Franz Kafka’s greatest wish was to disappear. Instead, he became an icon, a legend in the literal sense: the work he left behind demands to be read (legenda means “things to be read”). But the elusive force of his work remains irreducible even as the commentaries and biographies continue to proliferate. If he has disappeared, it is in the mode of abundant appearance. At the end of his life he seems to have anticipated this odd fate, which has become only more evident in the eighty-plus years since his death. In 1924, literally starving to death because tubercular lesions in his throat made it impossible to eat or drink, Kafka corrected the proofs of his last story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” With its singing mouse who barely sings and who in the end vanishes into a self-imposed exile (but was she was ever really there in the first place?), “Josephine” is a wry meditation on the artist’s strange invisibility. Its final sentence, which reads like a posthumous farewell, dreams of a “happy” disappearance for the story’s long lost protagonist:
Perhaps we shall not miss her so very much after all, while Josephine, redeemed from the earthly sorrows which to her thinking lay in wait for all chosen spirits, will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.
This last sentence of Kafka’s fiction rings with a dry, subtle melancholy—a sadness sharpened by paradox. Kafka, who self-consciously strove for literary greatness, recognized that true redemption lay in oblivion but also that redemptive oblivion is impossible. Just as Josephine lives on through the narrator, entering into the troubled legends of the mouse people, Kafka, too, became a legend precisely because of his efforts to disappear into a body of work, and even to make that work itself disappear. His notorious instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn his unpublished manuscripts after his death only extended the legend into the work’s very existence.
What’s most striking in the last words of “Josephine”—the fictional analogue to Kafka’s testament to Brod—is the equation of disappearance with happiness. Rarely is the word, much less the feeling, found in Kafka’s work, and few would accuse him of having been a happy man. But here a reconciliation is suggested, a resolution of conflicts, even an exit from history and a vaguely messianic state of peace. It could be said that this happiness—no doubt a reflection of his final months with Dora Diamant in Berlin—surrounds even the most gruesome parts of his work like the hint of a distant, more breathable atmosphere.
Kafka dreamt of disappearance in his very first writings, and imagined that writing itself was the dubious and diabolical path leading anywhere out of this world. To write was to escape in such a way as never to be found again, to become unlocatable, to evade all imposed positions and duties, to “betray everyone” (as Deleuze put it)—in a movement of freedom whose obverse is the exile and wandering more commonly associated with his work. This preoccupation is already clear in his earliest prose pieces, some of which Kafka collected in his first published book, Contemplation (1913). In “The Wish to Become an Indian,” which consists of a single halting (and incomplete) sentence, the desire to be absorbed into a fantasy of free movement is overtaken by a desire for something even more radical, a kind of literary nothingness:
And yet if one were an Indian, instantly ready, and on a galloping horse, leaning into the wind, abruptly trembling again and again over the trembling ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there were no spurs, threw away the reins, for there were no reins, and hardly saw the land before one as a smoothly shorn heath, the horse’s neck and head already gone.
We can imagine this scene as one of Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photographs, the figure gradually vanishing with each frame, or read it as a one-line answer to Karl May and the German fascination with the American West.1 What interested Kafka, however, was not the paraphernalia of the fantasy but the writer’s ambiguous, precarious control over it—the dependence on the language that brings it into being, or fails to. Kafka’s wish was to merge with that language, to fuse his very life with the act of producing it. As he wrote in one of his many melodramatic pronouncements on the nature of his calling: “I am nothing but literature and cannot and do not wish to be anything else.” Amazingly, this statement was addressed to his fiancée Felice Bauer’s father, in a letter asking for her hand in marriage—a stunning gesture that enacts its own dizzying self-cancellation. It encapsulates the uncanny merger (and intractable conflict) between literary nothingness and real life that Kafka strove for even in his letters, a merger designed to keep everything on the side of writing (including the possibility of marriage). The result is an extraordinarily complex writing machine, providing a powerful means of escape and self-defense, and a weapon for vanquishing the unsuspecting humans who fall into it.
Kafka often explicitly associates this sort of complete merging into language with technology and transport. (Another Contemplation piece is called “On the Tram.”) The technology evoked by “The Wish to Become an Indian” is a horse—one of Kafka’s favorite fictional animals. In the earlier “Aeroplanes at Brescia” the hippodrome becomes an aerodrome. Kafka wrote the essay during a 1909 vacation to northern Italy with Max Brod and Max’s brother Otto. While lazing on the north shore of Lake Garda, by the town of Riva, the three friends heard about the nearby air show and headed south to Brescia. As Brod tells it, he proposed a friendly challenge to Kafka: they would both write articles on the air show, and the best one would be published. (Unlike Kafka, Brod had numerous reliable publishing connections.) “The Aeroplanes at Brescia” was one of Kafka’s first publications and (aside from a couple of brief book reviews) his only attempt at journalism.
“Aeroplanes” was unearthed in the late 1940s by the scholar Peter Demetz, whose father knew Kafka in Prague (well enough to have helped arrange his funeral). Demetz’s interesting, useful The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) includes sections on Kafka’s and the Brods’ encounter with the highly publicized event, its historical background, the charged political stakes of such exhibitions, the presence of luminaries (such as Giacomo Puccini, described by Kafka as having “the nose of a drunk,” and the ridiculously bombastic proto-Fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio), and many of the pilots, who were well known in their day as heroes and pioneers. Kafka, fascinated by the mutual metamorphosing of men and machines, describes with surreal detail the tinkering of the mechanics as they repair the airplanes (which seems to have happened a great deal more than the actual flying): “A workman grasps one of the blades of the screw, in order to turn it, tugs at it, it gives a jerk, too; one hears something like the gasp of a strong man in his sleep.” Describing the first flight of Louis Blériot, the renowned French aviator, he writes, “Blériot is in the air. One sees his straight body over the wings, his legs are stretched down like a part of the engine.” There is great exhilaration over this freedom, this merging of bodies and flying contraptions, but also astonishment and vicarious fear (and this is what separates Kafka’s fascination from the kitsch heroics of a d’Annunzio). Kafka wonders of one pilot, “Is he going up in the air in this tiny thing? Then people on water, for instance, have an easier job after all. They can practice in puddles first, then in ponds, and not venture out to sea until much later, for this man there is only sea.”
We might well imagine that the young writer associated such a complete and immediate suspension over the void with hovering over a blank piece of paper, pen in hand; sure enough, toward the end of the article an idiosyncratic link is made between flying and writing. Night is coming on; the official competitions are finished for the day, but another Frenchman, Henri Rougier, has taken off and is climbing higher and higher “in small circles… Rougier sits at his levers like a great man at a writing desk which one climbs up to by a couple of steps behind his back.” This is a terrifically bizarre image straight out of one of Kafka’s bureaucratic phantasmagorias: a man has mounted an oversized desk where he writes/flies by means of levers and controls, on which someone’s dire fate—his own—depends. The image also recalls, more gruesomely, the writing/torture machine in “In the Penal Colony,” which, after six hours of arabesque incisions on the condemned prisoner’s body, supposedly brings transcendent redemption—though in that case, the body’s merger with the machine also brings death.
