Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka


From one of our most thought-provoking and admired writers, a brilliant, beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking group of stories based on a circle of real people who are held together by  love of their friend Franz Kafka.

The sequence opens with Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, telling us about Kafka and Dora Diamant, their love growing stronger even as Kafka is dying of tuberculosis. Kafka talks with Brod about forgiving the Angel of Death, but Brod wonders ...

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Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka

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From one of our most thought-provoking and admired writers, a brilliant, beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking group of stories based on a circle of real people who are held together by  love of their friend Franz Kafka.

The sequence opens with Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, telling us about Kafka and Dora Diamant, their love growing stronger even as Kafka is dying of tuberculosis. Kafka talks with Brod about forgiving the Angel of Death, but Brod wonders if Franz is really talking about Brod’s forgiving Kafka for the predicament he’s put him in, having instructed Max to prove his love for Franz by burning the work Brod most admires: Franz’s unpublished stories.

Next there is a brief interlude—perhaps a lost Kafka story, or is it a story about a lost Kafka story which is perhaps itself masquerading as one of the things that in anger Brod neither burned nor published?

The story that follows tells of Dora’s marriage to the militant German Communist Lusk Lask and his attempt to break the hold of the angelic Kafka on his wife’s imagination by giving her a daughter. We watch this family in its move to the Soviet Union to escape Hitler, and as Dora and her daughter flee the Soviet Union to escape Stalin, leaving Lusk behind in the Gulag.  Later, when Lusk tries to connect with his daughter again, the Angel Kafka seems once again to stand in his way, a force in his daughter’s life that seemingly destroys as it sustains.

In the last story we meet Milena Jasenska, another of Kafka’s lovers, and Eva, the woman who, after surviving Stalin’s camps, meets Milena in a Nazi concentration camp and is reborn in this hell through her love for her, though perhaps trapped there in memory because of that love as well.

By the end, these moving love stories with Kafka as their presiding ghost have told the calamitous story of Europe in the Century of the Camps. Imbued with a gravitas and dark irony that recall Kafka’s own work, these stories nonetheless also bear the singular imaginary stamp and the keen psychological and emotional insight that have marked all of Jay Cantor’s fiction.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Tom LeClair
…Cantor's fiction is a worthy homage to Kafka. Forgiving the Angel is also an original work that pulls our mind through the kind of biographical and historical contraption that Kafka would probably never have put together…
Kirkus Reviews
A quartet of somber fictions on the surprising influence of Franz Kafka's work and life on those around him. This story collection by Cantor (creative writing/Tufts; Great Neck, 2003, etc.) opens with Kafka on his deathbed in Austria, finishing his story "The Hunger Artist" while starving himself from tuberculosis. Kafka told his friend Max Brod to burn all his writing upon his death, and the first two stories track the varied consequences of his refusal to do so--literary greatness for Kafka but despair over his betrayal and a creeping sense that he was made into a Kafkaesque fiction himself. The whole book thrives on the tension between the liberating honesty of Kafka's writing and the existential suffering it depicted, most effectively in the novella-length "Lusk and Marianne." That story tracks the relationship between Kafka's widow and German Communist Ludwig "Lusk" Lask; after years in prison at the hands of the Gestapo and Soviet Russia, he finally gets to know his daughter, Marianne, whose own demeanor keeps reminding him of Kafka. The closing story, "Milena Jasenska and The World the Camps Made," takes place in a Nazi concentration camp; Milena was Kafka's Czech translator and lover, and she takes another woman, Eva, under her wing before dying. Years after the war, Eva is still wrestling with Milena's command over her psyche. Thinking about Milena only provokes Eva's suffering, but as Cantor writes, "more pain was at least more"--a Kafkaesque sentiment if there ever was one. The tone of these stories is inevitably dour, but Cantor's prose is never ponderous; in Brod, Lusk and Eva, he uncovers three different varieties of emotional pain, depicting each with intelligence and depth. Shot through with black comedy, unsparing honesty and robust intellect--in short, a fitting Kafka tribute.
From the Publisher
“Forgiving the Angel links disparate time, places and characters in an ingeniously unified and admirably purposeful fiction. [In its] formal circularity, ethical ambiguity and scrupulous undecidability, Cantor’s fiction is a worthy homage to Kafka.   It is also an original work that pulls our mind through the kind of biographical and historical contraption that Kafka would probably never have put together, would probably not, as a Jew in Czechoslovakia, have survived to put together.”—Tom LeClair, The New York Times Book Review
“[All Cantor’s work] broods over how the twentieth century perverted its noblest aspirations. Marx promised brotherhood, Nietzsche and Freud a greater humanity—so what happened?  In this first book of stories the question flares up again, at times impossible to ignore.”—John Domini, Book Forum

