Franz Kafka's Birthday Offers Kafkaesque Dilemma

Reiner Stach's Bio Addresses Author's German and Jewish Identities

German or Jewish or Both or Neither? Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Franz Kafka often meditated on Jewish themes.
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German or Jewish or Both or Neither? Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Franz Kafka often meditated on Jewish themes.

By David Mikics

Published July 03, 2013, issue of June 14, 2013.

● Kafka: The Years of Insight
By Reiner Stach Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch
Princeton University Press, $35, 720 pages

In September 1913, Franz Kafka, employee of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute of Prague and recently the author of two flawless, utterly disturbing stories — “The Judgment” and “The Metamorphosis” — took a trip to Vienna, where he sat patiently through an international conference on accident prevention. Kafka voted on a resolution that “certain parts of the sea be reserved exclusively for sponge fishers who are unclothed and hold a trident” — surely a detail that would fit perfectly in a Kafka story. A few days earlier, shortly after he got to Vienna, Kafka had wandered through the 11th International Zionist Congress.

“Unrewarding speeches in German, a great deal of Hebrew,” Kafka noted in a letter. The Zionist meeting seemed to him “a totally alien event.”

Years later he would say that Zionism nauseated him — which, Kafka being Kafka, didn’t prevent him from also being enthusiastic about it. Sick with tuberculosis in 1923, living in Berlin with his last girlfriend, Dora Diamant, and absorbing the thought of his approaching death, Kafka dreamed of moving to Tel Aviv, where the two would run a cafe together and he would be the waiter. For years he had been learning Hebrew, and even wrote letters in the language. But Kafka’s fantasy of life in Palestine finally seems more unreal than the naked sponge fishers (who were, of course, real). A place reserved exclusively for him was something Kafka never found, least of all among his fellow Jews.

Kafka’s Prague milieu was almost exclusively Jewish. Max Brod, who devoted much of his life to tirelessly promoting his friend’s work, saw in Kafka a set of variations on Jewish themes. Brod’s emphasis on the Jewish Kafka was powerfully seconded by the greatest scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, who made a case for Kafka’s interest in kabbalistic ideas. But explicit references to Jews and Judaism almost never appear in Kafka’s stories and novels (the exception is the little-known story “In Our Synagogue”). Kafka himself wondered whether he was a Jewish writer. He wrote to his long-suffering fiancée, Felice Bauer, in October 1916 that the newspaper Neue Rundschau had reported, apropos of “The Metamorphosis,” that “there is something fundamentally German about Kafka’s narrative art.”

Brod, by contrast, had written in Der Jude that “Kafka’s stories are among the most typically Jewish documents of our time.” Which was it? Kafka couldn’t decide, he told Bauer in a letter: “A difficult case. Am I a circus rider on 2 horses? Alas, I am no rider, but lie prostrate on the ground.” The next month, a reviewer in the Deutsche Montags-Zeitung proclaimed, “This book is Jewish.” But Kafka was still perplexed.

Kafka’s acrobatic suspension between German and Jewish identity has been uncannily played out in the recently resolved battle over his written legacy. Brod’s papers, which included many Kafka manuscripts, were inherited by his secretary and presumed lover, Esther Hoffe, and then by Hoffe’s daughters. One of the daughters, Eva Hoffe, hoarded the treasure trove in safety deposit boxes and in her own Tel Aviv apartment, where Kafka’s works shared space with a large population of cats.



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