In this more lighthearted early text, however, there is little sign of death—only departure, and a fading away into the darkening sky. In an evocation of ascension, apotheosis, escape, and cosmic oblivion, here too reserved for the last sentences, Kafka ends with an image that prefigures Josephine’s unearthly departure. Leaving the airfield in the early evening to beat the crowds back to the train, the traveling friends are distracted by Rougier’s last-minute flight: “The road turns, and Rougier appears, so high that his position could be determined only by the stars that are just about to appear in the sky, already growing dark. We can’t stop turning around; Rougier is still climbing straight up, but our way leads with finality deeper into the Campagna.” A celestial image but also a troubling split: the flying artist in his machine is lost among the inaccessible stars, but “we” (we witnesses of technological modernity?) travel on into the earthbound darkness. This split hints at the infernal underside that continually intrudes into the project of pure escape.
Kafka on the Shore
That was the first of two trips Kafka took to northern Italy.2 A business trip to Vienna provided him with the opportunity for a second visit, this time without the brothers Brod, in September 1913. This rich and curious episode, with a mysterious love affair at its center, is related with exact dates (based on Kafka’s diaries and correspondence) not only by Demetz, but also by W. G. Sebald, in an odd little chapter of Vertigo called “Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva.” Against the background of an intense epistolary relationship with Felice Bauer, which had begun a year earlier but was already turning distinctly bitter, the episode presents an intriguing constellation of escape, travel, aviation (again), the fleeting happiness of a secret love, and the melancholy undeath that traps the decaying Hunter Gracchus forever in this world—Gracchus, who also stops in Riva.
The first stop in the journey is Vienna, where in his official capacity Dr. K. attended a conference on his two favorite subjects, accident prevention and first aid, as well as a Zionist congress that happened to be taking place at the same time and that he appears to have found rather boring. Both Sebald and Demetz (whose book contains a number of wonderfully banal Sebaldian images) reproduce an amusing photograph of Kafka and three friends taken in their off time in the Prater fairground. The four well-dressed strollers have, in fact, climbed a couple of steps to stand behind, or rather within the cutout frame of, an airplane crudely painted to look as if it is flying over Vienna (identified by the giant Ferris wheel famously featured in The Third Man); perched in the plane’s “cockpit,” only Kafka, in a dapper boater, has a wide mischievous grin; the others look incongruously serious, although there is a hint of a smile on the lips of the elegantly dressed young lady—who, with her eyes shaded by an elaborate broad-brimmed edifice of a hat, bears an unsettling resemblance to Felice. It does not seem outlandish to interpret Kafka’s grin (as Demetz does) as the sly pleasure at having persuaded his morose companions—with whom he didn’t seem to be getting along—to join in this silly gesture, for the sake of his own private commemoration of an earlier, more carefree trip. A few days later, fleeing his companions and his official obligations—which as always he had scrupulously fulfilled—he left solo for Trieste, headed for Venice, then on to Verona, and finally to Lake Garda and the alluring Riva, where he hoped to recover some peace of mind, but where he fell in love with a mysterious young girl.
Kafka’s brief and apparently chaste episode of love with “the Swiss girl,” a teenager (“barely eighteen,” Kafka writes) whose name he promised never to reveal, and whom he refers to a number of times in his diaries and letters as W. (or G. W.; Demetz gives her name as Gertrud Wasner), remains preserved in mysterious and impenetrable amber. Kafka describes in his diary idyllic scenes in which he sits on his windowsill at the Riva sanatorium as G. W. leans out of her own window just above, flashing a smile and playfully dangling a ribbon. He also tells of brief and dreamy boat rides on the lake, when he felt “only the desire to die and yet to hold on.” But when the time came for G. W. to leave the sanatorium, they bade a sweet, tearful farewell, and she climbed into the shuttle boat, knowing they would never see or even write to each other again, as they had agreed.
But the experience appears to have emerged in his writing in another way. From this fleeting love, and from the lakeside atmosphere suffused with “the desire to die and yet to hold on,” Kafka fashioned his strange story “The Hunter Gracchus,” about the medieval hunter from the Black Forest whose death ship has taken a wrong turn and must sail the waters of the earth forever. Gracchus docks at Riva and is welcomed by the Burgomaster, who inquires after the poor hunter’s situation. Gracchus lays his hand on the Burgomaster’s knee and says, “I am here, more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go.” Doomed always to leave but never to disappear entirely, Gracchus (whose name invokes Kafka’s own3) is the residue of a dream of love that, for Kafka, seemed to promise an impossible happiness while in fact bearing down with the weight of a forbiddingly normative scenario: establishing a home and living as the honorable head of a family. The fierce determination with which he renounced this bourgeois destiny may have everything to do with the infinite penitence suggested by a figure like Gracchus.
Sebald treats the entire story of Kafka’s trip to Riva with great tenderness and with the subdued, melancholy lyricism so characteristic of his writing. But he gives the story a dramatic twist, which can be boiled down to one very blunt question: Was Kafka gay? Actually, Sebald’s chapter does not pose this as a question at all but rather assumes it, using Kafka’s own words (much of the text is pure paraphrase and is at times taken almost verbatim—but with certain sly and subtle liberties—from Kafka’s letters and diaries), weaving in other invented or imagined details, to dramatize Dr. K.’s mute struggle with that unnameable desire.4
Along the way, Sebald evokes a number of ghostly, homoerotically charged doubles, among them the nineteenth-century Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer, whose favorite hotel Kafka chooses in Vienna, and who, a spectral presence at table, “lays a hand on Dr. K.’s knee” just as the Hunter Gracchus did with the Burgomaster of Riva. Later, in Verona, we are with Dr. K. at the cinema, where, Sebald imagines, he watches in tears the fateful story of the lonely student from Prague, whose very double steps out of a mirror toward the sword-wielding hero. When the latter finally shoots this aggressive doppelgänger, it is of course he himself who takes the fall, dying an elaborate, endless, operatic death. The scene harks back to the almost painful air of erotic ambivalence in Kafka’s early story “Description of a Struggle,” where the struggle in question revolves entirely around a vague but intense homosocial rivalry. At the end of the chapter, Sebald paraphrases a letter to Felice in which, to put it simply, Kafka describes having stalked an acquaintance—a strapping stiff-backed man who works in a shop selling “obscene” books—through the streets of Prague, “veritably lusting” after him, and, amazingly, asks Felice, “can you understand (please tell me!) why it was that I followed this man?…. At this point Dr K. surely came within an inch of admitting to a desire which we must assume remained unstilled.”
