Meet the Kafkas

Accident Prevention Rules for Wood Planing Machines had a limited readership in 1910 and not much has changed over a century on. The brochure comes complete with gruesome illustrations of mangled hands purportedly belonging to injured Prague timber machinists and it argues that it is a matter of self-interest for employers to offer a less accident-prone working environment. It was written by Franz Kafka. Since it fell to his employer, the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, to collect the financial contributions that businesses were compelled to contribute towards their workers’ accident insurance, Kafka was trying to sell a simple idea. The fewer accidents, the lower the premiums.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Having completed his law studies, Kafka had worked at the institute since 1908. He was well suited to the tasks assigned to him and quickly achieved a series of promotions. By 1911 he was second in charge of an entire department, and by his twenty-ninth birthday, a year later, he had a staff personally responsible to him that numbered around seventy. He was, it seems, held in high esteem.

One day he wrote an apology to his own superior for having not attended work. The draft of the letter was written in his diary and reads in part:

When I wanted to get out of bed today, I simply collapsed. The cause is very simple: I am absolutely overworked. Not by the office, but by my other work. The office has an innocent part in it only because if I did not have to go there, I could just live for my work and would not have to spend those six hours a day there, which have tormented me so much that you cannot imagine it … I am at fault and the office has the clearest and most justified claims on me. However, for me it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no way out except insanity … Incidentally, I will certainly be myself again by tomorrow and will come to the office where the first thing I hear will be that you want me out of your department.

He remained. One suspects that Kafka felt comfortable enough in his position to know that it would not be in jeopardy, despite his singular straightforwardness. He had not yet written The Metamorphosis (1915), which begins with another young man, Gregor Samsa, struggling to leave his bed in the morning because he feels he has been transformed into some sort of “monstrous vermin”.

Despite Kafka’s important position at the institute, he still lived with his parents and—until marriages intervened—his three sisters. Before 1913, and before the family moved to a more spacious apartment, Kafka’s room had also fulfilled the role of the home’s corridor. Nine months after the letter of apology to his supervisor, another diary entry describes the typical goings on in the household:

I sit in my room in the headquarters of the noise of the whole apartment. I hear all the doors slamming; their noise spares me only the steps of the people running between them; I can still hear the oven door banging shut in the kitchen. My father bursts through the door to my room and passes through, his robe trailing; the ashes are being scraped out of the stove in the next room … [there is] shouting one word after the other through the foyer, whether Father’s hat has been cleaned yet … The apartment door is unlatched and makes a grating noise like a scratchy throat, then opens wider with the singing of a woman’s voice, and finally closes with a dull manly bang, which is the most inconsiderate sound of all. Father is gone; now the subtler, more diffuse, more hopeless noise begins, led by the voices of two canaries.

Here he wonders whether he has enough audacity to “open the door a tiny crack, slither into the next room like a snake and in that way, on the floor, ask my sisters and their governess for peace and quiet”.

His father, Hermann Kafka—the son of a kosher butcher and a man always in a hurry—would invariably be rushing to his Galanteriewaren or fancy goods store, as they were then known. The store sold parasols, canes, gloves, muffs, slippers, underwear, ribbons and such. Kafka’s father was full of self-importance, proud of being self-made, and he revelled in telling all about it. As soon as he could lift a wheelbarrow he had been expected to deliver meat to outlying villages in the freezing cold. He had left home at fourteen, joined the army at nineteen and had then become a travelling salesman. He had also married “up” in choosing one Julie Löwy as a wife (below). Photographs reveal a stout, robust-looking man who we might imagine stomping out of an Expressionist picture by George Grosz or Otto Dix. The reality was that he suffered from chronic high blood pressure and cardiac problems, so the rest of the household tiptoed around. It was imperative that Hermann Kafka should not be unduly upset.

Since normal circumstances were anything but conducive to his writing, Kafka devised a daily and eccentric regime:

From 8 to 2 or 2.30 the office, lunch until 3 or 3.30, from then on sleeping in bed … until 8.30, then 10 minutes of exercise, naked at an open window, then one hour of walking alone or with Max [Brod] or another friend, then supper with my family … then at 10.30 [but often even at 11.30] sitting down to write and remaining at it according to my strength, desire, and luck until 1, 2, 3 o’clock, once even until 6 a.m.

The Kafka seniors were keen card players—well, Hermann was at least, and he liked winning. Julie would devotedly acquiesce. Only when they had retired for the evening could their son attend to what he felt was his “real” work.

