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Kafka Vents About His Father

Julio Torres, Intern

In Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, author Ritchie Robertson dedicates an entire section of the book to Kafka’s famous Letter to His Father.  Robertson, like many Kafka scholars, views the writer’s life as pivotal in dissecting the literature, therefore, Letter to His Father is the quintessential text in this school of thought.

Robertson’s Very Short Introduction serves as a “director’s commentary” of sorts when reading Kafka’s letter. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, newly translated by Joyce Crick,  includes the letter as well as some helpful explanatory notes.  When reading the letter and the VSI together, it’s almost as if Franz rests on the psychiatrist’s couch and Robertson takes notes.

In the letter (excerpted in green from The Metamorphosis and Other Stories), Kafka says:

Dearest Father,

You asked me once recently why it is I maintain I am afraid of you. As usual, I wasn’t able to give you an answer, partly on the account of that very fear, partly because if I am to explain the reasons for it, there are far too many relevant details for me to be able to hold them even halfway together when I speak about them. And if I try to answer you here on paper, it will still be very incomplete, because even in writing, the fear and its consequences still get in the way when I am confronted with you, and because the sheer extent of the material goes far beyond my memory and my understanding.

Robertson writes (excerpted in blue from Kafka: A Very Short Introduction):

The letter is first and foremost an attempt at self-therapy. Kafka is trying to make sense of his relationship with his father as a means of distancing himself from his father. Since it serves a purpose in Kafka’s own development, we must not take it as a balanced or complete portrait of Hermann Kafka.

Kafka goes on to say in his letter:

To you the issue has always appeared very simple, at least as far as you have spoken about it in front of me, and, indiscriminately, in front of a number of other people. It seemed to you more or less like this: you have worked hard all your life, sacrificed everything for your children, especially for me; consequently I have lived ‘like a lord’…

Robertson explains in the VSI:

…Hermann Kafka was a self-made man, brought up in the southern Bohemian village of Osek in extreme poverty. At the age of seven he had to wheel a pedlar’s barrow through the villages. These youthful hardships were such a vivid memory that he used to bore his children by constantly recounting them and complaining that the young generation did not realize how well off they were… Franz grew up with eccentric interests, indifferent professional success, and no apparent ability to marry and found a household.

Kafka’s letter:

…for as long as you can remember, I have crept away from you, to my room, to my books, to crazy friends, to wild ideas; I have never talked frankly with you; I have never approached you in temple; I have never visited you in Franzensbad, nor had any family feeling at any other time either; I never concerned myself with the shop, nor your other business affairs; I saddled you with the factory and then left you to it; I supported Ottla in her wilfulness, and whereas I don’t stir a finger for you (I don’t even get you a theater ticket), there is nothing I won’t do for strangers.

The VSI offers a broad analysis, whereas the The Explanatory Notes of The Metamorphosis and Other Stories provide useful, factual information about the text. From the above excerpt, for example, they explain that  Franzensbad is a popular resort were Kafka’s father and mother stayed in during the summer of 1919 and the factory Kafka mentions was an asbestos factory owned by his brother in law, were his performance as sleeping partner was constantly reproached.

As for Ottla, Kafka’s sister, the notes explain that much to the dismay of their parents, she married a gentile and perused a career. Kafka supported his sister.  The notes provide context were needed, though most of the letter offers insight without the need of specific details.

In one of the most tender, comical and heart-wrenching moments, Kafka says to his father:

I have a direct memory of only one event from my earliest years. Perhaps you remember it too. One night I kept whining for water, certainly not because I was thirsty, but partly to annoy you, I suppose, and partly to amuse myself.

Perhaps with this kind of moment in mind, Robertson writes:

What Kafka does not and cannot convey, of course, is the frustration Hermann Kafka must have felt at people’s failure to obey his self-evidently sensible orders…

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