Sebald is by no means the first to entertain the possibility of Kafka’s repressed homosexual desires. “Was Kafka gay?” is actually the title of a newspaper article that appeared in Germany (in 1983), after the appearance of a book by Günter Mecke, Franz Kafka’s Open Secret, in which the question is probed in detail and answered with an unhesitating affirmation.5 Mecke is much too confident in his conclusions, considering the deep ambiguity at play on every level here. On the one hand, who can fail to be struck by the “gay moments” that come up in Kafka’s texts, not least of which is the incredible leather/S&M whipping scene that comes out of nowhere in The Trial and even takes place in a closet? (Its violence, and Josef K.’s anguish, may well be signs of the aggressive ambivalence at issue.) But even if we recall his oft described aversion to the deed done with women (a veritable leitmotif, with almost metaphysical overtones, in his correspondence with Milena Jesenská), and his disgust at the coded vignettes of heterosexual married life (e.g., his parents’ nightclothes laid out on the bed), it is a long, obscure road from here to any firm conclusion about Kafka’s lived sexuality. Sebald’s brief treatment is much subtler than Mecke’s, partly because its risks are covered by the poetic license granted to a novel; in a sense, it is far more convincing, for while barely tweaking Kafka’s own language, it places this desire within the larger problem of finding love in a treacherous, terror-stricken world—and in relation to a more general, largely denied “longing for love” (as Sebald puts it), for which Felice and the dream-shrouded Swiss girl are two extreme symbols. For Kafka, the price to be paid for renouncing this love, and yet continuing to long for it, resembles the fate of the Hunter Gracchus (which itself resembles the fate of the writer)—a deathly figure drawn to the shores of Lake Garda not by any sirens but by the haunting force of an inexpiable error that can never be made good.
He Lost it at the Movies
Sebald’s account of Kafka’s visit to the movies in Verona is based on a curious slip of paper Kafka wrote while lazing in the grass next to Lake Garda. He had originally planned to keep a diary to give to Felice upon his return, but all he could manage was a handful of unhappy letters—the last of which concludes, “We must part”—and these notes, which he sent several weeks after his return. “The fact that no one knows where I am is my only happiness,” he writes while lying in the sun. “If only I could prolong this forever! It would be far more just than death. I am empty and futile in every corner of my being, even in my unhappiness.” Addressing Felice on September 21, 1913, he tries to give a sense of his miserable state and his emotional distance from her: “I don’t keep a diary at all, I wouldn’t know what for; nothing happens to me to stir my inmost self. This applies even if I weep, as I did yesterday in a cinematographic theater in Verona. I am capable of enjoying human relationships, but not of living them through.”
Like most of us, Kafka wept at the movies from time to time. And many of the silent films made during the years when Kafka frequented the cinema played on the viewers’ feelings with low-operatic sentimentality, made apparent in their titles: The Heartbreaker, The White Slave Girl, Catastrophe at the Dock. Personally, I find it beautiful to imagine Kafka’s wide-eyed, tear-stained face in the flickering light of a schmaltzy melodrama, not least because such an image runs so counter to the general tonality of Kafka’s work, which is emotionally flat, deliberately stripped of lyricism, and almost completely devoid of all but the most hieroglyphically designated sentimentality. And what Kafka did visibly borrow from cinema—such as farce, physical comedy, and set character types—operates in a very different register. The image of Kafka weeping at the movies may well indicate what had to be evacuated from the writing for it to be the work that it is: by flattening affect and rooting out lyricism, by touching on the radical meshes of desire, social structures, and language, Kafka’s narratives were able to go deeper than drama, character, and psychology. At the same time, many of these narratives have a near-hallucinatory intensity—the confrontation between father and son in the last half of “The Judgment” really ought to be made as a silent film—an intensity which none of the many Kafka film products has ever lived up to. Yet a dim edge of lyrical sentimentality usually hovers around the proceedings like the ghost of some ultimate resolution one hardly dares to long for. Kafka may have found an image of this ghost flickering in the agitated figures of the movies.
Kafka had a deeply cinematic view of the world. He saw himself as a spectator of modern life, and he both relished and cringed before the onrushing, speedily fragmenting spectacle. The cinema during this time served up a powerful new form of technological alienation while also providing a pure dose of slushy, vicarious emotion, a moving reflection of the cohesive and expressive self that, at the same time, was being dispersed into the machinery of its presentation. That day in Verona, Kafka may well have seen the film about the young student from Prague, “cut off from love and life,” as Sebald imagines, and seen himself in it. Or he might have seen another film that played that day (no longer extant) whose title would surely have attracted him: La Lezione dell’abisso (The Lesson of the Abyss). Judging by the poster reproduced in Hanns Zischler’s 2003 Kafka Goes to the Movies (University of Chicago), this was the melodramatic story of an Alpine trek and a tourist’s fall to an icy death, featuring a great many shots of the “wondrously sublime beauty of the landscapes,” as the advertisement describes it. Or perhaps it was Poveri Bimbi (Poor Kids), described in the advertisement as having a “poetic and touchingly sentimental note…. The two children’s suffering is the sad consequence of a love story overshadowed by the demon jealousy.” Part of the power of movies has always been that, even with very minimal dramatic means, they are able to open great reservoirs of alienated feeling—at least until the lights go up and everyone files outside, into the anonymous circulation of the city. Not long after sending the above notes to Felice, Kafka writes in his diary: “20 November. Was at the cinema. Wept.6 Lolotte. The good minister. The little bicycle. The reconciliation of the parents. Boundless entertainment. Before that, a sad film, The Accident at the Dock, afterwards the amusing Alone at Last. Am entirely empty and insensate [sinnlos], the passing tram has more living feeling.”
I mentioned earlier that Kafka often saw machines as living beings uncannily absorbing human qualities, next to which his own life was a mere “senile trickle” (as he wrote in his diary), hardly enough to sustain the poor body in the terrible task of writing. So it is amusing to read in the translation of Zischler’s book that Kafka wrote “The Judgment” one long night “on a train.” I have always hoped I would find this joke actually printed somewhere: the phrase thus translated is from a diary entry where he describes a monumental writing session, when he stayed up all night writing “The Judgment,” which he considered his first truly successful story. There he uses the expression “in einem Zug,” which in many contexts does mean “in a train,” but it can also mean “at one go” or “in one sitting”—which is certainly what Kafka meant when he celebrated the ecstatic composition of the story. And yet let us relish this image of Kafka, having escaped the parental household where he could never get any writing done, rumbling along in a darkened train compartment, writing feverishly, ecstatically, by the scanning light of passing lamps, while the other passengers nod unconsciously and the one next to him, perhaps, leans a sleepy head on his shoulder, dictating his anxious dreams.
