Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

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".

4 comments:

  1. What you call the "marketing profile of the book" was born out a desire to tell the truth about Kafka for once. For the record, it was commissioned in the UK/US before we had any idea about those pictures, for the simple reason that I had never (in all my undergrad and PhD years) heard of them other than as Brod's footnote and assumed, if I thought of them at all, that they were merely now-obscure literary journals of the day, unworthy of further note (the familar tale told by Pawel, Hayman et al and, it seems, re-hashed above by Julian Preece).

    In 1958 Klaus Waganbach called these journals "a collection of the finest - and sometimes, the coarsest - erotica". Yet neither Wagenbach (whose books make use of every other available piece of pictorial material conncted to Kafka, however tangentially) nor anyone else has never elected to publish this maiterail.

    More importantly, no-one (including Julian Preece) has even bothered to point out that this (at the time, banned) principally erotic journal, to which Kafka subscribed (and to which Brod regularly contributed) was published by the same man (Franz Blei) who was to become Kafka's own first publisher and who would, in 1915, fix the major Berlin literary prize for Kafka. This major event in Kafka's literary career, and the background to it, is, amazingly, all but ignored by Pawel, Hayman, Preece - and the Cambridge Companion.

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  2. "Der Amethyst"/"Die Opale" was an upmarket, subscribers-only, essentially erotic magazine. In 1958 Klaus Wagenbach called it "a collection of the finest - and often the coarsest - erotica" ("eine Sammlung der schoensten - und oft, der derbsten - erotika".) In 1908 the editor of this magazine, one Dr Franz Blei, became Kafka's first-ever publisher; in 1915, Blei fixed a half-share of the major Berlin literary prize (and much attendant publicity) for Kafka in a blatant piece of literary insider dealing which was very important to Kafka's literary career but which is all but ignored today by Pawel, Hayman, Murray - and the Cambridge Companion.

    This story is unknown today largely because, starting with Brod himself, Kafka's champions would rather it had not been so. To say that the truth has been repressed might sound too strong, but the fact is that of all the 10,000- odd publications now extant about Kafka's life and work, not a single one has ever pointed out the full connection between Blei and Kafka, nor published the striking pictures – some of which would be top-shelf stuff even today – in the magazine to which Kafka, as his letters reveal, enthusiastically and jollily subscribed.

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  3. Sorry that got doubled-up, I'm not used to blogging and thought Google told me the first attempt failed.

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  4. So let me get this straight. A new book has been written on Kafka and there is no engagement with the exegetical and speculative thought of Benjamin, Adorno, Canetti, Deleuze and Guattari (or, one might add, Borges)? Sounds exciting. One repression excavated, another put in place, n'est-ce pas?

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