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The Incurable

Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors

by Franz Kafka, translated by Richard Winston, by Clara Winston
Schocken Books, 509 pp., $24.50

At the beginning of his “Investigations of a Dog,” Kafka wrote—in Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation—

When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes, but very often, the mere look of some fellow dog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair.

The flat bureaucratic style strikes one as being a mask: Kafka notoriously did not know where he belonged. He was a Jew not quite in the Christian world; as a non-practicing Jew—at the beginning anyway—he was not quite at home among Jews. The German critic Günther Anders, from whom I take these remarks, goes on:

As a German-speaking Czech, [Kafka is] not quite among the Czechs; as a German-speaking Jew not quite among the Bohemian Germans. As a Bohemian he does not quite belong to Austria. As an official of a workers’ insurance company, not quite to the middle class. Yet as the son of a middle-class family not quite to the working class.

In his family he wrote that he is “more estranged than a stranger” and at the office he is alien because he is a writer. In love he is in conflict with literature. Because he was an extreme case which was exacerbated by fatally bad health, Kafka was able to enlarge, as by a microscope, the sense of exile which becomes visible as a characteristic of our experience in this century, its first martyr to “alienation,” which has become something of a cult.

When we turn from his books to his letters we have a series of self-portraits desperate and courageous, always eager and warm in feeling; the self is lit by fantasy and, of course, by drollery. His candor is of the kind that flies alongside him in the air. He was a marvelous letter writer. For these reasons alone the present translation of the Briefe first published in 1958 and collected by his great friend Max Brod is worth having. Richard and Clara Winston, the American translators, tell us that it is “based” on that volume and it is not clear to me whether “based” means the whole or a selection from that volume—I fancy, the whole. (Other parts of Kafka’s large correspondence have been translated, notably the important Letters to Felice by James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth in 1973.) The present volume does contain now the full text of his long letter explaining his break with Julie Wohryzek to her sister, and the whole of the long letter to his parents a few days before he died in 1924 at the age of forty-one. There are also a few letters (of slight interest) to Martin Buber.

The main thing is that the letters carry his private and intimate voice. I have one serious complaint. There is no solid preface—we cannot be expected to know Kafka’s restless life by heart; it is maddening to have to hunt through the index, the far too brief chronological table, and the mere line or two about the people mentioned at the end of the book. Letters are instantaneous; and the general reader will resent having to stop reading and turn detective.

We hear the authentic Kafka when he is writing in a girl’s album that words cannot carry memories because they are “clumsy mountaineers and clumsy miners”; or to a fellow student when he is nineteen:

When we talk together, the words are hard; we tread over them as if they were rough pavement. The most delicate things acquire awkward feet…. When we come to things that are not exactly cobblestones or the Kunstwart [a cultural magazine, of Nietzschean tendency, edited by a nephew of Richard Wagner: another kind of paving], we suddenly see that we are in masquerade, acting with angular gestures (especially me, I admit), and then we suddenly become sad and bored…. You see, we’re afraid of each other, or I am—

Later on, letters are compared to “mere splashings of the waves on different shores: the waves do not reach one.” In 1916, quick to admit that his stories are painful, he adds proudly that he wants to be “truly a man of his time.” In 1922 when his many illnesses have united to become the fatal tuberculosis of the larynx, he writes to Robert Klopstock, the young medical student who was often with him in his last years, that he wants no indissoluble bonds, beyond the tacit, with men or women:

Is there anything so strange about this anxiety? A Jew, and a German besides, and sick besides, and in difficult personal circumstances besides—those are the chemical forces with which I propose to straightway transmute gold into gravel or your letter into mine, and while doing so remain in the right.

That may sound bitter, but he is really thinking about his role as a writer of fables who reverses the classic manner of fables in order to be truly that man of his time. Again:

The writer…is a scapegoat of mankind. He makes it possible for men to enjoy sin without guilt, almost without guilt.

He sways between assertion and qualification, between reaching out to the gold of friendship and retiring into defensive strategies. They are necessary, especially in his relations with women, in order to pursue literature and nothing else. Such maneuvers have a sick man’s pedantries, but in fact the self-irony, the kindness, the nimbleness, the fantasy, mask the pain. When it is certain that he is terribly ill he begs that this shall be kept from his parents and adds that his

earthly possessions have been on the one hand increased by the addition of tuberculosis, on the other hand somewhat diminished.