Aside from such accidental gifts as this, Zischler’s book has little to offer on the relation between cinematic experience and Kafka’s actual writing, whether as a practice or a product. Kafka was working at a moment of intense and ubiquitous modernization, when technology was dramatically changing every aspect of everyday life at a mind-boggling pace, and he was well aware of the cataclysm that was happening more quickly than anyone could conceive. (Consider the difference between the airplanes he saw on the Brescia airfield—skimpy, brittle things with a limited capacity to remain airborne—with the fighting machines used only a few years later in WWI.) His writing, which clings to traditional forms and harks back to canonical masters (Goethe, Kleist, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky), was nevertheless deeply shaped by the inescapable forces of fragmentation—of which the cinema is one of the great symbols and embodiments—that were transforming the very nature of perception and experience. Zischler’s book is not intended as an in-depth study of the complex intersection of film with Kafka’s writing. It is best seen as a lusciously illustrated introduction to the topic, full of revealing information on the films Kafka saw or is likely to have seen, with copious quotes from contemporary press releases and newspaper advertisements. The book, beautifully assembled, is at least a first step into this rich terrain. If nothing else, it raises questions about Kafka’s relation to what might be called the technê of image making, the rendering of life into a haunting semblance of itself.
Whatever Kafka may have learned from the movies, the specific site of this transformation as he practiced it was of course the writing desk, and the technology most directly involved was the machinery of inscription and the shifting architectonics of fictional worlds. Aside from the flying desk mentioned earlier, Kafka drew up several other contraptions designed to carry out these operations of distortion and displacement. Not least is the fantastic apparatus that Karl Rossmann finds waiting for him when he moves in with his uncle in The Man Who Disappeared:
In his room there was an American writing desk of the very finest sort…. The top part of it had a hundred different compartments of all sizes… but even better than that, it had an adjuster at the side, so that by turning a handle one could rearrange and adjust the compartments in whatever way one wanted or needed. Thin lateral partitions slowly descended to form the floors of newly created compartments or the ceiling of enlarged ones; with just one turn of the handle, the appearance of the top would be completely transformed, and one could do it either slowly or at an incredible speed…. It was a very modern invention.
Designed specifically for the purpose of manipulating and distorting space, this “very modern” “adjuster” breaks through the novel’s veneer of realism, introducing an image of a gradually shifting distortion of space. In its more dreamlike modes, Kafka’s writing is a constant effort to manipulate the handle of this distorting adjuster without anyone noticing. In this sense, it is like a vehicle into another world—not a separate world, but the one always waiting beneath the surface of this one. The way to arrive at it passes along the twisted road of fiction toward the unsavory powers usually held at bay. Likewise, the many thresholds and borders crossed or dreaded by Kafka’s characters lead them down obscure paths into spaces governed by unknown but suffocatingly intimate laws. Consider “The Judgment,” whose readers, upon reaching the deathly, frenetic conclusion and looking back at the anodyne beginning, must inevitably ask themselves: How did we get here from there? One might attempt to map the shifts in perspective and proportion—from realism to expressionism, say, or perhaps from Descartes to Freud—in search of the precise moment when the screen separating the ordinary from the monstrous begins to lift. In one chapter of his remarkable commentary on Kafka, entitled simply K. (Knopf, 2005), Roberto Calasso follows this story as it moves from a restrained bourgeois set-piece to an explosive Oedipal delirium. He locates the shift partly in Georg Bendemann’s measured walk from his own well-lit room (where he sits calmly at his desk) into his father’s dark and nearly forgotten quarters. But this spatial movement does not announce the trouble ahead. Unlike the nineteenth-century writers who clearly marked the transition “to the other side,” Calasso writes, “with Kafka there is no warning. The shift is smooth and nothing foreshadows it.” The border between the banality of the everyday and life’s disturbing immanent other has become a gently sloping, unmarked path—which, in this case, ends with a leap into the void.
Throughout his evocative readings, Calasso is attentive to the liminal features in Kafka’s fiction, its borders, thresholds, windows, doors, edges of beds, and other more fuzzy entrances, like the “blanket of moss” that covers the entrance to the animal’s underground dwelling in “The Burrow.” All of these elements mark out spaces that lead not so much into another realm as toward the threat or promise lying just on the narrow horizon at hand. “What distinguishes both The Trial and The Castle,” writes Calasso, “is that, from the first line to the last, they unfold on the threshold of a hidden world that one suspects is implicit in this world. Never had that threshold been such a thin line or so ubiquitous. Never had those two worlds been brought so terrifyingly close as to seem to touch.” In fact, this seeming contact already amounts to something much more radical: an intense and sordid “commixture.” For Calasso, the implicit world that Kafka’s characters bumble into (Georg Bendemann, or Josef K. in The Trial), or resolutely but naively challenge (K. in The Castle), is a realm in which the forces of “the religious or the sacred or the divine” have not been liquidated but rather “absorbed and hidden in something alien” called “society”—while making a powerful comeback in Kafka’s narrative art. Kafka raises the lid off the atomized, administered world, revealing the undifferentiated and animating “mass of power” that predates even myth. Speaking in the name of “the invisible,” Calasso gestures at the impossible shape of its unnamed multitudes, which supposedly haunted Kafka. But I would be more inclined to think that what haunted Kafka were precisely images—not images of the invisible, but images as such. Calasso himself explores these images in magisterial detail, reinforcing one of Kafka’s major insights despite himself: there is no undifferentiated prereligious or premythical world waiting to be uncovered beneath all the images, not even one consisting of pure power. (“All is a single unity, and it is simply power,” Calasso declares.) There is no pure power in Kafka, only a projected, mediated, administered, represented power, a power that in fact has no life outside its proliferating representatives. How they receive their effective power remains a deep and active mystery, but it is they themselves who simplify this mystery by projecting a unity that would legitimate their hierarchy (the law courts, the castle). The question for Kafka is how to make this process manifest by means of images, which usually cover this truth precisely with a simulacrum of sacred authority. In Kafka authority becomes glaringly naked even as it presents an ever more complex front capable of infinitely deferring every important decision. And the effective manifestations of power remain endlessly differentiated—as though slotted into the shifting compartments of a “very modern” writing desk.
Calasso disingenuously suggests that his book does not present an interpretation; but it must be said that if it does, the message—presented in loosely unified, aphoristic sections of greater or lesser length—is so supple and multifaceted that it dispels all suspicion of any preschematized reading. Calasso is entirely identified with his subject; or rather his voice is fully absorbed into the texture of the works he is commenting on, which he kneads rather than analyzes. In this sense there is an uncanny “commixture” at the critical level as well—and I can’t help pointing out that, if Calasso’s name is as Greek as it sounds, it would originally be written (or transcribed) as Kalasso; place this alongside the titles of his other books (Ka, The Marriage of Cadmus [Kadmos] and Harmony, The Ruin of Kasch), keeping in mind Kafka’s own truncated self-references in his characters’ names, and something truly uncanny begins to emerge. As Calasso puts it, “K. is the shape of what happens.”
