Life Is Different for Him

The woman in the above photograph is Milena Jesenská, with whom Franz Kafka carried on a torrid correspondence in 1920. Although she was a married woman (albeit unhappily), Kafka was strongly drawn to her. The relationship, such as it was, petered out when Milena did not want to run away from her marriage. Milena herself was a writer, and in a letter to Max Brod written in August 1920, provides a riveting description of Kafka. She was to live on for another twenty years, dying in 1944 in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.

Life for him is something entirely different than for all other human beings; in particular, things like money, the stock market, currency exchange, a typewriter are utterly mystical to him (and they really are, too; just not for the rest of us), they are the strangest riddles to him, and his approach to them is completely different than our own. Can his office work be considered the customary performance of a service? Any official position, including his own, is something very puzzling to him, very admirable, like a locomotive is for a small child. He doesn’t understand the simplest things in the world. Were you ever in a post office with him? After he composes a telegram and picks out whatever little counter he likes best, shaking his head, he then drifts from one counter to another, without the slightest idea to what end or why, until he finally stumbles on the right one, and when he pays and receives change, he counts it and discovers one krone too many, and so gives one back to the girl behind the counter. Then he walks away slowly, counts once again, and in the middle of descending the last staircase he realizes that the missing krone belonged to him after all. So there you stand next to him, at a loss, while he shifts his weight from one foot to the other, wondering what to do. Going back is difficult; upstairs there’s a crowd of people pushing and shoving. “So just let it go,” I say. He looks at me completely horrified. How can you let it go? Not that he’s sorry about the krone. But it’s not good. There’s one krone missing. How can you forget about something like that? He spoke about it for a long time, and was very dissatisfied with me.

And this repeated itself with different variations in every shop, in every restaurant, in front of every beggar. Once he gave a beggar a two-krone piece and wanted one back. She said she didn’t have anything. We stood there for a good two minutes, thinking about how to deal with the matter. Then it occurred to him that he could leave the two krone. But no sooner had he taken a few steps when he started getting very cross. Of course this same man would be eager and extremely happy to give me twenty thousand krone with no questions asked. On the other hand, if I were to ask him for twenty thousand and one krone and we had to change money somewhere and didn’t know where, he would seriously consider what to do with the one krone I hadn’t been allotted. His anxiety in the face of money is almost the same as his anxiety in the face of women. Or his fear of things official. Once I telegraphed him, phoned him, wrote him, begged him in God’s name to come see me for a day. I really needed it at the time. I cursed him to high heaven. He didn’t sleep for nights, tormented himself, wrote letters full of self-destruction, but he did not come. Why? He couldn’t ask for leave. He was unable to ask the director, the same director he admires in the depths of his soul (seriously!) for being able to type so quickly—he wasn’t able to tell the director he was going to see me. And as for saying something else—another horrified letter—how could he? Lie? Lie to the director? Impossible…..

No, this world is and remains a riddle to him.

It is a pity that Milena’s letters to Kafka no longer exist. Because she was still uncertain about divorcing her husband, when Franz died in 1924, she had her letters destroyed so that they would not provide incriminating evidence. In her own way, she was a major Czech literary figure.

Too Many Freedoms

Maybe Wee Need to Stop Desiring “Freedoms” That Were Never Guaranteed to Us

Look what happened to our Second Amendment. Somehow, the original text—“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”—became in the minds of our dimmest and most criminally inclined citizens an invitation to accumulate military grade weapons for non-militia use.

As school children, we all heard that we didn’t have the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Now I think almost half the population would disagree with this.

The outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic has created a whole slew of crypto-freedoms, such as the freedom to refuse Covid-19 vaccination or to wear a mask to protect oneself and others from the virus.

I have just finished reading a collection of Franz Kafka’s shorter works that were published during his lifetime. In one of the stories, entitled “A Report to an Academy,” we find this very germane discussion in a speech given by a talking ape:

I deliberately do not use the word “freedom.” I do not mean the spacious feeling of freedom on all sides. As an ape, perhaps, I knew that, and I have met men who yearn for it. But for my part I desired such freedom neither then nor now. In passing, may I say that all too often men are betrayed by the word freedom. And as freedom is counted among the most sublime feelings, so the corresponding disillusionment can be also sublime.

Take a look at the above picture of the January 6 insurrection by Trump’s followers at the Capitol in Washington. This insurrection was conducted by people who have decided to take a lie (that Trump won the 2020 election) and make it into a cause for revolt. Repeating a lie at the top of one’s voice, even when accompanied by violence, is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution.

Such freedoms I can do without!

Serendipity: On the Tram

An Old-Style Tram in Prague

The following is one of Franz Kafka’s brief stories in his volume entitled Meditation, shown below in its entirety. You will find it in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Other Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 1948). What an amazing description of a young woman of his day!

I stand on the end platform of the tram and am completely unsure of my footing in this world, in this town, in my family. Not even casually could I indicate any claims that I might rightly advance in any direction I have not even any defense to offer for standing on this platform, holding on to this strap, letting myself be carried along by this tram, nor for the people who give way to the tram or walk quietly along or stand gazing into shop windows. Nobody asks me to put up a defense, indeed, but that is irrelevant.

The tram approaches a stopping place and a girl takes up her position near the step, ready to alight. She is as distinct to me as if I had run my hands over her. She is dressed in black, the pleats of her skirt hang almost still, her blouse is tight and has a collar of white fine-meshed lace, her left hand is braced flat against the side of the tram, the umbrella in her right hand rests on the second top step. Her face is brown, her nose, slightly pinched at the sides, has a broad round tip. She has a lot of brown hair and stray little tendrils on the right temple. Her small ear is close-set, but since I am near her I can see the whole ridge of the whorl of her right ear and the shadow at the root of it.

At that point I asked myself: How is it that she is not amazed at herself, that she keeps her lips closed and makes no such remark?

“Who Is Kafka? Who Is Anyone?”

Kafka’s Metamorphosis

I came across a wonderful poem by Asher Reich about Franz Kafka on the website of Haaretz, the Israel News. It is called

Who Is Kafka? Who Is Anyone?

Every time I looked at his picture I saw a different person.
The man waiting at the gate
is not Kafka, though his name begins with K.

The surveyor is not Kafka, nor is the lord of the castle
who is pretending to be the lord of the castle.
Is the cockroach Kafka, or vice versa? The cockroach
is playing itself, not the man Kafka. The man

whose picture is printed in the newspaper was born in Prague
and looks like Kafka, but he isn’t Kafka. He’s an insurance
agent called Josef K. who is sure he is
Kafka. The judge who glories in the rare name Kafka
is an actor in the play “The Trial” adapted

from Kafka’s book. Who is the hunger artist?
Did Kafka submit the report to the academy, or vice versa?
Was Kafka the jailer at the penal colony, or
vice versa: a wretched prisoner?! The police say
they have arrested Kafka for conspiring to burn his writings
and there are two witnesses who confirm his identity.

But it’s not Kafka. It’s his friend Max, who didn’t burn them,
because he pursued one-eyed justice. Was Kafka’s
vegetarianism only anti-meat or did his asceticism
imprison his life, which was one long suicide?
So who and what is this Kafka whose identity has faded?
The man who was against life, an exile in his own body,
succumbing to the sweet taste of sickness, or vice versa?

Autographed Still from Orson Welles’s Film of The Trial

The Max referred to in the poem was Kafka’s friend Max Brod, who decided not to destroy Kafka’s writings as his friend made him promise to do.

Translated by Vivian Eden. The Hebrew poem will be included in Reich’s “Selected Poems,” forthcoming at Mossad Bialik.