The Magazine

Franz K. on Trial

The inner meaning of the outsider Kafka.

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Sharply enlightening work about Kafka as a Jewish thinker and writer was done long ago by Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Robert Alter, Richie Robertson, and many others. The problem with Suchoff’s book is that it focuses not on Jewish concepts but on Jewish languages that Kafka barely knew and in which Suchoff’s own proficiency seems a bit shaky, as numerous mistakes suggest (l’ganev for lignov, for example). In addition, Suchoff’s English style is inscrutable throughout. The first sentence of the first chapter reads, “As the cold war came to a close, Kafka began to appear as a figure close to his own historical situation in Prague and central to the emerging critical scene.” I don’t know what it means to be close to one’s own historical situation.  

Elsewhere Suchoff writes that, in Yiddish, “Kafka found a canonical language in formation .  .  . where the national boundary construction modeled on a standard author was still very much in process.” When, and for whom, was Yiddish ever a canonical language? In 1911, when Kafka encountered it, Yiddish was still struggling for recognition after centuries of contempt and mockery heaped on it by German writers, including Goethe—whose autobiography Kafka was just then obsessively reading. 

Anyone familiar with the evolution of Yiddish literature, with the efforts made at the time by Sholem Abramovitsh (aka Mendele Moykher Sforim) and Sholem Aleichem to transform an oral medium into a complex tool for high literary art, knows that national boundary construction was the opposite of what they were aiming for. They wanted Yiddish to become an expansive, playful mode of artistic expression in which the contemporary reality of late-19th-century Ukraine meshed with the concepts of second-century Palestinian intellectuals. In order to enter into Mendele’s or Sholem Aleichem’s literary universe, it helped to have a command of traditional Jewish learning, but whether one was a Yiddish speaker in Paris, Prague, or Mogilev made very little difference.  

Kafka grasped clearly that he was as shut out from the world of Yiddish literature as he was from Jewish learning, and he made an effort to move toward the core of Jewish thought by learning Hebrew three years before he died. Here, then, is Suchoff’s chance to explain how Kafka’s study of Hebrew shaped the writing of The Castle, an exercise Evelyn T. Beck undertook in 1971. But Suchoff’s reading devolves into a series of disjointed observations that leave the reader as befuddled as Kafka’s enigmatic Castle itself.

One turns with relief to the immensely readable Saul Fried-länder, whose short biographical essay on Kafka appears in the excellent Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press. Friedländer, a Holocaust historian, was born in Prague in 1932 but grew up in France: “My father studied at the German Law School of Charles University, which Kafka had attended 15 years before .  .  . and like those of Kafka’s three sisters, my parents’ lives ended in German camps.” One realizes with a jolt just how close in temporal terms the iconic Kafka remains to our own time, and Friedländer writes out of his cultural closeness to Kafka’s world. 

Friedländer’s style is elegant and lucid, his knowledge of Kafka’s oeuvre and social world superb, his command of the critical literature impeccable. In seven chapters that progress chronologically, he examines Kafka’s relationship to his father, to his Jewishness, to love and sex, to European literature, to his friends, and to experiences of mystic uplift. Friedländer’s observations about “A Country Doctor” are fresh and astute, and his pointing to Flaubert as a potential literary source is eye-opening. 

Friedländer’s essay could very well serve as the new classic short introduction to modernism’s most elusive writer. Except that Friedländer, too, has a particular point to make that evolves out of his intimacy with Kafka’s culture and his attentive parsing of the letters and diaries. “Kafka’s sense of shame and guilt,” Friedländer writes, “have elicted mainly very general and abstract interpretations that do not sufficiently point to the personal anguish from which they stemmed.”