Perhaps this extreme identification absolves Calasso, happily, of any need to engage in debates about competing interpretations.7 The book remains focused on the startling, mysterious, even galvanizing force of Kafka’s texts. And despite some overreaching, it poses an essential question: how does Kafka’s work approach the irreducible? It seems unwise to constrain Kafka’s work, as some academic interpreters have done, within a false dichotomy between pure structures (of language and writing, of transcendence) and the contextualized reworking of historical and cultural experience. Kafka’s disorienting fiction does not abide such a distinction; on the contrary it continually places it in question. It is pointless to deny that Kafka sought something other than the world in the world of writing; but it is also perfectly clear that what he found (invented) in that world was a distorted and suffocating—and yet perhaps truer—version of the one he lived in every day.
Deception without Deception
Why do we care about the details, large and small, of Kafka’s life? We know the most intimate things about the man from Prague, and what we don’t know has been imagined, for shivers or for laughs (try perusing Alan Bennett’s play Kafka’s Dick without sensing that things have gotten a little out of hand). We even know how many times he chewed each mouthful of food: he practiced Fletcherism, a health fad that involved extended mastication. There are perhaps more full or partial biographies of Kafka than any other writer on the planet (with the exception of Shakespeare): my last count came to twenty (including at least three picture books and one travel guide).8 There will certainly be more to come.9
One of the more recent titles, Klaus Wagenbach’s Kafka (Harvard), is actually a translation of one of the oldest (now reissued with some updated material): it first appeared in 1964 as part of a popular series of inexpensive illustrated author bios published by the Rowohlt Verlag, the kind of thing read by college students or anyone interested in a general introduction. Wagenbach’s more substantial, even groundbreaking Franz Kafka: Eine Biographie seiner Jugend (“Franz Kafka: A Biography of His Youth”), published in Germany in 1958, has still not been translated.10
Why this profusion? Here is one idea: readers of Kafka need to know about his life more desperately than do those of other writers because his art consisted in transforming, translating, and encoding the most intimate elements of that life into dreamlike allegories that seem to sever all ties with the world as we know it, even as they continually promise to reveal something essential about that world.
Kafka did not entirely break with realism as a fictional mode of referring to the concrete reality of the world; indeed, as a reader of Balzac, Flaubert, and Dickens, he was nourished by it. But he did place realist techniques in the service of an allegorical style which, I hasten to add, does not ultimately refer to some one thing, including Franz Kafka’s personal experience. And that is the success and the great enigma of his writing, and what continually sends us not only to his biography, but also to the cultural and political history that shaped it: these allegories, perfectly and literally self-contained, can never be reduced to a single parallel set of meanings and references that would be decipherable given the proper code, but they certainly do seem to refer to something other and more than what they say. There is always something out beyond them, or beneath them or between them—a kind of immanent strangeness that far exceeds their literal meaning—of which they seem to be the displaced figuration.11 And that something other necessarily seems to derive, at some level, from the very world they have so drastically fled, and from the life that this flight puts at stake. For it is also true that flight, for Kafka, is always a form of confrontation, in which fiction trumps reality and makes it what it is.
Here is another way to put it: if Kafka’s life was marked by the peculiar desire to be transformed into literature, to disappear into writing, and particularly into the writing of fiction, then reading his letters and diaries is in no way a matter of lifting the curtain hiding the man in the wizard’s booth; for even there, we are still in Oz. What I mean is that, with these personal documents, we are still within the realm of a writer pursuing his calling and thereby spinning out the subtle yarn of his fate. Even some of the diary entries that tell of his own direct experiences read as though they were composed as finely wrought narrative fictions, written in the voice of another. (It is a simple but revealing experiment to read passages from the diaries—or from your own, or from the newspaper—as though you were reading a story told in the voice of an unknown fictive narrator; the effect can be subtle and eerie. In a way, that is the effect Kafka sought in every word he wrote.)
Whatever Kafka wrote, it is, de facto, literature, and at some level he was well aware of this. Here is yet another celebration of the writer’s ecstasy, noted in the diary after a late-night writing session: “The special nature of my inspiration in which I, the most fortunate and unfortunate of men, now go to sleep at 2 a.m.… is such that I can do everything.… When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, ‘He looked out of the window,’ it already has perfection.” What kind of perfection is this? It is the perfection of a delimited and cohesive world, brought into being with the utterance of a few words: that is, it is the perfection of a fiction, inhabiting its own space and governed by its own laws. The ecstasy expressed here (and in many other places) is one that arises from the use of language as a means of bringing the unreal as such into being, and seeing that it has its own independent existence. In the diaries, Kafka seems to apply this process to himself, literally forging the being of a writer called “Kafka”—the only being that he can and will be—out of mere language. (This is true especially if we consider that it was in the diaries, along with all the other notations, false starts, and practice sessions, that Kafka wrote some of his first major stories.) In a certain sense, then, he sets out to experience the self’s own intimate artificiality, its status as a constructed fiction, and to absorb each (self and fiction) into the other. Now, it’s one thing to engage in such unwholesome experiments in a diary or in a work of art, but the stakes are different when that writing goes through the mail and addresses another living being by name.
It would be much too simplistic to say that Kafka lived his life as a fiction. But it would be naïve not to see that in his letters, above all in the Letters to Felice—which in terms of sheer volume constitutes the magnum opus of his entire oeuvre—Kafka seems to be carrying out a romance as though it were a kind of cursed modern fairy tale, one that begins innocently enough with a charming letter to a mere acquaintance, but soon veers into the utterly serious fiction that these two people might actually get married. Felice is Kafka’s matrimonial Frankenstein, but—along with the diaries—she is also enlisted in the birthing of another creature far more dear to Dr. Kafka’s heart, a creature called “Being-a-writer” (conveniently expressed in German with a single word, which Kafka made resonate with all its ontological force: Schriftstellersein). This woman, Felice Bauer of Berlin, gets caught up in the diabolical mechanisms by which real life is invaded by the simulacra of art, and by which art feeds on the images given over, like so much nourishment, from life.12
At first, the new correspondence seems to be pure invigoration, but this is also the invigoration of pure fantasy. Kafka writes his first letter to Felice on September 20, 1912. Two days later is the ecstatic night of writing “The Judgment” (in a train!), which inaugurates the first highly productive period of Kafka’s writing. This story, which begins with a man writing a letter to a friend about his recent engagement and ends in suicide, is, in part, a scrambled projection of Kafka’s sudden fixation on Felice (whose initials, as Kafka himself pointed out to Felice herself, show up in the name of the fiancée in “The Judgment,” Frieda Brandenfeld). This uneasy euphoria of real writing and imaginary marriage, occurring a mere two days after Kafka’s first letter to a woman who was essentially a complete stranger (and before she had even written back), suggests what was at stake from the beginning in this relationship—in a word, fiction. It’s as though the scenario was decided from the beginning, and once the properly bland and remote catalyst had been found, the machinery clicked into place. How sinister, then, to read in his diary the unflattering descriptions of Felice after their first meeting, where he describes her face as “blank, and wearing its blankness openly” and admits to having “an unshakable opinion” of her within seconds after being introduced.
