The Man Who Could Not Disappear

Imaginations of Machines

The ultimate desire of Franz Kafka was to vanish. Nevertheless, he ended up becoming an icon, a legend in its literal sense: his writings have to be read (the Latin word legenda means “things to be read”).

But the mysterious power of his work stays undefinable even though there is a steady increase in the amount of biographies and commentaries about him. If he has disappeared, it is in a manner of abundant appearance.

At the end of his life he appears to have foreseen this unique destiny, which has only become more obvious since his passing nearly eighty years ago. In 1924, due to severe tuberculosis lesions that blocked his ability to eat or drink, Kafka was slowly dying of starvation while editing the proofs of his final story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”.

This narrative speaks of a singing mouse who barely sings and in the end disappears into a voluntary exile (but was she there to begin with?). “Josephine” is a witty contemplation of the artist’s extraordinary invisibility. Its ending sentence, which seems like a postmortem goodbye, imagines a “happy” disappearance for the story’s long-lost protagonist.

We might not find ourselves missing her greatly in the end, while Josephine, liberated from the sorrows that she believed were destined to befall all those chosen, will be able to blend into the mass of the heroes of our people. Since we are not recorders of history, she will quickly ascend to the apex of redemption and be forgotten like the others in her family.

Kafka’s final line of fiction contains a poignant, paradoxical sadness. The author, striving for literary greatness, understood that true salvation would come from anonymity, yet that was something unattainable.

Josephine lives through the narrator’s narration, becoming part of the mouse people’s tales, and Kafka himself became a legend due to his attempts to be forgotten. His request to Max Brod to burn his unpublished manuscripts after his death only made the legend of his work’s existence even greater.

The final words of “Josephine”–Kafka’s homage to Brod–are remarkable in their comparison of vanishing with joy. This kind of sentiment is rarely seen in his other works and he is not usually thought of as a contented person.

Yet, it appears that here he is posting some kind of resolution of his inner struggles and a possible escape from life’s events into a serene and almost messianic bliss. This sentiment of felicity–which may have been inspired by his time with Dora Diamant in Berlin–seems to linger in the background of even his most gruesome works, like a faint breeze of fresh air.

In Kafka’s earliest writings, he already expressed a preoccupation with escape and disappearance. To write was envisioned as a way to go beyond the world, to elude all constructs and obligations, to “betray everyone” as Deleuze phrased it.

This is illustrated in the collection Contemplation (1913), in the story “The Wish to Become an Indian”. The single, unfinished sentence within this story demonstrates a yearning for literary nothingness, a freedom even greater than a nomadic lifestyle.

One could imagine themselves as an Indian, instantly ready, atop a horse at full gallop, leaning into the wind, and feeling their body shuddering with the land beneath them. Without spurs or reins, they barely take in the scenery of a smoothly shorn heath before the horse’s neck and head are out of sight.

It is possible to compare this scene to Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photographs, as the figure slowly fades away in each frame, or as a response to Karl May and the German view of the Wild West.1 Despite this, Kafka was not interested in the components of the fiction but in the author’s uncertain control over it – their reliance on language to make it real, or fail to.

He wanted to become part of that language, to unite his life with the act of creating it. He wrote in one of his many overblown statements about his job: “I am nothing but literature and cannot and do not wish to be anything else.”

This was in a letter to his fiancee Felice Bauer’s father, asking for her hand in marriage – an astonishing action that is self-destructive.

It highlights the strange combination (and lasting conflict) between the literary void and the actual world that Kafka sought after even in his letters, a blend intended to keep all the literature (including the opportunity of marriage).

This leads to a very intricate writing machine, offering an effective way to escape and defend oneself, and a tool for overcoming the unsuspecting people that get caught up in it.

In his essay “The Wish to Become an Indian”, Kafka links this notion of merging into language with technology and transportation. In particular, he makes reference to horses, which were one of his favorite animals.

“The Aeroplanes at Brescia” was the result of a friendly challenge between Kafka and Max Brod when they were vacationing together in northern Italy. During this holiday, they visited the town of Riva, located on the north shore of Lake Garda, and then headed south to Brescia for the air show.

This essay was Kafka’s first publication, aside from a couple of book reviews, and his only venture into journalism.

Peter Demetz, whose father had known Kafka in Prague, made the discovery of “Aeroplanes” in the late 1940s. He has since published an insightful and helpful book, The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which features details of Kafka’s and the Brods’ experience at the historical and politically-charged event.

Notable guests such as Giacomo Puccini and the bombastic proto-Fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio were also present, as well as the renowned pilots of the day who were celebrated as heroes and pioneers.

Kafka was captivated by the mutual transformation of men and machines, and described with surreal imagery the mechanics tinkering with the planes, which seemed to have happened more often than the flying.

His writing of Louis Bleriot’s flight captures the excitement and amazement of the freedom of the air, while also conveying the vicarious fear of the experience. Kafka’s fascination is distinguished from d’Annunzio’s kitsch heroics as he ponders, “Is he going up in the air in this tiny thing? Then people on water, for instance, have an easier job after all.

