Nuclear Issues Consultant, Oxford Research Group, and Former Director, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
Kafka in 90 Minutesby Paul Strathern
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A handsome recluse, plagued by indecision and hypochondria, Kafka nonetheless exhibited an extraordinary strength. He developed the uncanny ability to observe himself with cool objectivity, and he cultivated this ability in his writing, where it appeared in increasingly original metaphorical form. His works became among the greatest of the twentieth century, and his influence permeated far and wide, transcending literature. His descriptions of his attempts to escape from a self-made tyranny are his great works of art. In Kafka in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern offers a concise, expert account of Kafka's life and ideas, and explains their influence on literature and on man's struggle to understand his place in the world. The book also includes selections from Kafka's writings; a list of his chief works in English translation; a chronology of Kafka's life and times; and recommended reading for those who wish to push further.
Nuclear Issues Consultant, Oxford Research Group, and Former Director, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
New York Times
New York Times
Sunday Times (London)
Brian J. Buchanan
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Kafka IN 90 MINUTES
By Paul Strathern IVAN R. DEE
Copyright © 2004
All right reserved.
Chapter One Kafka's Life and Works
Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, which was then a provincial city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Prague, like Dublin and Alexandria, two other provincial cities on the periphery of Europe, would produce a disproportionate number of great twentieth-century writers. Besides Kafka, Prague was home to German poet Rilke, the playwright Franz Werfel, and Hasek. (Alexandria produced the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, the Futurist Emilio Marinetti, and the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, while Dublin produced George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. Several capital cities produced less.) The factors contributing to this phenomenon appear to have been an independent provincial life with intellectually thriving minority populations. In the case of Prague, a largely middle-class German-speaking minority kept itself culturally apart from the indigenous Czech population. Kafka was further marginalized by being a Jew within this German-speaking community. Anti-Semitism was rife throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially among the German-speaking people, and a strong undercurrent of quasi-racial alienation would be a persistent feature of Kafka's life and work.
Another formative influence in Kafka's life was his father, the formidable Hermann Kafka, who ran a prosperous fancy-goods shop atthe Kinsky Palace, which faced the Old Town Square. Like so much in Kafka's life, his father was a paradoxical figure-both very much a part of the Jewish family past, yet at the same time breaking free from it. Hermann's father Jakob, Franz Kafka's grandfather, had been a Yiddish-speaking butcher, the second son of nine children who all grew up in a single-room wooden hut in the village of Wossek, deep in the Czech countryside. A tough character, he was said to have been able to lift a sack of flour with his teeth. An earlier anti-Semitic law had forbidden any but the eldest sons to marry and have children, but this measure was rescinded when Jakob was thirty-six. He then married and had six children, one of whom was Hermann, and they were all brought up in dire poverty in the family hut. As Hermann was fond of proclaiming in later life, this large family subsisted mostly on a diet of potatoes, when these were available, and on nothing when they were not.
Young Hermann was soon put to work pulling the family cart, delivering slabs of meat, often tramping through miles of snow to distant homesteads in the woods. As a result, he suffered from frostbite and footsores. Years later, despite being a prosperous merchant, he delighted in showing off his scars before his sensitive son Franz. Hermann grew up to become a burly, robust character, a man who believed in hard work and no nonsense. After three years of military service in the Austrian army, during which he rose to become a sergeant, he became a peddler, selling goods throughout the Czech lands, finally earning enough to open a shop in Prague. Going about his business there, he experienced less than the usual anti-Semitism for the simple fact that he did not look like a Jew, did not conduct himself like one, and paid only lip service to the Jewish religion.
Kafka would always be inordinately aware of his role as the oldest son, yet clearly he did not take to it naturally. To such a figure as Hermann, the spindly and bookish young weakling who was growing up to become his son and heir was a continual source of irritation. Hermann did his best to cajole and bully the young Franz into some semblance of normality during his schooldays, but to no avail. Franz was not to be normalized. He simply became even more sensitive and took to keeping to himself. In the course of his childhood, Franz's already astute mind developed its own inner resources to an exceptional degree. He appeared weak, and he was aware that he appeared weak, but this clear-sighted self-awareness proved little but a torment. As we have seen, this faculty would later become ingrained: his writing would make use of it-which had the curious effect both of alleviating the immediate torment and making him even more painfully aware of himself.
Kafka had three sisters-the middle one, Ottla, became his favorite-and they too were not spared the attentions of their domineering father. Even in public, Hermann was not above reproaching his children, remonstrating with them about what they should have been but could not be. Yet in many ways Hermann appeared to others as the epitome of bluff normality, a successful businessman and a good provider for his family. This too inevitably had its double-edged effect on his family. For Kafka and his sisters, living with their father was a constant trial. On occasion the siblings would gather secretively in the bathroom to work out what to say in their defense. But to no avail: this was a trial in which they were inescapably guilty. Naturally (not a word that immediately springs to mind with reference to Kafka), this family atmosphere built up in him an enormous reservoir of guilt. Here, at least partly, was the source of his future self-loathing.
