Monday, April 11, 2011

Letter to My Father (or Dearest Father) by Franz Kafka written in 1919, first published as Brief an den Vater in 1953

 "[Franz Kafka] feared [his father] principally because he felt annihilated by his very existence; it was as though he and Hermann Kafka were living contradictories, one of whom must be false if the other is true." from a review published in the New York Sun in June of 2008 by Eric Ormsby on the occasion of the publication of a new British translation by Howard Colyer.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924), one of the towering literary figures of the twentieth century, was a German speaking Jew who was born and lived in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In 1919, in what seems to be a response to his father’s negative reaction to the (latest) woman Kafka wanted to marry, he wrote his father a long letter of complaint that he actually never sent. This letter is one of the many works of Kafka’s published after his early death.

This long letter serves as a memoir-like window into Kafka’s state of mind at that moment, and at the same time it provides a window into the life of the Kafka family. It is important to note that Kafka’s harsh portrait of his father as well as comments about how his father similarly treated other family members are Kafka’s version of how his father treated them. He complains that his father is overbearing, has a hot temper, and is sure he’s always right. Franz Kafka thinks of himself of having more the temperament of his mother’s family and despairs that he and his father will ever be close. 

He uses many examples to make his point. One of the most interesting is his discussion of his father’s religious practice which he says amounted to an obligatory appearance at the synagogue where he seemed barely involved in the service. But his father insisted that Franz accompany him despite Franz’s objections. Kafka also calls his family seder a farce and ultimately faults his father for serving as a poor role model for religious observance. He goes on to state that when he (Franz) became more interested in Judaism his father was upset. He feels that like in all other areas of his life his father crushed any sense of independence.

This is essentially a version of a familiar generational struggle.  A young Jewish man grows up in a poor family in a small town, moves to the big city, marries, and works hard developing a business to support his family. He becomes “respectable.” His son acknowledges that his father has worked hard to give his family everything, but his son feels he has demanded too much in return. Since the father insists upon unquestioning obedience and loyalty, he is particularly irritated that his son has no interest in business, especially the family business. The artistic/creative son feels totally rejected, constantly humiliated, and is full of self-doubt.

Franz Kafka had been reading Freud and understood Freud’s theory of family dynamics. The conflict between Kafka’s desire to please his father and his need to go his own way fed his writing, and various permutations of the father/son conflict can be found in many of his works. Sadly, since most of Kafka’s works were published after his death, his family had no idea of the size of his talent and both they and their son were never to know the place he would eventually hold as a literary giant of the twentieth century.

To read an article that makes a case for Kafka's connections to his Jewish identity, click here.

Jacob Kafka – married Franziska Platowski
    Hermann Kafka – married Julie Lowy
        Franz Kafka – son of Hermann and Julie; author
        Georg Kafka – son of Hermann and Julie
        Gabrielle (Elli) Kafka – daughter of Hermann and Julie; married Karl Hermann
            Felix Hermann – son of Gabrielle and Karl
        Valerie (Valli) Kafka – daughter of Hermann and Julie; married Josef Pollack
            Marianne and Lotte Pollack – daughters of Valerie and Josef
        Ottilie (Ottla) Kafka – daughter of Hermann and Julie

Minze Eisner Kafka (relationship unclear)

Jakob Lowy – married to Esther Porias
    Julie Lowy daughter of Jakob and Esther; married Hermann Kafka (see above)
Friends and Acquaintances
Carl Bauer – married to Anna Danziger
    Felice Bauer - daughter of Carl and Anna
Max Brod
Otto Brod – Max Brod’s brother
Dora Diamant
Albert Ehrenstein
Lise Kaznelson
Robert Klopstock
Isaac Lowy
Otto Pick
Ernst Polak
Julie Wohryzek

Wossek, southern Bohemia
Podiebrad, Bohemia
Prague, Czech Republic
Straschnitz Cemetery, Prague, former Czechoslovakia
Kierling, Austria

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