaginably lost: the world of German-speaking, German-thinking high-bourgeois Jewry in middle-Europe. That’s what Excavating Kafka is all about. As the start of the book says: it’s going to take some dynamite - and if some people get offended in the process, so be it. The myth is still there, and it simply has to go.

-- James Hawes (17/10/2008)

Readers Comments

  1. J.C. Hallman says... Thursday 18 June 2009

    What a debate over Kafka's life -- myth or no -- fails to address is how much of this information (e.g. squalor, porn) is useful in coming to an understanding of the work. Critics, surely, will use a writer's work to piece together a biography, but the problem with the exercise, it seems to me, is not that the biography they reverse engineer is incorrect, but that the exercise itself is uninteresting. One, for example, does not need to know that Ernst Junger won the pour le merite to realize that Storm of Steel is a beautifully-written but sometimes damn creepy book. Kafka should perhaps be approached similarly. What do you really need to know about him? Nabokov -- writing about Kafka -- reminds us that art is beauty plus pity. At best, biography is secondary.

  2. David Power says... Sunday 18 October 2009

    You quote the view Kafka was “almost unknown in his lifetime”, and describe it as a myth. However, compare the situation today with the situation at the time of Kafka's death. Today, you can buy Kafka's books all around the world in just about any language, tens of millions of people have heard of him and, as you yourself point out, there have been about 10,000 publications about Kafka. This is Kafka's rightful place as one of the major writers of the twentieth century. Next to none of this was the case when Kafka died in 1924 and when people say he was ''virtually unknown'' in his lifetime, they mean how little recognition he had in his lifetime compared to the vast amount of rightful recognition he would receive after his death. A perfectly fair and accurate statement in my view

  3. Ahmed Bulbul Islam says... Thursday 12 November 2009

    I really enjoyed his book 'Metamorphosis and other stories'.Simply in a nutshell I believe he is a writer of human condition and his helplessness unto this earth. After his death his mistress MELENA WROTE he has a deep and exceptional world in himself...

  4. Brian - Kafkacotton says... Thursday 03 December 2009

    Thank you for bringing the opposing view to light - I didn't know it existed (as well as the erotica!).

    It's true that Kafka the author brings to mind a specific set of connotations. I run a clothing company, kafkacotton.com, that creates designs inspired by great books. I chose the name "Kafkacotton" because it evokes stark blacks & whites and uneasiness (and it also screens out the "Twilight" fans who, of course, have never heard of him).

    Thanks for the post.

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