They can practice in puddles first, then in ponds, and not venture out to sea until much later, for this man there is only sea.”

The writer may have associated the thought of soaring in the sky with the experience of sitting at a desk with a blank page before them. As the article progresses, an unusual link is made between flying and writing.

At the end of the day, a Frenchman by the name of Henri Rougier takes off, steadily ascending in circles. It is described as if he is at a desk, with steps behind him, manipulating levers and controlling a fate that is dependent on his own actions.

This image is oddly similar to one of Kafka’s stories, in which a writing/torture machine is used to bring about a state of redemption for the condemned. This is a much darker image, however, as the process ends in death.

In this more jocular text, there is no mention of death, just of departure and the fading away of the light in the sky. In a representation of ascension, apotheosis, escape, and cosmic oblivion, Kafka ends the piece with a premonition of Josephine’s mysterious departure.

As the group heads back to the train to beat the crowds, they are captivated by Rougier’s flight: “The road curves and Rougier appears in the sky, so high he can only be spotted by the stars that are beginning to show in the darkening sky.

We can’t help but look, as Rougier continues to ascend, but our path is leading us down into the Campagna.” This heavenly image also implies a division: the artist in his plane is lost amidst the stars, but “we” (the witnesses of modern technology?) carry on our way into the darkness of the land. This division alludes to the dark side that is ever-present in the wish for total liberation.

The Shore and Kafka: A Look Into the Novel

Kafka’s first two trips to northern Italy were twofold; the first, in company of the brothers Brod and the second, a business trip to Vienna, which took place in September 1913. Detailed information of this episode, with its enigmatic love affair at its core, is provided by Demetz and W.G. Sebald, who discusses it in a section of Vertigo titled “Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva.”

This episode conveys the idea of escape and travel, as well as aviation and the short-lived joy of a clandestine love affair, all set against the backdrop of Kafka’s increasingly acrimonious relationship with Felice Bauer, which had commenced a year before. It also features the melancholy of the decaying Hunter Gracchus, who is stuck in this world and makes a stop in Riva.

Dr. K. traveled to Vienna for a conference on his two favorite topics of accident prevention and first aid, and also to a Zionist congress. There is an amusing photograph of him and three companions at the Prater fairground, where he is seen grinning mischievously in a boater, while the others look comparatively serious.

Demetz suggests this could be interpreted as Kafka’s sly pleasure at having convinced his less-than-enthusiastic friends to join him in a silly gesture, in order to commemorate a previous, more cheerful journey.

Later, Dr. K. left Vienna alone to go to Trieste, Venice, Verona, and then to Lake Garda and Riva, in search of some peace of mind. Unfortunately, he fell in love with a girl there.

Kafka’s romantic relationship with the “Swiss girl,” a teen whose name he promised to keep secret (demetz gives her name as Gertrud Wasner, but she is referred to as W. or G.W. in Kafka’s diaries and letters), is shrouded in mystery.

He describes his memories of sitting in the windowsill of the Riva sanatorium as G.W. leaned out of her window above, flashing a smile and playfully dangling a ribbon. He also recalls brief boat rides on the lake, which made him feel a desire to die and to hold on simultaneously.

When the time arrived for G.W. to leave the sanatorium, they said a sorrowful goodbye, and she boarded the shuttle boat, both of them knowing that they would never see each other or communicate again, as they had agreed.

From his fleeting love and the romantic setting of the lakeside, Kafka created the story of “The Hunter Gracchus,” a medieval hunter from the Black Forest whose death ship is eternally adrift.

When the hunter stops at Riva, the Burgomaster inquires as to his situation, to which Gracchus replies, “I am here, more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go.”

The character of Gracchus, named after Kafka himself, embodies the impossibility of true happiness under the pressure of a predetermined bourgeois lifestyle. This may have been what Kafka was conveying through his rejection of such a lifestyle, and the infinite sorrow suggested by the figure of Gracchus.

Sebald’s writing, marked by tenderness and subdued lyricism, is used to narrate the tale of Kafka’s journey to Riva. However, he adds a dramatic spin to it, which can be summarized with the direct inquiry of whether Kafka was gay or not.

Rather than asking it, the author assumes it, using quotes from Kafka’s writings, as well as some constructions of his own, to portray the protagonist’s battle with an unnameable longing.4

Throughout his journey, Sebald introduces a variety of ghostly, homoerotic doubles, one of them being Franz Grillparzer, a nineteenth-century Austrian dramatist whose favorite hotel Kafka chooses in Vienna.

This spectral figure is seen to lay his hand on the knee of Dr. K. in a manner similar to the Hunter Gracchus did with the Burgomaster of Riva. Later, in Verona, Dr. K. is at the cinema, and Sebald imagines him watching in tears the story of a solitary student from Prague, who is eventually killed by his own doppelganger in a long and theatrical death.

This scene is reminiscent of the ambivalent eroticism in Kafka’s early story “Description of a Struggle”, which is all about a homosocial rivalry.

