The Magazine

Franz K. on Trial

The inner meaning of the outsider Kafka.

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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Of course, we’ve already been treated to cartloads of books and articles about Kafka’s dealings with prostitutes, sadomasochistic fantasies, and homoerotic feelings—all of which are well-supported by passages in Kafka’s letters and diaries that would make the author of Death in Venice blush and cringe. But to Friedländer, this seems still too general and abstract. So he pursues his hunch that “perhaps [Kafka] opaquely refers to his sexual attraction to adolescents, even children?” Friedländer makes clear, though, that Kafka’s “feelings of guilt were related not to some concrete initiatives on his part but to fantasies, to imagined sexual possibilities.” 

Friedländer’s speculations raised eyebrows in Germany, where the book appeared last year. Critics asked whether we really needed to know about such possibilities. But Friedländer is revered in Germany, and has been awarded its top prize for intellectual achievement. Moreover, his readings are convincing, and his speculations fit smoothly into the array of sexual fantasies that the new critical editions of Kafka’s diaries have laid bare. Friedländer also has the added virtue of not pursuing his novelty point obsessively. He presents a complex and endearing Kafka, a young man of high sensitivity entangled in a labyrinth of the complex feelings that were required to generate his work.  

What is missing, perhaps, is a sense of how wickedly funny Kafka was, and how capable he was of seeing the comedy in his situation. Kafka’s rock-hard, cryptic work stands unassailed, and, thus far, has survived all attempts made by critical penal colonists to torture it to death.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.