Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Kafka dicks: on people with their subtexts around their ankles

This subject has provoked me before. In this week's TLS Michael Maar reviews - somewhat late - the latest biography of Kafka by Nicholas Murray. Maar presents many hints that Kafka was a repressed homosexual. This is a very familiar theme. It won’t go away. This is due partly to the infinite number of subtexts one can read into Kafka’s work, and partly because we want simple answers to the most complex issues.

In fact, it seems more promising to make out a case for Kafka’s ‘secret’ being an attraction to very young women. Read his diaries (page 466 onward) for his trip to Weimar with Max Brod in which Kafka’s becomes pathetically infatuated with Grete Kirchner, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the custodian of Goethe’s wohnhaus. Kafka celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday in the city. He wrote The Judgement soon after returning to Prague after Grete used a dead bat on all his advances. The secret inspiration of that story is usually construed as homosexuality due to Georg Bendemann’s ambivalence about telling his fiancée about his 'friend in Russia' (he said 'bende’, heh heh). This corresponds with Kafka’s new relationship with Felice Bauer, to whom he was not physically attracted. Yet one could say it was a classic on-the-rebound relationship, with Kafka’s real heart being elsewhere in an impossible love for Grete ('If a person could only pour sorrow out of the window').

Moreover, what's the name of Gregor's sister in Metamorphosis with whom there is an undercurrent of incestuous love?

Alan Bennett’s comedy play takes the prurience one step further of course. It makes affectionate fun of the reductionism of small-minded people as well as appealing to them. Bennett’s work has always done this. In that other blog entry, I mention Bennett’s wonderful remark when asked to admit that he is gay ('like asking a man in the desert which brand of mineral water he preferred'). Evidently he felt it was a question that avoided more pressing matters, which is much the same as I feel about the question of Kafka’s sexuality.

(Coincidentally, I was at an event on Sunday night in which Bennett was present with his ‘partner’ – a younger man. They both seemed very happy. I suspect the people who drone on that Kafka was a closet gay are not so comfortable with themselves and need to bring others down to their level. Either that or they're very bad readers.)

As everyone who promotes this knowing reading (the other post quotes one or two) has to admit, as Maar says: 'there is no corroborating document like Kleist’s letter to Pfuel.' He goes on:

Matters are in any case more complicated with Kafka, and his happy life with Dora Diamant in the year before he died seems to [indicate] a happiness of whose private circumstances, however, posterity knows next to nothing.

Except we now know more than nothing from Kathi Diamant’s very moving book about Dora: Kafka’s Last Love. This might not include anything about whether Franz preferred Dora’s, er, posterity, but one doesn’t read about Kafka for hardcore titillation (unless you're very sad).

Finally, and on an encouraging note for Kafka fans without any German, Maar tells us that the first volume of Reiner Stach’s massive biography Kafka: the Decisive Years is being published in translation later this year (did he become less decisive later then?).

The book ‘recently created a furore in Germany’ and has 672 pages. The longer the better I say, which I’m sure Bennett’s Kafka would endorse.

3 comments:

  1. Dude, if you had any idea what it's like to be a repressed homosexual, you would know that Kafka could very well have been one based on what we know about him. Of course, it could be something else too. But we don't know, do we?

    His infatuation with Grete is hardly proof that he wasn't secretly in love with Max Brod or simply attracted to men. Before coming to terms with being gay, I also developed strong and genuine crushes on women (actually, this still happens, though less debilitating so) - but they were never sexual, just romantic, if you can figure. The fact that the "one true love" he suffered for so much was a woman out of reach is classic - characteristic of some highly intelligent but repressed homosexuals (capable of rationalizing at very high levels) who convince themselves that that's why they will never marry.

    To say that he may been gay is not a way of bringing Kafka down either - nor do I think i suffer from a low self esteem - unless you're an anti-gay bigot.

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  2. As I think is obvious, my post has nothing to do with prejudice for or against gay sexuality. It's a matter of literary criticism. Do I need to say it all over again. Does being a Queer Theorist mean one also can't read?

    But here we go again. Whereas there is evidence of his for the time average heterosexuality (the prostitute/mother opposition), there is only his dandiness and close friendships with other writers to suggest anything otherwise. (Gosh, how dare he have friends with similar interests!) Yet even this depends on projecting current assumptions onto a different era.

    And can you provide any evidence that he suffered *every* time for "one true love" for a woman out of reach? Who hasn't had such a love FFS?

    Literary criticism is the only area that provokes unacceptable prejudice in me. Those making the claims are poor readers of Kafka's work. Much like those who reduce his work to a Marxist critique of society or read him through Freudian concepts. Can i expect Marxists and Freudians to complain now?

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  3. That little or no evidence exists of homosexuality in historical figures, including those who were gay or self-repressed, can be simply -- and you don't have to be a queer theorist to figure this one out -- the result of the guy's (or his family and friends') efforts to conceal it. It can also be the result of his having no sex with anyone, since being attracted to men at the time and place was unacceptable to everyone, including himself.

    Still, I'm not championing the idea that he was gay (and I'm certainly no queer theorist -- got too many other priorities in life). I just get annoyed when people assert that some favorite personality from the past couldn't have experienced same-sex attraction based on what's been written about them. Would you (or, after your death, your friends, family, and fans) not cover this up at a time when homosexuality is highly stigmatized?

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