There is no denying that Kafka's childhood and inherent weaknesses rendered him a psychological mess, prey to all manner of neuroses. Yet one must constantly bear in mind that in many ways he overcame, and made great positive use of, these neuroses in later life. And besides seeing himself very clearly, he also learned to laugh at himself. Max Brod constantly testified to how much the two of them laughed together. The darkness of Kafka's life, and his creations, were frequently illuminated by lightning flashes of the absurd. He was never less than aware of the ridiculousness of his situation. Among many other things, he was also a survivor.
Such survival, and the creation he made of it, bespeaks a deep tenuous strength which lived alongside his constantly debilitating weakness. This strength both disguised his weakness and enabled him to examine it more closely. Kafka's weakness was far from visible-to anyone but his father, who would probably have found any son of his inadequate. Even as he grew up, Kafka learned to present a public face of extreme normality, which he maintained at all times. Yet this was a minor creation compared with the literary works that he learned to draw out of himself, like a snake emerging from its skin. Many people are neurotic, with greater or lesser reason, yet how many manage to recreate their neuroses in such consummate artistic form? Kafka's imagination would create the fable of his life, from his childhood onward. And like so many childhood fables, this "life fable" would feature many more or less humanized animals. To escape from the misery of his being, Kafka began early on to imagine himself as an animal, characterizing his being with animaline qualities. As we have seen, Kafka would most famously identify himself with an insect, the beetle hero of "Metamorphosis." At other times in his stories he would identify with a rodent, a dog, a mouse, even an ape-all of them despised creatures in their own way. Yet for Kafka these animals were not portrayed as despicable in themselves, only in the eyes of others, or in their own eyes.
In one very particular way, this identifying with animals was with Kafka from the outset. A century earlier the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been ordered to take on surnames. Unlike Jewish names, these had to be Europeanized and comprehensible to the authorities. In practice, the visiting government officials often simply gave the Jews their names, handing them out as they saw fit-sometimes serendipitously, often maliciously. Franz's ancestors had been given the name Kafka, which meant "crow." The young, dark-complexioned Kafka, with his delicate birdlike features and beaky nose, would certainly have been made aware of his crowlike qualities at school-if not by his Jewish classmates, then certainly by the German pupils.
Compared with Hermann, Kafka's mother Julie (née Löwy) remains a somewhat enigmatic figure. She certainly had her weakness, invariably capitulating to her husband, even taking his side against the children in order to deflect any aggression from herself. Surreptitiously, she could be more sympathetic to Franz and his sisters. Julie spent much of her time away working in the family shop, selling gloves, hosiery, and umbrellas to the middle-class clientele. The children were looked after by a maid until she came home in the evening. Kafka would remember fondly how her arrival "causes the day, already so late, to begin again." He reflected "how comforting mother can be," yet characteristically remembered, "I did not always love my mother as she deserved and as I could, only because the German language prevented it. The Jewish mother is no 'Mutter' [the German word for mother] ... we give a Jewish woman the name of a German mother, but forget the contradiction that sinks into the emotions so much the more heavily." Kafka was being disingenuous here: the causes of his inadequate feelings toward his mother were certainly more than linguistic. Yet his very sensitivity, accompanied by his constant searching for an answer to his problems, any answer, caused him to unearth and examine all manner of insights.
In attempting to assimilate, the German Jews spoke the language of a people from whom they often felt alien, a people who frequently despised them. Kafka was one of the first to pinpoint this inextricable predicament, whose full force would become apparent after the Second World War in the poetry of the great German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan. Kafka was aware that the very language he wrote in was somehow not "natural" to him. His endlessly analytic style coolly set down, but never expressed emotionally, the anger and bewilderment he felt at his own situation. When Gregor Samsa awakes and finds that he has metamorphosed into a large insect, he does not rage at what has happened, instead he examines every aspect of it and what he is going to do about it. When his mother knocks on the door to get him up, "Gregor wanted to answer at length and explain everything, but in the circumstances he confined himself to saying, 'Yes, yes, thank you, mother, I'm getting up now.'" Even amidst this monstrous abnormality, he wishes to remain normal, somehow to resolve his situation by thinking about it. "His immediate intention was to get up quietly without being disturbed, to put on his clothes and above all eat his breakfast, and only then to consider what else was to be done, since in bed, he was well aware, his meditations would come to no sensible conclusion."
