The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive: epilogue

21 Apr

Epilogue: Life is merely terrible

(parts one and two and three here and here and here)

I was 19 when I first read “The Metamorphosis.” I was shocked by its beautiful weirdness. I promptly read “Judgment Day” and “In the Penal Colony,” as well as chapters of a piss poor biography. I thought I understood Kafka: trouble with overbearing father, full of self-doubt, uses fiction for recrimination and revenge. A stormy, doomed and de-sexed wraith wandering around in human clothing. His initial influence was vast; I felt kinship to this solitary outsider terrified of the beast with two backs.[1] I felt invaded by his thoughts. He recast my life story as an extension of his own. Looking into the mirror late at night, I sensed his eyes looking through my own.

Basically, I fell in love.

He was my favorite author for a long time, and then in the pantheon for years. My first stories were imitations of his. My first novel (it’s terrible and shall remain unread)—I started shortly after reading Kafka for the first time—was infused with his casual weirdness, the detachment of his characters.

As time passes, however, I feel his influence less and less. I reread segments of his novels. I watched movie adaptations. I visited various websites devoted to his oeuvre. The more I learn, the less I understand. He’s slippery and difficult to pin down. Whereas I once thought he was fascinating, I now find reading him an exercise in futility and frustration. The translations are often loose, a touch flabby. His works all seem unfinished, even a tad undercooked. Little wonder, then, that a case study on his papers would also prove to be equally frustrating.

The bulk of the information in this case study came from Elif Batuman’s lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine, as well as the Guardian’s ongoing coverage. The books provided details into the principle figures’ lives. No one has written a biography of Hoffe. When contacted, Batuman was friendly, but refused to answer any questions on the case, her research, or the article. She was strangely adamant on this point, despite taking time to respond to my emails. Instead, she pointed me to Haaretz, one of the premiere Israeli newspapers. Dozens of short articles covered facets of the case, and I came across a quote from a state archivist, “No material that is of importance to the history of the Jewish people will leave the State of Israel. . . .We will not permit the materials’ removal without fulfilling the law.”

Perhaps this answer was the most definitive information I would find. The laws in question are Israeli laws, as are the lawyers and judge involved. Israel won’t let the papers leave, I’m sure of it.

Reporter Ofer Aderat was the major writer assigned to the trial. He wrote most of the articles, and I tried to contact him, too, tried and failed.

I was beginning to feel a profound frustration. I felt alone, stuck in this complex case without any cipher. Sort of like one of Kafka’s protagonists, which it turns out, is a theme related to this case. There’s a strange distortion field around it. Everyone has an opinion. No one seems to have all of the information.

I turned to the German Literature Archive. They didn’t respond for weeks. I grew worried, contacted the Harry Ransom archive in Texas, at least to get some insight into the rationale under which this sort of archive operates. The Texas librarian was curt, dismissive and even a touch combative. He flat-out lied about the way his archive operates, and he offered me very little. Another dead end.

The German archive responded, finally, and I sent them the questions. Worry set in as days passed with no response from them, either. What was it about this case? Was it unimportant, too important, or just some thing that no one really cared about? Was I missing something? Was something being hidden from me?

I felt alienated and confused, bound to an assignment that had no answers and defied logic or meaning. In short, I was beginning to feel like a protagonist in a Kafka novel. Others have felt the same way. There is something about this case.

I discovered Hawes late in my research, and he helped guide me back to firmer ground. The very myths he punctures in his book—Kafka as a lonely, abused outsider, a prophet of the Holocaust and an unloved loner terrified of sex—were some of the biggest obstacles in the way of my understanding the case.[2] He presents a different Kafka, meaner and worldlier. He also offers a way of studying Kafka that is straight-forward and rewarding. Basically, he liberated me from my own preconceived notions.

Every book maintains Kafka’s importance to world letters, but can after this essential point agree on little else. Even the final resting place of his papers. I don’t think there is any fixed or absolute answer in this case. The papers will go where the papers will go. Knowing how quirky and unpredictable the case has been so far—the spirit of Kafka in his own affairs—there’s no telling how or when the case will conclude. I keep thinking of the anecdotal story in The Trial, of the man who is waiting at a door of justice to be called. In waiting, he grows old. He is offered no answers, no explanations. He never finds meaning, or what he is looking for. The answer to why no one else has come through the door. “No one else could enter the door,” the guard explains, “because it was only meant for you. I’ll go and close it now.”

Kafka found his stories hilarious. The world finds them melancholy, horrifying, strange, full of black humor, infuriating and complex, but not funny. It turns out Kafka had a unique vision and version of himself, just like the rest of us.

And this is what he leaves us: contradictory impressions of his life and work, a series of interlocking puzzles, an ornate Chinese puzzle box, a legal case that spans 90 years and most of 20th century history, a case that could perpetuate itself for years, a big legal and moral question mark.

Kafka once wrote, “I doubt I am a human being.” Perhaps he was a ghost from the start, determined to bedevil any and all who wander into his impenetrable mazes, real or imagined.


[1] He didn’t help my dating/social life at all. I wandered through parties with my thoughts stuck in some foggy Hapsburg past.

[2] A similar thing happened to Johnny Cash. Producer Rick Rubin glommed onto the Christ-haunted troubador of backroads America for the final albums. They’re great, but they ignore Cash’s other, rascally, more playful, rockabilly roots.

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