PD Smith

The private lives of Franz K.

11 August 2008 | 3QD, German culture, Kafka, Kafka's mouse, making strange, Maryanne Wolf, Monday Column, Wolf, Zadie Smith | 11 comments

I write a Monday Column every couple of months for 3 Quarks Daily. This is the latest one.

Reden nur dort möglich ist, wo man lügen will.

There is something about Kafka’s writing that gets under your skin. Perhaps that’s because he was always so uneasy in his own skin. Kafka described it as “a garment but also a straitjacket and fate”, suggesting that he saw skin as both clothing, something you choose to wear for a day before shedding, but also as a tightly bound involucre, restricting and suffocating the self – a biological fait accompli and a life sentence. Only Kafka could react so ambivalently and with such psychological acuity towards something most people take for granted and indeed scarcely think about.

Kafka in 1906It brings to mind Kafka’s story “In the Penal Settlement” with its glass punishment machine and its teeth-like rows of gleaming needles. The offender is strapped into this sadistic device and the laws he has broken are slowly and painfully incised into his skin. The operator praises its redemptive effects on the criminal: “how quiet he grows at just about the sixth hour! Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates.” [1] After twelve hours of agony and of learning the meaning of the law through his skin, the coup de grâce is administered to the prisoner and the emblazoned body dumped in a ditch. “Like a dog,” as Josef K. says at the end of The Trial.

It is one of Kafka’s most grotesque stories, one that swings sickeningly between cruelty and humanity. As ever with Kafka, paradox and ambiguity are fundamental. I remember how, as a student, some of my friends were utterly repulsed by this story, unable to see past the horrific details to the chilling vision of human strangeness beneath. As I read it again today I am reassured to find it has lost none of its disturbing intensity. I can’t say that it is my favourite Kafka story, although it is uniquely Kafkaesque, to invoke that tired old cliché.

“The Judgement”, “Metamorphosis”, “A Country Doctor” – all wonderfully strange stories that share the sense of being caught up in a nightmare, where normal expectations are shattered and nothing seems to make sense any more. Reading Kafka is the literary equivalent of an earthquake: as you read, you can feel the walls of reality begin to tremble and shake until eventually they come tumbling down around your ears. At the end, you find yourself wandering in an unfamiliar wasteland. All around are scattered the jumbled fragments of what you once recognised as normal life. Now you, the reader, have to begin putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

Kafka has been in the news recently. His friend and executor, Max Brod, died in 1968, leaving a suitcase of Kafka’s writings to his former secretary and lover, Esther Hoffe. Ever since then she has guarded it jealously in her Tel Aviv flat. The conditions were far from ideal. Warnings that the documents might be damaged by damp went unheeded. Until two years ago she shared her flat with a menagerie of cats and dogs. Then her neighbours finally complained about the stench and they were removed by health inspectors. Now, at the age of 101, Hoffe has died, leaving the Kafka cache to her septuagenarian daughters.

Among the papers are Brod’s diaries (sold to a German publisher for a five-figure sum in the 1980s but as yet undelivered), letters by Kafka as well as his travel journal, postcards, sketches and some of his personal belongings. A decade ago Hoffe sold Brod’s manuscript of The Trial for £1 million at auction. How much the remaining documents are worth can only be guessed. But obviously this is a gold mine for Kafka scholars. Josef Cermak, author of several studies of the Czech-Jewish author, told the Guardian: “There are so many mistruths which have been written about Kafka. For academic purposes it is crucial that we get to see what the unpredictable Miss Hoffe has kept from us for so long.” [2]

I’m as intrigued as everyone else by what the Kafka suitcase contains. Indeed its history has something delightfully Kafkaesque about it. I’m sure countless TV producers have spotted this and are at this very minute flocking to Tel Aviv to make their documentaries. (Part of me hopes that when they open the case, no doubt on live TV, all it contains are a few startled cockroaches.)

The private lives of famous writers and scientists are fascinating. Reading Einstein’s correspondence gives you an astonishingly detailed picture of the man behind relativity. And anyone can do it now thanks to the Princeton University Press’s superb edition of his Collected Papers. Of course, you don’t need to read Einstein’s letters to Mileva (his “sweet little witch”, as he described her in 1901) to understand relativity, although they do place the science in a wonderfully human context. But people will read whatever the Kafka cache contains looking for clues that might explain his fiction.