Five years and seven hundred pages later, at the very end of this convoluted bourgeois Märchen, when the fantasy of marriage has finally been trumped by the more powerful fantasy of writing and nothing but writing (“nothing else will ever satisfy me”), and sealed with a life-threatening lung disease, Kafka makes an exit, and an astonishing confession. “I am a mendacious creature,” he writes in his next-to-last letter to Felice. But at least with you, he adds, I have tried to minimize the deliberate lies. And he goes on to commit an unbelievable act of writerly vanity, including in this farewell letter a frank—but highly literary—admission of his profound bad faith.
When I examine my ultimate aim it shows that I do not actually strive to be good, to answer to a supreme tribunal. Very much the opposite. I strive to know the entire human and animal community, to recognize their fundamental preferences, desires, and moral ideals, to reduce them to simple rules, and as quickly as possible to adopt these rules so as to be pleasing to everyone, indeed (and here is the twist) to become so pleasing that in the end I might openly act out my inherent baseness before the eyes of the world without forfeiting its love—the only sinner not to be roasted. In short, my only concern is with the human tribunal, and I would like to deceive even this, and what’s more without actual deception.
This is an extraordinary piece of writing. Kafka thought so, too. Not only did he send it to Felice, he copied it into his diary (or did he write it there first?), and then into a letter that he promptly sent to Max Brod, calling it “a brilliant piece of self-knowledge” and half-joking that “it would make a good epitaph.” So many assurances that this little metaparable would be preserved for posterity? (Here is a question that is rarely asked, but that Kafka’s case makes irresistible: Did the thought ever occur to him that his diaries and letters would eventually be published as part of his work? Who can doubt it. An avid reader of literary biographies, diaries, and letters, he strove to be a great writer with the self-conscious sense of a latecomer who knows that, if you make it into the ranks of your heroes, it will all be given to the public in the end. And it certainly has.) He concludes the letter to Felice by saying (I paraphrase) what a relief it is that he’s so sick, since it means they can finally put an unequivocal end to this farce.
Kafka has been called, by sentimental souls, a saint. Felice herself, the very person who should know better than anyone, said during an odd encounter with the editor Nahum Glatzer, to whom she turned over the wheelbarrow full of letters from Kafka, “My Franz was a saint.” Dear Felice, I would rather call him a scoundrel, wouldn’t you…? He said as much himself, over and over and in the most striking prose,13 but no one would believe him. I think we should take him at his word; we should believe all he says about his vile baseness and devilishness. We should believe him because this makes it possible to understand the sense in which fiction seeped into every corner of his life (separating him, with a veil of “mendacity,” from the ordinary commitments he claimed to want so badly), and the way that his life merged with writing, such that he seemed to be inventing that writer’s being with every new word; and it would mean, finally, seeing how the greatest guilt of all rests in wanting to grasp the knot where fiction and reality are bound together in the very making of the world. Kafka’s devilishness is the devilishness of writing as it learns to manipulate the very levers of the world, in the infernal workshop where our dreams (and words) come to form even the hardest realities of everyday life.14 It also means recognizing the unredeemable abjection of the writer-being—made visible in the emaciated features of Kafka’s hunger artist—which consists in attempting to parade one’s vanities, compulsions, and talents as admirable feats of virtue: “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” says the hunger artist in his dying words, “but you shouldn’t… I cannot do otherwise, I have to fast.” Why does he have to fast? “Because I couldn’t find the food I liked.” That is the punch line of this story, but the real joke is this: I cannot do otherwise. This categorical defense, made famous by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, rings derisively here. And it is troubling to hear it echoed again—in a context not that far removed from Kafka’s fiction—by a squealing Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M, when the child murderer is confronted by the gangsters who have cast themselves in the role of his judges. It would surely be going too far to place Kafka’s obsessive devotion to writing under this sign. But at what point does resolute single-mindedness blur into sheer abject compulsion?
Grammar and Guilt
Many moments in Kafka’s fiction echo the earnest mendacity affirmed in the letter to Felice—especially in the novels, which deal so directly with issues of power, semblance, and manipulation. These novels (all three of which have been newly translated in the last decade based on the critical editions that have been appearing in Germany) attest explicitly to the devilish insinuation of fiction into reality, or rather to the deeply fictional structure of lived reality itself. Each begins with something like a rumor, a farce, a fiction taken as true, or with some urgent inability to distinguish fiction from fact. The novel proceeds to play out the consequences. In Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared) (translated by Michael Hofmann for New Directions), Karl Rossman is said to have seduced the maid and gotten her pregnant—but of course that’s not at all what happened!—so that his parents had to send him to Amerika (where the Statue of Liberty brandishes a mighty sword). The beginning of The Trial is even more to the point: first of all, the entire scene is set like the stage of a theater, and secondly, the decisive moment of initiation into the process—of the novel and of the Prozess, the trial—occurs at the precise moment in the first few pages when Josef K. thinks to himself: This may all be a joke; well, if it is, I’m going to play along. But the unreality of his entire situation is contained in the very first sentence. In Breon Mitchell’s updated translation (published by Schocken), the sentence reads: “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” Mitchell’s introduction helpfully explains not only many of the earlier translation’s problems, but the particular ones that beset this first sentence, where a mere assumption is compounded with the subtle shadings of greater or lesser wrongdoing. The key phrase is “without having done anything truly wrong.” I would like to quote the German in order to isolate an important detail. The phrase reads: “ohne daß er etwas böses getan hätte” Notice those two dots in the last word, for they are the true culprits here. They make the verb (“had done”) into a subjunctive, implying hearsay or secondhand knowledge, meaning something like “allegedly” (and implying that the assertion is Josef K.’s own denial, not that of an omniscient narrator); in other words, yet another degree removed from reality than even a mere assumption. The earlier translation by the Muirs simply bulldozes over the problem, giving “without having done anything wrong”—a straightforward statement of fact. But everything depends on the impossibility of really knowing whether or not Josef K. has done anything wrong, an uncertainty that complicates the notion that his guilt is entirely “subjective” (maybe he has done something wrong; maybe he is far from innocent, even “outwardly”; maybe he is a mendacious scoundrel).
