An icon of dark existentialist literature, Franz Kafka (1883–1924) was the author of novels and short stories. Filled with themes of alienation, conflict, and oppression, his works inspired an adjective “Kafkaesque” to describe nightmarish experiences prevalent in his writings.
Julian Preece is a professor at Great Britain’s Swansea University and director of its Centre for Research Into Contemporary German Culture. He authored and edited numerous books and papers on Kafka and other German-language writers.
Simply Charly: Many of the classes you teach at Swansea University focus on Kafka and his works. What are some of the difficulties you face in introducing students to Kafka’s writing? Have they typically had some exposure to Kafka before taking your course?
Julian Preece: I teach currently The Metamorphosis, The Judgment and The Stoker, which is the first chapter of what became the novel The Man who Disappeared or Amerika, to first-year students on a module called “Modern European Fiction” and “The Trial” to more advanced Masters students on a module called “Lost in Europe.” Most of the students, who are taking degrees in Modern Languages or English Literature, are new to Kafka. They are likely to be surprised by his writing. He is not as immediately exciting as some expected and far harder to pin down, more rooted in the world of everyday experience and, at the same time, interested in philosophical questions. Students with a taste and a flair for literature will take to him, but lots do not seem to have the time or the imagination. They will say that he is ‘weird’ and leave it at that. Kafka requires time and a willingness to look at details. His fictions also appear to contradict themselves and have a multiplicity of possible meanings which students can find unsettling.
SC: In the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, entitled “Kafka’s Europe,” you place Kafka in the context of the early 20th-century Europe. How did the intersection of Czech, German and Jewish culture influence Kafka’s later writing? What made you choose to focus on Kafka’s European background for the introduction?
JP: Kafka was multi-lingual, knowing Yiddish and Hebrew, as well as Czech – the majority language in his native Prague – French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. He was aware of where he fitted in and, more to the point, where he did not fit in, socially, culturally, and linguistically in turn-of-the-century Austria-Hungary. What he did not know because he died in 1924 (but we do know now): the world he grew up in was the crucible for the Holocaust, in which his three younger sisters perished. He had a very fine ear for nuances and the multiple meanings of both linguistic phrases and physical gestures. Among other things, his fictions are about belonging and not belonging. The most frightening and truly arresting aspect of The Trial, for instance, is that Josef K. appears to be the only person who does not understand what is happening to him. All the people that he meets have a better handle on his case than he does himself, making him the ultimate outsider. The Greek origin of the word “metaphor” is “to carry over” from one sphere of meaning to another. Kafka saw metaphors everywhere and recognized that he was in various ways “carried over” from his parents’ and grandparents’ very different way of life. Kafka’s Europe was that of the old multi-lingual Central European empires, not the modern Europe of the nation-state that came after the First World War.
SC: Following the end of WW2, Kafka’s works were banned by the Soviet Union, including in his own native city of Prague. Why did the USSR see Kafka’s works as a threat? Did the themes of his work conflict with communist ideology?
JP: The Soviet commissars of literature across Eastern Europe had a doctrine of “socialist realism.” They saw Kafka as a decadent modernist who articulated alienation under an inhumane capitalist system but showed no way out of that alienation, as contemporary realist writers, even bourgeois ones, allegedly did. The leading Marxist critic Georg Lukacs wrote an influential essay titled “Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?” It condemned Kafka as a pessimist Expressionist, for this reason, though Lukacs is supposed to have said after he was arrested by the authorities in his native Hungary that “Kafka was right after all.” That was the official explanation. I would say that novels like The Trial and The Castle, or shorter fictions such as In the Penal Colony were a little too close to home and for comfort. The authorities were afraid that their citizens would recognize too much of their own world in Kafka’s writing and that he would give them the wrong ideas. Kafka knew all about power, in the family and society at large. That political reading of Kafka is out of fashion nowadays, but it is always quite clear to any authoritarian regime.
SC: One of Kafka’s most famous pieces was The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a giant bug, placing a massive strain on his family. How much of this story do you think was based on Kafka’s own family and living situation? Can Samsa be seen as an avatar for Kafka himself?
JP: Writers have to write about what they know, and there are a number of apparent outward similarities between Kafka and Samsa, which he indicates, of course, in the name of the fictional character. Up to a point, The Metamorphosis is an autobiographical nightmare. But I don’t see that we can say that the story is “based” on his own family. It is only the starting point that is similar. If we listed everything that we get to know about Gregor Samsa’s life, his work routine, his sexual experiences or lack of them, his taste in food, his all-important role in the family, and then compared that list with what we know about Kafka himself, then we would not see many parallels at all. Gregor Samsa became so famous because he is an Everyman, and there is something of him in all of us, probably male or female, but certainly male. It is a story about emotional manipulation, which is another subject that Kafka understood very well.
SC: Besides editing and writing the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, you also wrote a chapter focusing on Kafka’s private correspondences with his friends and family. How did writing letters help Kafka hone his narrative voice, if at all?
JP: His earlier letters are the earliest documents that we possess, and there are signs that he practiced writing through correspondence with a friend or would-be girlfriend. I do not see too much outward similarity, however, between the letters and the fictions. I think that he needed the drama of the epistolary courtship of Felice Bauer, whom he did not find attractive, let alone love, to make his literary breakthrough. Corresponding with her offered him companionship at a distance, which he could control, and the emotional intensity of a raw engagement with a fellow human being, which he needed.
