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Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt

Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt

by Saul Friedlander

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Franz Kafka was the poet of his own disorder. Throughout his life he struggled with a pervasive sense of shame and guilt that left traces in his daily existence—in his many letters, in his extensive diaries, and especially in his fiction. This stimulating book investigates some of the sources of Kafka’s personal anguish and its complex reflections in


Franz Kafka was the poet of his own disorder. Throughout his life he struggled with a pervasive sense of shame and guilt that left traces in his daily existence—in his many letters, in his extensive diaries, and especially in his fiction. This stimulating book investigates some of the sources of Kafka’s personal anguish and its complex reflections in his imaginary world.

In his query, Saul Friedländer probes major aspects of Kafka’s life (family, Judaism, love and sex, writing, illness, and despair) that until now have been skewed by posthumous censorship. Contrary to Kafka’s dying request that all his papers be burned, Max Brod, Kafka’s closest friend and literary executor, edited and published the author’s novels and other works soon after his death in 1924. Friedländer shows that, when reinserted in Kafka’s letters and diaries, deleted segments lift the mask of “sainthood” frequently attached to the writer and thus restore previously hidden aspects of his individuality.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize winner Friedlander (for The Years of Extermination) elucidates the enigmas and psychological drama of Kafka's life that undergird the complexities of his fiction. He expounds upon Kafka's emotionally fraught and ambivalent relationships to his friends, family, lovers, Judaism, and own body. Despite the careful presentation of minutiae the conclusions Friedlander draws feel reductive and speculative. For instance, Friedlander unequivocally and repeatedly avers Kafka's homosexuality despite admitting that Kafka only romantically pursued woman, and never confessed such desires, even in his diaries. Friedlander's attempt to undermine Max Brod's portrayal of Kafka as a saint provides illuminating material. However, his portrait of Kafka, as an abject melancholic feels equally caricatured; his analysis is more even handed than his deductions. Friedlander highlights the shame and guilt that undeniably plagued Kafka, but also includes biographical details that contradict this claim, such as his youthful carousing with friends, flirting with women, and frequenting nightclubs. Kafka's biography is as complicated and nuanced, dare one say "Kafkaesque" as his literature, and this biography falls disappointingly short in its treatment of these intricacies. Despite such shortcomings, Friedlander's Kafka monograph has worthy moments of provocative insight through a careful mining of the recent release of new material. (Apr.)
Mark Anderson
 “This is a book that springs directly from the author's background and from a manifest love for—and great knowledge of—Kafka's work and his milieu. The book's main objective is to mine the question of Kafka's guilt and shame, and Friedlander is more probing, historical and impartial in examining these questions than just about any other scholar I know.”—Mark Anderson, author of Reading Kafka and Kafka’s Clothes
New Republic - William Giraldi
“Friedländer’s concise new book, born of both sorrow and affection, is an ideal place to begin among the hulking alps of Kafka studies.”—William Giraldi, New Republic
Times Higher Education Supplement - Robert Eaglestone
"This book is a clear, uncensorious and serious contribution to the publisher’s Jewish Lives series. It is the work of a great historian paying careful attention to a great and disquieting writer."—Robert Eaglestone, Times Higher Education Supplement
Jewish Book Council - Maron L. Waxman
"Like Kafka’s work, Franz Kafka is dense and provocative. In his exploration of Kafka’s work, Friedländer calls on his rich knowledge of Central Europe during Kafka’s lifetime. . . A candid and stimulating examination of the forces that shaped Kafka’s anguished life/work."—Maron L. Waxman, Jewish Book Council
Weekly Standard
"One turns with relief to the immensely readable Saul Friedländer, whose short biographical essay on Kafka appears in the excellent Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press. . . . Friedländer’s style is elegant and lucid, his knowledge of Kafka’s oeuvre and social world superb, his command of the critical literature impeccable. . . . Could very well serve as the new classic short introduction to modernism’s most elusive writer."—Weekly Standard
The Forward
 "A creative, risky approach to interpreting Kafka. . . . Friedländer's approach should motivate us to do what we should: reread one of the masters of 20th-century fiction."—The Forward
Harriet: A Poetry Blog - Philip Schultz
"Interweaving Kafka’s letters, diaries and stories, [Friedlander] shows us a new and vital Kafka, who made literature out of all the things he brilliantly failed at in his mostly painful life. Friedlander, the great historian of the Holocaust, intricately reveals how longing and personal history can disturb and inspire genius. It’s as if I’d never read Kafka before, and finally know him."—Philip Schultz, Harriet: A Poetry Blog, the Poetry Foundation
Jewish Journal - Jonathan Kirsch
"[Friedländer] has clearly mastered the vast scholarship that has attached itself to Kafka, and he brings fresh insights of his own to the challenging body of work Kafka left behind."—Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal
Choice - Outstanding Academic Title
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2013 in the Germanic Category.
Jewish Ledger
"This stimulating book investigates some of the sources of Kafka's personal anguish and its complex reflections in his imaginary world."—Jewish Ledger