To close the chapter, Sebald repeats a letter written by Kafka to Felice, in which the author admits to having followed a strapping, stiff-backed man through the streets of Prague “veritably lusting” after him, and even goes as far as to ask Felice if she can understand why he did so and whether his desire was ever satisfied.

Novelist Sebald has not been the first to consider the potential of Franz Kafka’s repressed homosexual desires. In 1983, a German newspaper published a piece with the title, “Was Kafka Gay?”, which was in response to Gunter Mecke’s book, Franz Kafka’s Open Secret, which strongly argued in favor of this possibility.

Yet, there is still a level of ambiguity; one cannot deny the presence of what appear to be ‘gay moments’ in Kafka’s works, such as the intense leather/S&M scene in The Trial. Additionally, his recurrent attitude towards physical intimacy with women, and his revulsion at conventional heterosexual married life, all add to the complexity of the situation.

Sebald’s treatment of the subject is more delicate than Mecke’s, as it cautiously reflects Kafka’s own language, and interprets his longing for love as an issue in a tumultuous and fearful world.

The Hunter Gracchus is a character that serves as a metaphor for Kafka’s fate; the price of his renunciation of love and his continued longing for it ultimately leads to a ‘deathly’ figure drawn to Lake Garda, as a consequence of an unforgivable mistake.

While at the Cinema, He Misplaced It

Kafka wrote a curious note while relaxing by Lake Garda, instead of the diary he had intended to give to Felice upon his return. He wrote, “The fact that no one knows where I am is my only happiness. If only I could prolong this forever! It would be far more just than death.

I am empty and futile in every corner of my being, even in my unhappiness.” On September 21, 1913, he wrote to Felice to explain his unhappy state and how emotionally distant he was from her. He said, “I don’t keep a diary at all, I wouldn’t know what to do; nothing happens to me to stir my inner self.

This applies even if I weep, as I did yesterday in a cinematographic theater in Verona. I am capable of enjoying human relationships, but not of living them through.” According to Sebald, this is what sparked Kafka’s visit to the movies in Verona.

Just like everybody else, Kafka was known to shed a few tears at the movies from time to time. During the years he went to the cinema, the silent movies often had low-operatic sentimentality that was reflected in their titles such as The Heartbreaker, The White Slave Girl, and Catastrophe at the Dock.

It is quite beautiful to envision Kafka’s tear-stained face as he watched a schmaltzy melodrama, in contrast to the emotionally flat, non-lyrical nature of his work which was almost entirely absent of sentimentality.

What Kafka did borrow from cinema, such as farce, physical comedy, and set character types, however, worked in a different way. The image of Kafka crying at the movies may imply what had to be left out of his writing for it to be what it is: by removing affect and lyricism, and focusing on the intersection between desire, social structures, and language, Kafka’s narratives were able to go past drama, character, and psychology.

He also managed to achieve a near-hallucinatory intensity in his stories, such as in the last half of “The Judgment”, that no film adaptation of his work has ever been able to replicate.

A faint trace of lyrical sentimentality usually lingers around them, almost like an apparition of a resolution that one can barely hope for. Perhaps Kafka saw a glimpse of this phantom in the flickering figures of the movies.

Kafka had a strong connection to cinema. He felt as if he was an observer of the ever-changing and rapidly fragmenting world. The movies of this time period provided an experience of alienation while also showcasing an emotional connection with the characters that was both personal and distant.

On the day he was in Verona, Kafka may have seen a film about a student from Prague who was cut off from love and life, or a different movie that had the title La Lezione dell ‘abisso (The Lesson of the Abyss).

This was a melodramatic story involving an Alpine trek and a tourist’s fall to an icy death. Or maybe it was Poveri Bimbi (Poor Kids), which was described as having a poetic and sentimental note. The power of films lies in their ability to open up great amounts of emotion.

After watching these films, Kafka wrote in his diary about the experience and how he was “entirely empty and insensate [sinnlos]”, which he felt was more alive than the passing tram.

Kafka’s own life was compared to a “senile trickle” compared to the machines he saw as living beings with human qualities, which makes it interesting to read in Zischler’s book that he wrote “The Judgment” in one night “on a train”.

I have always hoped to find proof of this joke somewhere. In his diary entry, he details a writing session where he stayed up all night to write the story he considered successful. The phrase he used was “in einem Zug,” which can mean “in a train,” but also “in one go” or “in one sitting”.

Let us imagine Kafka escaping his home, where he could not write, and instead in a darkened train compartment, writing with the light of passing lamps. The other passengers around him nod unconsciously and one may even have their head on his shoulder, dictating his anxious dreams.

Zischler’s work does not offer a thorough examination of the connection between Kafka’s writing and cinematic experience, either in practice or as a product.

At the time of his writing, the world was rapidly changing due to technology and Kafka was conscious of this. His writing still adhered to traditional forms and was inspired by canonical authors, however it was also impacted by the inevitable forces of fragmentation, which cinema is one of the most prominent symbols of.

