Sunday, January 11, 2009

A report from the academy: more on Kafka's "porn stash"

Last August, in my response to the reviews of James Hawes' Excavating Kafka, I said that the headline "revelation" that Kafka owned magazines featuring erotic images would not be a surprise to "anyone familiar with his work and with the secondary literature".
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.
Later in the blog, I wrote that Hawes' book seemed to be relying on a saintly image of Kafka as promoted by Max Brod opposed and revised by Walter Benjamin as early as the 1930s and by Milan Kundera in the 1990s. In the latest print edition of the TLS, Julian Preece confirms this suspicion by using, Kundera apart, the same examples to express surprise at the focus of the book: "Saying that Brod got it wrong is hardly worth another book".

Preece, a professor of German and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, also reveals that the "porn" magazines to which Kafka subscribed "mainly contained literary writing". I seem to have missed this telling fact from all the debate at the time. Nor did I know that Hawes' recommendations for further reading consists of only "seven European male critics". Preece quotes his reasons: "You don't need any more than this, for the brutal fact is that there really is very little else that would be missed", to which Preece responds: "So that's Benjamin, Adorno, Deleuze and Guattari, Canetti and Sebald dealt with". Is it really true that Hawes does not include any of these names? I hold out little hope that my own favourite writers on Kafka are included as Preece says that Hawes' exceptions "seem to be associated with his book".

However, I do know that Hawes rates the biographer Reiner Stach, and that's good to know but, in connection with this, Preece complains that Hawes "rehashes one sexist misnomer: that Felice was just 'a little typist' ... and consequently desperate to bag the successful, good-looking lawyer". As he points out, Felice was "a successful businesswoman with managerial responsibility working for a high-tech company". This is very clear in Stach's The Decisive Years with its revisionary portrait of Felice, her family and, by extension, Kafka himself, so one has to wonder if Preece has quoted Hawes out of context or if Hawes disagrees with Stach's scholarship.

Preece's trenchancy also confirms my hunch that the marketing profile of the book was borne of confidence in the lazy, ignorant and philistine preferences of the British common reader rather than in any conspiracy or incompetence of Kafka scholarship.
One could go through any number of the "K-myths" [as demolished by Hawes] and show how they were cleared up years ago, if indeed they ever really existed.
Preece concludes: "his disregard for readers who know what he is writing about is perplexing".

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