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Yale University Press
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Jewish Lives
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Franz Kafka

The Poet of Shame and Guilt


Copyright © 2013 Saul Friedländer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13661-6

Chapter One

The Son

Kafka left his family home barely a few months before his death from tuberculosis in June 1924, at age forty-one. And, symbolically, even this separation did not last long: in Prague's new Jewish cemetery, Franz, his father, Hermann, and his mother, Julie, are buried under the same tombstone. At the base of the stone, a plaque commemorates Franz's three sisters, Elli, Valli, and Ottla. And yet ...

"In the family," Franz wrote to Elli in 1921, regarding the education of her son Felix, "clutched in the tight embrace of the parents, there is room only for certain kinds of people who conform to certain kinds of requirements.... If they do not conform, they are not expelled—that would be very fine, but is impossible, for we are dealing with an organism here—but accursed or consumed or both."

The image of the family as an organism appears in The Metamorphosis, Kafka's best-known story. There, however, it becomes an organism to which the son, Gregor Samsa, suddenly transformed into a huge bug, is fatally attached but also one that rejects him, more grievously each time. According to Stéphane Moses's interpretation, Kafka's story takes place in three concentric spaces: the most peripheral one is the outside world (beyond the family apartment) to which all non–family members successively flee, from Gregor's office manager to the last of the maids. The real drama plays itself out in the two spaces belonging to the family: the living room and Gregor's room. Three times, in the three parts of the story, Gregor attempts to join his family in crawling out of his room into the living room, and three times he is chased back, at first only slightly wounded, then hit by the fatal apple thrown by his father, and finally forced back, never to emerge again until his remains are thrown away as trash. For Gregor, the son who still feels human, who carries a human soul within a monstrous body but has lost the ability to communicate, the most basic emotional need impels him to join the family, but the family severs the umbilical cord and lets him die; no, it hounds him to death. In fiction.

In the outside world, Franz Kafka adapted; in the family space, tension sporadically erupted; in his private space, Franz wove the complex tapestry of fantastic fathers and no less fantastic sons.


Prague was the outside world. A few years before World War I, the Jews of the city made up about six percent of a population of 440,000 inhabitants, Czech in the immense majority but politically dominated by a minority of Germans who, in Bohemia, within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were becoming increasingly nationalist in the face of growing Czech nationalism. The Jews, mostly middle class, were still linguistically and culturally closer to the Germans than to the Czechs, but equally disliked by both groups: the Germans considered them interlopers, and most Czechs perceived them as supporters of Germanic domination.

From the 1860s to the 1890s, Emperor Franz Joseph's benevolent rule was supported by a liberal wave in politics. In the 1890s extremist mass movements with core antisemitic messages grew rapidly and influenced the political atmosphere throughout the Dual Monarchy. Thus, during the last years of the century, German anti-Czech riots took on an additional anti-Jewish dimension; almost immediately thereafter, Czech anti-German violence evolved in the same way, and, finally, a full-fledged Czech ritual murder accusation (the Hilsner affair) hit the Jews of Bohemia, particularly in the province, and further exacerbated antisemitism for several years. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the twentieth century and throughout World War I, anti-Jewish agitation subsided for the most part in Prague: the Jews of the city enjoyed a period of calm and—except for the war years—growing prosperity.

