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
Author information on British Council website