One of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka is the subject of numerous texts that interpret him in equally numerous ways. A Pulitzer Prize-winning professor emeritus of history and Holocaust studies at UCLA, Saul Friedländer was attracted to Kafka’s work for its intrinsic value but also, he speculates, by the links he discovered over time between Kafka’s background — birthplace, family history — and his own. In this biographical essay Friedländer draws on this shared background and Kafka’s own words to find the sources of Kafka’s intense shame and guilt.
To establish Kafka and his work posthumously, Max Brod, Kafka’s close friend and literary executor, edited and censored the diaries and letters to portray Kafka in a favorable — “saintly” is Friedländer’s word — light. The later critical edition of Kafka’s diaries and letters made clear the sexual nature of Kafka’s tortured life, and Friedlander sees the roots of Kafka’s guilt and shame in the struggle between his outward adaptation to “normal” life — his family, his job, his personal life, the daily world he lived in — and his rebellion against it in his writing, which constituted his real life, and his ironic defense against a hostile world.
Friedländer begins by examining Kafka’s relations with his family, notably his father; his Judaism, which was shaped in some ways by the prevailing Central European anti-Semitism; and his sexual fantasies. He then moves into the wider world of Kafka’s literary vision and cultural milieu. Reading more as a historian and investigator than literary critic, Friedländer plumbs Kafka’s letters and diaries, setting them next to extracts from the fiction to illustrate vital connections. Ultimately he reads Kafka’s personal struggles, his shame and his guilt, in his fiction, which Friedländer sees as “a more or less heavily disguised autobiography.”
Like Kafka’s work, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt is dense and provocative. In his exploration of Kafka’s work, Friedländer calls on his rich knowledge of Central Europe during Kafka’s lifetime, and readers not familiar with the period may need a little more information to identify some of the individuals and movements current in Kafka’s world. Franz Kafka is somewhat less biographical than other volumes in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, but it offers a candid and stimulating examination of the forces that shaped Kafka’s anguished life/work. Index, notes.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.