For Franz, the child and the adolescent, outside world and family space were one. Born on July 3, 1883, he was the first of six children: the two brothers who followed, Georg and Heinrich, died in infancy; then, three sisters, Elli, Valli, and Ottla, arrived. Except for a short period, in 1912, Franz remained very close to Ottla throughout his life.

His mother, Julie Löwy, came from a relatively well-todo background, still pious in her parents' generation but with thoroughly assimilated and successful brothers active in various parts of the world—including Franz's favorite uncle, Siegfried, a country doctor in Triesch (Moravia). His father, Hermann, came from a much poorer family, as the son of a butcher in Wossek, in the Czech province. After a difficult childhood, then several years in the army, Hermann tried his hand at a number of small ventures until, at age thirty, he met and married Julie. The dowry allowed him to launch a haberdashery that was to expand considerably over the years. Throughout, Hermann's business and the Kafkas' apartment were either at the same address or very close by, near the Altstädter Ring, the heart of the Old Town—on the outskirts of the former ghetto.

At age ten, Franz moved from the elementary school on Fleischmarkt Street to the German Gymnasium in the Kinsky-Palais, a few steps from home; two-thirds of the students were Jews. After the usual years of uninspiring rote learning, marred by Franz's complete inability to master mathematics, passing the final exam (Abitur), in May 1901, meant entering the outer domain of independent choices, at the university and along all paths of a young man's life. Franz decided to live at home, and in the fall of 1901, he entered the Law School of the German Charles University in his native city. At first glance, young Kafka doesn't appear as an adventurous soul.

In order to offset the dreariness of law studies, Franz added a few courses in German literature, but he dutifully kept to his main path and obtained his doctoral degree in law in 1906. A clerical position in the law office of a relative was followed by the mandatory stint as court intern. Once freed of these obligations, Franz found employment in the branch of an Italian insurance company in Prague and, soon thereafter, in the semi-governmental Workers' Accident Insurance Institute. There, steadily well remunerated, he would rise over the years to positions of major responsibility and stay until his retirement due to illness, in 1922.

The early years of Kafka's adult life do not seem to have been overburdened by material or other worries. In September 1909, while vacationing in Riva, on the Garda Lake in northern Italy, he sent a short note to his sister Ottla in Prague: "Dearest Ottla, please work diligently in the store, so that I may have a good time here without any worry, and give my greetings to our dear parents."

While the earliest and very close friendship between Franz and fellow student Oskar Pollak waned during the later university years, Kafka became ever closer to Max Brod, one year his junior and his friend for life. All in all, this seems to have been a time of high spirits if Franz's letters are any indication. Thus in March 1908 he writes to Brod: "I have had an almost excellent idea which can be carried out very cheaply. Instead of our planned nightlife from Monday to Tuesday we could arrange a nice morning life, meeting at five o'clock or half past five at the Mary statue—then we won't have to let the women down—and go to the Trokadero or to Kuchelbad or to the Eldorado [the Trokadero and the Eldorado were wine cellars, Kuchelbad a racetrack outside Prague]. Then, depending on how we feel, we could have coffee in the garden by the Moldau or else leaning against Joszi's shoulders. Both possibilities have their points."

To the Trokadero and the Eldorado, where Franz and his friends (by then, mainly Max Brod, Felix Weltsch, and Willy Haas) spent many a late evening, one can add the nightclubs Lucerna and London, the first film halls in Prague, several theaters, the opera and, of course, any number of cafés, where intellectuals and writers congregated: the Louvre, the Arco, and others. The Fanta circle, and its lectures and debates, will be revisited later.

In 1905 for the first time Franz arrived in a sanatorium (Zuckmantel in Austrian Silesia) for a hydrotherapy cure meant to alleviate his chronic insomnia. It is there that, according to an entry in his diary many years later, he had his first intimate relations with an older (and experienced) woman, whose identity he did not reveal. Otherwise, as we shall see, the coming years would be a time of many flirtations but no full-fledged affairs until, in August 1912, he met at the Brods' a young Jewish woman from Berlin, Felice Bauer, who was to become his fiancée and with whom he would share an intense (mostly epistolary) relation—but briefly interrupted—for more than five years.