The book is not meant to be an in-depth analysis, but rather, an illustrated introduction to the topic. It includes information on films Kafka saw or was likely to have seen, and provides plenty of quotes from newspaper advertisements and press releases.

The book is a great place to start in exploring this topic, and encourages readers to contemplate the idea of life being rendered into a representation of itself through techn e of image making.

K. by Calasso

Kafka was heavily influenced by movies and the writing desk was the site of the transformation of his works. His inventions included a flying desk and other devices which enabled distortion and displacement. An example of this is the fantastic device Karl Rossmann discovers when he lives with his uncle in The Man Who Disappeared.

In his room sat a very fine American writing desk…. It featured a hundred compartments of various sizes and a handle to adjust them as desired. By turning the handle, one could alter the compartments and create new ones or expand existing ones. The lateral partitions could descend slowly or at a rapid pace to form either the floors or ceilings of the compartments. This was an incredibly modern invention.

This “very modern” “adjuster” was created with the intent to disrupt and warp reality, and in its more surreal forms, Kafka’s writing is an effort to adjust this adjuster without anyone’s awareness. It is like a journey to an alternate universe, which lies beneath the surface of the world we know. His characters cross many boundaries and limits, leading them to strange places with unfamiliar and oppressive laws. To illustrate this idea, one may look at “The Judgment,” which goes from a mundane start to a frenzied ending, making the reader wonder how they got to that point. In Roberto Calasso’s K. (Knopf, 2005), he discusses the transition from a restrained bourgeois setting to an Oedipal chaos, finding a shift in Georg Bendemann’s walk from his bright room to his father’s dark one. Unlike the nineteenth-century authors who clearly stated the move to the other side, Calasso explains that “with Kafka there is no warning. The shift is smooth and nothing foreshadows it.” The line between everyday life and its hidden, ominous counterpart has turned into a gradual, unmarked path, ending in a jump into the unknown.

Calasso, through his readings, pays attention to the liminal elements featured in Kafka’s fiction. These include borders, thresholds, windows, doors, edges of beds, and the “blanket of moss” that covers the animal’s underground shelter in “The Burrow.” All of these mark out passages that lead to the potential danger or reward ahead. He notes that both The Trial and The Castle are special in that they “unfold on the threshold of a hidden world that one suspects is implicit in this world.” The two realms are brought close together, to the point of “commixture.” For Calasso, this “implicit world” is one where the religious, sacred, and divine have not been eradicated, but instead “absorbed and hidden in something alien” called “society.” He suggests Kafka’s characters fumble into (Georg Bendemann, or Josef K. in The Trial ) or naively challenge (K. in The Castle ) this realm. Nevertheless, Calasso believes that Kafka’s insight is that there is no undifferentiated, pre-religious or pre-mythical world beneath all images, not even one that is composed of power. Rather, there is only a mediated, administered, represented power that has no life outside of its endless representatives. How these representatives acquire their power is a mystery, but they try to make it simpler by projecting a “unity” to validate their hierarchy ( the law courts, the castle). Kafka’s query is how to make this process evident using images, which generally veil this truth with a facade of sacred authority. In Kafka, authority is exposed even as it offers an intricate front that endlessly postpones any major decision. The effective forms of power remain endlessly distinct–as if they were placed in the shifting compartments of a “very modern” writing desk.

Calasso insists that his book does not present an interpretation; however, the message conveyed in its loosely unified and aphoristic sections of varying length is so complex and multifaceted that it dispels any hint of any prearranged reading. Calasso is completely immersed in his subject; his voice blends with the works he is commenting on, which he moulds rather than examines. There is an “interweaving” in the critical level too–and I can’t help but notice that, if Calasso’s name is as Greek as it appears, it would originally be written (or transcribed) as Kalasso; put this together with the titles of his other books ( Ka , The Marriage of Cadmus [Kadmos] and Harmony , The Ruin of Kasch ), remembering Kafka’s own shortened self-references in the names of his characters, and something truly remarkable begins to take shape. As Calasso puts it, “K. is the shape of what happens.”

In Calasso’s work, there is an attempt to understand the power of Kafka’s texts, rather than partaking in any debates about different interpretations. His book queries how the works of Kafka confront the inconceivable. Numerous academics have attempted to divide Kafka’s works into two groups – those of language and writing, and those of historical and cultural experience. However, this fails to acknowledge that Kafka’s stories disrupt this dichotomy, instead posing questions about it. Even though Kafka may have been searching for something beyond the world of writing, it is evident that he found something in it which was distorted, yet perhaps more genuine than reality.

Trickery Without the Deceitful Nature

When it comes to the life of Kafka, we take a great interest in the details, both major and minor. We are aware of the personal information of the man from Prague, and if we do not know certain facts, they have been filled in with creative guesswork (such as the play by Alan Bennett, Kafka’s Dick). We even know of the method of eating he employed: Fletcherism, a nutritional trend that required a lot of chewing. Biographies of Kafka outnumber those of any other writer, besides Shakespeare, and it is likely that more will be published in the future.