Kafka's mother Julie came from the Löwy family, who were more varied and much more intellectually developed than the Kafkas. Julie's grandfather had been a rabbi, who had been regarded by many as a saint. He had also been a renowned scholar of the Talmud, the book of the laws that govern Jewish Orthodox behavior, along with commentaries and interpretations of these laws. Interpretation of the Talmud had for many generations provided intellectual grist for the finest Jewish minds, often in deprived rural circumstances where such minds could have found no other outlet. This activity, though essentially arid and unproductive, had done much to preserve and develop the Jewish intellect. Indeed, Talmudic study in many ways accounts for the astonishing Jewish contribution to European intellectual life that began in the mid-nineteenth century and achieved its finest flowering throughout the twentieth. Before this time, few Jews had achieved intellectual eminence in European thought. The shining exception is the seventeenth-century Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who had indicatively been excommunicated from Judaism. But as soon as the Jews of Europe began to assimilate and exercise their intellect on other than Talmudic matters, the results were remarkable. Instead of abstract religious argumentation, brilliant Jewish minds now applied themselves to secular abstractions, especially mathematics and theoretical physics. Einstein was but the greatest of a host of great twentieth-century theoretical scientists who were Jewish. (From Niels Bohr to John von Neumann, from J. Robert Oppenheimer to Richard Feynman, the list is seemingly endless.) Jews also began to flourish in other fields-from law to finance, from literature to art. Kafka's achievement in literature was accompanied by that of Arnold Schoenberg in music, Marc Chagall in painting, and a flowering throughout the cultural field. It would thus seem no accident that Kafka's ancestor on the Löwy side of the family, the saintly Amschel (Adam), was a renowned and revered Talmudic scholar. And, as we shall see, the unending legalistic and procedural complications of Talmudic scholarship would have a particular echo in Kafka's works, especially in his two best-known novels, The Trial and The Castle.
Kafka's great-grandfather Amschel may have been a saint, but living with a saint in the family was not easy. His wife committed suicide, and his son became insane. Other members of the Löwy family went a variety of different ways. Franz's Löwy grandfather had run a brewery in Prague while Franz's bachelor uncle Alfred became a director of a company that ran Spanish railways; and his uncle Siegfried, who also remained a bachelor, lived a solitary, secretive life as a country doctor. Siegfried's general oddity endeared him to his young nephew, though his equally odd uncle Rudolf, who converted to Christianity and hid himself away as a clerk in a Prague brewery, proved less of an attraction.
There can be no doubt that Kafka inherited many traits from the Löwy side of his family, while it is possible that his mental tenacity was the legacy of his ebullient and determinedly philistine father. With hindsight it is easy to pinpoint such family traits, though the extent of their formative role in Kafka's extremely complex personality remains problematic. Many of the confidently Freudian interpretations of Kafka, which abounded during the high tide of psychoanalysis, have begun to look distinctly obsessive and shaky now that Freud's existence as a scientific investigator has given way to the picture of him as a rampant mythologizer. With this in view, it is better now to look upon Kafka's heritage of difficult saintliness, suicide, and a minor railway magnate as raw material facts rather than as the ingredients for abstruse theories.
Like so many of us, Kafka presented himself in public as a resolutely normal human being. Until such time as he developed and expanded upon his neuroses in his later literary work, we should give him the benefit of the doubt where appearances are concerned. With this in mind, we can have little difficulty in accepting Kafka as a very normal adolescent, who like so many of his kind had difficulty in accepting the boorishness and insensibility of their hardworking fathers. He escaped from the oppressive atmosphere at home by taking long walks through the atmospheric streets of Prague's Alstadt (the central old city district). Atop the hill on the far side of the river, the spires and grim façade of Hradcany (Prague Castle) brooded over the rooftops. At night he immersed himself in books, escaping into the vivid world of imagination. He read long and widely, but found himself particularly drawn to the meticulous prose of Flaubert, who eschewed analysis for the perfection of surface description. He also found himself attracted to the early short works of Thomas Mann, which spoke of the utter dedication required of the artist, who must forsake marriage and the joys of an ordinary life for the spiritual solitude of the creator.
Kafka's school reports spoke of a moderately bright pupil who did not appear exceptional in any way. His fellow pupils found him friendly enough but noted his ultimate reserve. This was the distinctly normal student who at eighteen confidently took up his place at the German University of Prague. It was the inner, reserved character who dithered indecisively-deciding to study chemistry, then after two weeks deciding that he would be better off studying Germanistics, only to find this not to his taste, instead deciding to study law, which he knew was not to his taste but which allowed him to keep more options open, so that when he graduated he could then decide what he really wanted to do, or what he really didn't want to do.
<%TOC%> Contents Introduction....................7
Excerpted from Kafka IN 90 MINUTES by Paul Strathern Copyright © 2004 by Paul Strathern. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Kafka's Life and Works....................15
From Kafka's Writings....................104
Kafka's Chief Works in English Translation....................114
Chronology of Kafka's Life and Times....................116
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
Paul Strathern is author of the popular and critically acclaimed Philosophers in 90 Minutes series. Highlights from the series include Nietzsche in 90 Minutes, Aristotle in 90 Minutes, and Plato in 90 Minutes. Mr. Strathern has lectured in philosophy and mathematics and now lives and writes in London. A former Somerset Maugham prize winner, he is also the author of books on history and travel as well as five novels. His articles have appeared in a great many newspapers, including the Observer (London) and the Irish Times. His own degree in philosophy came from Trinity College, Dublin.
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