Monday, December 01, 2008

Prague and Kafka: A cage in search of a bird

Franz Kafka was everywhere. Wherever you looked in Prague, the unsmiling visage of the city’s greatest writer popped up. The pensive face was in shop windows, on road signs, postcards, t-shirts, coffee mugs, graffiti and even appearing on beer bottles. Such ubiquity seemed Kafkaesque seeing as the writings of the man himself dealt largely with matters that were usually not quite within reach. In 2008 Prague, it seemed, Kafka was all too easy to grasp.

Yet nothing is ever quite what it seems with this Czech genius. During the Communist era, all mention of Kafka was suppressed. His nightmarish visions were too dangerous a reminder of the totalitarian mentality the country was then immersed in. Indeed it seems bizarre to even call Kafka Czech; for as a German speaking Jew, he could not speak the native language of the city he was born and grew up in. He never explicitly mentioned Prague in any of his work, yet most of it is clearly set here. Like James Joyce and Dublin, Kafka had a love-hate relationship with the city of his birth and the city informed his every written word.

Franz Kafka was born on 3 July 1883 into a middle-class Jewish family. His father Hermann was a merchant and haberdasher and a domineering presence. His mother Julie came from an intellectual, spiritual family of the Jewish merchant and brewer Jakob Lowy. Kafka inherited his delicate intelligence from his mother but also got some of his father’s spiritedness. Young Franz grew up in the Jewish quarter of the old city. Every day he walked through the cobbled old streets to school and he graduated from the German University in Prague as Doctor of Law in 1906. He spent much of his productive years as an employee of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire as an insurance accident assessor for the Workers Accident Insurance Bureau. He retired early due to ill-health and died of tuberculosis in 1924. During this time he also wrote some of the most enigmatic fiction of the twentieth century though very few of his famous works were ever completed.

On a snowy Saturday last week, I went to the newly opened Franz Kafka museum at Cihelná 2 in the riverbank shadow of the castle to understand more about the man and his mystique. In the entry courtyard of the museum is an amusing tableau. Visitors are immediately confronted with the rotating statues of two men en pissant. The gentlemen are not furtive urinators. No, they stand proudly and openly, heads arched back, in a puddle of their own making and wave their willies around with seemingly gay abandon. I don’t recall ever reading anything in Kafka related to urine, but perhaps the sculptor was merely taking the piss.

What I was aware of was that Kafka lived in the shadow of his father. The museum exhibit opens up with a rasping letter that Franz wrote to his father. It begins “You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you.” It goes on to contrast the businessmen father who was “a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind” with the son who is “a timid child” and castigates him for failures as a father and his inability to talk calmly about “a subject you don't approve of or even one that was not suggested by you”. The letter continues to forensically diagnose their relationship and perhaps mercifully, was never read by its intended recipient.

Kafka was equally harsh to the women in his life. He was engaged twice to the Berliner Felice Bauer and broke it off both times. Bauer finally married another man in early 1919. She had loved Kafka, but could not endure his depressions and manic episodes any longer. A year later Kafka became involved with the Czech journalist Milena Jesenská. Milena was 13 years his junior but they were very close. But the relationship was severely hamstrung by the slight problem that Jesenská was already married. Jesenská would eventually die in a Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbruck (Kafka's two sisters died at Auschwitz). In 1923 Kafka found a new companion, Dora Diamant, a Polish Zionist. The pair travelled together during the last year of Kafka’s life, and after his death she moved to Tel Aviv.

Due to his tuberculosis, Kafka spent that last year moving in and out of sanitaria. He died of starvation. In the last few weeks of his life his condition made it too painful to digest any food and because intravenous therapy had not been developed, there was no way to feed him. He wrote his last letter to his parents on 2 June 1924, a day before he died. “It is not a shady well, it is life, dear sweet life preserved in a well form”. He died in Berlin with Dora at his side and his body was taken back to Prague where he was buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Zizkov.

He ordered Dora and his great friend and publisher Max Brod to destroy all his writings. Diamant complied but Brod refused, after initial misgivings. It is to his credit that we owe the existence to Kafka’s great works “The Trial”, “The Castle”, “America” and “Metamorphosis”. As the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges observed about Brod’s actions, “we owe a full knowledge of the most singular works of the century to this case of happy disobedience.” But the last words belong to Kafka himself, as quoted by the museum: “the messiah will arrive only after we no longer need him.”

5 comments: said...

I like your blog.

Anonymous said...

Can you elaborate on the cage/bird reference? A friend once sent me a quote "A cage went in search of a bird" in a message shortly before he died. Nice piece, and your blog is often fascinating.

Derek Barry said...

the reference is from Kafka's notebooks. The symbolism of Prague and the elusive writer seemed appropriate to me.

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Rudolf Sob said...

Came by your blog by chance, your entry seemed nicely written - however - in second paragraph you write that Kafka couldn't speak Czech. Obviously you couln't be bothered to read much about Kafka.
He spoke (and wrote) in Czech language fluently and worked in czech speaking environment. This is a response to an old entry mainly I thought you ought to know.