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Talking about The JC.com, Nicholas Murray writes a brief demolition in its pages of James Hawes' recent study, Excavating Kafka. Hawes condemns Kakfa scholarship for creating and cultivating "the K. myth" of a saintly, tortured, unknown artist. He quite rightly calls this a nonsense and uses... Kafka scholarship to prove his point! So, Murray (author of a recent Kafka biography himself) nails the biggest absurdity of the book in his review: "it is Hawes's mission to remind us that he liked upmarket porn, consorted with prostitutes, and treated his women rather badly, none of which will be news to anyone who has any basic knowledge of Kafka derived from recent biography."


But Hawes' book isn't all bad. Most Kafka scholarship does have something of an awed tone towards its subject and Hawes is refreshingly cross about this. He seems to dislike Kafka the man as much as he values his work, and he wishes to get the man full square out of the way so that readers can concentrate on his writing free of biographical distractions. But Hawes has created new biographical distractions of his own (his reaction to Kafka's "porn stash" -- omigosh, heterosexual man likes pictures of noody ladies shock! -- is adolescent and priggish in the extreme) and he offers little in the way of new, critical comment on the work. For all that, I enjoyed Excavating Kafka. It is punchy and impassioned and written with some verve, but Kafka and his work remain just as enigmatic after reading Hawes' essay as they do before you begin. And that is only right.

Readers Comments

  1. But the argument's all a bit circular isn't it? 'You should stop looking at Kafka's biography to interpret his work because you've got his biography wrong.' Rather than this dialectical trap, where one gets drawn into more 'tragic true lives/rock n roll outsider' interpretations we should take the Deleuzian scythe and just dump the biography.

    More and more literary criticism has gone the way of pop music criticism where we have lost the language to talk about art without the figure of the author looming over the text.

    NB: This is not a suggestion that we don't address the social context of a piece and its origination - but we certainly must move beyond the dreary genealogy of genius.

  2. I agree with Roman Wilson. It is worse than pointless to try to "clarify" an author's works by reference to their (supposed) personal psycho-biography. However, we sometimes need to resurrect the shared consciousness of the age in which that author wrote. To take a blatant example: a modern audience needs to be told or reminded that any crown prince who finds his uncle (rather than himself) enthroned on the sudden death of his father has good grounds to fear assassination. Every groundling in Shakespeare's day would have understood this immediately.

  3. PS: My "shock" at the images mentioned (as it's clear from the book) is not at the pictures themseves but at the simple fact that as a time-served Kafka scholar I had never seen them nor heard them discussed - this in a world where every last snippet of biographical information on Kafka is endlessly interpreted and published. There is, on other words, no doubt that these images have been treated in a qualitatively different way from all other Kafka archive material.

  4. Can the author point us towards the endless interpretations of each and every book in Kafka's library as detailed here?
    http://www.pitt.edu/~kafka/k_s_bibII.html

    If not, he has a career mapped out! I look forward to the next book, perhaps railing at the scholars' failure to reveal to the world his ownership of Briefe eines Kaffee-Pflanzers: Zwei Jahrzehnte deutscher Arbeit in Zentral-Amerika von Oskar Weber.

    Of course, it might not spark a media publicity frenzy but at least we'll know he was into such disgusting and perverted material.

  5. Um, Stephen, you'll find that the list you kindly supplied does NOT include (you guessed it) Der Amethys and Opale, the two periodocals in question, even though we know Kafka owned them and they were produced by the man who was to be Kafka's own first publisher... Now why would that be, do you think?

  6. But their absence is not what I was responding to! It was to your - no doubt hyperbolic - claim that "every last snippet of biographical information on Kafka is endlessly interpreted and published". I'm sure the literature in German is extensive and, even in English, John Zilcosky's Kafka's Travels might mention the Weber book, but that list of books is extensive and I doubt even the surface has been scratched.

    For instance, Marthe Robert's book on Kafka's relation to Zionism (FK's Loneliness) doesn't mention "Palästina". Now why would that be, do you think?

  7. Stephen, this is plain silly. You are comparing the fact that one Kafka-commentator failed to mention one volume owned by Kafka in one book to the fact that no Kafka-commentator has ever examined the contents of Der Amethyst and Opale, despite Kafka's mentioning them several times in letters to Brod and Brod's (very tactfully) footnoting them in his first biography - and despite their editor having played (as described above) an extremely important role in Kafka's writing career. If you can find me other texts of which seriously comparable things can be said, I'll stand corrected. If not, do stop this logic-chopping.

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