“Cantor has been delving into the paradoxes of radicalism ever since he debuted with The Death of Che Guevara (1983), a nervy meshing of biography and fiction. He deepened his investigation in the American epic Great Neck (2003) and in the graphic novel Aaron and Ahmed (2011). Cantor’s newest fusion of biographical fact and intuited emotion is a commanding tribute to Franz Kafka, one of the twentieth century’s most revolutionary voices. In four by-turns bayoneting and tender stories, Cantor imagines the profound impact Kafka had on those closest to him, including Max Brod, his trusted friend who famously refused to burn Kafka’s papers, as the dying writer requested. Percussive moral dilemmas shape each tale, most extensively in “Lusk and Marianne,” in which Kafka hovers like a dark angel over the cruelly hijacked lives of his last lover, the exiled Dora Diamont; her husband, German Communist zealot Lusk Lask, who is swept into the Soviet Gulag; and their frail daughter, Marianne. Cantor also brings us to Ravensbrück, the concentration camp, where another of Kafka’s beloved, the invincible translator and journalist Milena Jasenká, uplifts her sister sufferers. These fluently empathic, mordantly ironic, and unflinching stories of love, torture, and sacrifice carry forward Kafka’s eviscerating vision and affirm Cantor’s standing as a virtuoso writer of conscience.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist starred review
“Four evocative, ambitious, and highly varied tales aim to bring Kafka back to us by showing that he never left. Instead, he haunts everyone and everything he touches. . . Cantor creates gripping stories around innumerable epistolary and biographical artifacts. . . .Superb.”—Rebecca Schuman, Slate
“One needs something akin to courage to read Kafka—as well as Cantor’s homage. Both are dense, dangerous and difficult. Both resist interpretation, raising questions without any answers. But if we can’t ever admit we’re lost—something we rarely do, in the way we read or live—how can we even begin to find our way toward what’s true?”—Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel
“Shot through with black comedy, unsparing honesty and robust intellect—in short, a fitting Kafka tribute.”—Kirkus
“This fictional tribute to the life and work of Franz Kafka follows in the vein of Cantor’s previous works of fiction … all of which use familiar figures and true events as a springboard for offbeat and psychologically incisive storytelling. The four stories here center on real figures in Kafka’s life....The writer himself is a distant but powerful force in the stories, a Kafkaesque presence haunting his own legacy.”—The New Yorker
“A fascinating blend of fact and fiction in which Cantor . . . explores how Kafka continues to haunt people, ghostlike, after his death. . . . Kafka’s lingering presence has a hugely positive impact on the book itself, which Cantor has written in a voice that, like Kafka’s, melds apparent objectivity and even dispassionately scientific observation with dark humor and deeply felt sentiments.”—Doug Childers, Richmond Times/Dispatch


From the Hardcover edition.