Mitchell justifies his choice by saying that it introduces the question of truth. At the same time, it seems to be a question of appearance, reality, and suspended judgment. With that in mind, and with all due respect to a translation that improves on the old one in countless ways, I would hazard another, which changes Mitchell’s in only one detail: “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without really having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” The sense I have in mind here is that if you asked someone in K.’s position whether he had done anything wrong, after thinking it over a bit, like most of us he would finally say: “Well, not really”—the implication being that he could come up with something if he had to. Another implication is of course that the dirty deeds in question are as much of the order of (real) thoughts as of “real” actions, and the nightmare that ensues in the novel is somehow born from the suspicion that even that is enough to bring down the full weight of the law. And is it always possible to tell the difference? Consult your conscience on that one.
Finally, consider The Castle (also published by Schocken), which begins with the main character staring into “seeming emptiness” and proceeds to a debate in the village inn concerning his very identity—is K. the land surveyor he says he is? The question is resolved, apparently, by a startling pronouncement phoned in from the Castle, but this does little to dispel the atmosphere of sheer semblance pervading the scene (and the entire novel). “So the castle had appointed him land surveyor,” thinks K. after the phone call, as though he were surprised to hear his claim confirmed. At this moment K. realizes that the Castle “is taking up the struggle with a smile.” And this struggle is nothing if not a textual one: a conflict of interpretations. The novel’s new translator, Mark Harman, notes that “in The Castle, the process of interpretation becomes an integral part of the novel”; and as competing interpretations vie for dominance in K.’s various discussions and confrontations, it soon becomes clear that it is entirely a matter of competing fictions (or rumors) struggling for the status of reality. The fictional world of the novel is, at every level, one in which reality is conferred, on language by language. In this sense, it is difficult not to see the struggle that is taken up “with a smile” also as the struggle of writing this very fiction, of striving to bring into being a virtual world that exists only insofar as it says it does. It is not far from here to the suspicion that our entire lives, the stories that we are, hang on this twisted and invisible thread.
The terrain of Kafka’s life has by now been so minutely sifted, our knowledge of it has become so saturated, that the desire to know the man from Prague has reached beyond Kafka himself, engendering what might be called second-order biographies. First there was a book on Milena Jesenská by Margarete Buber-Neumann, a woman whom Milena had met in the Ravensbrück concentration camp after being interned as a political prisoner. The two women quickly became allies and friends. They made an agreement to write a book together if they survived; but if only one of them made it, she would tell their story. Milena’s life—that of a liberated woman and a politically committed and outspoken journalist—is certainly worth recounting, but lest we miss the real reason for her importance, the German title of the book tells us straightaway that she is Milena, Kafkas Freundin (“Milena: Kafka’s Girlfriend”). For the English translation, this silly title was changed to Milena: The Story of a Remarkable Friendship. In all fairness, and considering the circumstances, Buber-Neumann was genuinely compelled to tell of her “remarkable friendship” with Milena, and the book remains a minor but noteworthy addition to the literature of concentration camp testimonials, though it adds little to what is known about Kafka.
A more recent publication, Kafka’s Last Love (Basic, 2003) tells the absorbing story of Dora Diamant (or Dymant). The author, Kathi Diamant, began her research hoping to uncover a kinship with Dora, but so far none has emerged. The story she tells, however, not only changes our image of Kafka; it also relates a remarkable life caught up in the great currents of history in the first half of the twentieth century.
Dora lived with Kafka in Berlin during what I like to call, without the slightest irony, his happy period. They met in the summer of 1923 in Müritz, at a resort by the Baltic sea. He was recuperating; she was doing volunteer work at a holiday camp for refugee children run by the Berlin Jewish People’s Home. It has always been reported that Dora was nineteen years old, but here we learn that she was in fact twenty-five (this helps somewhat to counter the not unfounded image of Kafka compulsively seducing teenage girls at holiday resorts). They were immediately drawn to each other and were soon spending nearly every day together. Kafka, already forty, must have been deeply fascinated by this young woman. Born to a traditional Jewish family in Poland, she had defied her devout father, eventually freeing herself from the strictures of an orthodox life. But she brought with her the culture of the Ostjuden, the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe whom Kafka had always idealized as more firmly rooted and cohesive, but whom he could never hope or pretend to join, attached as he was to exile and alienation. (His lucidity in this regard is what prevented him from becoming a committed Zionist.) In this sense, Dora was perfect for Kafka: she embodied this culture for him (she suspected that, as a Western Jew, “even Kafka turned to me… as though expecting something from me”), and yet rather than drawing him into the suffocating world of a strict communitarian order, she herself was more interested in the adventure of a liberated, urban, artistic life, particularly in the theater. There was nothing for it but to move in together—and Berlin was the place, both for its cultural ferment and for its looser mores concerning cohabitation. The city had long been Kafka’s more attainable Promised Land, the obvious destination of all his aborted plans, over the years, to leave Prague and the parental sphere and to live a writer’s life on his own. Unfortunately, in the fall of 1923 Germany was on the verge of economic collapse, and the surreal inflation was rendering the currency almost more valuable as firewood than as cash. (At the height of the Great Inflation, one U.S. dollar was worth one trillion paper marks, which were no longer counted by hand but measured in stacks with a ruler.) Kafka was living on a pension he had finally been granted by the insurance institute, which meant that he was paid in more valuable Czech crowns. The pension was just enough to survive on; in October, Kafka and Dora moved into a small flat in Steglitz, a residential area just outside the city.
Thus begins Kafka’s happy period. Like most tales of ordinary happiness, it is a fairly banal affair, rather “a matter of pure atmosphere,”15 as Dora put it, than of dramatic events. But how striking it is to learn that “Kafka was always cheerful,” that he played around, cracking jokes and reveling in everyday sensations. “How he took such pleasure in eating a banana!” They fantasized about opening a restaurant in Palestine; Dora would cook and Kafka would wait tables. The sheer lunatic euphoria of such an idea is touching. They practiced Hebrew together, and Kafka would read his favorite authors to her (Kleist, E. T. A. Hoffman, Goethe). They fretted about the inflation, and actually had to move twice to cheaper rooms before Kafka’s illness became so grave that he had to be taken to a clinic, then to a sanatorium, where on June 3, 1924, he died in Dora’s arms. (This detail, too, differs from earlier accounts in which Dora is absent when Kafka dies.)
