Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Stroker? Kafka's "porn" stash

What more can be said about the revelation that Kafka owned some erotica except: please, no more? Anyone familiar with his work and with the secondary literature won't be in the least bit surprised. Even if you've read only Metamorphosis, the magazine image that Gregor Samsa had framed for display showing "a lady, with a fur hat on and a fur stole, sitting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished" is enough to suggest a unusually stimulated imagination. But there's much more. So why has the British media used the find to misrepresent Kafka with the same shameless inattention to reality as it has with recent events in Georgia?

Dalya Alberge claims without evidence that the erotic material has been "studiously ignored by scholars anxious to preserve the iconic writer's saintly image" and Hawes himself says "while academics pored over every postcard or diary entry written by the writer, the graphic collection of pictures was virtually unknown." The poring over every postcard and diary entry might be due to them containing words written by the writer. If we're making literary and biographical assumptions based on mere ownership, can we assume that the presence in Kafka's library of an edition of Dante's Göttliche Komödie means he was a closet Catholic with an interest in cruel and unusual torture or that he was, like Dante, concerned to find salvation in an eternity enveloped by divine light? Have scholars "studiously ignored" Dante's place in his library to preserve the writer's image as a secular jew, or is it because it provides only anecdotal evidence of influence? A scholar might see a connection between the bespoke fates of the damned in Inferno with Samsa's transformation, but that is quite different from assuming Kafka had an S&M fetish. No wonder German experts are appalled at Hawes' claims.

The media reaction is something the author and his publishers must have banked on. They will have known it would be lapped up by the British reading public. It's an ideal opportunity for them to sublimate their philistinism further and to disguise their assumptions about Kafka and Kafka scholarship as commonsense knowingness. Kevin of Lincoln reacts to the story with these impressive thoughts:
Kafka wrote a load of overrated cobblers. That he was one of the worlds first porno pervs just shows how the academic world of literature is led by the emporers new clothes. It is about time someone dismantled all these great early icons of literature & show'd them to be all human beings not gods. [sic]
It is time indeed, just as it's about time Kevin stopped giving the impression that Lincoln is populated by illiterate philistines. While he's doing that, maybe he can have a word with Obooki over the garden fence.

I exclude Nicholas Lezard from all this as he is mercifully unfazed by the “news”. It's the array of assumption displayed in the comments to his blog that need to be addressed. However, the title of his post - "Kafka's guilty pleasures" (not necessarily chosen by the author) - repeats the Guardian's lazy standby usually employed when referring to the consumption of chick lit. By assuming Kafka felt not only guilt but pleasure too, it reveals what it really thinks about the relation between reader and work. As well as the Dante edition, Kafka also owned many books by Knut Hamsun. Was Kafka an incipient admirer of Hitler too then?

The assumptions keep coming: Gaviero informs us that Kafka "was a weedy, socially awkward loner with no talent for attracting women”. From where did he or she get this image? Certainly not from Mark Anderson's Kafka's Clothes which outs Kafka as a bit of a dandy concerned with his appearance as much as any metrosexual, or from Dora Diamant's account of her first meeting with the man she would eventually live with in which Kafka comes across as a matinee idol; tall, handsome and charming.

James Walton makes an interesting point in his review of Excavating Kafka. Nowhere does Hawes mention the "similar arguments" put forward in Milan Kundera's essay In the Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (collected in Testaments Betrayed). Among other things, the essay summarises the presentation of sex in Kafka's novels, such as the "exuberant delight" of Brunelda in Amerika and the "act of love ... among the beer puddles and the other filth covering the floor" between K and Frieda in The Castle. Kundera was keen to retrieve Kafka from the saintly image portrayed by Max Brod (though this had started in the 1930s with essays by Walter Benjamin) and to distinguish Kafka from earlier writers like Dickens and Gogol despite superficial likenesses:
Masterful as they were at analyzing all the strategies of love, nineteenth-century novels left sex and the sexual act hidden. In the first decades of our century, sex emerged from the mists of romantic passion. Kafka was one of the first (certainly along with Joyce) to uncover it in his novels. He unveiled sex ... as a commonplace, fundamental reality in everyone's life. Kafka unveiled the existential aspects of sex: sex in conflict with love; the strangeness of the other as a condition, a requirement, of sex; the ambiguous nature of sex: those aspects that are exciting and simultaneously repugnant.
I first read this in the TLS in 1991 and it has been in book form since 1995. Perhaps James Hawes has been too busy poring over postcards and diaries to notice.

11 comments:

  1. Biographical information is all one surely needs to 'understand' the various insidious forms of that undemocratic world of art. Who do these artists think they are, hovering in some world of 'profounder truths'. All this pretentiousness needs to be dragged down to the filthy gutter where humanity belongs. As John Carey said, or wrote, or perhaps even thought, What good are the arts? Fuck all good.

