Franz & Me, Part I of ???

In past years I have often found myself explaining the “pan kisses” part of this blog title to friends and readers, who assume I have some sort of affinity for goat-gods or whatever. I don’t! I am not that high-brow or sensual. Sorry! It’s a reference to the “Thrilling Miracles” sketch from Mr. Show:

… a reference that now hopelessly dates me.

What I’ve always considered self-explanatory, however, is the “Kafka” part–which is weird, because it’s not self-explanatory at all. And weirder still, my normal reaction when people demand to know why I “love” Kafka so much is to shut down, say “it’s boring,” and awkwardly walk out of the room. I don’t know why I do this. It’s weird. Like I said.

Anyway, what I’d like to do for the next few days is to share an essay I wrote awhile ago about Franz & Me. It’s long, so it will come up in sections. And unlike my short-lived grad-school memoir, it doesn’t contain juicy details about other people doing drugs and having gross sex, so I won’t get a harried and angry request to take it down (which happened before, and with which I complied). Because the only person this one embarrasses is me, and I’ve already decided I can handle it.


The True-Ish Story of Franz & Me, Part the Eins


My association with Franz Kafka (1883-1924) has been quite the off-and-on romance, as many of humankind’s most passionate are: Antony and Cleopatra, Napoleon and Josephine, Ryan Reynolds and Serena van der Woodsen—and Franz and me. This relationship has wavered, in the space of the past two decades, from youthful infatuation to the orgiastic height of mature desire; from impassive, entitled neglect to a level of possessiveness that can only be described as deranged. My interest in Kafka began sometime in my sophomore year of high school, and has since been so influential that it has precipitated nearly every major decision of my life: where I went to college, what I studied there, where I have traveled when I managed to scrape together money, where I went to graduate school and what I dissertated about—in fact, that I went to graduate school at all, which brought me the gift of all the authors I’ve discussed here, but was still possibly the worst decision of my life.

So what is so great about Franz Kafka? First of all, in no way is he abjectly “better” than any other major German-language author—even though some, like Robert Walser (of whom Kafka was a great fan), are wholly obscure by comparison. But there is just something about Franz that makes him the only author that my students request by name. In fact, on my last trip to Walt Disney World, I noticed that Kafka was the only author available in a stand-alone volume in the Germany section of the Epcot World Showcase. This is especially impressive, given that Kafka wasn’t actually German.

Kafka was barely Austrian, in fact, born in 1883 in the hauntingly beautiful city of Prague, just as it was eking out its last years as the Bohemian outpost of the Hapsburg Empire. Young Franz grew up part of the city’s bourgeois German-speaking Jewish minority; then, the 1918 Czechoslovak revolution brought about both a change in official state language and in Kafka’s citizenship. As we are about to see, there are a lot of weird things about Franz Kafka, but one of the weirdest is that without doing anything, like most of his fellow fin-de-siècle Praguers, he was born one nationality and died another. Speaking of Kafka’s death, here is a modernist fun fact: his (below) is the only Cubist gravestone in Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery, a locale to which I first made an embarrassingly earnest pilgrimage in the summer of 1995.


But I still haven’t answered the question: what is so great about Kafka? How could one writer be powerful enough to draw someone like me not only into his own world, but also into the entire literary universe of his native language? If you look at the bare facts of his life, he was no hero: before dying rather horrifically at the tender age of 41 from complications due to tuberculosis (technically starvation, as his throat lost the ability to swallow), Kafka spent his adulthood as a mild-mannered, gaunt, quick-witted attorney for a state-subsidized workers’ insurance union. Even the societal alienation readers often attribute to Kafka is inaccurate: because he wrote work like The Trial (Der Proceß in German), in which a hapless bank clerk is subject to protracted litigation at the hands of an absurd judicial bureaucracy, there remains a pervasive image of its author as a similarly lowly clerk, toiling at the mercy of his unblinking superiors.

This is actually not true at all. Though Kafka found his day job draining and unrewarding (he often referred to it as a Brotberuf, literally “bread job”), he was quite good at it, rising steadily up the ranks until he became a vice-president, and at one point even acting as interim CEO. It may surprise many fans to know that Kafka never earned more than a nominal pittance for what few pieces of writing he published during his lifetime—indeed, one of the best-known “fun” facts about Kafka is that upon his death, he asked his friend Max Brod to destroy his writing corpus (nearly all of which was unpublished, and much of which was unseen by anyone but Kafka himself). Brod famously disobeyed, and instead became executor to one of the greatest literary legacies of all time. And yet, despite possessing talent that Brod and other friends recognized immediately and often, Kafka was never a full-time writer; he worked his day job consistently and only wrote at night.

Sometimes, in fact, Kafka wrote the entire night through, as was the case with the spectacular and unique short story “The Judgment” (“Das Urteil”), which he completed in one sitting on a September night in 1912, and whose published version is exactly the same, to the word, as that which emerged in those wee hours “like a proper birth, covered in filth and slime.” “The Judgment” is the story of a father and son whose relationship goes mortally awry, a wrenching example of the dramatic father issues Kafka often addressed in his fiction—and some of his nonfiction, too, most notably the Letter to Father (Brief an den Vater), a sixty-page cri de coeur that details Hermann Kafka’s apparently despotic behavior to his only surviving son (Franz had several brothers who died shortly after birth). Kafka entrusted his long-suffering mother Julie with this letter—but Julie never passed the work on to her husband, even after Franz’s death.