Understandably, Kafka’s parents worried about this new routine. They believed that the fact their son appeared to get little sleep and was forever scribbling in his notebooks would surely make him ill. And what sort of impact must it be having on his job at the institute? When challenged, Kafka would doggedly claim a healthier lifestyle than anyone he knew. And yes, they were forced to admit to themselves, not only did he obsess about physical exercise and diet—he ate no meat—but he did not smoke or drink. He even declined tea or coffee. His holidays from the institute were spent on health farms. When he did attend meals with the rest of the family, their son insisted on “Fletcherising” the contents of his bowls of nuts and dried fruits. This faddish practice of chewing each mouthful of food for minutes at a time before swallowing was a procedure that his father could not bear to watch and it would elicit comparisons to “Uncle Rudolph”, a bachelor prone to hypochondria who had become the family laughing-stock. This was an observation of Kafka’s father that upset Julie Kafka no end.

 For his own part, Kafka would admit to a friend:

I live in my family with the best and most loving people—more estranged than a stranger. In the last few years I have barely exchanged an average of twenty words a day with my mother, and with my father little more than a greeting here and there … I lack any sense of family life.

It has been well established that the impetus for Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was a sense of alienation within his own family. The idea for the story occurred to him while he lay in bed on a Sunday towards the end of 1912. He was feeling further abandoned by the fact that his long-distance girlfriend had not written from Berlin for two days. Of this relationship, Hermann Kafka had announced in his inimitable style that his son had no doubt been encouraged by “some fancy blouse”, an opinion that would transmogrify in Kafka’s The Judgement (written in a single night during the same year) “because she hitched up her skirts, like this, the disgusting cow”. This, of course, was what the older man was suggesting.

In The Metamorphosis, the transformation of Gregor Samsa, after “unsettling dreams”, begins a series of episodes that will end in his death. Consequently, the members of his family will begin to recognise the possibility of their lives improving without him. Collectively, they will express optimism for the future. A more comfortable apartment will be sought, and Gregor’s sister can now look forward to “a good husband” being arranged for her. It is “like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions” when the parents proudly watch Grete stretch her “young body”. Gregor’s vile experience of change—in Middle High German, Ungeziefer literally translates as “unclean animal”—has seen his family transformed into a much more functional unit than they could otherwise have been. An example of the depth of Kafka’s own sense of exclusion is evident in a diary entry for early 1912, in which he expresses jealousy of a young nephew:

Little Felix was sleeping in the girls’ room, with the door wide open … The door to my room was closed … The open door further demonstrated that they still intended to lure Felix into the family, while I had already been shut out …

So powerful were these feelings that the writing and publication of The Metamorphosis did precious little to dispel them.

Kafka’s Letter to My Father was written while he holidayed at a guest house in Schelesen (now Želízy in the Czech Republic) towards the end of 1919. He was there attempting to recover from tuberculosis. At thirty-six, he was four years from death. According to Max Brod, he had asked his mother to forward it to the intended recipient, however she had returned it without having done so, and never mentioned it again. Most Kafka commentators suspect that her son knew this would be the case. Indeed, in the Letter, she is described as too faithfully devoted to her husband to be “an independent source of moral support in [Kafka’s] long-term struggle”.

Brod, the friend that Kafka had entrusted with the task of destroying his unpublished writing, eventually published the novella-length Letter together with a collection of previously unknown short stories in 1953. It delivers a scathing attack on his father’s character: “You took on for me, that enigmatic quality of all tyrants whose right to rule is founded on their identity rather than on reason.”

As we have seen, the dining table could potentially become a battlefield. “First eat then speak” was Hermann Kafka’s house rule. “Faster, faster, faster … Look, see, I finished ages ago.” His attack on his meat was in direct contrast to Kafka’s “Fletcherising”, and no one else was permitted to chew on bones or pour vinegar onto their food as volubly as the family patriarch. The son was repulsed by gluttony voracious enough to see scraps of food accumulate on the floor beneath where his father sat (Gregor Samsa is fed such scraps in The Metamorphosis).

Kafka admits in the Letter to providing “utterly insignificant details” but adds that such instances “came to depress me because they meant that you … did not yourself abide by the commandments you imposed”.

What little table talk took place was apparently decidedly one way, with others often referred to in the third person—“We simply can’t have that behaviour from our son.” Rarely was anything said that was complimentary. Kafka quotes a sister coming under scrutiny: “Look at that fat cow, she has to sit ten metres from the table … What a rabble!”

His father’s “imperious temperament” is accused of employing a range of devices: “insults, threats, irony and—strangely—self-pity”. This manifested itself in favourite catch-cries: “When I was no more than seven I had to push the cart from village to village … We all had to sleep in the one room … We counted ourselves lucky when we got potatoes … I wish I had your worries!”

Hermann Kafka’s despotism extended to the family business as well. He referred to his employees as the “paid enemies”. According to Kafka’s diaries, at one point “the entire staff handed Father its resignation”. A tubercular clerk was referred to as “the cripple” who “should hurry up and die”. So broad a shadow did Hermann Kafka cast over the family and its place in the world that his son says:

Sometimes I imagine a map of the earth laid out and you stretched out diagonally across it. And then it seems to me that I can only lead my life in those areas that are neither covered up by your body, nor within your reach … that leaves me with a few not very welcoming areas.