Klaus Wagenbach’s Kafka (Harvard) is a recent translation of a classic book, which was first published in 1964 as part of Rowohlt Verlag’s series of illustrated author bios. This book was popular amongst college students and anyone who wanted a general introduction.

However, Wagenbach’s more comprehensive Franz Kafka: Eine Biographie seiner Jugend (“Franz Kafka: A Biography of His Youth”), which was released in Germany in 1958, has yet to be translated.10

The need to learn more about Kafka’s life is greater than for other writers because his art is unique in that it takes the most personal aspects of his life and transforms, translates and encodes them into allegories with a dreamlike atmosphere. These stories appear to have no connection to the world we know, yet they still suggest that they can show us something fundamental about it.

The works of Kafka still retain elements of realism but also employ allegorical techniques to create a style of writing that transcends the literal meaning of the text and instead refers to something greater. This mysterious force seems to be derived from the world and the life that Kafka’s writing has escaped from. The combination of flight and fiction present in Kafka’s writing makes reality what it is.

Marked by a desire to be transformed into literature, Kafka’s life was one of disappearing into writing, especially that of fiction.

Therefore, to read his letters and diaries is not an act of uncovering the man behind the curtain, as we are still within the realm of a writer composing his fate. Even his diaries, which tell of his direct experiences, read like finely crafted narrative fictions written by another.

It is possible to experiment with passages from his diaries, or from your own, or from the newspaper; read them as if they were a story told by an unknown fictive narrator. The effect of this can be strangely powerful, as this is what Kafka sought to achieve in all his writing.

Kafka was, undoubtedly, a literary genius and he was aware of this fact. His diary records a celebration of the writer’s ecstasy, following a late-night writing session: “The special nature of my inspiration in which I, the most fortunate and unfortunate of men, now go to sleep at 2 a.m.… is such that I can do everything.… When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, ‘He looked out of the window,’ it already has perfection.”

This perfection refers to the cohesion and delimitation of a fictional world brought into being through the use of language. The joy and ecstasy of this process is one of bringing the unreal into reality and seeing it as its own entity. Kafka applied this to himself and his writing, forging the being of a writer known as “Kafka” – the only being he can and will be – out of language alone. This is particularly evident in his first few major stories.

In a sense, Kafka attempted to experience the artificiality of the self and the fiction, incorporating them into one another. When this writing is sent out to another living being, it carries a different kind of weight.

To say that Kafka’s life was a work of fiction would be an oversimplification. However, it would be naive not to recognize that his Letters to Felice, which constitute the majority of his work, display a kind of modern-day fairy tale.

This “romance” began with a letter to an acquaintance, but quickly evolved into a much deeper connection, as these two people entertained the notion of marriage. Felice Bauer of Berlin was enlisted in the creation of his writing identity, and became entangled in the melding of art and life–the former relying on the latter for sustenance.

The onset of Kafka’s correspondence with Felice initially seemed to be a source of revitalization, however this excitement was actually a product of his fantasy. On the 20th of September, 1912, Kafka wrote his first letter to her.

Two days later he composed the acclaimed work “The Judgment” while riding on a train. This story, which depicts a man writing to a friend in regards to his engagement that ends in suicide, has been interpreted as a representation of Kafka’s sudden attraction to Felice.

This is evidenced by the fact that her initials are incorporated into the name of the fiancee in the story, Frieda Brandenfeld. This combination of real writing and imaginary marriage that occurred just two days after the letter was sent to a stranger, suggests the story was predetermined from the start.

This is further evidenced by the unkind remarks found in Kafka’s diary regarding Felice’s appearance after their first meeting, which he described as “blank, and wearing its blankness openly”.

After five years and 700 pages in this winding fairy tale, the dream of marriage has been supplanted by the dream of writing and nothing but writing (“nothing else will ever satisfy me”), and this is further highlighted by a life-threatening Lung ailment.

In his letter to Felice, Kafka makes his final exit and a remarkable confession: “I am a deceitful creature”, but he also mentions that he has tried to reduce the lies in his interactions with her. In a surprisingly vain move, he admits his profound dishonesty in a highly literary manner within his good-bye letter.

When assessing my ultimate goal, I come to the realization that I don’t seek to be held accountable to a higher authority. Quite the contrary. My ambition is to understand the collective of mankind and animals, to identify their fundamental needs and values, to condense them into basic principles, and then to apply these rules to make myself agreeable to everyone.

My ultimate aim is to become so likable that I can act out my immoral behavior in the public eye without being condemned. In other words, I am only concerned with the opinion of my fellow man, and I want to do this without having to resort to deception.

Kafka was so taken with this piece of writing that he copied it into his diary and then into a letter to Max Brod, labeling it a “brilliant piece of self-knowledge” and jokingly suggesting it could be used as an epitaph.

One wonders if he ever considered his diaries and letters would be published as part of his work, given his enthusiasm for literary biographies. He remarked in the letter to Felice that his illness could put an end to the farce they had been playing.

Many sentimental people have referred to Kafka as a saint, even Felice, his most intimate confidant, who said to Nahum Glatzer, the editor, “My Franz was a saint” when she presented him with a wheelbarrow full of Kafka’s letters.

