Annoying, Brilliant Kafka


Rivka Galchen has a great review of Reiner Stach’s massive biography of Kafka in the latest London Review of Books.  In it she deals with the weirdness many people encounter when they read more about this “unusually well-documented” figure.  Kafka often surprises you by sharing the same perspective of wonder at his own life.  It’s as if he wasn’t the person who actually lived it, actually is the person you are reading about, but is in fact also an observer of his life.  The result is very funny and very tragic at the same time.  Very Kafkaesque.

In many ways, Galchen says, this is because he is so very obsessed with his work:

One element of the comedy of Kafka’s biography is the way his life, at whatever moment, is dwarfed by his work. Whether or not the reasonably capable writer and insurance official living in Prague through the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and into the 1920s resembles the Kafka of your imagination depends in part on how attentively you’ve followed each succession of corrective articles and introductions, but also on your ability to assimilate dissonant information, and on how substantial external life seems to you.

But also it is because the position of alienation from himself is, for all its bizarre nature, actually congenial to him.  It allows him, in particular, to be ruthless with himself, and express things that couldn’t be said if he were as committed (or resigned) to his own depressing life as, say, Melville’s Bartleby is:

If for many years, much of the reading public saw Kafka as a kind of cousin of Bartleby – if we were most swayed, say, by his never finishing his novels, or by his talk of ghosts and the unbearability of everything – it now seems hard not to see that although Kafka truly was a Bartleby-kin, he was at the same time just as much Bartleby’s well-intentioned, overwhelmed, frustrated boss. Kafka himself found Kafka difficult.

The stance outside himself allows himself to inquire into what the hell all this living business is about, to express frustrations with it that run deeper than the usual list of grievances we have about living.  This is especially so with his diaries and letters, which narrate his own activities often in the third person, where he says things like the following (which Galchen quotes):

He could have resigned himself to a prison. To end as a prisoner – that could be a life’s ambition. But it was a barred cage. Casually and imperiously, as if at home, the racket of the world streamed out and in through the bars, the prisoner was really free, he could take part in everything, nothing that went on outside escaped him, he could simply have left the cage, the bars were yards apart, he was not even imprisoned.

These sorts of thoughts would be, if entertained directly, too depressing for words.  Galchen quotes, too, a letter to Max Brod about “his enormous dread over a pretty insignificant decision about whether to take a trip to Georgental:”

He has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived. By this I do not mean that wife and child, fields and cattle are essential to living. The only essential thing for life is forgoing smugness, moving into the house instead of admiring it and hanging garlands around it. One might argue that this is a matter of fate and is not given to anyone’s hand. But then why this sense of remorse; why does the remorse never stop? To become finer and more savoury? That, too. But why do such nights always end on this note: I could live and I do not live. The second major reason – perhaps it is all really one, I don’t seem to be able to sort them apart now – is the idea: “What I have toyed with is really going to happen. I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now I will really die. My life was sweeter than other people’s and my death will be all the more terrible.”

As a reflection about Kafka himself–which can only be moved to talk about “my life,” to use the word “I” fictionally, in quotes–this is too much to take.  Galchen summarizes the only response it could generate: “Brod replies saying, basically, that he can’t take Kafka’s complaint too seriously.”  But knowing when to draw the line like this is also what made Brod Kafka’s most sympathetic reader: he understood that the speculations of this sort are not really about Kafka’s own despair, but are an inquiry into just how deeply absurd and depressing life can be.

This seems strange, that we would have to deny the reality of a speculation based on the sheer nature of its content.  But what Brod instinctively understood is that this content is also a natural result of the style of speculation: that to take such an alienated view of existence, to write from it, also issues in conclusions about living that can’t be lived.  They issue from life, like all writing does; but they have to be regarded as in some sense unreal, because no real person could actually utter them and still resign himself to living.  They are impossible reflections, and they hit home because in our despair they almost can be lived–and that desperate acts like suicide, for instance, seem to be motivated by them.

But in this content we in fact reach a limit of nonfiction, a limit that is reflected in the limitedness of our character: that we can’t actually live our own death, as the old Wittgensteinian saw goes, and that we can’t do this also, and even especially, when this death is understood in a wider sense, when we see it as life.  It would seem to be the opposite–seeing death in and as your life would seem to make life indeed a form of death.  And to admit one can’t live death would seem to deny the suffering that is in life.  But that thought revolves around the false equivalence of pain with death, refuses to admit that there is suffering out there which is worse than death, and fundamentally, just as a thought cannot be real: we can’t live our own death even when we see death everywhere, when our existence seems so dreary, never quite fully lived, that it almost approximates the condition of nonliving.  We can’t live our own death even when we regard ourselves as “dying our whole life long.”

This would seem to be a problem if you are a writer of nonfiction who concentrates upon, indeed is obsessed by, this view of living, and Brod’s action appears insensitive if you are interested in Kafka as this sort of writer merely.  But Brod knew the impossibility of living your death also shows the place of fiction in our lives.  It shows why, in fact, however much we may be committed to nonfiction, fiction can’t go away.  The unreal needs, in some sense, to be lived, and fiction is the way to live it.

What made Brod reject entertaining the thoughts of Kafka here, then, is what also made him so assiduously devote himself to the publication and promotion of his friend’s work, as Galchen points out.  It is because he needed to live this impossibility so much in his nonfictional writing that Kafka’s fiction is so very good.   Brod had known deeply how, in his life, as Galchen puts it, “Kafka’s singular brilliance and annoyingness are perfectly bound.”