I am literature – Kafka’s life and extreme ambition

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Reiner Stach: Die Kafka-Biographie in drei Bänden (English titles: Kafka: The Early Years, Kafka: The Years of Insight, Kafka: The Decisive Years). ISBN 978-3-10-397256-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Few non-fiction works have given me the satisfaction that this biography of Franz Kafka gave me. The original German edition counts some 1800 pages, spread over three volumes, and each page was an adventure. Rainer Stach combines a thorough scientific study of Kafka’s life and works with masterful story-telling. His sound knowledge of the history of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire allows him to put Kafka’s life in a precise philosophical, political and sociological context. And Stach’s outstanding literary talent made it possible to write a witty, emphatic biography while maintaining the necessary distance to the subject at the same time.

What shall I say? This is certainly the best biography I have read so far and most likely one of the best books I have read. What impressed me, was the consistency of the ideas that guide the reader through the three volumes. Kafka was an enigmatic person, no doubt, but it is possible to decrypt both him and his works, if not to the last detail then at least well enough to understand Kafka’s states of mind, his motives, his ambitions and the obstacles that prevented him from becoming a successful author during his lifetime, obstacles he set up mostly himself.

The second and third volume are brim-full of bookmarks and annotations of mine, so where should I start? Perhaps with Kafka’s ambition which at the same time was what he considered the purpose of his life. Kafka was looking for the utmost depth of his soul, the hidden truths inside himself, pure and therefore honest. He looked so hard that on many occasions he lost himself. Catapulted into a state of extreme introspection, he found bits and pieces of his essence at the level of his subconsciousness. He combined this with a precise observation of his environment, the society of Prague, the psychological workings of his dysfunctional family and metaphors they inspired to him. And just like in a black box, through an unintelligible process, out came a book, a letter, a note in one of his many drafting booklets.

It could take years until a coherent text took shape, but once the black-box was triggered Kafka would write day and night until total exhaustion. As you may know, he almost never finished a text. Most of his novels end abruptly and leave the reader somewhat speechless, like “The Castle”. Sometimes Kafka wrote chapters for a novel without knowing where to insert them. I remember the chapters at the end of  “The Trial”. They illustrate certain parts of the plot, but you can either read them or not. Kafka himself was unsure.

Kafka intended to replicate life in literature and at the same time literature was his life. As Stach writes, one of the forces that propelled Kafka’s writing forward was “the reciprocal concentration of fantasy and reality”, well visible in Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis”. This however was an extreme challenge, as Kafka recognized himself. To his fiancée Felice he once wrote: “The outer world is too small, too obvious, too authentic to hold all that is encapsulated in one human being.”

One of Kafka’s central issue was the subject of social exclusion. He always felt like the odd man out – in his family, at school, in his job as an insurance expert, in the literary scene of Prague, in the Jewish community, a stranger among humans. And this was by no means just an attitude. Stach describes it as an affliction, a lifelong burden and a lifelong source of inspiration. More than once Kafka feared to turn mad, trapped by the conflicting forces that tore at his soul, but suicide was never an issue as this would not have been compatible with his ambition. He could not withdraw from the life-long experiment labeled “I am literature”.

Kafka’s desire to write something completely truthful, perfectly reflecting his ideas and emotions let him to hone his writing skill over decades, leading to an aesthetic concept marked by an extreme density, a meticulous choice of words and metaphors and a stark, sober style when it came to descriptions. It was Kafka’s language that enthralled me, it was his symbolism that captivated my mind and it was Stach’s biography that helped me understand both the man and his works. With Kafka I discovered a whole world, his world, and at the same time I received a code to decypher modern-day sociological issues that are not very different from the issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kafka had no interest in classical music and told his friend Max Brod he could not distinguish Franz Lehar’s operette “The Merry Widow” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. Prague was the geographical centre of Kafka’s life and so I’d like to link this outstanding biography to an outstanding Czech composer, Leos Janacek, who benefited of Brod’s support, and his String Quartet No. 1:

Entangled in Janacek’s tragedies and love affairs

To Write or to Love, to Be or to Fail

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Franz Kafka: Das Schloss (English title: The Castle) ISBN 978-3-596-90456-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ⭐️ A surveyor comes to a village and tries to gain access to a castle and the clerks who seem to work there. His name is K. He fails. K. is confronted with the hostility of the local population. He is an alien, and aliens are not welcome. Aliens disturb the established order, by not knowing the rules, by not fitting in, by not having a defined place in society. At the same time K. becomes a victim of auto-suggestion in a way people fall victim today to conspiracy theories. The population of the village stands in awe before the clerks, though it is not known whether they have any leverage over people’s destiny. The surveyor imagines a battle with the invisible clerks and interprets events only within this mental framework.

