Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life
By James Hawes
St. Martin’s Press, $23.95, 244 pages.
You know the myth. The tortured shy alienated writer who suffered from a poor-paying government job that meant he had to live at home with his heartless dominating father. How this poor writer was so awkward with women he never married, how he stayed up all night writing works that were never recognized for their worth because they were so strange, how he was struck down like Keats by tuberculosis so tragically young. And who only now, after his death, has been recognized as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century by scholars devoted to his work.
James Hawes, novelist and Kafka scholar, says in his introduction, you know wrong:
Two generations of adoring biographers and theorizing academics have churned out an image of perfect human profundity (which moves books) and unfathomable literary/psychological complexity (which sells research proposals). Do they care to represent the real Dr. Franz Kafka (1883-1924)?. No, thank you. Really, they are in the same game as the sellers of tourist knickknacks in Prague. All they want is K., a face-and-name icon that will bring, through the doors of their shops or lecture halls, people who have never read his writings, a brand to hang their businesses and theories on.
And in the rest of his book he, in witty and biting fashion, demolishes the Kafka industry. It would take too long to go through this argument step-by-step, so I will focus on the first two of the ten myths Hawes deplores and show how he argues that they are myths.
Before he goes into the specific myths, however, Hawes gives us a snapshot of the real Kafka and the society in which he lived. A shy man, yes, but not shy enough to not visit upscale brothels and seduce pretty Slavic servant girls, like most men of his age and class. He bought Austrian war bonds that banked on Germany winning World War One, and he had plenty of money to invest because his civil servant job paid the equivalent of $90,000 annually. He was not above allowing literary string-pulling on his behalf and he was a subscriber to what one biographer called “exotic erotica,” but which Hawes plainly calls pornography. Hawes does not sensationalize or even criticize—he is not a moralist saying Kafka shouldn’t have owned pornography he hid in a locked drawer in his bureau–but to dispel the fog of myths that surrounds Kafka studies.
The first myth Hawes demolishes he states thus: “Myth 1: Kafka Was Almost Unknown in His Lifetime (Partly Because He Was So Fastidiously Shy About Publishing).” Is that so? Well, at age thirty-four Kafka had published four books: Meditation, The Stoker, The Metamorphosis, and “The Judgment.” He was called at one point by two rival publisher who tried to tempt him away from his publisher, Kurt Wolff. Franz Werfel, Rilke, Herman Hesse, and Robert Musil all knew of and praised his work.
But then the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the war and broke apart and those war bonds Kafka had invested in were worth about as much as Lehman Brothers stock. Hawes explains the aftermath of the war and what it meant to Kafka and every other writer of his nationality and era:
In short, in the years when Kafka might otherwise have been reaping the benefits of his growing reputation, people in the German-speaking world often had rather more pressing things on their minds (and budgets) than books. As Brod [Kafka’s best friend and first biographer] wrote on January 1, 1921, “In Berlin, all the writers are fleeing into steady jobs and the civil service . . . serious literature is bankrupt.”
Thus Kafka’s career was derailed by history and then his early death kept him from getting it back on the track.
The second myth as Hawes phrases it was: “Kafka Wanted His Works Destroyed After His Death.” This one is a little more subtle. Kafka left two wills for Brod to find and both said Brod should burn the works that had not been published. Hawes argues that Kafka was a lawyer who knew how to draw a legal will up and these “wills” were not legal. “Brod claims,” Hawes writes, “that he’d even told Kafka flat out, at the time of the first will, that he wouldn’t carry out the instructions.” Basically, Hawes argues, Kafka didn’t mean what he said, and the psychological reason for this is apparent to any Kafka student.
Hawes says that Kafka
was merely acting the way he’d acted in very field of his life: maneuvering someone else into making the big decisions, to keep up the fiction (which seems to have been vital to his sense of himself) that he was a man without intentions, a mere plaything of other people’s desires (meaning that he could never be held guilty for the results.)
In a fascinating footnote to this aspect of Kafka’s personality, Hawes quotes a Kafka scholar, Stach, who says, “It is disconcerting—especially to readers determined to see Kafka in the best possible light—how he tried to shirk his responsibility in critical situations by leaving matters in other people’s hands.” Hawes then adds, “Kafka’s stories, or course, are totally aware that this evasion cannot work.” Or, as D. H. Lawrence said, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” I think Hawes would add, Never trust the myth-making critics, either.
But why, beyond the simple and most important reason of the desire to know the truth, is this important? Hawes contends that if we buy the myth we misread Kafka’s fiction. It is not just about the alienation of modern man or about Kafka’s own personal demons. Kafka’s fiction, according to Hawes, is about our desire for a spiritual home, about the tension between this desire and the reality, that Kafka takes this psychological battle and concretizes it in his fiction.
This is Hawes’s case for reading Kafka (beyond the aesthetic reasons):
In an age when men yield themselves (and others) up to visions of the fountains of paradise, described in timeless glory down scrambled cell phones, Kafka’s black-comic tales of what happens to modern people who can’t give up on the Old Ways could hardly be more timely. He knows better than anyone that we all feel such yearnings, but he also knows that giving into them is a certain way to waste your life.
One could argue against his Nietzschean metaphysics, I believe—what if there is a true paradise and religion is not just about earthly power?—but not against his well-reasoned and funny smashing of the idols. If you would like to know more than the myths about Kafka, then you should read this book.