We’ve recently looked at several writers (Marguerite Duras, Georges Perec, Primo Levi), who repeatedly rewrote their early lives. With Franz Kafka, on the other hand, we have a writer who constantly envisioned his death. Throughout his oeuvre, one authorial stand-in after another dies at the story’s end: Georg Bendemann sentenced to death by his father in “The Judgment,” Gregor Samsa expiring – to his family’s relief – at the end of “The Metamorphosis,” The Trial’s Joseph K., murdered like a dog, all the way to Josephine the Singer in Kafka’s final story, completed shortly before his death in June 1924. If Kafka’s collected works were murder mysteries, the only question would be, Who didn’t do it?
None of these fatalities is caused by Nazis, whose rise to power was just a gleam in Hitler’s eye when Kafka died. In 1924 Hitler was drafting Mein Kampf in prison following his spectacularly unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch, his political career completely in a shambles. Kafka’s work was marked all along by the effects of the rising anti-Semitism in his lifetime, but this element coexists in his work with dynamics within his family and his own psyche. As he mordantly remarked in his Diary, “What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.”
After Auschwitz, however, it is impossible to read his works without an intense awareness of where the cultural-political trends of Europe were soon to lead, starting with his own family. His three sisters (shown here) were all murdered by the Nazis. The older sisters Elli and Valli were deported to the Lodz ghetto, where they died. His beloved sister Ottilie was sent to Theresienstadt, and then in October 1943 she volunteered to accompany a transport of children to Auschwitz, where they were all murdered two days after their arrival.
As Walter Benjamin remarked in his essay “The Storyteller,” “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. . . . The nature of the character in a novel cannot be presented any better than is done in this statement, which says that the ‘meaning’ of his life is revealed only in his death.” For Benjamin, the fictional encounter with death is a positive thing for the reader: “What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” Yet how much warmth can we draw from all those deaths in Kafka’s work, especially when we read him in the aftermath of the deaths that Ottilie and 1,300,000 million others suffered in Auschwitz alone?
As in the works of Primo Levi, we can find in Kafka a multifaceted accounting of the forces that can tear a family, a nation, a civilization apart, but these destructive forces are counterpointed against moments of clear vision, of humanity, and of ironic humor that can give strength even in terrible circumstances. While in 1910 Kafka put the onus on the repressive, two-dimensional father in “The Judgment,” he rapidly expanded his focus and deepened his understanding. In “The Metamorphosis” (1915) we find that Gregor Samsa suffers from his family’s dependence on his income, but he also assumes a quasi-dictatorial role among them. He resents having to take on the responsibility of paying down his father’s business debt – Schuld, in German, which also means “guilt.” His sudden transformation into the famous “gigantic vermin” may represent his turning his back on the family, but it also becomes a way to reinforce his centrality in the household, where everyone has to tiptoe around, not daring to confront him.
The entire episode may reflect a mental breakdown, but it can also be a wish-fulfillment dream, a possibility suggested by the dreamlike warping of time. This possibility is even underscored, with Kafka’s characteristic irony, by Gregor’s very statement that “It was no dream.” Gregor is less an innocent victim than a frustrated tyrant. Already before his transformation, he intends to play the lordly gift-giver by sending his sister to music school – never mind that she is hopelessly incompetent as a violinist. Even after Auschwitz, we should remember that when Kafka read the story aloud to his friends, he had to pause several times, overcome with laughter. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde on Dickens, one of Kafka's favorite authors: One would need a heart of stone, perhaps, to read the death of little Gregor without laughing.
Kafka moves beyond the family in his emblematic story “In the Penal Colony” (1914), in which a prisoner is to be murdered by a machine that inscribes his punishment in an elaborate tattoo on his back. The victim is to be enlightened at the very moment of death, and then the machine will hurl his corpse into a waiting pit, as the presiding officer proudly explains to the visiting narrator, as shown in this illustration by R. Crumb:
Many commentators have very reasonably seen this horrific machine as a prophecy of what Primo Levi calls the “complex machinery” of the extermination camp system. Yet “In the Penal Colony” doesn’t tell a simplistic story of victimizer and victim. Certainly the hapless prisoner, unjustly condemned by arbitrary authority, is another version of Kafka’s semi-autobiographical Georg and Gregor. Yet the story’s narrator is another stand-in for our author, telling the tale from the security of his position as an outsider, someone who can’t be caught up too deeply into the action, or even be blamed for his inaction. Yet again, it is the colonial officer, proud architect and operator of the murderous machine, who is the real artist, and he is devoted to his beautiful, complex tattoo-machine even if the results – like modernist narratives – are incomprehensible to the ordinary reader. That the machine ends up murdering its own maker, who suicidally takes the prisoner’s place, offers a further, resonant irony, intimately linking officer, prisoner, and visitor. And what of us, the story’s readers? Can we find an alternative to the characters’ options of victimhood, complicity, or flight?
Kafka’s final story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” written as he was dying of tuberculosis, represents his most profound statement on art in dangerous times. Josephine gathers her people around her to inspire them with her songs, but the assembling of the mice also makes it easier for their enemies to find them and fall upon them. She believes that she comforts her people with her glorious songs, but perhaps she only annoys them with her pitiful “piping.” The situation is further complicated by our narrator, who is either one of her admirers or one of her opponents. At the end, Josephine disappears; has she died, or has she deserted her people? As Hamlet might say, “the rest is silence,” though in Josephine’s case it isn’t clear whether she was making any audible sounds to begin with. As the – devoted? hostile? – narrator concludes:
So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all, while Josephine, for her part, delivered from earthly afflictions, which however to her mind are the privilege of chosen spirits, will happily lose herself in the countless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will be accorded the heightened relief of being forgotten along with all her brethren.
What might have seemed somewhat baroque artistic parables in the 1920s gained a new literalism with the war, and a worldwide audience soon afterward. Memory and forgetting, speech and silence intertwine in Kafka’s work and in the increasing throng of writers who have followed his vanishing footsteps. As we’ll see tomorrow, what Dante was to Primo Levi, Kafka was to Paul Celan.