domingo, 31 de octubre de 2010

Franz Kafka. A Biography. (1937) Max Brod (1884-1968)

BROD, Max. Franz Kafka. A Biography. New York: Schocken Books, 1960.

Kafka and Max Brod will remain in history together, hand in hand, in spite of the fact that whereas most know about the former, only specialists are familiar with the name of the latter. It would be difficult to tell what would have become of the one without the other, although there can be no doubt that Brod is only known to us thanks to the greatness of his beloved friend, Kafka. But Brod is essential for Kafka’s readers and admirers: we are indebted to him for preserving and making public Kafka’s posthumous works, personal documents and hundreds of biographical details which, but for him, would have remained unknown.

Some could argue that Max didn’t listen to his friend’s request to burn all the papers that he left unpublished, but this we must forgive him. Many experts on Kafka even doubt that he actually wished this to happen: if he had really wanted his papers burnt, why didn’t he do it himself? Instead, he gave his diaries to one of the women he loved most, Milena, and instructed her to render them to Brod after his death. He also made sure that Brod knew who had his letters and the other documents he had written. This can only be explained on account of Kafka’s inner contradictions: his mind was clear about what was essentially true, and could sometimes recognize it in himself, but his extreme humility made him always doubt it and led him to consider himself inadequate, insufficient, nothing. He was his most severe judge and his own victim. He considered himself literature, but only perfection was good enough for him, and that, he dreaded, was out of his reach, he felt he was never good enough. This explains why sometimes he thought he had written an excellent work but later he was reluctant to have it published and, in the event that he accepted this to be done (can there possibly be a writer who doesn’t wish to be read, to communicate?) he felt every single detail was of the utmost importance (the font, the type of paper, the cover) and was never contented with the result.

[Handwritten page of In the Penal Colony]

Max Brod spent many hours with Kafka, they shared walks, books, holidays and endless conversations. The importance of Max Brod’s biography on Kafka cannot be contested, and there are a lot of details that we could only learn through him. But a doubt remains in the mind of the critical reader who wants to know about Kafka in depth. It is true that Brod spent a lot of time with Kafka and probably knew him well; we don’t doubt his honesty and, above all, his admiration for his friend, but…

Sometimes, while reading him, we feel that he’s not quite objective, we sense that he loved his friend so much that maybe he emphasized certain aspects of his life and personality while neglecting others. It shocks us to read once and again that Kafka had a hard life, for example, when we know that he belonged to a selected minority in Prague, spent most of his life with his well-off family, had a job that most would envy and was an attractive man. True, this was not enough for him, he aimed at perfection, the absolute, “the indestructible”, and it is this contrast that brings him so near us, that makes us understand his contradictions and paradoxes, which are only too human.

[Drawing by Kafka]

Max Brod praises his friend far beyond what is credible, no matter how much one admires Kafka. We get a picture of a man who is more divine than human, which we may be apt to believe, but is not convincing when seeking true information. Kafka sought excellence in everything he did, and that was his major deed, but he was definitely not perfect. He knew this all too well. He was not naïve, he was aware of what he had: intelligence, an unusual capacity as a writer, good looks, a comfortable life, etc., but all this just made him be even more demanding with himself. He strove for perfection.

He was not particularly religious, contrarily to what Brod claims. He was obviously Jewish, had great interest in learning Hebrew, during his youth he was very fond of Yiddish theatre, and he sometimes thought about moving to Israel. But it is difficult to believe that he was a saint prophet (p. 192) or was deeply moved by Zionism (even Max Brod has to admit that only rarely does Kafka use the term Jew in his works). He was certainly a man of great curiosity and a deep interest in learning (also about Czech language and literature although Brod himself insists that Kafka felt more German than Czech, as the rest of the top minority in the country) and if we read Kafka’s diaries we can see that he insists on his desire to leave Prague and move to Berlin once and again, but his references to living in Israel are scarce.

[Drawing by Kafka]

Kafka wished to escape, to move forward, upwards. For quite a long time, his goal was Berlin, (which unfortunately was tied to marriage for a while), but this city was probably a symbol of a place that one cannot reach on earth. When we read his personal writings, we can feel his relief when he found out he had tuberculosis. This prognosis was liberating for him: it allowed him to put an end to his difficult relationship with his fiancée Felice, it meant that he could probably stop working in the office and it gave him freedom. True, it was a death sentence, but it seems to us that he welcomed it. It allowed him to have more time for thinking, writing and feeling life, which he (as Max Brod points out) loved so much, but somehow upset him so deeply that (as Milena stated in one of the letters that she sent to Brod) it was often unbearable for him.
We can’t help admiring Kafka as a man (his literary gifts are out of question) because we can somehow find us in him, even those who are not Jewish. He expresses our yearnings, fears and weaknesses as few writers have.

We are grateful to Max Brod, who always supported his friend (though Kafka himself wrote that Max didn’t quite comprehend him) and took such great care of his legacy, which, without him, would probably have been lost (he left Germany when the Nazis took over with several suitcases full of Kafka’s papers). We must also understand the exceptional admiration and love he felt, but we regret that he emphasizes some aspects of Kafka’s biography which are favourable to the Zionist cause which he himself embraced, and he raises many doubts in our minds when he brings himself forward so openly and mentions his own writings and personal affairs (Ritchie Robertson defends the same opinion about Max Brod’s relative credibility in his book Judaism, Politics and Literature. Oxford: OUP, 2001, pp. xi-xii).

[Kafka's monument in Prague]

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