I had to visit relatives at the weekend and happened for once to read
part of a newspaper – not a usual Obookian activity. It was The Telegraph (well, this was the Welsh valleys!) and, to give the lie to
constant claims I hear on the internet, that literature (especially foreign literature) is not given space any longer in the broadsheets, there were
5+ pages on Kafka, and another devoted to Halldor Laxness. – Well, ok, the 5 pages on Kafka were a reprint of an essay by Zadie Smith which had previously appeared in The New York Times and which I’d
already read (sc. glanced through) on the web. Touted in the paper as a radical revisionism, it contains statements that are nothing new and which no
one is likely to find controversial or too much fault with (Thirlwell / Z Smith – I find myself wondering, EngLit-educated as all our writers are
these days, whether they aren’t better at being critics than novelists, being as they often are – knowing, all too knowing) – at least until we get
to section 2.
Now, it must be said I’m no great critic of Kafka: I don’t know so very much about his life, I haven’t read the Begley
biography, I haven’t read much Kafka apocrypha – God, let’s face it, I haven’t even read all his novels: – so here I’ll be employing the Proustian
method of literary analysis and looking into my own soul to understand a writer of genius.
Here we go then: having spent section 1 arguing we
should not be taken in by the Kafka of legend – the writer without precedent, the prophet of alienation and bureaucratic holocaust – and admit that
Kafka was an ordinary, mundane fellow who lived a pretty successful bourgeois life [ed. and wrote dull, derivative books], she then
Impossible to believe Kafka was in love with poor Felice Bauer, she of the “bony, empty face, that wore its emptiness openly…. Almost broken nose. Blonde, somewhat
straight, unattractive hair, strong chin“; Felice with her bourgeois mores, her offer to sit by him as he worked (“in that case,” he wrote back,
“I could not write at all”), her poor taste in “heavy furniture”
because, no doubt, the great writer Kafka would have better taste
than that (but – as is well known – taste in women is as unpredictable and as inadmissable of argument as taste in literature); and then ZS’s next
For Kafka she is symbol: the whetstone upon which he sharpens his sense of himself.
goes straight back, I feel,
to the supposedly disavowed mythic Kafka and the view [note to acquaintances] all too common about writers, that the world is mere material for them
and they are incapable of true participation: – Kafka only pursues this woman, only desires her perhaps, because she represents a bourgeois existence
which at once attracts and repels him. But I can’t help feeling that, when
Kafka frantically pursued Felice, and then he tried to
escape her, Begley writes, “with the single-minded purpose and passion of a fox biting off his own leg to free himself from a
what we have here is nothing more uncommon than a man desiring a woman and being so driven to extremes by that desire that
he’ll go as far as to propose marriage to her, without at first considering quite how such a future life-style might impinge upon his leisure
activities – this then, the event drawing near, occurring to him – and the consequent application of mind rather than penis, with the idea of
extricating him from the problem. (Of course, if he’s a writer, he will usually at this point console himself with the idea that it would make a
great “plot” for a story). No, I don’t believe that she is a merely literary exercise for Kafka.
But really what annoyed me about the piece
was the following section, where ZS accuses Kafka of misogyny and excuses him at the same time through a relative sense of changed times and how it
was different back in the day and we have to accept this. So when a man’s life is torn apart by his inability to reconcile his love with his method
of living (his two desires: Felice and writing), and is driven to utter such bitter comments as:
“Women are snares, which lie in wait
for men on all sides, in order to drag them into the merely finite.”
ZS comments that,
It’s a perfectly ordinary
expression of misogyny, dispiriting in a mind that more often took the less-traveled path … Kafka’s mind was like that, it went wondrous fast—
still, when it came to women, it went no faster than the times allowed. Those who find the personal failures of writers personally offensive will turn
from Kafka here
But no, I don’t turn from Kafka here [ed. I’d probably got bored long since] : I make an imaginative leap, perhaps,
to attempt to understand why Kafka might utter such a line in such circumstances; I consider moments in my own life when perhaps I’ve felt bitter
about something, and that bitterness has caused me to think not entirely along the moral guidelines of my, or somebody else’s, age.
picky point about ZS’s incorrect usage of literary term “synecdoche”, no doubt being employed here to impress readers of her rhetorical erudition]
And thus when we get to a comment like:
Kafka’s ideas about women and his experiences of them turn out to be different things
… No, women did not drag Kafka into the finite … Kafka told his diary that the only way he could live was as a sexually ascetic bachelor. In
reality he was no stranger to brothels.
we can now perhaps easily solve these seeming paradoxes: a) no, they weren’t; b) he only
feared it and avoided it; c) attending brothels is hardly the same as a commitment to a bourgeois marriage and can be safely undertaken without much
long-term consequence upon one’s literary activities.
There then follows a very strange argument, seemingly by both Begley and ZS, largely
inspired I should think out of a fanatical anti-Brodism, that Kafka was better off working a 12-hour shift and it would in no way have helped his
writing / mental health if he’d been given some sort of annuity to concentrate on his writing alone. (Funnily enough, my manager told me I needed a
job to structure my life when I was in the middle of quitting it; my reply, “Possibly, but in that case, I think – all things considered – my life
would be better without structure”). Begley argues:
It is rare that writers of fiction sit behind their desks, actually writing, for
more than a few hours a day. Had Kafka been able to use his time efficiently, the work schedule at the Institute would have left him with enough free
time for writing. As he recognized, the truth was that he wasted time.
and ZS agrees:
The truth was that he wasted
time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s revelation: He’s just not that into you.
Yes, I feel I waste my leisure time too –
possibly everyone does (and remember, Kafka didn’t have a TV or Playstation) – but it doesn’t exactly counter the argument that if Kafka didn’t
have to work at all, he would have been happier and more productive (to be fair, Brod did know the fellow) – and I must, of course, compare him
Proustianly, because now that I’ve cut my hours to 21 hours/week, it hasn’t helped me any – there is still the dispiriting thought of work pervading
my existence and which I use as excuse not to write: – so perhaps it is the other way around: perhaps it isn’t that working would enable Kafka to
“preserve some of his self-esteem” in his “fallow periods”; perhaps it’s that not working would not let him use the excuse any more. (I see no
difference in the validity of the arguments, at least – but on a personal level, I’d go with the second).
Or maybe I should read the Letters
to Felice, or the Begley, eh?
(And why does everyone constantly have to point out how “funny” Kafka was? – Surely such a truth
would be self-evident! – Just read The Burrow, or The Wall of China)