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Kafka’s Unreliable Friend

In response to:

F. Kafka, Everyman from the July 17, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

In her astute review of Louis Begley’s biographical essay on Kafka [NYR, July 17], Zadie Smith draws on Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka (1951), while observing that the work is “hagiographic” and that Kafka’s words are “‘reported speech’ and most probably prettified for publication.” But the issue of Janouch’s reliability is worth further comment.

As the Czech Kafka scholar Eduard Goldstücker, who was president of the Czech Writers Association during the Prague Spring, showed in an untranslated German article,* Janouch’s book is riddled with factual errors, including the dating of supposed conversations in Prague at times when Kafka was away in the countryside. Janouch himself admitted that he never recorded the source of any of the numerous quotations from disparate readings and conversations that he jotted down in his notebooks. His treatment of Kafka’s supposed anarchist past illustrates his unscrupulous method of composition.

Years after Kafka’s death, Brod had been told by an unreliable Prague anarchist called Michal Kácha that Kafka had frequented anarchist circles in the city. Brod readily accepted this story, and in the expanded edition of the Conversations (1968), Janouch, who drew heavily on Brod’s writings about Kafka, has Kafka say that he had attended anarchist meetings together with Brod. There is no evidence that Brod, who eventually distanced himself from this anarchist legend when it was being discredited, ever attended an anarchist meeting with Kafka. Conveniently enough, though, Brod, who died in December 1968, was then too ill to respond to Janouch’s blatant falsification.

Smith writes that the only English versions of The Metamorphosis that retain the literal meaning of the German word Ungeziefer are those by David Wyllie and Joachim Neugroschel. However, in a widely used translation that first appeared in 1972, Stanley Corngold also describes Gregor Samsa as a vermin.

Mark Harman

Elizabethtown College

Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania

  1. *

    Kafkas Eckermann?” in Franz Kafka: Themen und Probleme (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980), pp. 238–255. See also Josef C ermák, Franz Kafka: Ficciones y Mistificaciones (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2008).

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