October 18, 2017
The Kafkas in Prague
On this day in 1883 Franz Kafka was born in Prague. Few writers have been so closely linked to their home and city, or made so much from it, as Kafka. But for the months spent in sanitariums and a half-year spent with a girlfriend, he lived in Prague with his parents all his life, working as a claims adjustor for an insurance company, writing by night but publishing little. According to Kafka's own self-description, he was "fretful, melancholy, untalkative, dissatisfied and sickly," made this way, and made into a writer, by "this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge." In "Letter to My Father," Kafka's fifty-six-page attempt to explain their relationship, he concludes: "My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally long-drawn-out leave-taking from you." This was at the age of thirty-six, four years before he died of tuberculosis.
Kafka's ambivalence about separating from his parents gave rise to a five-year correspondence with Felice Bauer in which the two become engaged and then break off twice. Kafka's daily letters -- eventually collected into the 550-page Letters to Felice -- reveal a pathological degree of indecision and worry, and yet more on life at home:
...at home the sight of the double bed, of sheets that have been slept in, of nightshirts carefully laid out, can bring me to the point of retching, can turn my stomach inside out; it is as though my birth had not been final, as though from this fusty life I keep being born again and again in this fusty room; as though I had to return there for confirmation, being-if not quite, at least in part -- indissolubly connected with these distasteful things; something still clings to the feet as they try to break free, held fast as they are in the primeval slime. That is sometimes. At other times I know that after all they are my parents....
Gregor, the dutiful, live-at-home son in The Metamorphosis, wakes to find himself a beetle about three feet long. Wanting to go to work, and knowing that his family depends on him to do so, Gregor manages to roll over, ambulate, and turn the key of the locked bedroom door with his sticky mandibles. In face of his parents, and the clerk from work who has come to inquire after his absence, Gregor sees that he is grotesque, and a disappointment:
He had to edge himself slowly round the near half of the double door, and to do it very carefully if he was not to fall plump upon his back just on the threshold. He was still carrying out this difficult manoeuvre, with no time to observe anything else, when he heard the chief clerk utter a loud 'Oh!' -- it sounded like a gust of wind -- and now he could see the man, standing as he was nearest to the door, clapping one hand before his open mouth and slowly backing away as if driven by some invisible steady pressure. His mother -- in spite of the chief clerk's being there her hair was still undone and sticking up in all directions -- first clasped her hands and looked at his father, then took two steps towards Gregor and fell on the floor among her outspread skirts, her face quite hidden on her breast. His father knotted his fist with a fierce expression on his face as if he meant to knock Gregor back into his room, then looked uncertainly round the living room, covered his eyes with his hands and wept till his great chest heaved....