When, for the first time in her son's room, mother Samsa set her eyes on Gregor the bug, she fainted: "And as if giving up completely, she fell with outstretched arms across the couch and did not stir." A completely distraught Gregor ventured into the living room; he was soon chased back by the furious father who started bombarding him with apples, one of which "forced its way into Gregor's back." "With his last glance he saw the door of his room burst open as his mother rushed out ahead of his screaming sister, in her chemise, for his sister had partly undressed her while she lay unconscious ... saw his mother run up to his father and on the way her unfastened petticoats slide to the floor one by one; and saw as, stumbling over the skirts she forced herself unto his father, and embracing him, in complete union with him—but now Gregor's sight went dim—her hands clasping his father's neck, begged for Gregor's life."

The story points to the mother's confused attitude toward her son, and to her unquestioned dependence upon and total union with the father. Franz's own feelings for his mother were lukewarm at times—and he admitted his "occasional coldness" toward her; it seems, however, that his affection for her grew with time, although he knew that her foremost loyalty was to her husband. In his 1919 "Letter to his Father," Franz recognized his mother's inextricable dilemma, set as she was between her husband and her son:

It is true that Mother was endlessly good to me, but for me all that was in relation to you [Father], that is to say, in no good relation. Mother unconsciously played the part of a beater during a hunt ... by talking sensibly (in the confusion of my childhood she was the very prototype of good sense and reasonableness), by pleading for me; and I was again driven back into your orbit, which I might perhaps otherwise have broken out of, to your advantage and to my own. Or it happened that no real reconciliation came about, that Mother merely shielded me from you in secret, secretly gave me something, and then where you were concerned, I was again the furtive creature, the cheat, the guilty one, who in his worthlessness could only pursue sneaky methods ever to get the things he regarded as his right.... This again meant an increase in the sense of guilt.

Franz's main target was the father.

Franz wrote his "Letter to His Father" in November 1919, four and a half years before his death; in his own words, it was "a lawyer's brief" that, in fact, was never delivered to the addressee. Its immediate trigger was purely haphazard—the father's opposition to Franz's engagement to Julie Wohryzek, a synagogue custodian's daughter whose social status Hermann considered unworthy of the Kafkas. Thus the letter was a sudden crystallization of arguments that the son must have rehashed and reformulated in his mind for many years.

Whether Hermann was as uncouth and boorish as Franz describes him is unlikely; but that is how, the son argues in the "Letter," he perceived and experienced him. According to the letter, Franz felt humiliated and shamed by Hermann—even when the father's intention was entirely different: the trips to the public swimming pool on the Vltava (Moldau) are a case in point.

"At that time [Franz's childhood], and at that time in every way, I would have needed encouragement. I was, after all, weighed down by your mere physical presence. I remember, for instance, how we often undressed in the same bathing hut. There was I, skinny, weakly, slight; you strong, tall, broad." The comparison goes on and Franz feels increasingly humiliated as they step out of the hut, "you holding me by the hand, a little skeleton, unsteady, barefoot on the boards, frightened of the water, incapable of copying your swimming strokes, which you, with the best of intentions, but actually to my profound humiliation kept on demonstrating, then I was frantic with desperation and at such moments all my bad experiences in all areas fitted magnificently together."

Franz's recollections of Hermann's humiliating behavior include the most diverse episodes, from the father's attitude toward Franz's friends, to his writing, to his renewed interest in Judaism, to his supposed lack of experience in sexual matters. Nothing is left intact and yet, throughout the "Letter," there is a strong ambivalence. Franz attacks and retreats almost immediately.

"Fortunately," he writes at some stage,

there were exceptions to all this, mostly you suffered in silence, and affection and kindliness by their own strength overcame all obstacles, and moved me immediately. Rare as it was, it was wonderful. For instance, in earlier years, in hot summers, when you were tired after lunch, I saw you having a nap at the office, your elbow on the desk; or you joined us in the country, in the summer holidays, on Sundays, worn out from work; or the time Mother was gravely ill and you stood holding on to the bookcase, shaking with sobs; or when, during my last illness, you came tiptoeing to Ottla's room to see me, stopping in the doorway, craning your neck to see me and out of consideration only waved to me with your hand. At such times one would lie back and weep for happiness, and one weeps now, writing it down.

