The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 6.

21 Apr

Part 6: Perhaps it’s all about the top shelf

Why not more strangeness? A new group of revisionists have been looking at Kafka and his work in a new light. Perhaps the strongest voice in this movement is a British academic and author named James Hawes.

A decidedly different take on the lonely Czech.

Hawes offers a different reading that might also shed some light on why Brod, and later Hoffe, guarded the archive so closely. Hawes has recently published the book Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life, focusing on Kafka’s collection of erotica and pornography[1]. Hawes argues that Kafka was a handsome, all-too-human time waster who was influenced by his interest in the erotic. He was, by way of example, a subscriber to Der Amethyst, an early pornographic magazine. The Bodleian Library has some of these issues in their Kafka archive, although the pictures are secured, as Hawes puts it, “on the top shelf.” The sexual encounters in Kafka’s novels are often read as a man who is terrified of sex, but the other reading, of an author possessing a kinky sexual point of view is also valid. In a 2008 interview, Hawes said of this ignored stash of erotica, “They are undoubtedly porn. . . . Some of it is quite dark. . . . The Kafka industry doesn’t want to know such things about its idol.”

An example of content from Der Amethyst, and perhaps why the archive's contents are still shrouded in secrecy.

Perhaps the archive reflects this ignored interest of Kafka’s. Perhaps the archive contains drawings, photos or some other items of a prurient nature that Eva and Ruth don’t know what to do with. Conjecture, true, but just as valid as the other interpretations of the man and his work.[2]

It gets worse. Hawes argues that Kafka was not some romantic literary outsider, but rather a glad hander and social climber who had support from his parents and help from his friends. He was also, according to Hawes, a militant nationalist, a supporter of Austrian hegemonic military action, and a coddled wealthy bourgeois member of management. In this interpretation, the German Literature Archive has a strong case. If Kafka considered himself Austrian, Prussian, or German, then perhaps he belongs in Germany after all.

One thing is clear: there isn’t one Kafka, or two, or even a dozen, but thousands. Hawes has his Kafka, Smith has hers, as do Coetzee, Murray, Brod, Eva and Ruth, and I do, too. He is different things to different people, and how we interpret his life and his work affects how we feel about the case.


[1] As well as his financial independence and publishing connections.

[2] I’ve seen some of the pictures. They are perverse, unquestionably pornographic, and strange, a combination of voyeurism, sex and violence, including one picture of a homunculus-type creature performing fellatio on a phallus-shaped tree.

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