Azure no. 35, Winter 5769 / 2009

Everyman's Kafka

Reviewed by Sander L. Gilman

Excavating Kafka
by James Hawes
Quercus, 2008, 272 pages

Franz Kafka holds pride of place among the pantheon of literary figures whose personalities inspire nearly as much interest as their creations. For proof, one need only browse the abundant selection of biographical studies devoted to the author of, among other masterpieces of modern literature, The Metamorphosis and The Trial—all of which seek to lift, if only a little, the fog that surrounds his enigmatic image. But only a very few of these studies have earned much notice outside literary circles. Excavating Kafka by James Hawes is one of them. In fact, the book managed to make headlines in the United Kingdom. The reason? It portrays Kafka as a sex fiend and a fan of expensive pornography—an image that, understandably, appealed to the prurient interest of the tabloids: “[Kafka] was also a man of the world, who enjoyed the city’s more fashionable nightclubs, visited brothels, and had an impressive stash of pornography,” wrote the Telegraph in August 2008. “Which, as Hawes says (and the book illustrates), certainly wasn’t quaintly ‘naughty.’”
Hawes is the author of six books, from A White Merc with Fins (1996) to My Little Armalite (2008). If that’s not enough, he taught German literature—the subject of his doctorate from University College London—in Ireland and then Wales for a decade. These biographical facts alone should give the reader pause: If you are teaching German literature on “a pastoral forehead of Wales” (to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins in “The Wreck of the Deutschland”) the only antidote to be had may very well be comic fiction. And indeed, Hawes’s novels are fun and they are bawdy. And perhaps not surprisingly, these are precisely the traits that Hawes the biographer has discovered in Kafka the subject.
The argument Hawes puts forth in his book is rather simple: Kafka was a person just like you and me. He had the same needs, desires, and demands. Sure, he wrote really interesting things, but in the end, he was a “modern” man, and modern man is a universal type. It is in this vein that Hawes turns his comic gifts to biographical study, the purpose of which, in this case, is the debunking of the “Kafka myths.” After all, these myths separate Kafka from being “just like you and me.” They consist not only of the image of Kafka as a suffering artist and a tormented asexual driven by his desire for and fear of women. They also, concretely, consist of the image of him as the exemplary Jewish figure of modernity. And herein lies the rub in Hawes’s work: He imagines being Jewish as merely one, if minor, category in Kafka’s life. But such a conclusion misses something important, even fundamental, about the personality of the writer in question. It is hardly surprising, then, that the result is a rather misleading portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most important and influential artists.
As with any Jewish writer or thinker both before and after the Holocaust, debates about Kafka generally turn on the question of whether “being Jewish,” however defined, creates a special case. To put it simply, was Kafka’s Jewish identity—which itself changed radically over the course of his lifetime—central or peripheral to his understanding of himself? (And, it follows, should it be central or peripheral to our understanding of him?) This question does not take for granted that the condition of being Jewish is unchanging over time; rather, it seeks to determine whether, in a milieu noted for its overt and public antisemitism such as Kafka’s turn-of-the-century Prague, being Jewish influenced or shaped most other categories that defined his identity. Hawes insists that it did not. I, by contrast—along with many other scholars—believe that Kafka’s Jewishness was critical to all of his endeavors.
To be sure, there are points on which Hawes and I are in agreement. I, too, dismissed many of the myths connected to the author in my own 2005 biography of him, simply entitled Kafka. The Romantic image of Kafka the suffering artist and Kafka the asexual were, I explained, purposeful creations of the author himself, who believed that this was what a writer and intellectual of his time and place should be. But I also argued that at the core of this deracinated image of the writer and intellectual was a self-conscious attempt by Kafka (as well as by a wide array of Jewish contemporaries in the German-speaking world) to distance himself from allegations of Jewish difference—indeed, of Jewish inferiority—with regard to the Teuton (or the Slav). These allegations, it must be recalled, were splashed across the front page of every newspaper Kafka read, and shouted regularly on the streets, at the university, and in the workplaces of the city in which he lived. In light of this, it is easy to see why being Jewish colored every aspect of Kafka’s identity.
