Franz Kafka has entered our language as an adjective — “Kafkaesque” is applied nowadays to almost anything that strikes us as senseless or surreal — but the man himself remains obscure. Saul Friedlander’s short biography in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, “Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt” (Yale University Press, $25.00), offers an intriguing effort to fill in the blanks of a famous but little-understood author.
Friedländer, of course, is a much-honored historian of the Holocaust, but he is also a man of letters, a native speaker of German — the language in which Kafka wrote — and, significantly, a deeply sensitive and reflective observer of the world in which he lives. (His memoir, “When Memory Comes,” is an account of his own experiences during and after the Holocaust, both courageous and sublime.) Above all, he feels a kinship with Kafka because both of them are products the precarious Jewish community of Prague.
“My family’s world was that of Prague Jews, belonging to a slightly younger cohort than Franz’s generation,” he writes. “My father studied at the German Law School of Charles University, which Kafka had attended some fifteen years before…. My mother’s first name was Elli (Gabriele), as was that of Franz’s eldest sister. And, like those of Kafka’s three sisters, my parents’ lives ended in German camps. All of these hidden links, discovered over time, may have added to my predilection for Kafka’s texts, beyond the appeal of their intrinsic greatness.”
As the author of commanding works of history on the Holocaust, Friedländer regards his own book on Kafka as “a small biographical essay,” and he acknowledges that he is approaching his subject as a non-specialist. But his modesty is unnecessary. He has clearly mastered the vast scholarship that has attached itself to Kafka, and he brings fresh insights of his own to the challenging body of work Kafka left behind.
To various Kafka scholars, Friedländer explains, the enigmatic author “appeared as a neurotic Jew, a religious one, a mystic, a self-hating Jew, a crypto-Christian, a Gnostic, the messenger of an antipatriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, an iconic voice of High Modernism, and much more; in short, he has become the most protean cultural figure of the past century.” But the flesh-and-blood Kafka, he insists, aspired to none of these roles: “Kafka was no builder of theories, no designers of systems; he followed dreams, created metaphors, and unexpected associations; he told stories; he was a poet.”
Yet Friedländer concedes that Kafka’s work is illuminated by the facts of his life, and the biography serves as a companion and a key to the novels and stories. After studying Kafka’s letters and journals, as well as his fiction, Friedländer concludes that Kafka’s family conflicts — and especially the lifelong tensions between father and son — prompted the writer to “[take] upon himself the role of toreador in a lifelong corrida, meant as the secret assertion of his own particular self.”
Friedländer is especially interested in how Kafka understood his Jewish origins and identity. His Hebrew name was Anschel; he went through the motions of a bar mitzvah, which his parents referred to as a “confirmation;” he was intrigued with Yiddish theater and Chasidic folklore and once participated in an audience with the Belzec Rebbe. But he felt as estranged from his father’s religion as he did from his father: “What have I in common with Jews?” the young Kafka mused. “I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe….”
The frail and sickly young Kafka, as Friedländer shows us, was afflicted by a sense of doom that finds expression in all of his writing. For example, Friedländer gives us a close and thoughtful reading of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” pointing out the “wanton sexual violence” that the doctor confronts but fails to prevent, the “shamanistic healing ritual” that unfolds during the “surreal night journey,” and he finds a dire meaning below the surface of Kafka’s narrative: “Uncovering the truth about oneself and about the evil at the core of mankind could have become the first step to redemption; in Kafka’s world, though, truth seems to open the gates of annihilation.”
Friedländer is perfectly willing to venture his own interpretations and explanations, but he quips that “Kafka wouldn’t be Kafka if all signs were easily accessible.” Kafka himself acknowledged as much in one of the letters that he wrote to one of the women in his life: “You have no idea, Felice, what havoc literature creates in certain heads.” Yet Friedländer has succeeded in ordering the seeming chaos inside Kafka’s head, and his “Kafka,” although modest in length, is rich in meaning.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at the Newport Beach Public Library on September 19; at American Jewish University on October 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on November 1.