So why did he not just leave? Well, he did, but not in the way that anybody had expected.

In July 1914, the Kafka parents found themselves reeling from the news that their son’s planned wedding to the Berlin-dwelling fiancée, Felice Bauer, was suddenly off. Costly expenses had been incurred in preparation for the wedding, including the rental of a Prague apartment for the newlyweds. While Kafka would no longer be leaving the family home for matrimonial reasons, he sent his parents a long letter outlining his new plans. After the breaking-off, Kafka had accompanied friends to a seaside resort in Denmark. The missive calmly informed them that he had come to agree with the phrase with which his father had so often hounded him—“You have it too good”—and this was, he explained, probably the result of his having “grown up in a state of dependency”. It seemed to him that it was high time that he should become independent, and to waylay any thoughts to the contrary, he informed his parents, “The objection that I am too old for this sort of experiment is not valid here. I am younger than I seem.” Furthermore, he wrote, he would never be “able to achieve this improvement” without forgoing his work at the institute:

I earn more than I need. For what? For whom? I will continue to climb the salary ladder. For what purpose? If this work is not suitable for me and does not even reward me with independence and self-esteem, why don’t I abandon it?

Not only that, he would move from Prague, probably to Berlin or Munich, and live off his savings in the hope that eventually his writing would earn him some money:

You will have a son whose individual actions might not meet with your approval, but you will be satisfied on the whole, since you will have to tell yourselves: “He’s doing what he can”. You do not have this feeling today, and rightly so.

As it happened, this plan, too, would be stymied. On returning to Prague, Kafka found himself surrounded by the confused hustle and bustle of preparations for what would quickly become the First World War. Even his doting mother noted, at this point, “Franz’s affairs have been pushed into the background.” Not only was a move from Prague now impossible, but his duties at the institute were significantly increased as many of his staff had enlisted. Kafka himself made casual mention of Germany having declared war on Russia in his diaries, but add infamously on the day of the declaration that he would be “Swimming in the afternoon”.

While accident prevention in factories ceased to be as highly prioritised as before—given the carnage occurring elsewhere—much of Kafka’s work would now be concerned with the insurance issues surrounding maimed soldiers returning home. The enlistment of the husbands of his two eldest sisters worked in his favour, however. Kafka’s room in the family apartment was given over to one of the sisters and her two children, while Kafka settled for a time in the apartment belonging to her and her husband. Finally, for the first time, he would have the “complete solitude” he had sought in which to write (at the desk above). Furthermore: “No long-awaited wife opens the door. In one month I was to be married. The phrase ‘You’ve made your bed; now lie in it’ is truly appalling.”

What followed was an unusually productive period for Kafka. Included amongst much else was The Trial, the harrowing tale of a bank clerk who is arrested for an unspecified crime, and which Brod published in 1925, less than a year after his friend’s death. Brod later wrote of Kafka reading aloud his first chapter of The Trial to friends and laughing so much that he “could not continue reading at times. This is astonishing, in the light of the terrible gravity of this chapter. But that is how it was.”

Kafka still put himself through the trial of the family dinner table. Nothing had changed there, nor would it.

In 1922, just over two years after writing Letter to My Father, and during one of his father’s health scares, Kafka told Brod: “Yesterday he gestured with his hand behind the nurse, whom I find wonderful, as she left, a gesture that in his language could only mean ‘Bitch’.”

Hermann Kafka outlived his son by seven years and three days. His wife Julie died three years later in 1934. Kafka’s three sisters were all murdered by the Nazis. Elli and Valli met their end at the Kulmhof and Chelmno extermination camps. The youngest, Kafka’s favourite and something of a confidante, Ottla, had bravely volunteered to accompany a group of children from the Theresienstadt Ghetto to Auschwitz.

Barry Gillard lives in Geelong. He wrote on Shakespeare’s Shylock in the December issue.


One thought on “Meet the Kafkas

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Franz Kafka’s works, stories of psychological oppression and escape, are more easily understood when the story of his home circumstances is available. Thanks for this interesting account of his life’s situation, depicting the domineering father, a self-made man whose own childhood was harsh, and the clever young man who seemed never to have found his feet apart from his family, who like his father imposed his own illness and incapacities upon the whole family. So many people in those days suffered from chronic ill-health. Kafka’s ability to sustain friendships with other young men is also worth exploring further as is his tendency to nervous laughter, his mocking of his nurse and his extensive food rituals; a psychologist today would find plenty there to work on. His impulse to write, one might say his obsession wih writing, sustained him. Clearly it was his escape, his way of coping with his self-inflicted dependent situation at home. His sisters seem to have been more grounded in normal life, in spite of the excruciating family dinners. Their brave and sad demise caps this familial saga with a terrible slice of history.

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