In Excavating Kafka, Hawes attacks my thesis (as did Stanley Corngold a few years ago, in his book Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form), insisting rather that being Jewish was for Kafka a mere bagatelle, a trivial part of his self-image and his world. But as I have argued in Kafka and elsewhere, it was impossible for Jews (even those such as Kafka’s contemporary Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who was raised both Christian and upper-class in Vienna) to escape dealing on a conscious or subconscious level with the implications of the charges of Jewish inadequacy so rampant in their day. For Kafka, one’s Jewishness meant inclusion in a specific “race,” and not a religion. As such, the permanent nature of Jews’ racial markers, from the nose to the psyche, became one of the major aspects of identity with which Kafka struggled. Being a Jewish male was not the same, then, as being simply a “man”: The former signified a radically different relationship to masculinity, to health, to the body, and to gender roles. Now, one could repress this awareness of difference; one could flaunt it (as the scholar Daniel Boyarin argues the Jews did, in his 1997 Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man); or one could deny it, as the German-Jewish novelist Jacob Wassermann did in his autobiography, published in the 1920s. But however one chose to respond to it, this consciousness of being dissimilar could not be ignored.
True enough, Kafka inscribed these struggles obsessively in his writing, albeit by stripping them of the overt antisemitic rhetoric of his time and universalizing them. And it is for this reason that Kafka’s anxieties about “being different” were attributed to the modern condition. Hence the old clichי that in the modern age, being Jewish is simply being modern, and being modern is simply being Jewish—that is, that all of the anxieties that modern man experiences, from alienation to the sense of impotence of action, simultaneously define both states of being.
Kafka’s famous mistrust of his own body, for instance, was most certainly that of the Jew whose body was seen as inherently and “racially” inferior: deformed, weak, ill, and degenerate. Hawes dismisses this fixation as the anxiety of an “intellectual” hyper-concerned about looking “too intellectual.” “To see this fashionable (and eventually for Europe, almost fatal) intellectual self-hatred only through the eyes of Jewishness,” writes Hawes, “does not help open up Kafka’s writing, but puts blinkers on it.” Hawes complains that those who place too much emphasis on Kafka’s uneasiness with his Jewish identity miss the point that discomfort with oneself was merely another manifestation of what all human beings of his time (and ours) experienced. Yet Hawes’s claim about intellectuals and their bodies flies in the face of the history of Kafka’s world. Indeed, the very term “intellectual” was coined in the 1890s in Paris as the pejorative term for the defenders of the Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus, and the question of “Jewish intellectualism”—or more accurately, Jewish “cleverness”—runs, similar to the notion of Jewish cosmopolitanism, like a red thread through and beyond Joseph Goebbels, among other well-known antisemites.
Now, it may well be true that at the turn of the century, all self-styled intellectuals had this anxiety about their own unhealthy bodies—but the reason might be that they feared being imagined (or imagining themselves) as “Jew-like.” This was certainly the case for Hofmannsthal and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had Jewish ancestry, but it is also the case among non-Jews such as Friedrich Nietzsche (who gave himself a “Polish noble” ancestor to rebut this accusation, which he then hurled at Wagner) and Thomas Mann (who was afraid that his Brazilian ancestry would be misread as Jewish). When the very French narrator of Prosper Mיrimיe’s Carmen sees his protagonist for the first time, he half-guesses, “‘Then perhaps you are of Moorish blood—or’—I stopped, not venturing to add ‘a Jewess.’” In Kafka’s day, even the most progressive intellectuals still feared being labeled “too Jewish.” Hawes insists that such thinking impedes our understanding of Kafka’s work. I believe that the true depth of that work cannot be plumbed without grasping such an elemental fact of its context.