And why not indeed? Literature, I hear you say, is different from science. It’s subjective and personal, for a start. Sure, but it’s also a public activity in the sense that most of Kafka’s writing was meant to be read by other people. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci and Newton who used mirror writing or coded language in their notebooks to obscure their words, Kafka wanted to tell us something important. He didn’t set out to create a series of coded autobiographical puzzles in order to keep future literary historians in a job. The Germanist Martin Swales argues convincingly that the obsession with Kafka’s private life does not help us to understand Kafka’s writing: “an unremitting interest in the personality behind the utterance suggests that the utterance has in some way broken down”. [3]

In a recent article, Zadie Smith has suggested that Kafka is “a writer sullied by our attempts to define him”. [4] Novelist James Hawes, author of a new book called Excavating Kafka, seems to agree: “The myth of Kafka's life so overshadows what he wrote that millions who have never read a word of his know, or think they know, something about the middle-European Nostradamus, almost unknown in his own lifetime, trapped in a dead-end job, whose mysterious, endlessly interpretable works somehow foresaw the Holocaust (and so on).” [5]

Hawes spent ten years writing a Ph.D. on Kafka. Now he is on a mission to deconstruct the “hagiographic myth” surrounding the Prague author in order to expose the real Kafka. His works are “wonderful black comedies written by a man soaked in the writings of his predecessors and of his own day”. Indeed, Max Brod provides some evidence of this comedic dimension to Kafka’s works. He recalled Kafka reading aloud from The Trial. At times, he said, Kafka “laughed so much that there were moments when he couldn't read any further”. This Kafka has been somewhat obscured, but he’s certainly there, struggling to free himself from the chitinous, beetle-like skin into which fate and literary fame has sealed him.

Das Urteil coverIt was always a challenge teaching first year classes on Kafka, but rewarding too. Undergraduates rarely did any preparation for German lit classes (wie immer) and so they turned up knowing very little about him apart from a general expectation that the man who gave us the term Kafkaesque had to be pretty weird. They weren’t disappointed on that score. We had three hour-long sessions dissecting the short story “Das Urteil” (“The Judgement”), reading it in German, line by line, often word by word, slowing down the process of reading as if you were analyzing a film frame by frame.

At some point, usually towards the end of the sessions, I would explain some details from Kafka’s life. For many of the students, the biographical information transformed what was a deeply strange, even incomprehensible, reading experience. Suddenly, as if by magic, it all seemed to make sense. Why didn’t you tell us this before, they wanted to know. Kafka’s writing was psychology in action, a cathartic release. Kafka, frantically scribbling in his room late at night, was assuaging his guilt for failing to live up to parental expectations, doing penance for breaking unwritten laws, and so on.

The process of reading a text, line by line, is hard work. Not quite as hard work as writing it, perhaps, but almost. Biographical interpretations are an excuse for lazy reading. Using an author’s life to crack the code of his texts is just too easy. There are no shortcuts to interpretation. That was why I spent three hours reading ten pages of Kafka with my students.

It’s only through this intense engagement with a text that a reader can feel what Terry Eagleton has memorably called that “moment of wondering self-estrangement” which is unique to the aesthetic experience. [6] It was the Russian Formalists who first proposed the idea of defamiliarization, or ostranenie in Russian. In “Art as Technique” (1917) Victor Shklovsky explained what this meant:

“Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. … And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” [7]

This is one of the most perceptive and powerful statements about the purpose of art and its ability to transform our way of seeing that I know. As in metafiction, the defamiliarizing artwork places the reader centre stage: you are no longer a passive decoder of signs but actively interpreting, constructing theories and being challenged. And it highlights something which is so often lost in today’s qualification-driven education system – reading literature can actually change people, change how they see the world. It can make the stone stony.

I was reminded of this recently when reading neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. In her fascinating book, Wolf shows how learning to read changes individual brains forever, both intellectually and physiologically. Indeed, different languages put their own unique stamp on the brain, creating distinctive brain networks. Reading Chinese requires a different set of neuronal connections from that needed to read English. As the writer Joseph Epstein has said, “we are what we read”. Indeed, doctors treating a bilingual person who developed alexia (inability to read) after a stroke found remarkable evidence of this. Although he could no longer read English, the patient was still able to read Chinese.

Metamorphosis, 1st book jacketOf course, Kafka didn’t need lessons from Shklovsky or anyone on how to make the world strange. In a wonderful comment, he once disagreed with a friend who accused Picasso of distorting reality. “I do not think so,” said Kafka. “He only registers the deformities which have not yet penetrated our consciousness. Art is a mirror, which goes ‘fast,’ like a watch—sometimes.” [8]

Kafka’s story “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse-folk” explores this idea. I first read it at university when I was studying German literature and it has haunted me ever since. (I even named my website after it.) It was written in March 1924, three months before Kafka died. He was in the last stages of tuberculosis of the larynx, and was unable to speak – a poignant background for a story about a singer. But it was Kafka’s writing, not his tragic life, that made such an impression on me.