To which the response was, “I would rather call him a scoundrel, wouldn’t you?” Kafka frequently spoke of his own wickedness and baseness and it is important to keep that in mind in order to understand how fiction and reality were intertwined, and how his writing was a part of the world-building process.

The abjection of the writer-being was exemplified in Kafka’s Hunger Artist, as he attempted to showcase his compulsions as admirable feats of virtue in spite of his lack of nourishment.

This is highlighted in the famous words “I cannot do otherwise,” which were famously uttered by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms and later echoed by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M. Although it would be an exaggeration to put Kafka’s dedication to writing in this same category, it is hard to determine where determined single-mindedness ends and sheer compulsion begins.

The Feeling of Responsibility and Syntax

Grammar and guilt often go hand-in-hand, with those who are deficient in their knowledge of the former feeling a sense of responsibility for their lack of understanding. The feeling of being in the wrong due to a lack of knowledge of syntax is a common one.

Kafka’s fiction often reflects the same idea of intentional deception that is expressed in his letter to Felice. This is especially true of his novels, which explore the power of appearance, manipulation, and illusion.

The three novels, all of which were recently translated based on the critical editions published in Germany, show how fiction and reality can become mixed together. Each of the novels begins with a rumor, a joke, or a fiction that is taken as true.

Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), translated by Michael Hofmann for New Directions, starts with a false accusation against Karl Rossman that he seduced a maid and impregnated her.

The Trial (translated by Breon Mitchell for Schocken) also emphasizes the unreality of the situation in its first sentence: “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”

Mitchell’s introduction points out a detail in the German version of this sentence — “ohne daß er etwas böses getan hatte” — that emphasizes the hearsay quality of the statement and implies that Josef K. is denying any wrongdoing.

An earlier translation by the Muirs simply states “without having done anything wrong,” but this omits the uncertainty of Josef K.’s guilt.

Mitchell’s assertion that the question of truth is introduced by his choice is countered by the notion that it is a matter of appearance, reality and withheld judgment.

Even though the translation he chose is much better than the old one, it is possible to change it slightly. Rather than saying “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without really having done anything wrong, he was arrested”, one can say “If you asked Josef K. if he had done something wrong, he would likely answer ‘Not really’, suggesting that the misdeeds in question were more of the order of thoughts than of actions.

This leads to the troubling realization that suspicions alone can bring the full force of the law upon someone. Is it always possible to differentiate between the two? The answer lies within one’s own conscience.”

One can observe The Castle (which was published by Schocken) starting off with its main character facing a “seeming emptiness” and then proceeding to a discussion in the village inn regarding his identity – is K., who claims to be a land surveyor, really what he says he is?

This question is apparently answered by a surprising announcement over the phone from the castle, however this does not do much to alter the atmosphere of pure semblance that is present throughout the novel.

  1. realizes that the castle “has taken up the struggle with a smile” after the phone call, and this struggle is nothing less than a battle of interpretations.

The novel’s new translator, Mark Harman, states that “the process of interpretation becomes a necessary part of the novel” in The Castle; as different interpretations clash in K.’s numerous conversations and confrontations, it is apparent that it is merely a contest of fiction (or rumours) attempting to obtain the status of reality.

The fictional world of the novel is, at every level, a domain in which reality is conferred on language by language. In this sense, it is difficult to not consider the struggle that is taken up “with a smile” as the battle of composing this very fiction, of striving to create a digital realm that only exists if it states that it does.

It is not far from this to the suspicion that the stories that make up our lives are dependent on this devious and unseen thread.

Biography of a Secondary Nature

The biographical terrain of Kafka’s life has been extensively examined, and our understanding of it has become so comprehensive that it has spurred the creation of what might be called secondary biographies.

An example of this is Margarete Buber-Neumann’s book about Milena Jesenska, who had been interned as a political prisoner in Ravensbruck concentration camp and had met Buber-Neumann there.

The two women became close allies and friends and agreed that if one of them survived, they would write a book together. Milena’s life and her commitment to journalism and activism is an important narrative, and the German title of the book Milena, Kafkas Freundin (“Milena: Kafka’s Girlfriend”) acknowledges her connection to Kafka.

The English translation was changed to Milena: The Story of a Remarkable Friendship. In her book, Buber-Neumann offers a unique testimonial of her relationship with Milena and adds little to the knowledge of Kafka.

Kathi Diamant’s book Kafka’s Last Love (Basic, 2003) narrates the extraordinary life of Dora Diamant (or Dymant). Although the author initially sought to explore a potential kinship between her and Dora, no common ties have been discovered.

Nonetheless, the book provides an intriguing and illuminating insight into Kafka’s persona, as well as the major events of the first half of the twentieth century, which Dora was part of.

Kafka and Dora shared a life together in Berlin, during what I like to refer to as his “happy period”. They initially crossed paths in Muritz, at a resort near the Baltic sea; he was recovering and she was working as a volunteer at a summer camp for refugee children operated by the Berlin Jewish People’s Home.

