By Ritchie Robertson
Some of the great modernists have written evocatively about childhood. At first glance, Kafka may not seem to be among them. The minutely detailed recollection of childhood that Proust provides in Swann’s Way, or Thomas Mann’s account of a school day in the life of young Hanno Buddenbrook, lack counterparts in Kafka. His world-famous and compelling fantasies are about inscrutable authorities, such as the Court and the Castle, and their victims are doomed at worst to inexplicable punishment, at best to frustration. Kafka would seem to deal with experience rather than innocence.
If we look more closely, though, there are children throughout Kafka’s fiction, albeit mostly on its margins. They include a few little monsters. When Josef K. in The Trial goes in search of the Court, whose offices are located in a city slum, he encounters “two small boys with the twisted faces of grown-up miscreants,” who hold onto his trousers to prevent him from disturbing their game of marbles. We must remember, though, that these children are seen via the consciousness of Josef K., a self-important accountant who seems prematurely middle-aged at thirty and who has plainly forgotten his own childhood.
Elsewhere, children suggest a longing for a better world. The performances by Josefine, the singing mouse of Kafka’s last story, give the oppressed mouse-people a refreshing memory of their own brief childhoods: “Something of our own poor, brief childhood is in it, something of happiness lost, never to be found again.” In ‘A Hunger Artist’ children are brought by their parents to see the artist starving for as long as he can. They do not understand his feats of self-denial, “but in spite of that would still reveal in the brightness of their inquiring eyes something of new, more merciful times to come.” A similar future perspective comes from the little boy, Hans Brunswick, who in The Castle delivers a confident and enigmatic message about the glorious future in store for the protagonist K. So sometimes childhood evokes a lost paradise, sometimes it offers a glimpse of a future utopia.
Kafka himself remained close to his childhood, as imaginative artists usually do. Throughout his short life he looked much younger than he was. In a letter written in 1920, when he was 37, he proudly tells how he was asked by the owner of the swimming school he attended to row a passenger across the Moldau. The passenger took him for a boy, and Kafka ironically reports how he lived up to this role. He enjoyed the company of much younger people. His sister Elli’s children, Felix and Gerti, often feature in his diary and letters. When Elli consulted him about sending Felix to the progressive school run by the Scotsman A.S. Neill at Hellerau outside Dresden, he gave her prolonged advice about how children should be brought up.
His own childhood was a theme on which Kafka reflected constantly, revisiting it in his published and unpublished fiction and in his notebooks. He complained not of harsh treatment — despite his father’s occasional rough games — but of the oppressive atmosphere of the home, where affection and anxiety combined to deny the child any freedom. “I always felt my parents as persecutors,” he told his fiancée Felice Bauer in 1912. “Parents only want to drag one down to them, into the old times from which one would like to ascend with a sigh of relief; they want to do this out of love, of course, but that’s what’s so awful.” Hence his insistence to Elli that her son should be sent to a boarding-school and be brought up by educators who would respect him and not force him to obey their own emotional agenda.
And of course Kafka did write a whole novel about childhood: The Man who Disappeared, formerly known in English as America. The age of its main character varies from fifteen to seventeen, but he is essentially an innocent, expelled from Europe and adrift in the land of bitter experience. The opening sentence runs: “As the seventeen-year-old Karl Rossmann, who had been sent to America by his poor parents because a servant-girl had seduced him and had a child by him, entered New York Harbour in the already slowing ship, he saw the statue of the Goddess of Liberty, which he had been observing for some time, as though in a sudden blaze of sunlight. Her arm with the sword stretched upward as though newly raised and the free breezes wafted around her.”
Here we have the fate of childhood in the modern world, as Kafka imagines it. Karl has been seduced — in fact, as is made graphically clear later, he has suffered sexual abuse — and is punished by being exiled across the ocean. Kafka’s surreal replacement of the Statue of Liberty’s torch with a sword and his elevation of her into the goddess who presides over America typifies the harshness of the New World. His adventures in America take Karl through oppression and injustice in various guises, but he retains the perspective of a well-meaning, hopeful child who embodies a positive alternative to the depravity of the adult world.
Ritchie Robertson is Taylor Professor of German at Oxford University and co-director of the Oxford Kafka Research Center. He is the author of The “Jewish Question” in German Literature, 1749-1939; Kafka: A Very Short Introduction; Kafka: Judaism, Politics, and Literature; and Mock-Epic Poetry from Pope to Heine. He is the editor of many Oxford World Classics including: The Man who Disappeared (America) by Franz Kafka, The Trial by Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, The Castle by Franz Kafka, Round Dance and Other Plays by Arthur Schnitzler, The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, and The Golden Pot and Other Tales by E. T. A. Hoffmann.