Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt by Saul Friedländer

Robert Eaglestone extols a great historian’s insights into a great and disquieting writer

May 2, 2013

To understand what is special about this book, one needs to follow Saul Friedländer’s own remarkable personal and intellectual journey. He was born in 1932 into an assimilated German Jewish family in Prague, and the passages and terrors of his early life can be seen in the changes in his first name: from Pavel (in Prague) to Paul, when his family had fled the Nazis to France and were in hiding; to Paul-Henri, when he was concealed in a Catholic school during the worst of the war; to Shaul, after the war in Israel; and finally to Saul at the University of California, Los Angeles. If his life has traced a journey from Pavel through Paul to Saul, his intellectual work has traced no less of a journey.

Friedländer’s first books, on Pius XII and the Third Reich and on US- German relations before 1941, are models of Rankean, document-based history. His next book was Counterfeit Nazi, a biography of Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who tried to report the mass murder of European Jews to the wider world beyond the Reich. Subtitled The Ambiguity of Good, it began to broach wider issues (in part in answer to Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann in Jerusalem was subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil). However, it is Friedländer’s 1978 memoir, When Memory Comes, that marks a major shift in his work. In this wrenching, demanding testimony, Friedländer certainly uses documents as evidence: he finds, for example, the letter from his mother to his headmistress, asking the school to hide her son before she and her husband are taken away to be murdered (the handwriting is not clear in places: the letter ends, “I beg you to excuse the appearance of this letter. My hands no longer obey me”). But it is plain that the documentary evidence alone is no longer enough in Friedländer’s “incessant confrontation with the past”. Documents alone do not lead to understanding.

He expands the consequences of this insight in his next book, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, in which he argues that “any analysis of Nazism based only on political, economic and social interpretation will not suffice”. Instead, he aims to find the logic of imagination and terror that motivated the Nazis. These things, like subatomic particles tracing lines in a chamber, cannot be seen in themselves but only in the trails they leave in art, diaries, recorded dreams and so on. This turn - some call it a turn to ideology - has been immensely productive in the study of the Holocaust. More than this, Friedländer would argue that in the narrative voice of the historian, with its claim to objective neutrality, not only were the complexities and contradictions of the past ironed out but, worse, the “voice” of the victims often seemed to disappear entirely. Addressing these concerns led to Friedländer’s magnum opus, the two-volume Pulitzer prizewinning Nazi Germany and the Jews (1997 and 2007). These volumes contain not only documentary history but also dreams, poetry, reflections, thoughts: elements that have come together to create a larger, more nuanced picture of what happened in the Third Reich. (A measure of its influence is that there has already been one volume of essays published about it, edited by Christian Wiese and Paul Betts.) In these changes, Friedländer can claim to have shaped and echoed the changes in contemporary historiography. It is this synthesising, open-minded and yet rigorous method that he has brought to bear on Kafka.

Friedländer makes something of his own family’s cultural similarities to Kafka’s family: middle-class, German-speaking Prague Jews; his father attended (some years later) the same law school as Kafka; his uncle knew Kafka’s friend and biographer Max Brod. And many of each family were murdered. But this is not really why this volume is so gripping. Rather, it is the implicit methodology that Friedländer has developed: a way of bringing together the historical documents, the literature, the accounts and the fantasies in order to shed light on a person and on a period. For the person of Kafka here is “no builder of theories” but one who “followed dreams, created metaphors and unexpected associations”: he was the “poet of his own disorder”. And more, this “poetry” concerned precisely the ways in which the real world and the world of fantasy interwove with and shaped each other. (This is the crucial link to the Nazis: they too wove a fantasy world - a dream of a “world without Jews”, as Alon Confino has it, and an apocalyptically purified Aryan world - into the real world with evil and genocidal consequences.)

And at the heart of his disorder, Friedländer argues, are Kafka’s sexual fantasies and “strongly fought” homoerotic urges. These were, in turn, “enhanced and twisted” by his experience of anti-Semitism and other aspects of his cultural environment to create a “poet of shame and guilt”. Friedländer discusses the complexities of Kafka’s family relationships, especially his Oedipal relationship with his father. Kafka’s Judaism, too, is not straightforward: Friedländer cites Walter Benjamin, who argued that Kafka was “listening in” on the tradition but “what reached him was merely something vague”: in Kafka’s work “the tradition had fallen ill”. But the core of this book lies in the discussion of Kafka’s sexual fantasies. Friedländer here points out that Brod, who bowdlerised his subject’s diaries and letters, is a guide despite himself. A full critical edition of Kafka’s writing has been available since the 1980s, and it is possible to see what Brod excised.

Friedländer discusses at length how Kafka was fascinated but also disgusted by women and by the idea of heterosexual sex. Female characters in his fiction are to be feared and are ultimately repulsive, and while Kafka visited brothels, his relationships with women all foundered. More than this, and building on the critical work of Mark Anderson, Friedländer discusses Kafka’s homosexual desires and tracks them in his diaries and fiction. He also finds some evidence for Kafka’s attraction to children, and for sadomasochism. Friedländer is not suggesting that these fantasies were carried out in any way, but that their force echoed and mutated throughout Kafka’s work and that it is principally because of this that Kafka is, as he seems to us today, a prophet of shame and anxiety. The second half of the book offers a reading of the story A Country Doctor, which illustrates very clearly the pressure of the fantasies on his fiction, full of “blunt sexual metaphors” and strange, unreal and unsettling events. It then goes on to discuss Kafka’s difference from his peers and literary context and, finally, to ask whether Kafka found the meaning that he seemed to be seeking.