He imagines a battle of words going on between brain and lungs; talks of clinging to the disease like a child to the pleats of his mother’s skirts. During a longish period at the house of his beloved sister Ottla at the village of Zürau he is plagued by country noises. A girl plays the piano across the street, children scream, men chop down trees, next comes the scream of the circular saw, then the loading of logs onto an ox wagon, the noise of the oxen, the shunting of the trains going away. A tinsmith starts hammering. Noise, he says, is the scaffolding within which he works; perhaps in the end, he says, noise is a fascinating narcotic. And then the house is alive with mice and the long half-farcical, half-obsessional drama continues for many letters. The creatures race round the room—he has the fancy that he can frighten them off by making his eyes glow like a cat’s. He gets a cat in, the cat shits in his slippers; when the cat quietens the mice he still sits up half the night “to take over a portion of the cat’s assignment.”

Certainly this fear, like an insect phobia, is connected with the unexpected, uninvited, inescapable, more or less silent, persistent, secret aim of these creatures, with the sense that they have riddled the surrounding walls through and through with their tunnels and are lurking within, that the night is theirs…. Their smallness, especially, adds another dimension to the fear they inspire.

We see by his speculations about a Mouse Sanatorium that he is on the edge of one of his breakdowns and that soon he will once more find himself in hospital.

In love, Kafka sought perfection, knowing that it was an impossibility; knowing also the ideal served as a defense as ingenious as an insurance company’s refusal to admit a claim. The most honest statement of this defense is in the long letter to Julie’s sister, a confessional document of pitiless and subtle self-searching and, as always, frankly expressing his guilt—elsewhere he said that guilt so easily turned to nostalgia. The sincerity, and above all the sensibility to friendship, in letters to women give them a spontaneous grace. The self he is preserving is in no way hard but clearly expatiated. Yet it glows under the friendship he receives and also offers.

As a sick man he is, one might say, negotiating a life which he knows is diminishing. He has the patient’s ironical interest in the clinical state of his condition; and when he says, for example, that there is something fundamentally childlike in the Czechs of Prague, he describes a trait many foreigners have noted in the most tormented of all European cities, and a quality he shares. There is something of Italo Svevo, who was also partly Jewish, in his exploration of his condition: illness is a kind of second self that has cleverly moved in on him.

There is scarcely anything about the 1914-1918 war—illness secluded Kafka—although he does have a few incidental lines about the shortage of food and, afterward, some anxious joking about German inflation, especially in Berlin. He is even detached about anti-Semitism: this is interesting because it shows how active anti-Semitism was in the early Twenties in Germany; he makes a distinction between the Eastern European and the Western European Jews: the former were beginning to go to Palestine, to which he too was emotionally drawn and withdrawn: a spectator.

Kafka’s most revealing things come most naturally in the letters to Max Brod, who is the strong, ever active, positive, generous, and successful writer. Kafka reads Brod’s latest works as they come out, comments on them with enthusiastic interest, and also takes over Brod’s marital troubles in the manner of a brother exhaustive in advice. There is a letter to Brod in 1923, written from Berlin-Steglitz, which shows the continuous circling of Kafka’s self-awareness.

It is true that I am not writing to you, but not because I have anything to conceal (except to the extent that concealment has been my life’s vocation), nor because I would not long for an intimate hour with you, the kind of hour we have not had, it sometimes seems to me, since we were together at the north Italian lakes. (There is a certain point in my saying this, because at the time we had truly innocent innocence—perhaps that’s not worth regretting—and the evil powers, whether on good or bad assignments, were only lightly fingering the entrances through which they were going to penetrate some day, an event to which they were already looking forward with unbearable rejoicing.) So if I do not write, that is due chiefly to “strategic” reasons such as have become dominant for me in recent years. I do not trust words and letters, my words and letters; I want to share my heart with people but not with phantoms that play with the words and read the letters with slavering tongue. Especially I do not trust letters, and it is a strange belief that all one has to do is seal the envelope in order to have the letter reach the addressee safely. In this respect, by the way, the censorship of mail during the war years, years of particular boldness and ironic frankness on the part of the phantoms, has proved instructive.

I forgot to add to my remark above: It sometimes seems to me that the nature of art in general, the existence of art, is explicable solely in terms of such “strategic considerations,” of making possible the exchange of truthful words from person to person.

Letters like this take one straight across the bridge from Kafka’s private life into The Castle and The Trial, both of course unfinished and published after his death. There was a great deal of Swift (whom he read attentively) in Kafka’s “mad” imagination, above all in his habit of seeing people and sensations exactly, microscopically, as objects. He was much taken by Swift’s inflexible remarks on marriage and the bringing up of children. The letters to women have even something of Swift’s advisory playfulness, and all are gentle to a degree one would have thought unlikely in a man so self-enclosed, alone, and perhaps even proud, with some delicacy of manner, of being incurable.

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