“The Judgment,” meanwhile, also went over icily, this time with the subject of its dedication, Felice Bauer (“für Fräulein F.B.”), to whom Franz was engaged—twice—but never married. The story’s chilly reception probably had something to do with its lead character, Georg Bendemann, getting into a massive fight with his father over none other than his recent engagement, to a “girl from a good family” whose initials happened to be F.B. There are allusions to premarital relations in the story (the fiancée breathes “heavy” under Georg’s kisses at once point), and at the tale’s climax, Georg’s father refers to this fiancée as a strumpet against whose lewd advances Georg was powerless. Georg has “defiled Mother’s memory,” Herr Bendemann insists, after which he proclaims: “You were actually an innocent child, but more actually you were a devilish person! And now hear this: I sentence you to death by drowning!” At the handing-down of this “sentence” (the word “Urteil” conveniently meaning both “judgment” and “sentence”), young Georg races out of the family flat, into the city (unnamed, but quite Prague-esque) and onto a bridge—from which he springs to his death, with the acrobatic verve of the “excellent gymnast he had been in his youth,” falling into the river just as the bridge is overtaken by what most English translations call an “endless stream of traffic.”

And here, thanks to Kafka, is yet more fun with the German language: the word for “traffic” is Verkehr (fehr-CARE), which literally translates as “intercourse.” In English, that word has been so colored by its sexual meaning that we rarely use it for anything else, but in German, it is used for both: Verkehrsmittel (fehr-CARES-mitt-el) just means “transportation,” while Geschlechtsverkehr (guh-SHLEKTS-fehr-care) means “sexual intercourse.” The true genius of “The Judgment” comes in its final two words of the German, which are unendlicher Verkehr—which reads to German-speakers as “endless intercourse (…ahem, of traffic).” Yes, the wildly highbrow Franz Kafka ended one of his most confounding, famous and tragic stories with an extremely dirty joke. When people ask me why I think Kafka is so great, I often give “The Judgment” as an example, and say that his greatness derives primarily from being such a darkly humorous perv.

But one of the greatest things about Kafka is that for every fan, there is a markedly different set of reasons he speaks to them. Some of my particularly angst-ridden students (as well as angst-ridden me at their age) respond most to the darker, more violent elements of his work—such as in the aforementioned In the Penal Colony—feeling as if his miraculous ability to conjure up precisely what is most hopeless about (a certain young bookish person’s version of) the human condition pierces their very souls. Others, including a number of literary critics, never cease to wonder at Kafka’s playful use of language, his masterful subversion of all we hold holy in the narrative arts—such as that a perspective must be coherent, a story must have a discernible plot (or an end!), that we must have at least one sympathetic character, that narrative structures are not allowed to twist back upon themselves multiple times, like “A Little Fable” (“Kleine Fabel”) does:

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world grows smaller every day. At first it was so wide, and as I ran on I was happy to see walls appear to the left and right, but these high walls converged so fast that I’m already in the last room, and there in the corner lies the trap into which I must run.” “You’ve only got to run the other direction,” said the cat, and ate it.

It’s no small feat that the tiny plot of this three-sentence story twists twice. First, the cat tells the mouse that her problem all along was that she was going in the wrong direction—the German word is Laufrichtung (lOWf-rik-toong) or “running direction” (yes, Germans have a separate word for running direction). That is, the mouse was just doing the wrong thing, and the alleged solution to this is for her to turn around and run the other way. As this is titled a “fable,” we’re ostensibly supposed to take a wider lesson from this first twist: if we find ourselves “cornered” in life, perhaps the problem is that we were just going in the wrong “direction.” Ah, but then, in the final three words of this tiny story, the plot twists again: the cat gobbles the mouse up! So it actually didn’t actually matter what direction the mouse went in—or what “direction” we go in in life—because that mouse was Meow Mix incarnate from birth. The mouse didn’t do anything wrong—she was simply doomed via her existence as a mouse altogether.

On the surface, this story seems quite morose—its “moral” being, apparently, that we are all screwed simply via our humanity—but I see its greatness from Kafka’s ability to stuff such an intricate, charming, and yet terrifying double-twisting plot into a story so short. I read this tiny fable and I see the joy of Kafka’s manipulation of the German language. I see his language—as the French literary critics Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have put it, Frenchily—taking flight. This playfulness, this unexpected, unbridled joy in narrating the terrifyingly morose, is probably the primary reason I have always loved Kafka so much.



8 thoughts on “Franz & Me, Part I of ???

  1. I shake my head in disbelief as I read all this–how can academia have let such an amazingly erudite, talented, passionate and personable scholar slip by? Your writing, your tone, they also showcase your talents as a terrific educator. Man, I wish you could have been MY teacher! This blog entry further confirms that academia leans toward hiring conformist mediocrity that complies with caricature posturing, ala “cold politesse, etc.” that Nikil Saval described so well (cause, y’know, academics levitate and never, I mean never, poop).

    Now I want to go read some Kafka….


  2. What DM said. If I hadn’t loved Kafka before, Rebecca, I would now. Also, I must note that “The Little Fable” especially speaks to contingent faculty members who are told that if they had made better decisions they wouldn’t be going in the wrong direction.


  3. It makes me so sad I do not know German better (or indeed at all, despite an entire month in Vienna to study German…); thanks for this, wonderful piece. Btw, I loved Kafka so much that I was happy to stay in the same street in Vienna where Milena had lived.


  4. The other day, my kid asked me, “What does Kafka’s Metamorphosis mean?” So I tried to explain as best as I could. Maybe you could write a blog post for parents: “How to talk to your child about Kafka.”

    PS I’m totally stealing your explanation of the “Little Fable” if I ever teach 20th century literature again.


  5. Your (early) passion was infectious and the entire reason *I* was reading Kafka at a tender age. Possibly, too, the reason I landed in Prague for a spell. A drop of passion leaves a wide ripple in its wake.


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