Review: Excavating Kafka – James Hawes

I started to read the books of Franz Kafka as a young man and found them remarkably relevant to me at the time, describing as they do a sense of alienation from mainstream society which so fitted in with 1960/70s counter-culture.

Working in my first boring office job, the thought of waking up as a beetle (Metamorphosis) did not seem too unlikely a possibility, and the thought of being pursued for having committed some unknown crime (The Trial) was all part and parcel of hanging around with people who had radical political ideas.  The fact that no-one in suburban London cared tuppence what a group of long-haired young men were talking about in the pub was neither here nor there – perhaps we just wanted to be in Kafka’s world, and it certainly felt good to have one of Penguin’s Kafka paperbacks sticking out of your jacket pocket.

James Hawes is passionate about Kafka but believes that the bulk of modern scholarship is misguided in painting him as a lonely, heroic figure, bullied by his overbearing father,  ignored in his lifetime – a “fair unsullied soul” almost saintly in his appeal.  Excavating Kafka is his attempt expose the “K Myth” and to inject a note of reality into the study of Kafka, a man of his times who as we might expect had all the usual foibles and failings as the rest of us – and a few unique to himself  for good measure.

The first thing to say about this book, is apart from the writer’s attempt to correct other Kafka scholars, its actually a very readable biography of Franz Kafka, written in an amusing style and imparting vast amounts of information in a relatively compact package.  I think you’d have to read a substantial biography and then a couple of books of literary criticism to get quite as much information (unless of course you favour the cartoon approach!).

James Hawes certainly makes no attempt to cover up some of the more unattractive part of Kafka’s personality.  A whole chapter (Into the Locked Bookcase) is devoted to his hobby of collecting exotic pornography and it is not difficult for Hawes to demonstrate that Kafka was a frequent user of brothels, often with a degree of obsessive compulsion  and an at times callous disdain for the women concerned.

He also had elements of the control-freak in his relationships with women, stringing his fiancé Felice along for years with excuses for not marrying her, and then getting out of the whole thing.  There seemed to be a pattern in Kafka’s life, that he preferred fantasy women to a true partnership with someone who seemed to love him, who was his intellectual equal, and who understood his writing.

Hawes goes on to demolish various elements of the Kafka Myth. I’ll just mention the first three here (there are seven of them):

Myth 1:  Kafka was unknown in his lifetime and was shy about being published

In fact he was mentioned three times in two different articles in the Prague Daily News (11 June 1918) and was courted by two well-known publishers who wanted to poach him from Kurt Wolff and Co.

Myth 2:  Kafka wanted his works destroyed after his death

Hawes presents a pretty convincing case that he didn’t really intend this to happen and if he did he would have set about it in a much better way.

Myth 3:  Kafka’s Jewishness is vital to understanding his writing

It becomes quite evident that Kafka saw his work as part of mainstream German and European literature.  Kafka rarely mentioned Jewishness in his books, and his diaries show that the most important component of his identity was his being a writer.  His role models were Goethe, Flaubert, Dickens and Dostoevsky and it is unlikely that Kafka would have wanted to be anything other than in the mainstream together with these respected writers.

I enjoyed this book, not only for the information it provides about Kafka but also for the entertaining way in which it presents his life-story.  It gives a wonderful flavour of life in Kafka’s Prague haunts, like the Café Corso.  It is illustrated by many photographs and facsimiles of papers and documents which present a vivid sense of the times.

The book is also published under the title Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life, presumably an attempt to cash in on the success of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, and many similar titles following.  This is a completely misleading title in my view however as the book simply does not adress the question posed in this variant title.

