In Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Zadie Smith quotes novelist and critic Adam Thirlwell as saying, “It is now necessary to state some accepted truths about Franz Kafka, and the Kafkaesque…Kafka’s work lies outside literature…He has no predecessors-his works appears as if from nowhere-and he has no true successors…These fictions express the alienation of modern man; they are a prophecy of a) the totalitarian police state, and b) the Nazi Holocaust…It is crucial to know the facts of Kafka’s emotional life when reading his fiction…” (Smith 59). He ends this dizzying array of accolades with the jarring statement, “All of these truths, all of them, are wrong,” (Smith 59).
What? Wrong!? How can accepted truths be wrong? The key word is accepted – as with any myths, it is inevitable that inventions and misunderstandings will always diminish our view of the person while elevating our idea of the saint. And that’s exactly what Kafka is considered in most circles, a saint. But all the above are indeed myths, much like the man we have come to know as Kafka.
One might think this is because we lack information about him and thus naturally fill in the gaps with conjecture. On the contrary, we have more information regarding his life than we do about some contemporary authors – we have nearly everything he ever wrote, from his fiction to his diaries to even his letters. But the fetishization of Kafka goes beyond his writing. To understand how hysterical the situation is throughout the world, consider that the discovery of his hairbrush “made the world news,” (Hawes 57).
One could understand such mythologizing about someone like Shakespeare, whom we cannot know much about – but why do so many believe in a fictitious Kafka when the real man is right before us?
The answer, according to Professor James Hawes, author of Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life, is that the Kafka we believe in has become the Kafka we need (or think we need) to exist. However, it’s only by pushing aside these myths that we will ever have a chance of understanding what remain, even without the mystical aura that typically surrounds him, are among the greatest works of literature ever written.
“The K. Myth”
Some of the generally accepted truths (i.e. lies) are surprisingly easy to dismiss. For instance, Hawes thoroughly undermines shatters romantic notion that he “was almost unknown in his lifetime (partly because he was so fastidiously shy about publishing” – it is an endearing fantasy, but one we “we want to be true,” (Hawes 107, italics his). The fact is, he was published in his lifetime and quite well-known, having jointly won (in a bizarre affair that showed his more arrogant side – something most would find inconceivable) a prestigious literary prize. Furthermore, he was quite well connected to many influential intellectual circles – it was these very connections that helped him gain notoriety in the first place.
As for him being lonely? Hardly. Reading his letters to the women, of which there were quite a few, in his life cannot help but blow up that myth. Hawes goes into great detail, as he does with each common misconception, to show just how complex (and perverse) his dealings were with woman – some of whom he loved but didn’t desire and others whom he desired but didn’t love. Suffice it to say that, like many young men, love brought out the best and worst in him, showing that he could be sentimental, neurotic, and manipulative sometimes all at once.
While such facts may be disappointing given that this man is supposed to be a saint, some of Hawes’ later surprises are frankly astonishing, at least for someone who was steeped in the kind of folklore surrounding Kafka he wishes to disprove. Among the most shocking revelations from help me write my essay he brings out is the fact that the immortal image of a man turning into an insect, which we all associate with both the author and the equally immortal novella from which it comes (The Metamorphosis), is not actually his own. I’ll admit that I found this outrageous. But, as with the rest of Hawes’ inconvenient truths, I will not willfully deny the evidence before my eyes. What makes this case especially embarrassing on a personal level is that the image is actually derived from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a book I thought I had read quite carefully.
The second major revelation that seems to totally destroy not just our idea of Kafka but our understanding of his work is Hawes’ analysis of Hermann Kafka – the domineering father who, according to Kafka, terrorized his son and subconsciously drove him to create his greatest works (many of which deal with tyrannical fathers and subservient eternal sons).
But Hermann’s bad reputation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – given that he was unusually liberal (allowing Kafka to study whatever he wanted in school, hardly, if ever, beating his son at a time when such behavior was common) and “since everyone else in this era… was writing about bold, sensitive sons standing up to ghastly hypocritical fathers who ruled the roost unjustly, it seems as if we really must take the ‘Letter to His Father’ with a very large pinch of salt, indeed,” (Hawes 139).
“Why The Myth Must Go”
Humanizing Kafka shouldn’t, on a rational level, be upsetting. And yet it is – as I’ve already admitted, I have long been enthralled by the idea of a Kafka who was otherworldly and, as I neared the end of Hawes book, I was greatly torn. On the one hand, I was glad to have had the good fortune to pick up an immensely enlightening (and well-written) account of an author I love. But at the same time, every time another accepted truth was stripped away, I felt as if the Kafka I knew was being stripped away as well. What if I didn’t like Kafka at all?
My fear that I might regret having read Hawes book turned out to be totally unfounded, for he rescues readers like myself from despair in the final chapter, where he illustrates precisely why Kafka is great – and, best of all, he does it through his writing.
It turns out not to matter that he isn’t, in literary terms, the man from nowhere – that he was demonstrably influenced by Stendhal, Dickens, and Dostoevsky. Nor does it matter that while Western readers might find the Court system in The Trial surreal, it did in fact reflect a justice system that, unlike ours (which is adversarial), is inquisitive. What matters is that “Kafka takes the novel to the next state,” (Hawes 228). He does this by “jump[ing] clean over symbolic constructions. Psychological reality…become[s] the reality,” unlike say with Dickens, whose Bleak House, while covering similar themes as The Trial still demarcates a separation between the psychological and the real (Hawes 228, italics his). This “dominance of the ‘unreal’ over the ‘real’ – of psychological states over mappable facts,” is his unique contribution to literature, and one that continues to have an enormous impact on literature, and our collective imaginations, today (Haws 229).
So maybe Kafka wasn’t a saint – maybe he was just a guy who lived in Prague, had relationship problems, and had a tendency to exaggerate from time to time. Hawes’ reaction is, “Who cares?” And if we are serious when we say that we love Kafka’s works – works that, “in an age when men yield themselves (and others) up to vision of the fountains of paradise,” which are guaranteed to make us “waste [our] life,” – then like Hawes, we shouldn’t care, either.