Kafka dedicated the volume of stories A Country Doctor to his father; it was published in 1920. In 1918 he had commented on the dedication in a letter to Brod: "Ever since I decided to dedicate this book to my father, I am deeply concerned to have it appear soon." He then added, in a somewhat sad and wistful tone: "Not that I could appease my father this way; the roots of our antagonism are too deep, but I would at least have done something; if I haven't emigrated to Palestine, I will at any rate have traced the way there on the map."

There was more. On October 1st, 1911, Kafka described the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur eve at the Altneu Synagogue. It is an oft-quoted text, brilliantly ironic. But it ends on a less familiar note: "I was stirred immeasurably more deeply by Judaism in the Pinkas Synagogue." Hermann Kafka had been on the board of the Pinkas Synagogue; thus it was with his father that Franz attended the services that stirred him deeply. It was a communion with Judaism, but wasn't it one with the father as well?

Ultimately, in a last expression of deep care for his parents, Franz wished to spare them the sight of his physical devastation, as the end was nearing. Less than two weeks before his death, on May 19, 1924, in a letter clearly directed at both of them, he avoided their visit, describing signs of impending amelioration and envisioning the possibility of spending some time together, in the not too distant future. The first paragraph gives the tone: "Dearest Parents, now about the visits you refer to every so often. I have been considering the matter every day, for it is very important to me; we have not been together peacefully in a beautiful locality, alone. I don't remember when the last time was—once for a few hours in Franzensbad. And then 'having a good glass of beer together,' as you write, from which I see that Father doesn't think much of this year's wine, and I'll agree with him there, as far as the beer is concerned. In the past, as I often remember, during the heat spells we used to have beer together quite often, in the far-off time Father would take me along to the Civilian Swimming Pool."

The tense relation between Franz and his father can be seen, in part at least, as a faraway echo (but an echo nonetheless) of the generational confrontation that, by the turn of the century, pitted middle-class European youth against the "materialism" and the "hypocrisy" of the parents' bourgeois generation. This thoroughly described and interpreted confrontation surfaced under different guises, from revolutionary politics on the Left and on the Right to youth movements (the Wandervögel in Germany before World War I, the Bünde afterward), to cultural manifestations (Expressionism and the like), and, increasingly, to a radical transformation of the public sphere, the intellectual climate and the aesthetic landscape, even more rapidly so in Austria than anywhere else in Central Europe.

The rebellion was particularly intense among Jewish middle-class youth, mainly in Central and part of Eastern Europe, in a world in which the parents' generation had just made it to the ranks of the bourgeoisie (without being accepted by surrounding non-Jewish society), a situation that at times led to the exacerbated need for showing off among these "parvenus," in Hannah Arendt's terms, and/or to the pseudocultural pretenses of a basically still uneducated group.

The Jewish "sons," who frequently acquired the higher education open to them, were often unable to deal with the "grossness" of the fathers or their mendacity (also in terms of religious observance), while the fathers, self-made men as they were, had no patience for what in their eyes appeared as the overindulgent lifestyles of the sons and what they considered the sheer ungratefulness of their progeny.

On occasion, indeed, Franz's complaints are literally hard to comprehend: "In the large room there was the clamor of card playing," Franz writes down in January 1912, "and later the usual conversation which Father carries on when he is well, as he is today, loudly if not coherently.... Little Felix [Elli's and Karl Hermann's son] slept in the girls' room, the door of which was wide open. I slept across the way, in my own room. The door of this room, in consideration of my age, was closed. Besides, the open door indicated that they still wanted to lure Felix into the family while I was already excluded."


Excerpted from Franz Kafka by SAUL FRIEDLÄNDER Copyright © 2013 by Saul Friedländer. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. 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.

Meet the Author

Saul Friedländer is a renowned historian of the Holocaust and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He is Distinguished Emeritus Professor of History and Club 39 Endowed Chair in Holocaust Studies at UCLA. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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