SC: As Kafka lay dying, he asked his longtime friend Max Brod to destroy his writings. Instead, Brod chose to publish them, exposing the world to Kafka’s genius. Even today there exists considerable controversy over whether Brod made the right choice in disregarding his friend’s wishes. Where do you fall on this debate?
JP: I am afraid that this is a myth. Kafka did not speak to Brod as he lay dying. Among Kafka’s papers, however, Brod discovered notes written to him three to four years earlier with that instruction. Kafka kept the notes, perhaps assuming that they would be found one day, but he did not send them. At the time that he wrote the notes, he could have destroyed his unpublished work himself if he had wanted to do that. Like all writers, however, Kafka wanted to be published. He was not a destroyer of his own manuscripts. It is a very powerful myth, which we like because it confirms something about our Romantic notion of the true artist in the modern age. It made the posthumously published novels and other fictions, which only gradually became famous, all the more fascinating. In that respect, it served its purpose as a marketing tool.
SC: In your studies of Kafka, what are some of the common myths and misconceptions about his life that you’ve encountered? How do you suppose these developed?
JP: Apart from the one dealt with above, there are the myths that he hated his father and hated his job in the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute of the Kingdom of Bohemia, and also that he became tragically involved with women, such as Felice Bauer, who could not make him happy. Brod liked to present Kafka as an other-worldly searcher of truth because that fit with how Brod wanted readers to interpret his friend’s work. In fact, the young Kafka accompanied him to the clubs and brothels of their native Prague and was quite the dandy and man about town. He was a pioneer in the field of accident insurance for factory workers and took this work very seriously indeed. It was strenuous to combine a six-hour daily shift in the office (he worked from 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon) with writing, which Kafka did at night after a siesta in the late afternoon or early evening. He was also not on such bad terms with his father, but he saw the differences between him and his father, and especially between what he did and what his father represented as a practical man of business. That was a question of metaphor again. Letter to the Father is a fiction, not a documentary of their family life.
SC: Kafka spent most of his employed life as an insurance clerk, a job that he claimed to hate despite being very good at it by all accounts. How did Kafka’s tedious day job play a role in his dark, surrealist fiction? Many of his works, including The Trial, feature a vast, uncaring bureaucracy- was this inspired by his desk job?
JP: He was a great deal more than a clerk. He was well qualified and got regularly promoted until he was near the top of the organization, before retiring in his mid-30s on the grounds of ill health. He was also not processing claims for stolen property or anything like that, but working in a cutting-edge sector, representing both the victims of industrial accidents and their employers, and working with the employers to make their factories safer places. Many systems that he helped to put in place were more advanced than what we have in the US and the UK today. Of course, his experiences at work, the reports that he drafted (which are now published as The Office Writings), maybe the general predicament of a claimant up against a faceless machine-like authority, as well as the many written communications and the interpretations of those communications, all fed into some of his fiction. In his literary writings and his professional life, he dealt with the law, its application, and its function. I would say that that is the connection. Again, however, the whole idea of the “Kafkaesque” encompassing both his life and his fictions is something of a myth. People who turn to his novels looking for another Orwellian encounter with totalitarianism are usually disappointed.
SC: Some of your other research interests include the Austrian writer Veza Canetti and the German author Günter Grass. What made you decide to edit the Cambridge Companion to Kafka? Are there any similarities between Kafka and the other figures you’ve written about?
JP: The Companion series had not been running very long when I approached CUP with the idea for one on Kafka. I think at that stage the only German-language author covered was Bertolt Brecht. It seemed to me that they could use and sell ones on Kafka, Thomas Mann, and maybe Goethe, who have both now been covered, as well as, more recently, Grass. I wanted to work on a book, which would get noticed by the public, and not only by a handful of specialist readers. A Companion gets read by lots more, so it seemed a good outlet for ideas. I was first fascinated by Kafka as a student, by his novels mainly, but also his letters. They would not let me go afterward, and I taught The Trial (as Der Process to German students). You can make comparisons between Grass and Kafka. One of my first essays was called The Danger of Reaching Thirty for Oskar Matzerath [in The Tin Drum], Josef K and Franz Kafka. Grass certainly knew The Trial; you can tell in his first novel, The Tin Drum. Veza Canetti’s husband and literary collaborator wrote a brilliant essay on Kafka’s Letters to Felice, just after they were published in the mid-1960s. With all three, I am interested in biography and its crossovers into the literary writings, with history and politics too.
SC: While editing The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, what sort of resources did you draw on for research? Was it difficult to track down information about Kafka’s works and life, particularly his private correspondences?
JP: No, there were lots of books already. I had trouble identifying suitable contributors and deciding who should do what and what aspects of Kafka’s oeuvre should get covered. I approached W.G. Sebald for a chapter on The Castle, but he was too busy and too famous by then, and he died just before the Companion was published. I was also turned down by Claudio Magris, the Italian novelist, Germanist, and author of Danube. Apart from those two, everyone agreed to write what I asked them and worked hard on their individual contributions. In the summer of 1999, we met for a symposium in Prague, reading out drafts of our chapters to each other in the Centrum Franze Kafky in the city’s central square. That was fun, and I hope made in the end for a better book. It is gratifying to be asked about it more than 10 years after its publication. Thank you very much. I hope these answers were useful.