The Cult of Saint Franz

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka; drawing by David Levine

Almost a century after his death in 1924, Franz Kafka has become a sort of modern-day saint, one of those artist-martyrs revered, like Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, partly for their work and partly for the suffering they endured in order to create it. The process of Kafka’s “canonization” is thought to have begun with his literary executor, Max Brod, who preserved the letters, diaries, and manuscripts from the flames to which Kafka had instructed him to consign them. In his 1937 biography of Kafka, Brod described the aura of beatitude that brightened around his friend:

The category of sacredness (and not really that of literature), is the only right category under which Kafka’s life and work can be viewed. By this I do not wish to suggest that he was a perfect saint…. But…one may pose the thesis that Franz Kafka was on the road to becoming one. The explanation of his charming shyness and reserve, which seemed nothing less than supernatural—and yet so natural—and of his dismayingly severe self-criticism, lies in the fact that he measured himself by no ordinary standard, but…against the ultimate goal of human existence.

Among the things one learns from Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka?: 99 Finds is that Brod was not the first person to portray Kafka as a species of holy man. Stach’s book—an informative, charming, and frequently touching compilation of anecdotes, letters, documents, gossip, little-known facts, and texts culled from the research he did for his acclaimed three-volume biography of Kafka—includes an obituary that appeared in a Czech newspaper a few days after his death and that was written by Milena Jesenská, his Czech translator, lover, and, most famously, the recipient of his Letters to Milena. In her brief tribute, Milena describes him as having had a “sensitivity bordering on the miraculous,” as someone who could “clairvoyantly comprehend an entire person on the basis of a single facial expression. His knowledge of the world was extraordinary and deep. He himself was an extraordinary and deep world.”

It’s telling that this testament to Kafka’s superhuman qualities should be the last of Stach’s 99 Finds, since, as he explains in a preface, his principal intention was to provide evidence suggesting that Kafka was, at least in some ways, a regular guy, fond of beer, gambling, and slapstick humor, an imperfect creature who cheated on his school exams, who could be petty about money, and who was given to spitting from the balcony before and after his tuberculosis was diagnosed. Arguing against the clichés and images (“a cobblestone alley damp with rain in nighttime Prague, backlit by gas lanterns…piles of papers, dusty in the candlelight…the nightmare of an enormous vermin”) that have contributed to the stereotypical view of Kafka as an “alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick—an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things,” Stach provides a series of “counter-images” and seems to have had a great deal…

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