The unfinished novel deals with social isolation, loss of control, the feeling of being manipulated by an opaque system, elements that today trigger fear among the vulnerable parts of Western populations and contribute to the success of populists and extremists. Kafka started to work on this novel in 1922 after he had suffered a collapse, triggered by a worsening lung tuberculosis. At the same time he felt the constant need to assess whether he had made the right choices in his life. He wrote the first two chapters from his own perspective: I, Franz Kafka. While he was working on the third chapter, he switched to the third person singular: K. Why? His biographer Reiner Stach hints at the fact he was about to describe an erotic scene.

The novel deals with another issue: the essence of social relations. In Kafka’s novel, the surveyor tries to get to know people who may help him gain access to the castle. Some of the people in the village switch sides for the same reason. They try to manipulate K. for their own personal goals. The utilitarian aspect eclipses the emotional content of human relationships. Kafka had difficulties with people. With almost all people. His family, especially his father, his friend Max Brod, for whom he felt at times deep friendship and at other the need to distance himself. His relations with women were rides on a psychological roller-coaster and marked more by fantasies than by an acknowledgment of the facts.

Kafka’s novel “Das Schloss” certainly is the most mysterious one. Many interpretations have been advanced, most of them focus on what the castle may stand for. Kafka had told Brod the broad lines of the end – K. dies of exhaustion and solitude – and he interpreted the castle as a symbol for the mercy of God. Kafka identified himself with his Jewish origin and was sympathetic to the Zionist cause, but he had no substantial religious feelings. Psychologists, linguists and sociologist have came forth with different ideas about the novel’s meaning.

I have come up with an idea of my own and you are at liberty to reject it. The castle could stand for something that Kafka longed for and failed to achieve: a true, symbiotic relationship with a woman he could respect, venerate and live with. Love, actually. Kafka’s relationships with women were permenantly interfered with: He was thrown off course by his own dilemma of having to chose between writing and marrying his fiancée Felice Bauer, by his desire to be alone and to be with someone, by the moral codex of his and Felice’s parents, by historical events like World War I, a deteriorating health and his at times excentric way of life and sexual anxiety. The sheer number of obstacles on the way to happiness is a central element to understand Kafka’s life and a key idea of “Das Schloss”. And Kafka enjoyed a few happy moments with Felice in a Czech hotel of the name of “Schloss Balmoral”.

I think one of the great strengths of Kafka’s novel is the fact that a number of different interpretations are possible. Modern art makes the audience, the spectator, the reader part of a piece of art, and as such any reader can find his own truth in “Das Schloss”. Kafka could not stop thinking about himself; if his novel made readers think about themselves, their place in society, the essence of their existence, I think he would have been pleased.

Another strength is the language. Towards the end of his career, Kafka had developed a way of writing that not only became his hallmark, but also defined a new style as such, the language of modernity. He focused on the essence of words like some composers focuse on the essence of single notes, omitting any ornament, writing in a totally unadorned, almost bureaucratic style. At the same time, his style is never boring, Kafka develops momentum, tension, beauty even, and keeps the reader under the spell of his words, without distracting or manipulating his perception.

Kafka’s technique has two effects: First, he gives the reader a frame and a canvas with a few silhouettes, the reader’s fantasy is supposed to fill in the rest. Second, his style also confers the oppressive emotions that penetrate the story, emotions originating in the modern industrial and bureaucratic age, where life is governed by forces that the individual can not control or understand. Both effects taken together make thecreading of “Das Schloss” fascinating. It is a mysterious work, but a masterwork nonetheless.

Music that leads me to reflect my life, my past, my possible future, the meaning I give my existence – there are quite a few pieces that come to my mind. I will settle today for a little known and little played composer: Nikolai Medtner and his Sonatina in G major:

Exploring parallel universes

Trapped in an Anonymous Judicial Machine

Franz Kafka: Der Proceß (English title: The Trial) ISBN 978-3-596-90356-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Imagine being arrested without being given a reason. Imagine being arrested and being free to go to work, to the movies or to stay at home. Imagine being judged without being informed whether you have been charged or why. The judges remain invisible, lawyers are merely tolerated, and the more you try to defend your obvious innocence, the worse your case gets. Arbitrariness seeps into your normality and usurps the place of the rule of law and logic in a form of bureaucratic brain-washing.

