‘3412 Kafka’: Out-of-this-world Jewish writing

penguins-kafka-2

Kafka: Penguin Modern Classics book covers

By Richard Mather…

Earlier this month, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the manuscripts of Czech-Jewish novelist Franz Kafka are the property of the National Library of Israel. The manuscripts have been in the possession of the family of Esther Hoffe, the secretary of Kafka’s friend Max Brod. The family had argued that it rightfully owned the manuscripts after her death, but the Supreme Court disagreed. The Court has asked Israel’s National Library to make the manuscripts accessible to the general public.

Franz Kafka was born July 3 1883 into a German-speaking, middle-class, minimally-observant Jewish family in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic). His Jewish upbringing was limited mostly to his bar mitzvah and going to the synagogue four times a year. Although professing to be an atheist in his teenage years, his interest in Judaism grew as he got older. While fascinated by the piety of the Hasidic Jews in eastern Europe, he felt alienated from his own Jewish tradition, once declaring that he had nothing in common with his fellow Jews.

One of the difficulties was Kafka’s relationship with his domineering father. Kafka felt that his father – and his family more generally – clung to their Jewish heritage in a superficial way. Kafka was in fact dismissive of western Jews who tried to integrate and assimilate into gentile society. Indeed, the sporadic outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence exposed the failure of assimilation and helps to explain why so many of Kafka’s friends were interested in Zionism.

Kafka himself was ambivalent about the Zionist project, which was still in its infancy. Although Kafka considered moving to British Palestine (he even studied Hebrew while living in Berlin), he never did visit the land of Israel.

However, we know from his diaries and letters that from the age of twenty-eight, Kafka was becoming increasingly interested in Jewish (especially Yiddish) history, folklore,  literature and theatre. He was so impressed by a travelling Yiddish theatre company from Poland, that he delved into the history of Yiddish literature and wrote extensively in his diary about Yiddish theatre productions.

Kafka does not make overt references to Judaism in his fiction, but some critics detect Jewish themes in his work. According to Lothar Kahn, “the presence of Jewishness in Kafka’s oeuvre is no longer subject to doubt.” And in the words of Harold Bloom, “despite all his denials and beautiful evasions, Kafka’s writing quite simply is Jewish writing.”

Some scholars speculate that some of Kafka’s works are allegories for larger Jewish issues. Karl Erich Grözinger believes there is a connection between Kafka’s writing and the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Whenever Kafka speaks in them of judgment, sin, atonement and justification,” says Grözinger, “he is working from the direct context of a Jewish theology.”

Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis may be a bitterly ironic midrash on the Akedah, also known as the “binding of Isaac.” Whereas in the Genesis story Isaac is substituted by a ram caught in the thicket, the anti-hero of Metamorphosis is turned into a ungeheueren Ungeziefer or “monstrous vermin” – an unclean animal that is not suited for sacrifice. And if Isaac is disqualified for sacrifice because he is more precious in G-d’s eyes than the ram, Kafka’s ant-hero (called Gregor) is wholly unfit for sacrifice because he is vermin, an insect.

Darwinism, which in its fascist guise was to have catastrophic consequences for Europe’s Jews, plays a part in the thematic thread running through Metamorphosis. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, human differences were often described in racial or biological terms. Jews in particular were depicted as inferior, as other. And what could be more inferior or other than vermin or an insect?

Gregor’s transformation into “monstrous vermin” mirrors the anti-Semitic tendency to reduce Jews to some kind of specimen that can be killed off. Gregor is the embodiment of this perceived racial inferiority, and his death is a pointless and meaningless event, not at all sacrificial.

Similarly, there was nothing sacrificial about the imminent genocide of European Jewry. The word “holocaust” is inappropriate because the word comes from the Greek word holókauston, referring to an animal sacrifice offered to a god in which the whole (olos) animal is completely burnt (kaustos). This is why Jews tend to use the term Shoah, which means “Catastrophe.”

Kafka didn’t live long enough to see the murderous destruction wrought by the Nazis. He died in 1924, aged forty, of starvation brought on by laryngeal tuberculosis, which affected his ability to swallow. His remains are buried alongside his parent’s under an obelisk in Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery.

His fellow Jews in Prague were even more unlucky. They died in their thousands in the gas chambers and concentration camps of Europe, thereby bringing an end to ten centuries of Jewish life in Prague. The historical sources are confused, but it seems that Kafka’s three sisters were also killed by the Nazis – in the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto in 1944 or the Nazi concentration camps, possibly Auschwitz.

Few of Kafka’s works were published during his lifetime. The story collection Meditation was published in 1912 and A Country Doctor in 1917. A few individual stories (most notably Metamorphosis) were published in literary magazines. Kafka finished none of his full-length novels. In fact, his unfinished works, including his novels The Trail, The Castle and Amerika, were ordered by Kafka to be destroyed by his friend Max Brod. Fortunately, Brod ignored his friend’s request and published them after Kafka’s death.

In 1999, a committee of 99 authors, scholars, and literary critics ranked Kafka’s unfinished The Trial and The Castle the second and ninth most significant German-language novels of the 20th century. Harry Steinhauer, a professor of German and Jewish literature, says that Kafka “has made a more powerful impact on literate society than any other writer of the twentieth century.”

Curiously, an asteroid/minor planet from the inner regions of the asteroid belt (discovered by astronomers in January 1983) is named after Kafka. It is called ‘3412 Kafka.’

 

 

 

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