Although it was widely reported that Dora was nineteen years old, it is now known that she was actually twenty-five. This helps to alleviate the perception of Kafka as a man who habitually seduced young girls at vacation spots.

From the moment they met, they were mutually attracted and spent nearly all of their days together. Kafka, who was forty at the time, likely found Dora to be fascinating; she had abandoned the traditional Jewish lifestyle of her father, and instead embraced her freedom.

She had the culture of the Ostjuden, the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe, which Kafka had always admired for their sense of community, yet which he himself could never join due to his own affinity for exile and alienation.

Dora was the perfect person for Kafka; she provided him with the culture he admired, yet she also encouraged him to live an urban, liberated and artistic life, particularly in the theatre. Thus, they decided to move in together and Berlin seemed to be the ideal destination, as it offered them both a cultural atmosphere and more lenient rules concerning cohabitation.

Unfortunately, in the fall of 1923 Germany was on the brink of an economic crisis, with the surreal inflation making the currency all but worthless. Kafka was provided with a pension from an insurance institute, paid in Czech crowns, which barely afforded them a living. In October, they settled into a small flat in Steglitz, a residential area outside Berlin.

Kafka’s period of joy begins. Like most accounts of contentment, it was fairly mundane and not focused on exciting events. It is truly remarkable to comprehend that he was always in high spirits, making jokes, and relishing life’s experiences.

For example, how much he enjoyed eating a banana! They even dreamed of establishing a restaurant in Palestine, where Dora would be in charge of cooking and Kafka would serve the customers. The thought of such absurdity is quite heartwarming.

They also studied Hebrew together and Kafka read his preferred authors to her. They were concerned about the inflation, which made them switch to less expensive lodgings before Kafka’s health deteriorated to the point of him having to be taken to a medical facility, and later a sanatorium. On June 3, 1924, he sadly passed away in Dora’s embrace, which differs from past records where Dora was absent at his death.

Kafka continued to write during this period of his life, even though he had previously voiced his concerns regarding his need for seclusion to Felice.

Interestingly, Dora did not seem to take much of an interest in Kafka’s writing itself. It appears that she was more enthralled by him as an individual. This leads to an interesting conclusion: the entire notion of “being-a-writer”, the metaphysical defense and weapon against love and home, became unimportant.

Thus, Kafka’s writing had to find a new source of tension and paradox.

It is evident from the three stories that have been preserved from this era that a change of some kind had begun to take place.

Each of these stories examines the contrasts between home and society. “A Little Woman” deals with the inconsiderate landlord that Kafka spoke of to Max Brod. “The Burrow” is an exhaustive discussion on the challenge of protecting one’s house from the foreignness that has already been accepted.

Lastly, “Josephine the Singer”, which may be Kafka’s most beautiful work, employs gentle irony to portray the artist who expects special treatment from the public and is both the core and exiled individual of the mouse society with its numerous other forgotten characters.

It is hard to estimate how much of Kafka’s writing was completed in Berlin due to the fact that he destroyed a considerable amount of it, ordering Dora to burn pages in front of him as he lay in bed.

Furthermore, what wasn’t destroyed was lost upon his death, when Max Brod asked Dora to give him any manuscripts written by Kafka that she might have. To the chagrin of Kafka fans, she lied, denying that she had any.

In actuality, she had ten or twelve notebooks and thirty-five letters to her that she refused to surrender.

Was Kafka’s writing so precious to her that she wouldn’t give it up? Or were the notebooks simply keepsakes, like the hairbrush she kept and was later photographed with in Diamant’s biography? Sadly, her refusal to part with the papers came with a hefty price, for when the Nazis came to power, her husband Ludwig Lask was arrested and the documents were taken away. To this day, no one knows where the manuscripts are.

Dora’s journey after Kafka’s death was a thrilling one, involving her fleeing from Germany, where the Nuremberg Laws were imposed, with her one-year-old daughter.

The Gestapo watched them leave the station as they made their way to the Soviet Union, where her husband awaited them in Moscow. They had to escape from the Soviets as well, when her husband was arrested for espionage.

How she pulled it off is still unknown, but it is a testament to her strength. After travelling across Europe, they managed to secure passage to England while the war was raging. In a strange twist, they were interned in a concentration camp on the Isle of Man.

Once the war was over, she was often sought out by researchers and interviewers who wanted to speak to the widow of Franz Kafka.

The memory of Kafka had a deep impact on Dora, who was overcome with remorse for the loss of his manuscripts in recent years, when his standing as “an information bureau of the human condition” (Adorno) became more apparent to her.

Kathi Diamant, Dora’s biographer, certainly appears to share in the guilt, even though she has not uncovered any proof of a family connection.

Diamant’s book project, which she undertook like a sort of family duty, spurred reunions among Dora’s surviving relatives, as well as a memorial in 1999 and a headstone for her grave in London. Diamant is an unlikely leader of the Kafka Project, yet that is what she is.