Library Journal
Through a fictional exploration of some of the lives Franz Kafka touched, this collection imagines the emotional wake that the novelist left in the world. In the title piece, which opens the collection, we are confronted with the dying Kafka, his insistence on the destruction of his unpublished works, and the consequences for his literary executor, Max Brod. There follows a very Kafkaesque story-within-a-story about a lost Kafka tale. Next is "Lusk and Marianne," which centers on Kafka's lover, Dora; her husband, German communist Lusk Lask; and their daughter, Marianne, who fled to the Soviet Union to escape Hitler. Here the pathological ideology of the Stalinist state is juxtaposed with the religiosity of Kafka's impact as a literary figure. Finally, in "Milena Jasenska and the World the Camps Made," we see the grim reality of a German concentration camp through the eyes of Eva Muntzberg, lover of Kafka's real-life paramour Milena Jasenska. This is a poignant translation of Kafka's memory as sustenance to outlast brutality. VERDICT This thought-provoking collection is a creative investigation of Kafka's preternatural effect on the modern world; highly recommended for Kafka fans and others alike. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos Lib., CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385350341
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 223,053
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jay Cantor is the author of three novels, The Death of Che Guevara, Krazy Kat, and Great Neck, and two books of essays, The Space Between and On Giving Birth to One's Own Mother. A MacArthur Fellow, Cantor teaches at Tufts University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife and daughter.
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Read an Excerpt




More than once, Franz Kafka told his close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, that when Kafka died, Brod was to burn all his unpublished manuscripts. Brod, though, disobeyed his friend’s instructions, and not long after Kafka’s death, he arranged for the publication of Kafka’s abandoned novels, and then, over time, his stories, parables, and even his diaries and letters.

The things of Kafka’s that Brod had never published are now in safe-deposit boxes in Jerusalem and Zurich, and will remain there until a court decides who owns them. At dispute is whether Brod left the papers to his secretary, Esther Hoffe, as an executor who was to carry out Brod’s wish that they be conveyed to the Israeli National Library—if that was his wish—or if he left them as her property, which she could sell, if she wanted, to whoever might pay the most, even to a library of the German nation.

In the Jerusalem courtroom, lawyers speaking on behalf of Esther Hoffe’s daughters (who have inherited the papers from their mother, if, that is, they have, indeed, inherited them) have argued that no one should open the boxes before their ownership is determined, or even for a time afterward. They propose to sell the manuscripts unseen—if there are manuscripts in the boxes. “If we get an agreement, the material will be offered for sale as a single entity, in one package. It will be sold by weight. . . . There’s a kilogram of papers here.” The material might be new stories, diaries, or minor things altogether (for Brod prized every scrap by Kafka, even the notes from when Kafka was so sick he could not speak, was perhaps no longer making sense, and wrote things like a top hat made of water.)

“The highest bidder,” the lawyers said, “will then be able to open the boxes and see what’s there. The National Library can get in line and make an offer, too.”

Absurd perhaps, though as we’ll see, that’s not altogether the fault of the lawyers. But to tell you how the papers came to be in sealed boxes that are to be sold by weight, I must tell you a story.


That story begins in Berlin in 1923, less than a year before Kafka’s death, with a visit from Max Brod. Kafka, who had once complained that life was a train trip toward death that had far too many intervening stops for his taste, now would embrace a doctor if he said Kafka was looking a little better.

They’d had news like that recently. Kafka told Brod confidently that when the tuberculosis receded a little more, and he became “transportable,” he and Dora Diamant, the woman he lived with in Berlin, would move to Palestine. In Tel Aviv, they’d open a restaurant where Kafka would be the waiter, Dora the cook. Kafka had put a white towel over his arm, and smiled with a combination of servility and the servant’s mean-spirited cunning. He looked, Brod thought, a little ridiculous, but that was never something that seemed to bother Franz.

“I suggest you order our soup,” Dora said.

“Particularly tasty?” Brod said.

“No, fortunately for you, we have no soup today. You see, our waiter is very likely to spill any bowls we trust him with.”