And of course Kafka wrote during this time. Apparently, having a companion around did not hinder his ability to write, a complaint he had made to Felice with such metaphysical thunder (“What I need for my writing is seclusion, not ‘like a hermit’… but like the dead”). In fact, Dora didn’t really seem very interested in Kafka as a writer—and here we begin to touch on what to me is the crux of this story. Dora loved Kafka, it seems, less as a (letter) writer than as a person. For her, he was not in the least merged with his writing, which was somewhat incidental to the curious, wide-eyed, mischievous man she found herself living with. There, the entire myth of “being-a-writer,” the whole theologico-metaphysical edifice constructed as a diabolical defense and a weapon aggressively wielded against the terrors of love and the burdens of home, became irrelevant. The result was that Kafka’s writing would no doubt have to find its springs in another kind of tension, another kind of paradox.
Judging from the only three stories we have from this period, some such shift seems to have begun to take place. All three, in fact, explore the paradoxes of home and community. “A Little Woman” is about the couple’s mean-spirited landlady, as Kafka told Max Brod. “The Burrow” is a long and brilliant disquisition on the impossibility of securing one’s home against the alien otherness that has somehow always moved in first. And “Josephine the Singer,” which may be Kafka’s most beautiful story—written as it were in the shadow of death—treats with gentle irony the artist who expects to be granted exceptional status within the community (exemption from everyday work, in particular), and who is both the very center and the marginalized outcast of the mouse community, with its countless other forgotten heroes.
It is difficult to know how much Kafka wrote in Berlin, since he destroyed a significant part of it—or rather he instructed Dora to throw pages into the fire as he lay in bed and watched. And what he didn’t destroy was lost: after Kafka’s death, Max Brod begged Dora to hand over any material in Kafka’s hand that she might have. In the one act that will inevitably bring down upon her the muted wrath of all Kafka fanatics, she lied to Brod, saying she had nothing. In fact, some ten or twelve notebooks remained in her possession (minus the sacrificed pages that had been torn out and burnt), as well as thirty-five letters to her. Was Kafka’s writing precious to her after all? Were these notebooks mere mementos, like the hairbrush she kept (reproduced in Diamant’s biography in a bizarre recent photo worthy of Man Ray)? In any case, she stubbornly held on to the papers, even after marrying a card-carrying Communist and waking up one morning to find that the Nazis were in power. Soon enough, the husband, Ludwig Lask, was arrested, their apartment was raided, and the papers were confiscated. They have never been recovered.
From here, Dora’s (post-Kafka) story becomes an extraordinary tale of international flight and refuge, tracing a path through the three massive segments of power that were violently struggling for domination in Europe: fascism, communism, and liberalism (aka capitalism). Not only did Dora and her one-year-old daughter manage to leave Germany just after the Nuremberg Laws were decreed—the Gestapo, notepads in hand, observed them departing from the train station as they set out for the Soviet Union where her husband awaited them in Moscow—she also managed to escape from the Soviet Union, again with her daughter, after her husband was falsely arrested for espionage, a seemingly inevitable fate even for loyal Communists. (Lask was shipped off to Siberia and presumed dead, but he unexpectedly reappeared, literally a ghost of himself, fifteen years later.) This escape, at the height of Stalinist paranoia in 1938, is nothing less than miraculous; how Dora pulled it off remains a mystery, but it attests to what comes across in this biography as her fundamental courage and force of character. After crossing Europe, she stopped in the Netherlands, and from there, after much maneuvering, she finally secured passage to England—a no less miraculous feat now that the war had begun—where, in another incredible twist, she was interned in a concentration camp on the Isle of Man. Not as a Jew, of course, but as a German. In a surreal wartime act, the English assigned a grade (A, B, or C) to all German aliens and, for those categorized as a threat, hastily set up camps on the vacation island by surrounding upscale boardinghouses with barbed wire and installing guards. Dora remained there for about one year before being allowed to return to London, where she stayed until her death in 1952. After the war, the woman who had frequently referred to herself as “Franz Kafka’s wife” was often sought out by researchers and interviewers who wanted to speak to the great writer’s widow.
Dora was deeply haunted by Kafka’s memory. She felt extremely guilty in particular about the loss of his manuscripts, especially in these last years, when his growing status as “an information bureau of the human condition” (Adorno) became clear to her. And I can’t help thinking that Kathi Diamant feels guilty, too. Although she has not managed to find evidence of kinship with Dora, this biographer makes it clear how entirely identified she is with her subject (the pattern continues here, matching names and all). Her book project, which she seems to have taken on as a kind of family obligation, was the catalyst not only for a number of reunions among the still-surviving members of Dora’s family, but also for the placement of a marker on Dora’s grave in London, and the memorial that was held for the occasion in 1999. And Kathi Diamant, as the former host of a television talk show with the fantastically un-Kafka name Sun Up San Diego, is an unlikely candidate for the directorship of something called the Kafka Project, but that is exactly what she is.16 Both the book and this project seem to be motivated by a familiar desire: to tell a family history and possibly to set a few things right—the primary goal of the Kafka Project being to recover Kafka’s lost papers. A number of unsuccessful attempts have been made, but the chaos of the Nazi archives, even at the time when the papers were confiscated, and the fact that many of these archives are now in deep storage in the former East Germany, have made it impossible even to say whether these documents have been definitively lost. They may still be in some mountain of yellowing paper waiting to be catalogued, a process that is underway but that will take more than ten years to complete.
So there may be more Kafka to dig up. If these remnants are found, will there be that much less guilt in the world? It seems unlikely, but one thing is certain: Kafka did not disappear. Even after absconding into the bureaucratic pulp of history, his remnants still haunt our guilty conscience. No doubt because she herself was haunted, Dora eventually succumbed to the impulse to sanctify or mythicize Kafka. (At one point, in some late reminiscences, she even compares Kafka to Jesus—and finds the latter wanting!)17 But the happiness that Kafka found with her indicates something different, which I would be tempted to call the relinquishing of myth—or perhaps the sacrifice of sacrifice. When Kafka asked Dora to burn his papers as he watched, was this an attempt to abandon or demote the sacred status he had so rapturously attributed, in his more theological moments, to writing? Josephine the singer’s disappearance, which is no apotheosis but rather a kind of evaporation, may give a clue about this; for that exceptional mouse, rather than the blessing of disappearance, the worst possible curse might have been to get what she demanded: to be enshrined eternally in the official memory of the people. As when (in Godard’s Breathless) the reporter asks the famous director what his greatest ambition in life is, and he answers, “To become immortal, and then to die,” we could likewise say of Kafka that his greatest ambition was not only to disappear, but to become a myth and then to disappear as such.
But what would that mean? Perhaps—and here, dear reader, speaking as someone who has suffered acute grief over this beloved writer’s lost manuscripts, not to mention his early death, I ask you to allow me to be a little cryptic—perhaps it means letting what he didn’t write not exist, and leaving what was lost there where it no longer lies. Kafka wrote in his diaries, “I do not hide from people because I want to live peacefully, but because I want to die peacefully,” and why begrudge him that? Even the Burgomaster of Riva would help if he could.