This is the frightening world Franz Kafka describes in his inimitable, dry, matter-of-fact language. “The Trial” is Kafka’s best known novel and without any doubt a masterpiece. He wrote it in 1914/15, but it was published only posthumously in 1925 by Kafka’s friend Max Brod. It is an unfinished work, with several fragments written but not inserted into the actual draft of the novel. Kafka’s inspiration driven story reflects the author’s complex personality, his relations to his family, his fiancée and his fiancée’s family. It takes up his experience as an office clerk as well as characteristic elements of the society in Prague, e.g. a voluntary deference to authority, and the Jewish community Kafka was part of.

Kafka’s narration of the fate of Josef K., arrested and judged for reasons unknown, is an allegory of his own psychic turmoil, and at the same time a description of man’s growing isolation in modern society. It also shows how men, by tolerating an initial restriction of his individual freedom, get trapped in a vicious cycle where the surrender of parts of his rights leads to the abolition of all of its rights. But while every man has to fight for himself, the ruling authority, that is the top-tiers judges, has to uphold at least the fiction of legitimacy. One of the surprising vulnerabilities of the anonymous tribunal is the concern it has for human relationships, necessary to maintain what Kafka calls “the cohesion of society”.

The risk of open revolt against the judges can be banned by creating the illusion that the final judgment can be influenced. Herein lies the only weapon an accused has: open and immediate revolt against a limitation of his basic rights, civil disobedience, the refusal to play by the (illegal or amoral) rules set by the judges. Josef K. fails in the novel where Kafka failed in his own life. It is remarkable that Kafka recognizes this lesson and still fails to live up to it. It is very well summed up in the scene in the dome. After a debate with a preacher about the nature of the law and the role of the gatekeeper, confering knowledge of the law to some but not all. At some point, Josef K. says with utter resignation: “The lie becomes the principle of the world order.” The law can and must be challenged, for laws are not immutable, they have been created by men for men.

During most of his life, Kafka felt he had to justify himself: for the job he chose, for the fiancée he picked, for his writing, for his inability to write, for his cold attitude towards his family, his lack of interest in the family business, in short, Franz Kafka felt he had to justify being Franz Kafka. Social exclusion, real or imagined, voluntary or imposed, was a constant issue, resulting in periods of depression, in self-depreciation as a human and as a writer and in self-inflicted psychic wounds. And fear of exclusion corrupted his mind. It seems that he never considered stepping outside the sphere governed by rules alien to him. He accepted the rules, suffered and succumbed. By doing so, he gave us some of the greatest pieces of prose ever.

Kafka was aware that writing was the reason for his existence, the essence of being Franz Kafka, and the search for his “inner truth” – looking into an psychologic abyss – produced novels like “The Trial”. A cruel creative process. The brutality of an anonymous, judicial machine that Josef K. does not understand, the inevitability of his tragic fate, his gradual transformation from a combative innocent to a cooperating witness against himself, expressed in Kafka’s detached style, inspired me horror and fascination at the same time. And a deep respect for the author. Writing such a novel was a superhuman act, and only Kafka could have conceived and produced such a book, coherent in its laconic style and grotesque logic from the first to the last line. He paid a high price: constant misery, a poor health and occasionally the fear to become insane.

Kafka’s novel about an arbitrary judicial system reminded me of the trials organized by the Stalin regime in the 1930s and the feeling of insecurity it created in the Soviet Union. A composer with first-hand experience of Stalin’s arbitrariness was Dmitry Shostakovich. Here is his Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (Op. 40):

Whistling in the dark to keep monsters away

Sarcasm used as a pedagogical tool

Franz Kafka: Brief an den Vater (English title: Letter to his father) ISBN 9-783596-14674-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ With this book, Kafka wrote a many, many pages long indictment of his abusive father. He details how much power his father had over him, how this power damaged his soul, perverted his emotions and prevented him from being a happy child and becoming a socially integrated young adult. A powerful book about the destructive power of words thrown at a sensitive child, a brilliant development of the theme Kafka sketched in his short story “The Judgment” and a fine example of Kafka’s very personal, very concise and molto cantabile style – lyrical prose!

While I read this book on a lonely evening I enjoyed Dmitry Shostakovich’s violin concertos and his second concerto in C sharp minor fits well with the overall mood of Kafka:

Paranoid feelings as the sun sets on the countryside

A power struggle between father and son

Franz Kafka: Das Urteil (English title: The Judgment) ISBN 978-3-596-20019-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Another short story with a subject dear to German Romanticists: the longing for death! I truly enjoyed this text about a power struggle between father and son where the balance of forces is quickly  reversed and initial emotions turn into their opposite.

It didn’t take long to come up with an appropriate piece of music, a piece flirting with death, Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in A minor, D.784:

Sadness transfigured with sublime delicacy