“Which is why they never give me any, even empty ones,” Kafka said. “The ghosts might fill them on the way to your table, and I would certainly pour the contents on your clothes when I cough.”

Kafka and Dora laughed and looked toward Max expectantly. Like lovers everywhere, they took so much pleasure in each other that they couldn’t imagine one wouldn’t join them.

Like lovers everywhere? Milena had once written Brod that “Franz has a fear of everything that’s shamelessly alive,” yet Franz wasn’t afraid of Dora. Kafka had broken his engagement with Felice because when one writes even night isn’t night enough, one requires the loneliness of the grave. Yet he’d written new stories in this small apartment while Dora sewed on the couch nearby.

An impresario might sell tickets to the spectacle: Franz Kafka in Love, the writer free of his father and the claws of Prague, and living with a woman who was seemingly at ease in her body.

But like the restaurant, it might only be a show. After all, how could Dora feel easy in Berlin? She’d run here from her Hasidic family, and her father had sat shiva over her. And why had she come here? So she could study her father’s Judaism. How could a woman be so buoyant, if she revered what restricted and even despised her?

But she was. She’d even made Kafka avid to know more of his Judaism, and of her Hasidism, who believed (Franz had written him) that even the driest, most seemingly irrational mitzvah, if performed with the right intention, could open the gates of heaven. “Of course, all we poor people have now are the stories about those who had the right intention. Sometimes, though, the rabbis believe that if the story is told with the right intention, it suffices.”

“So the tales of the wonder-working rabbis,” Brod had replied, “are like . . . like something by Franz Kafka.” Brod should have added: or they would be, if the Hasid imagined that men’s intentions (or was it God’s own?) were always hopelessly divided, and that even a story always came too early or too late.

Dora had brought the East to Kafka, and Franz the West to her, all its culture and literature. Yet at the same time, she’d decided (not wrongly, Brod thought, but on slender evidence on her part) that Franz was himself a new Master of the Good Name. The first Baal Shem, though, had a manual of what acts would knit body and soul together—the Talmud—while her lover’s might fly apart at any moment if he didn’t find the right stories to reknit things.

That afternoon, Brod had left them to go visit his pretty Berlin mistress. As he walked down the stairs, he heard them laughing again, companionably, not the least bit maliciously. He felt a chill at the sound. Max was a short man with an enormous head and a hunched back; he wore thick glasses on a prominent nose; he was far less handsome than Kafka (despite Franz’s somewhat prominent ears). Until today, though, they had both thought Max was much the more successful with women (if success meant endless entanglement). Max felt he’d given Kafka hope by being a misshapen man who still could trust and take pleasure in life. With Dora, Kafka, for the time—and may it be a long one—had both. Franz no longer needed Max.


Or perhaps he only didn’t need him to enact romance for him; fortunately for Max, he still had other uses. Brod had already published thirty-seven books of his own, knew editors at all the German-language publishers, journals, and newspapers. Kafka, who Brod usually had to beg and cajole to publish anything, now grasped eagerly at Brod’s help in placing his work. Franz had only a small pension from his job at the Accident Insurance Bureau, and needed to earn money to support himself and Dora.

When Brod came to Berlin for his second visit, Kafka had been, in a familiar gesture, leaning against the wall, each (Kafka had once said) holding the other one up. His tailored suit hung him as if he were—

“I know,” he said, reading Max’s mind. “I look like a walking stick for a giant.”

Kafka, over 1.8 meters tall, weighed 53 kilos. And even if Franz were paid in crowns for his story, it would only be enough for a few days food, or one visit from a mediocre doctor—if, that is, they managed to spend the notes quickly enough after they converted the crowns to marks. Prices would double even as they took ten steps away from the bank. Franz, Brod thought, might be killed by tuberculosis, but it would be a murder, too, one perpetrated by the War, and the vengeance it had brought on Germany.

