The correspondence of writers and artists is often a neglected part of their oeuvre, thought to be of interest only to scholars and specialists. But in truth the letters of a writer or thinker can often supply a more lucid illustration of his or her life and work, and the relationship between the two, than most biographies can. Sometimes the letters themselves can approach the depth, complexity and tension of great art.
Wrecked: Kafka as a young man. AFP
Dearest Father—the text of a letter written by Franz Kafka to his father Hermann in 1919, a few years before Franz’s death—is one such work.
It is already known that Kafka is one of the most complicated, tortured and inscrutable spirits of world literature. In Dearest Father, we find the man himself attempting to provide a full account— almost a self-defence—of how he came to be so. In Kafka’s view, from the early days of his childhood, it was his father’s arrogance, abrasiveness and contempt that stymied his progress at every turn. His long letter might be imagined as a set of concentric circles, evoking the particularities of his relationship with his father, then the general nature of childhood and parenthood, and finally human nature itself.
One of the letter’s attractions is the way in which the son’s sufferings are not only described in great detail, but actually manifest through the very style of Kafka’s prose, through the contortions of his sentences. “Dearest Father,” the letter begins, “You asked me recently why I claim to be afraid of you. I did not know, as usual, how to answer, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you...” We learn that Kafka always stuttered and fumbled when trying to hold his own against his father, which is why he chose to express his thoughts in writing.
Moving from one incident to another, one feeling to another, the 36-year-old son—sickly, self-conscious, indecisive, in stark contrast to his vigorous, self-assured and authoritarian father— explains how the older man’s behaviour “damaged me on the inside.” Although Hermann rarely beat his children, his constant threats of corporal punishment reduced Kafka to a state of submission and abjectness. Later, Hermann sought to fashion his son after his own image by force, not realizing that he was cut from a totally different cloth. Whenever Franz took some initiative, his father’s contempt was absolute. Most disastrously, when the son sought his independence by deciding to marry, Hermann reduced him to a wreck by implying that he had foolishly succumbed to the wiles of a low woman. “I was no real match for you, you soon disposed of me; all that then remained was escape, bitterness, grief, inner struggle,” writes Kafka.
The general tone of Dearest Father is one of helpless flailing in the face of an unshakeable power that is the exact existential condition of the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, such as Josef K. in The Trial. Indeed, at one point Kafka confesses: “My writing was about you, all I did there was to lament what I could not lament on your shoulder.” But if we are left convinced about the atrocities half-consciously perpetrated by Hermann, we see no less clearly the extreme fragility and anxiety of Kafka, a condition that turns all the colours of the world into grey.
In closing, Kafka suggested to his father that although the problems between them were too basic to be eradicated, his attempt to make a pattern of meaning out of them “might comfort us both a little and make it easier for us to live and to die.”
So we naturally want to know how the letter was received by Hermann. But the most striking fact about the letter is that it was never sent. Perhaps the same fear and guilt exhibited by Kafka in the letter prevented him from sending it. He left the typewritten letter behind in a bundle of manuscripts at the time of his death, asking his friend Max Brod to burn them all.
So it is the reader today who has become the letter’s real recipient, and it is up to us to bring about, in our imaginations, a belated rapprochement between father and son.
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