The form of attention Friedländer gave to ordinary victims of the Nazis is repaid here in the way that the same attention, paid to Kafka, enhances and complicates, rather than simplistically explains, his fiction. Kafka’s unvarnished, tortured, and honest and powerful voice is allowed to appear. This book is a clear, uncensorious and serious contribution to the publisher’s Jewish Lives series. It is the work of a great historian paying careful attention to a great and disquieting writer.

The author

“I’m convinced that reading Kafka,” says historian and eminent Holocaust scholar Saul Friedländer, “is essential for becoming aware of previously unperceived questions”. In spite, that is, of the nightmarishly bleak subject matter of works such as The Trial and The Metamorphosis and, more practically, the difficulties faced by those reading him in English; Friedländer confirms that “the translations that we have are mostly horrendous”.

Speaking of this book’s genesis leads Friedländer to discuss his own journey. “Eighty years after my birth in Prague in 1932, I somehow closed the circle by publishing a small biographical essay” - his modest description of the book under review here - “on Franz Kafka; the German translation came out a few months before the English original.

“Do I feel Czech? Not really. Maybe German-Jewish and Czech, like Kafka himself? Possibly, but only in part. My basic cultural identity is French. It is to France that my parents fled with me in April 1939, it is in France that I went to elementary school from 1940 to 1942, then was hidden in a Catholic institution from 1942 to the end of 1945.” At that time, he says, “I was studious out of necessity and started taking a real and unlimited pleasure in reading once I had left the seminary in 1945”.

He continues: “It is in Paris that I almost completed high school before escaping to Israel in June 1948. My parents, who tried to reach Switzerland in 1942, were caught by the Swiss, delivered to the French, and then to the Germans who murdered them in Auschwitz.

“Am I Israeli, then? Well, that’s getting complicated. Let us say: Jewish-German-Czech-French-Israeli and American…In Israel, I completed high school and went to the Army. I returned to Paris, graduated from Sciences Po, departed for Sweden, went on to the States and, after a stint at Harvard University, worked for Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Zionist Organisation. Back in Israel and married, I worked for Shimon Peres, then vice-minister of defence.

“In 1961, I resumed my graduate studies in Geneva, and after getting my doctorate in political science, started teaching at the Graduate Institute of International Studies there. From 1969 on I taught simultaneously in Geneva and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, then in Geneva and at Tel Aviv University and finally in Tel Aviv and at the University of California, Los Angeles until I retired, two years ago.”

His decision to move to the US, he confirms, “was indeed scholarly. In Switzerland, I had to teach political science and international relations while writing on the history of the Holocaust. At UCLA, I was offered a chair that allowed me to teach the topic I was writing about.”

Asked to say which of all the institutions where he has studied or taught was the most remarkable, he says: “These institutions changed over time, and whereas the Hebrew University was the most remarkable in the late 1960s and the 1970s, the University of Tel Aviv overtook it in the 1990s, and UCLA is certainly one of the best institutions in this country.”

Although he is now retired, he has not stopped working. “I continue to teach ‘on recall’ a quarter every year but spend most of my time writing. The Kafka book was written in large part in my retirement period; I am now on to other projects, which will take a few years, if that’s in the cards.”

Does he believe that scholarship of Nazism and Germany in the Second World War will change when there are no longer any historians for whom the events occurred in their lifetimes? “Probably so. One already sees clear signs of it today, but then it’s difficult to forecast in what directions it may go.”

In a 2007 interview with Der Spiegel, Friedländer observed that many of his students had not heard of Lenin, let alone Hitler’s would-be assassin, Claus von Stauffenberg. Asked whether it was better to have Nazi evils presented to the general public via Hollywood movies than not at all, he says: “If there is time, I plan to write a book about this intractable question. Let me give you one example: Most people, knowing anything about the events of those years, would consider the American miniseries Holocaust to be an unbearable piece of kitsch. Yet it is this piece of kitsch that has informed tens of millions of younger people all over the world that these events took place at all. So, what is the answer?”

Despite a longstanding fondness for Paris, Friedländer still lives “in Los Angeles, with my second wife, Orna Kenan. My children live with their own children in Tel Aviv, Paris and Berlin. We would like to have a dog, but our house has no garden where it could roam and I certainly don’t want to impose on Orna and even less on myself to walk the dog x times a day. Los Angeles is basically an ugly city, but it is the most bizarre one that I know and that is its charm.”

He observes: “In America, you are always asked what your hobby is, and I always was ashamed to answer that I had none. In fact, that is not the right answer. I love reading fiction or poetry, and watching movies or series on television. Among TV series, I strongly recommend Boss, and among writers, the ‘young’ Israeli short-story author Etgar Keret.”

Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt

By Saul Friedländer
Yale University Press, 200pp, £18.99
ISBN 9780300136616
Published 9 May 2013

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