Franz Kaf­ka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt

Saul Friedlän­der
  • Review
By – May 20, 2013

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.


Franz Kaf­ka Read­ing List
Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press’s Jew­ish Lives Series

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.

Discussion Questions