Hawes’s reading is not only wrong-headed, then, but also amazingly autobiographical. Perhaps this is inevitable, as biographers tend to shape their tales of their subjects’ lives based on their own experiences as well as on their research. To quote Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times in September 1999, “Biographers… can only be inauthentic, can only get it wrong, can only lie, can only substitute their own story for the story of their announced subject.”
Taking this into account, we might perhaps understand why Hawes has set his sights on exploding the myth of Kafka as an artist who (like the ideal Romantic poet) went unrecognized in his own lifetime, suffering for his art and existing on a plane above the quotidian struggles of an author trying to make his way in the cutthroat world of modern publishing. According to this myth it was only through a fluke that his friend Max Brod rescued his work and was able to publish it posthumously.
There is no doubt that this was Kafka’s own fantasy, but as all of his biographers since Brod have recognized, the writer actually knew the publishing scene quite well, carefully chose his outlets (in order to maximize his reception as a “high modern” writer), and was more than a little conversant with the ins and outs of the trade. In truth, Kafka wanted and needed his identity as the “intuitive poet”—and knew how to market it. This self-awareness could not be public knowledge, however, for such was one of the accusations leveled by German writers at their Jewish contemporaries. For example, when they attacked Moritz Saphir, the most widely read Jewish writer in German at mid-century, they depicted him as a money-grubbing Jew who knew all too well how to manipulate German readers for his own monetary gain.
But Hawes, as we already noted, denies that antisemitism had anything to do with Kafka’s creation of the suffering-artist myth. Indeed, Excavating Kafka does not mention the perception—so common at the time—of the Jewish writer as an exploitive schemer who sets out to milk the publishing industry for his own tawdry ends, just as it does not recognize that the image of Kafka as sex fiend reflects the old antisemitic cliché of the Jew who seeks to seduce Christian girls, or that of the Jew as dirty pornographer (the latter charge having led to the murder of the satirist Hugo Bettauer, the Jewish convert to Christianity, in Vienna in 1925). Such historical facts, after all, would not work for Hawes’s image of Kafka as a white-bread, universal intellectual.
And here is where the autobiographical comes into play. After Hawes describes the “you wash my back and I’ll wash yours” nature of the relatively incestuous (and heavily Jewish) intellectual scene of turn-of-the-century high modernism, and after he sniggers about how Kafka wanted and got and was then coquettish about a literary prize awarded (it seems) to him under the table by a cabal comprising the Prague Jew Brod, the “clever” Viennese Jew Franz Blei, and Kafka’s once-and-future publisher, the Leipzig Jew Kurt Wolff, Hawes drops a footnote: “At my first publishing party, the wonderful novelist Howard Jacobson took me under his wing: ‘I suppose,’ said he, ‘that being new to this game you think the book world is run by a bunch of North London authors who plug each other all the time in the press?’ Not wanting to seem a callow and envious provincial, I laughed: ‘Oh, no. I’m sure it doesn’t really work like that.’ ‘Well of course it does,’ he pointed to a group in the corner, ‘and there they are.’” By presenting himself as the provincial naïf not yet familiar with the inner workings of the literary scene, Hawes asserts a strong identification with his Kafka, and with the image of the outsider striving to become a recognized, celebrated author.
Hawes misrepresents—but then again, as Fish believes, so do all biographers. It could be argued, for example, that I needed my Kafka to be ill and anxious and creative in order to shore up my reading of the situation of European Jews at the turn of the century. But the major difference between this writer and James Hawes is that while we all have stories we tell about the lives we write, some of us are more concerned with the nuances of the research we do and of the world that we try to describe. In the end, however, it is the believability of those lies by the widest community that defines the successful biographer. Let us see whether time is kind to Hawes’s Welsh-comic, literary intellectual Franz Kafka. Iechyd da or l’haim? You choose.

Sander L. Gilman is director of the Program in Psychoanalysis and the Health Sciences Humanities Initiative at Emory University. He is the author, most recently, of Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Polity, 2008), and editor of Race and Contemporary Medicine: Biological Facts and Fictions (Routledge, 2008).