Title:   Excavating Kafka
Author:   James Hawes
Publication:   Quercus (2008), Hardback, 272 pages
ISBN:   9781847245441 / 1847245447

Newspaper reviews:

Ian Sansom in The Guardian
James Walton in The Daily Telegraph
Clive Sinclair in The Independent

Author information on British Council website

16 thoughts on “Review: Excavating Kafka – James Hawes

  1. I have yet to read any Kafka, so I don’t really know much about his works (except for the whole man turning into a beetle story – which everyone is familiar with). I did just buy a book of his on Saturday – it contains the beetle story and 2 others. I’m not sure when I’ll get around to reading it, but I will be moving it slightly up in the TBR queue. Its just interesting to read this post and learn a bit about Kafka and his imperfections. And thanks for sharing the bit about carrying around a Kafka in your pocket. In my day at uni, we tended to sit around smoking, drinking coffee and discussing postmodernist texts and some of the blokes would declare themselves to be Marxists. Its interesting how we all get caught up in the literature and theory. Cheers!


    • Thanks for your comment. I think all generations have their own definition of “cool”. I’m not sure what if any kudos there is these days in being mildly “intellectual”!


  2. Sounds like you read Kafka the way I read Camus in my youth. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read Kafka either (like Nadia) though I’ve started Metamorphosis a couple of times. I didn’t really dislike it, I just somehow got distracted into reading something else each time before I finished. I feel very guilty about this! I do like reading books like this, though, which explore the life and role of authors I’ve liked.


    • Well, you can’t read everything can you! I have huge gaps in my reading (Jane Austen for example!). I do wonder whether men are more attracted to Kafka’s books anyway – they have much in common with other modern writers who depict a dystopian future


  3. I really enjoy reading biographies, but sometimes I do wonder just how much is ‘true’. After a certain passage of years, a ‘version’ of someone’s life becomes the accepted truth, and I sometimes am curious enough to go and read a second book on the subject.

    Some time ago I read a bio on Susan Hayward, and it did a terrific job of analsying her acting career, but many of the personal anecdotes were from disgruntled relatives who didn’t get a piece of her estate. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it.

    So myth-busting is an interesting approach.


  4. Thanks for that guy. And its so hard to get back to the source material without bringing one’s presuppositions. The writer of this book points out that the first readers of Kafka read him without all the accumulated opinions on the author and to them the novel was just that, a novel


  5. this sounds like another great lit bio ,there seems a run of good bios lst few months the maugham and golding look good as well ,i love kafkas books so this appeals to me tom ,he is a writer that was bound to build myths about him ,warmest stu


  6. I was attracted to Kafka when I was young too. Although never fully shared experiences from Trial and Metamorphosis I felt that his books are very universal and relevant. I also didn’t like that he was strictly classified. I’ll have to read this book…


  7. Agree Tom that that alterntative/supplementary title is condescending & peurile: “Okay, the consumer, or reader if you like, is an idiot. Now how do we best target him . . .”


  8. Thank you for this good review. You have made me curious of Hawes’ book, and I will certainly read it. Here in Eastern Europe Kafka was always part of our self-interpretation, much like yours in London of the 1960/70s. As to the myths around him, a fundamental book to dispel them is the diary of Gustav Jarousch, a young friend and an informal “pupil” of Kafka who in the 1910s regularly registered their conversations. His “Conversations with Kafka”, which was only published in the 1960s, refutes all three myths mentioned by you as being refuted by Hawes as well: Kafka was a well known writer in the German literary circles of Prague in his times (we must not forget that until the post-WWII deportations in 1946-47 half of the population of the Czech Republic was German, and big cities like Prague were even more German); the myth of destroying his legacy was coined by his friend Max Brod; and he, although not denying his own Jewishness, regarded himself primarily as a German author, drawing inspiration almost exclusively from contemporary German literature, especially by the German literature of Bohemia.

    Just one minor correction: The photo you have borrowed from my post on the tangos of pre-WWII Bucharest is in fact Café Corso – however, not the Café Corso of Prague (although the setting is very similar), but that of Bucharest!

    Thank you again, and best wishes – Tamás, Budapest


    • Tamas – Thank you for a very interesting reply. I did not know that Hawes’ three “myths” were so similar to those of an earlier writer who was a friend of Kafka.

      I have deleted the photograph as it is no longer relevant.


  9. I’m not sure you should have deleted it, for the view was in fact very similar to the center of early 20th-century Prague. But I remember to have seen somewhere a photo on the Café Corso in Prague. I will try to find it for you for an illustration of your excellent review.


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