Earlier this year, I read James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany – it was illuminating to say the least (and I thought I knew a thing or two about German history). So I decided to take the book he published in 2008 with me on a recent trip to Prague. What was he going to teach me about the city’s most famous inhabitant?
To summarise in a sentence: Everything I ever thought I knew about Kafka is a myth! Really? Yes, really.
The “facts” – the accepted truths – are listed by Hawes on pages 6 and 7.
- Kafka’s will ordered that all his works should be destroyed.
- Kafka was virtually unknown in his lifetime, partly because he was shy about publishing.
- Kafka was crushed by a dead-end bureaucratic job.
- Kafka was crippled for years by the TB that he knew must inevitably kill him.
- Kafka was incredibly honest about his feelings with the women in his life – too honest.
- Kafka was imprisoned, as a German-speaking Jew in Prague, in a double ghetto: a minority-within-a-minority amid an absurd and collapsing operatta-like empire.
- Kafka’s works are based on his experiences as a Jew.
- Kafka’s works uncannily predict Auschwitz.
- Kafka’s works were burned by the Nazis.
The remainder of his book is spent debunking, each and every point, one by one. Convincingly and yet the K-myth, as Hawes calls it, is still the one perpetuated by the industry. The enigma must be good for business.
Well I was in the right place to check things out. (No pun intended.) I marched myself off to the Franz Kafka Museum. What are they saying?
Let’s look at myth point 3: Kafka was terrified of his brutal father. This is backed up by the museum, as the first exhibit introduces us to the “shadow of Hermann Kafka … the huge, oppressive figure which the writer chose as a recurrent motif in his inner life”. The museum presents the Letter to My Father as “a biographical and literary document of the first order” though I suppose there’s sufficient room for manoeuvre in its evaluation of the work as “an over-the-top diatribe” to suggest that, as Hawes argues, the relationship between son and father in the Letter to My Father is not to be mistaken for that between the real-life counterparts.
Myth point 2: Kafka was virtually unknown in his lifetime. There’s plenty of evidence in the museum to show that Kafka was well-known in immediate circles, but interestingly not a scooby about his winning the Fontane Prize for Literature in 1912! I wasn’t aware of that until Hawes brought it to my attention.
Myth Point 1: That legendary will exists and the literary world will be forever grateful for Max Brod’s act of disobedience. Certainly that is how this is presented in the Franz Kafka Museum. How can Hawes argue against this? That Kafka was using reverse psychology which Brod, due to the closeness of their relationship, would have understood all too well.
I’m inclined to believe Hawes because there is just so much in these fascinating pages that brings a completely new image of Kafka, the man, to life. “A clubber with a penchant for porn” as James Walton aptly phrased it in The Telegraph. (And I’ll leave you to wonder about the revelations in that particular chapter.)
Enough about the man, what about his literature? Here’s another myth: Kafka’s style is mysterious and opaque. I certainly found that to be true at university and remember hurling (literally) “The Castle” into the rubbish bin! Yet the section that Hawes devotes to analysis of Kafka’s works – including that beetle story – as the depiction of the “abiding psychological tension of our modern world” makes tham seem not only interesting, but perhaps even approachable. I’m not going to use the word enjoyable, because I don’t to want chance my arm, but I do find myself contemplating what would have been uncontemplatable a couple of months before. A reread of Kafka’s novels. My stomach clenches at the thought, perhaps something shorter. Hawes suggests there is no finer place to begin than with “The Judgement”, and, as I trust him, so I shall.