February 6, 2013

Book: Loverman

A new view of the real Franz Kafka

‘Kafka in Love’
By Jacqueline Raoul-Duval. Other Press; 288 pgs., $15.95.

“My nights consist of two parts: one wakeful, the other sleepless.”

Much of our admiration of Franz Kafka should not exist but for the betrayal of his closest friend; for that, we should feel guilt as we read our treasured texts. These words were never intended for us, they were written for the fire. Nearly 100 years into our complicity in this crime, we don’t begrudge Max Brod’s disloyalty — we hoard Kafka’s words, even his personal letters and diaries, which bare the personality and thoughts intended for one or none. “Kafka in Love,” from Jacqueline Raoul-Duval and translated from French by Willard Wood, is a brilliant and beautiful new assault on Kafka’s privacy, a novelization that quotes from the correspondence with and journal entries about the four great loves of Kafka’s short life.

The creative pretense is billed as fiction, with the requisite “any relation to persons, real or imagined, is coincidental” preceding the events, but all of the quotes in the book are taken from the Schocken Books collections of these private writings. Approximated “thoughts” and feelings are intimated only once or twice in the piece. Raoul-Duval does a masterful job of painting a heretofore unseen portrait of Kafka. Popular media and perception gives us a Kafka-as-Woody-Allen bundle of neuroses, but “Kafka in Love” shows Kafka the friend and lover as a forceful, even abrasive and controlling man who at times railroaded and emotionally tortured those around him. Negotiating his first engagement with Felice Bauer, he writes:

“Then you are prepared to in spite of everything take up this cross, Felice? Attempt the impossible?”

“Yes, you will make a good, kind husband.”

“You’re wrong. You wouldn’t manage to live two days at my side. I am a soft work crawling on the ground. I am taciturn, unsociable, gloomy, brooding, selfish, and a hypochondriac. Could you bear to lead the life of a monk, as I do? I spend most of my time locked away in my room, or else wandering the streets alone. Could you stand to be completely separated from your parents, your friends, and everyone else, since I cannot conceive of our life together any other way? I want to spare you unhappiness, Felice. Step out of the accursed circle into which I have forced you, blinded as I was and am by love.”

Neurotic? Surely, but hardly the cowering, stuttering caricature history has given us. The book is written and translated with a highly readable and flowing rhythm, effortlessly changing tempo and style to fit the changing moods and statuses of both his love and creative life. The chaos of his relationships leads to his great works; only in the absence of conflict did his writing flounder. A prolific, at times overwhelming letter-writer (70-plus letters in a span of a few months to a lover’s friend acting as mediator and counsel), Kafka slowed only at the height of his other writing, and the sudden silence of post often worried and wounded his correspondent.

This window into the tortured and torturing Franz Kafka parallels the tragic and absurd characters he so expertly wrote about, and while we have long taken his subjects to be only mildly hidden reflections of self, “Kafka in Love” reinforces the concept with fantastic results.