The story is about a singer and her place in the community. The fact that Kafka chooses to make this a community of mice can itself be seen as an example of making strange: what better way to explore the role of the artist in society than to defamiliarize the artist by turning her into a mouse? In fact mice are only mentioned by name in the title and if this is ignored, then the world described could easily be our own. Similarly, although Josephine is described as a “singer” in the title, she does not sing in the story, but whistles, pipes or squeaks, depending on your translation (“pfeift” in the original German), thus defamiliarizing the act of singing itself. Subtly and with immense skill, Kafka’s language begins to change our perceptions from the very first words.

The unnamed narrator is writing about Josephine in order to understand why she played such an important role in their society. For Josephine has disappeared and despite the narrator’s evident ambivalence about her, it is clear she has left a hole at the heart of their community. As he thinks critically about Josephine, the narrator begins to wonder whether the fascination he feels for her art lies not in the art itself – the singing or “Pfeifen” – but rather in its context, in the fact of it being set apart from everyday life:

“To crack a nut is truly no feat, so no one would ever dare to collect an audience in order to entertain it with nut-cracking. But if all the same one does do that and succeeds in entertaining the public, then it cannot be a matter of simple nut-cracking. Or it is a matter of nut-cracking, but it turns out that we have overlooked the art of cracking nuts because we were too skilled in it and that this newcomer to it first shows us its real nature, even finding it useful in making his effects to be rather less expert in nut-cracking than most of us.” [9]

The concept of art formulated here has much in common with Shklovsky’s theory of ostranenie. According to the narrator, the act of cracking a nut does not in itself amount to Art. Yet if one were to call it Art and repeat the same act in front of an audience, then, although it would still be someone cracking nuts, the act itself would be transformed, and the audience would see an aestheticized and gesteigert version of nut-cracking. By taking an object out of its usual context and rendering it strange, the viewer is granted a heightened awareness of that object and its significance within the scheme of things.

In his attempt to deconstruct Josephine’s art, the narrator reveals the paradox that lies at its heart: that essentially it is nothing more than their everyday speech. Her audience may know that her voice is nothing special; but there remains an undeniable yet elusive quality to her performances that commands attention and moves them all profoundly: “Something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness that can never be found again, but also something of active daily life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet springing up and not to be obliterated.” As the narrator finally understands, her singing-piping is “set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while.” [10] Mundane her voice may be, but what Josephine does is art, and without it her community feels bereft.

As the novelist Alice McDermott has said, fiction is “the way to enter into another universe, a way to see the world anew”. [11] The singing of Kafka’s mouse set her people free, if only for a few blissful moments, and with his writing Kafka offers readers a similar intellectual release. You don’t need a suitcase of yellowing documents to know that. Just a dog-eared paperback copy of his stories will do.


1. “In der Strafkolonie” (1919), “In the Penal Settlement”, tr Willa and Edwin Muir, in Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Penguin, 1980), p 180.
2. Kate Connolly, “End of a Kafkaesque nightmare: writer's papers finally come to light”, Guardian, July 9, 2008.
3. Martin Swales. “Why Read Kafka?” Modern Language Review 76 (1981): 357-66
4. Zadie Smith, “F. Kafka, Everyman”, New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 12, July 17, 2008.
5. “The week in books”, Guardian, July 26, 2008.
6. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford, 1990), p. 89
7. Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917). Originally published as “Iskusstvo kak priëm.” In Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, trs., Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 12.
8. Cited by Zadie Smith, op.cit., from Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, p. 143.
9. Kafka, Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Stories, trs. Willa and Edwin Muir (Penguin 1982), p 176. The original German text:
“Eine Nuß aufknacken ist wahrhaftig keine Kunst, deshalb wird es auch niemand wagen, ein Publikum zusammenzurufen und vor ihm, um es zu unterhalten, Nüsse knacken. Tut er es dennoch und gelingt seine Absicht, dann kann es sich eben doch nicht nur um bloßes Nüsseknacken handeln. Oder es handelt sich um Nüsseknacken, aber es stellt sich heraus, daß wir über diese Kunst hinweggesehen haben, weil wir sie glatt beherrschten und daß uns dieser neue Nußknacker erst ihr eigentliches Wesen zeigt, wobei es dann für die Wirkung sogar nützlich sein könnte, wenn er etwas weniger tüchtig im Nüsseknacken ist als die Mehrzahl von uns.” (“Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse”, in Ein Hungerkünstler, 1924)
10. Ibid., 184.
11. Carole Burns (ed), Off the Page: Writers talk about Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between (Norton, 2008), p. 73.