“But Max, you worry about me too much. I’ve put on fifty grams already this week. My sister sent me a package of Prague butter, and Dora made me the most remarkable meal with it—and on nothing but that spirit lamp.”

Dora was bent over that “stove” now, making coffee for them. Kafka looked fondly toward her, and she, as if she could feel his eyes on her, gazed back toward him for a moment with a singleness of concentration that made Brod understand what it meant to be the apple of someone’s eye. This made him say, “Oh, why couldn’t the Hunger Artist also find something he liked to eat”—that being the story whose galleys he held in his hands. Brod was thinking not of the Prague butter, of course, but the greater miracle, the round-faced woman from Poland.

“Ah, but the Hunger Artist’s career would already have made him more of an outcast than those American performers who bite the heads off poultry,” Franz said, immediately, as if he’d already considered this possibility. “Once he started eating, no one would give him another job, and no one would be willing to teach him a new skill. He’d soon be a Hunger Artist again, malgré lui.”

“Which makes his situation,” Dora said, her back to them both again, “like any man who has nothing to sell but his labor. Prices go up, wages go down, and the food he can afford soon brings less new strength than he used getting the money to pay for his food.” Dora had fled to Berlin to read Talmud for herself but had encountered socialism along the way. She didn’t sound doctrinaire, though, but musing, like someone testing the reality of a formula for herself.

At her words Kafka’s eyes widened, and his face took on another kind of sadness. He’d seen the spark inside Dora, one that, like the tuberculosis bacillus, might also burst into a flame and consume her life. It was as if, Brod thought (years later and under his own sky), Franz had seen her life in the KDP, her flight to the Soviet Union and then away from it, seen that not in its terrifying particulars, of course, but like a broad shadow passing over the earth.

“You know,” Franz said to Brod, “you must eventually burn the story you’re holding in your hand.”

“That’s beyond my powers,” Brod said. “What I hold are proof sheets of the story for you to correct. This story’s about to be published.”

“You’re right, of course. Now, let’s hope that to mock my wish, the Malevolent doesn’t set to work destroying Europe’s libraries.”

“Or its readers,” Dora added, having learned from a master.

“The demons don’t need an excuse to destroy,” Brod said. “Best, though, that your work is here to sustain us when they do appear.” At that, he wondered (and not for the first time) why he’d never envied Franz his genius. Perhaps because to write like Franz Kafka, one would have to be Franz Kafka, and that hadn’t been bearable for anyone, even Franz Kafka. Until now, that is.

“Still,” Kafka said, “you must do your part and burn my remaining papers.”

Brod looked to Dora for help. “He isn’t appointing me his literary executor,” he said, “but his literary executioner.” Max knew he was perhaps too pleased with the cleverness of this, but his cry was heartfelt as well.

Dora, however, nodded her agreement with Franz. She didn’t know what priceless things they were talking about, as she hadn’t read a whit of Kafka’s writing before he met her. All botched, he’d said, and though she didn’t believe that, she didn’t seek his work out, either; she had his presence, and didn’t need to possess his past. “He believes that burning the papers will keep the ghosts from coming after him anymore.”

Brod knew this was insane, and yet such was his belief in Franz’s intuitions about the manifold and hidden connections of things that he also worried that Franz might be right. After he left that day, Brod planned to consult a psychoanalyst about himself, and then see the demanding mistress who was the reason he needed the doctor. He wondered what a therapist who had studied with Kafka would be like. Perhaps you would tell him a dream and, as in a fairy tale, he would hand you a lizard. Or clip your nails.

“Make Dora your executor,” he said, annoyed with them both, but not meaning it, as, after all, she might burn Franz’s work.

“No. She loves me differently than you, Max. You’re the person to do this for me.”

In the meantime, Dora had finished her conjuring over the spirit lamp. She offered Franz a cup, and held out a glass to Brod.

The coffee tasted bitter, but it had been made by a woman who was unambivalently in love. What powers might such a potion have?

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