The intention of this endeavor is to restore Kafka’s missing writings, though a variety of attempts have failed due to the Nazi archives’ disarray at the time of confiscation and the fact that many are now stored in the former East Germany. It could take over a decade to organize the piles of aged documents, leaving it uncertain if the papers are lost forever.

It appears unlikely that uncovering any further remnants of Kafka will reduce the amount of guilt in the world, but one thing is certain: Kafka’s legacy will live on.

Dora, in her final recollections, even went so far as to compare Kafka to Jesus, though the joy that he found with her suggests something else entirely. Was it an attempt to relinquish his divine status when he asked Dora to burn his papers as he watched? Through Josephine the singer’s mysterious vanishing, we gain insight into what Kafka may have wanted; to be immortalized and then to disappear as such.

As in Godard’s Breathless, when the reporter asks the director what his greatest ambition is and he answers “To become immortal and then to die,” we could similarly say that Kafka’s goal was to become a myth and then to vanish.

What would that signify, then? Forgive me, reader, for being rather obscure here, considering my profound grief over the missing manuscripts of this respected author and his early demise.

Maybe it implies not allowing the absent writings to exist and leaving the gone forever in its place. Kafka once wrote in his diaries, “I don’t avoid people because I want to live in harmony, but because I want to die in peace,” and who could begrudge him that? Even the Burgomaster of Riva would lend a hand if he could.

Kafka, likely a teenager in the 1890s, was likely well aware of the acclaim that May’s novels had achieved during that time.

  1. It is a common misconception that Franz Kafka was stuck in Prague throughout his life. While he did not have the same travel-filled life as his contemporary Rainer Maria Rilke or emulate Pessoa’s preference to remain in his hometown and explore the world through imagination, he still did not become like Proust and stay secluded in a cork-lined room. In those days, tuberculosis was treated by rest, warm sun, and fresh air, usually in a deck chair at a remote mountain resort.

Kafka had the opportunity to visit many of these places. Before he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, he traveled extensively throughout Europe, often to escape from Prague, but also for his job as an insurance inspector for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague.

The Demetz equation states that the Latin word “graculus” corresponds to the Italian word “gracchio”, the German word “Dohle”, and the Czech word “kavka”, all of which mean “jackdaw”.

  1. Kafka’s longing was not necessarily left unspoken: a revised German release of his Diaries has reinstated Brod’s eliminations of multiple openly homosexual sections.

The most remarkable instance is when Kafka writes about the view at the Jungborn nature spa on his visit in 1912: “two stunning Swedish boys with long legs that one could only truly appreciate by licking them.”

Gunter Mecke’s book, Franz Kafkas offenbares Geheimnis (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1982), has not been translated into English. Elmar Drost’s newspaper article, “War Kafka schwul?”, which appeared in the Berlin Tageszeitung (TAZ) on August 22, 1983, page 11 of the “Kultur” section, was accompanied by a photo of a gathering of middle-aged men playing on the lawn of one of the nudist colonies Kafka regularly visited, although he himself would not take off his shorts.

In the English translation of the Diaries, a significant word is excluded, however it is present in the translation of Zischler’s quotation.

  1. Recently, in the New York Review of Books, Frederick Crews unleashed a distasteful round of polemics, his writing more energized than ever when attacking someone.
  1. The most hilarious of all the biographies of Kafka is unquestionably Introducing Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz and Robert Crumb, which is imbued with the author’s characteristic ironic literalism. 9 In 2004, a full-length biography entitled Kafka by Nicholas Murray was released by Yale University. Most recently, Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Decisive Years was published by Harcourt, which is the first of three volumes that promise to be the “definitive” biography.

Mark M. Anderson’s collection in Reading Kafka (Schocken, 1989) includes a chapter from it.

  1. Taking Kafka as an illustration, it is a reasonable assumption to make that when reading his works, writing itself is being allegorized – this being a topic that he was preoccupied with.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s comical book, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, they suggest that Kafka (seeing himself as anemic) was invigorated by the letters from Felice, which provided him with the necessary doses of vigor for his vampiric writing style.

In a remarkable letter written to Max Brod in July of 1922, a lengthy and almost cosmic self-reproach is revealed, in which Kafka declared that his writing was nothing more than “vanity and sensuality” and that the elation of writing was “the payment for working for the devil”!

The malleability of many topics, such as the current association of Arabs and Muslims with terrorism, can be highlighted as a Kafkaesque type of situation.

Hundreds of people have been apprehended and even treated cruelly, even though they were not charged with a criminal offense, simply due to the fear of potential connection and security. Rumor is a powerful tool that can lead to the false conviction of innocent people.

To summarize, political and erotic fantasies shape the real world and this was one of Kafka’s major observations.

In 1947, Kathi Diamant extensively quoted Dora in an interview, and the following three quotes are part of that interview.

It is necessary not to mix up the “Kafka Project” with an online collection of recent versions of Kafka’s writing.

  1. “Do I have faith that he outdid Jesus? Surprisingly, I do have confidence in that.” Kafka’s Last Love, p. 298. Kafka would have certainly been appalled by such (literal) adulation.

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