11 comments so far:

  1. A.C. Douglas | 11 August 2008

    Thank you for this splendid piece. I've linked it on S&F, and forwarded a recommendation to Denis Dutton for a link to the piece in A&LD.


  2. LiteraryMinded | 11 August 2008

    Ah, this is wonderful! I just came over to my computer for the second time today as a break from my studies. Earlier, I encountered Zadie Smith's fresh essay, and now, as I take a break from reading Kafka's 'Amerika', I get to read your great piece which affirms everything his works are expressing to me.
    I am going to be writing an essay, as part of my thesis, on Kafka as related to Camus' absurd and the emergence of art from the enlightened moment of becoming aware of an absurd contradiction (plus lots more of course). It was a self-directed study unit brought on by wanting to read everything of Kafka's after reading 'The Trial', and also after visiting the museum in Prague, where art installations deposit you into the claustrophobic, reflective and disturbing worlds of the novels, and as related to Kafka's inner world.
    I have to say, that 'In the Penal Settlement' (or 'In the Penal Colony' as it is in my version) is competing for top place with 'The Metamorphosis' in terms of the stories that have had a profound effect on me. I was so haunted by the end of both of them - vivid images burned on my brain, and I felt compelled to write and wholly inadequate at the same time (so probably a little like Kafka felt at times).
    Thanks so much for sharing this piece 🙂

  3. PD Smith | 11 August 2008

    AC Douglas: many thanks for that & thanks too for introducing me to your excellent site... I shall add it to my links.

    Angela: so glad you enjoyed it! The Trial is remarkable isn't it? Amerika too...claustrophobic is certainly the right word. All haunting texts.

    Your thesis sounds fascinating...hope you'll be sharing your findings online too?

  4. Paul Halpern | 11 August 2008

    An exceptional analysis of Kafka--thanks for posting that. The literature class you've taught sounds fantastic.

    It's always been hard for me to think of Kafka as a 20th century writer -- his writings are so timeless.

    It will be interesting to see what emerges from the new Kafka material. I think the release of the Mileva letters had a profound effect on the public conception of Einstein. Not sure if it was all for the best--I think there is less public interest now in his later humanitarian endeavours (disarmament, etc).

  5. Kári | 11 August 2008

    Yes thanks for that. What struck me most was the nut-cracking image (I must confess it had slipped my mind; I must re-read that story), because it seems to echo a passage from his diaries which I'm sure you're familiar with, where he describes his ideal of writerly production as an uneasy hovering between nothing and something.

    "This is the problem: Many years ago I sat one day, in a sad enough mood, on the slopes of the Laurenziberg. I went over the wishes that I wanted to realize in life. I found that the most important or the most delightful was the wish to attain a view of life (and—this was necessarily bound up with it—to convince others of it in writing) in which life, while still retaining its natural full-bodied rise and fall, would simultaneously be recognized no less clearly as a nothing, a dream, a dim hovering. A beautiful wish, perhaps, if I had wished it rightly. Considered as a wish, somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: “Hammering a table together is nothing to him,” but rather: “Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,” whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and, if you will, still more senseless."

    —Trans. Martin Greenberg and Hannah Arendt. "I Am a Memory Come Alive". Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Schocken, 1974. 182f.

    All of which is to say that I agree that focusing too heavily on biographical details of Kafka's life is ultimately detrimental to an understanding or let us say an appreciation of his work; but I would add to that that his diaries and letters are often jut as "literary" as his literary works.

  6. PD Smith | 11 August 2008

    Paul: yes that's a good point about Einstein. His work for peace has been rather obscured now. That's a pity.

    Kári: yes, "a dim hovering" - that's wonderful. Thank you for quoting that. It's a good point about the diaries. Although I suppose you could say that diaries are part of a private discussion with the self but a fiction is at least in part (the main part?) a public communication...

  7. Mrinal Bose | 11 August 2008

    An excellent piece on Kafka. It made my day. I really enjoyed it. Looking forward to your future writings.

  8. PD Smith | 12 August 2008

    Thanks for commenting Mrinal - glad you enjoyed it.

  9. Making strange | Art & Perception | 12 August 2008

    [...] I came across a nice formulation of a common theme: that we are blind to the usual. In an essay on Kafka, P. D. Smith quotes the Russian Victor Shklovsky (in “Art as Technique”, 1917) on the [...]

  10. Matt | 21 August 2008

    Thanks for this piece - and for your writing in general.


  11. PD Smith | 21 August 2008

    Thanks Matt - very nice website you've got there...

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