    Though I will occasionally confess to a nagging doubt that art-works are sufficient to themselves, and if Kafka's works were merely known to us as the unattributed works of an anonymous author, the identical words would exist on the otherwise naked pages. Though I reiterate that this Kafka figure might have been a human exhibiting behavioural traits characteristic of humans is a great victory for humanity. And means his works are not what some thought they were. Because humans are simple one-dimensional entities incapable of the swarm of inner complexity that some of these 'artists' wish to imagine to be the case.

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  2. The problem with this book (having read it) is that it sets up a supposed "K. myth" to which no serious reader or biographer or critic any longer subscribes and then proceeds at length to demolish it. NO-ONE believes that Kafka was unknown in his lifetime so why spend your first 50 pages trying to prove the point? It has occasional insights which are valuable but overall it is an exercise in futile polemic.

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  3. Anonymous12:45 am

    Blimey, Steve, you should see the Observer's review today. Kevin of Lincoln's gift for lit crit is spreading from comments sections to the actual paper.

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  4. Scott Horton has a Q&A with Hawes today in Harper's.

    Asks Horton: "Do you really think the label 'pornography' is fair? Are you trying to suggest by it that there was a prurient side to Kafka's personality? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to applaud his repudiation of turn-of-the-century prudery and sexual repression?"

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  5. Anonymous2:01 am

    "The Stroker"... marvelous!

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  6. Well, Hawes is a pisspoor novelist (Rancid Aluminium, anyone? A book which had intrinsic qualities so immutable and essential to its being that when the film came out with a different plot, Hawes rewrote the book to avoid confusing new readers), so I never expected him to be any better as a 'biographer' (if that's even what he's aiming at).

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  7. jameshawes5:44 pm

    Nicholas Murray is wrong: the myth of Kafka's being "unknown" is still so widespread that in 2004 Britain's top Kafka-man, Prof Ritchie Roberston of Oxford praised Germany's top Kafka-man, Prof Peter-Andre Alt of Berlin (they both helped me with the book, by the way) for fighting against "the notion, still widespread, that Kafka was largely ignored by colleagues and reviewers". And the standard day-by-day biographical reference work for researchers, the "Kafka-Chronik" (Wagenbach, 1999) has on its back jacket the hoary claim that Kafka was "almost unknown in his liftime". Of course Murray knows otherwise - just as Murray presumably had seen what was in Der Amethyst but chose not to publish it, and knew that Kafka's half-winning the 1915 Fontane Prize was a blatant literary insider deal but chose not to say so. The trouble is precisely that people who DO know better have not dared to directly challenge the many myths about Kafka. As my book makes plain, I use the porn (and porn it undoubtedly is, by the way, pace my outraged German critics, as Wagenbach pointed out right back in 1958) simply as a little charge of undeniable truth to set the myths toppling. And as for John Self's accusation that "Rancid Aluminium" is pisspore: I take the fifth and point out merely that that book was last millennium whereas my last led The Guardian to say that I'd "matured into a wonderful satirst". So there.

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  8. James Hawes is wrong: look at any biographical study of Kafka in the past five years, including my own biography of 2004, Jeremy Adler's Penguin life, Ritchie Robertson's "Very Short Introduction" etc etc and I defy you to see it asserted that Kafka was unpublished and unknown in his lifetime. [Ritchie, by the way, an old friend who read my book in typescript would presumably have shouted: "Oi,Nick!" if I had proposed anything so silly.] Also, I am baffled by this porn-prurience from someone whose blurb boasts that his novel is being "reworked" by Andrew Davies of all people. We know what that will mean for some young female member of Equity.

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  9. I'm pretty sure that if porn/erotica had been freely available in his day, Shakespeare would have been into it, as evidenced by the sexual wordplay and allusion that permeates his work as well as his own powerful sexual nature (brought out in Peter Ackroyd's biography). It doesn't make him any the less of a great writer.
    Many other major writers like Goethe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarme and James Joyce have strong sexual references in some of their works. It doesn't make them 'perverts' (whatever that is) as some holier than thou moralists claim.

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  10. So he liked some erotica. Big deal. So did Shakespeare who was even more sexually adventurous and unconventional than Kafka, as were a lot of other writers. It doesn't make him any less a great writer. Tolstoy had some strange and even unhealthy attitudes (by modern standards) towards sex but this doesn't make him a lesser writer either. We've all got our dark sexual sides so why be surprised and judgemental if writers are 'discovered' to be no different?

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  11. Indeed Rich, but Hawes wishes to make a fuss about its apparent repression in the record and that he was, as you say, just like any other writer and not the Saint Garda of Max Brod legend. So, your surprise is not the issue. To repeat, the legend itself has long been dismissed by Milan Kundera whose famous essay, as reported by the review I refer to, is not mentioned in this book.

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