I open James Hawes Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life expecting to find an account of how exactly a Kafka-less life would be wasted, to be amused and enlightened by a grand division of lives into Kafka-added (good) and Kafka-free (bad). From the fly-leaf, however, I gather that what I’m going to get instead is a systematic debunking of prevalent myths about Kafka, a full-scale attack on “the K-myth” that’s been created by a cabal of over-protective scholars. Then what I get when I start reading is something else entirely. The book is a tidbit-stuffed rant, going off in a variety of directions pulled together in the culminating argument that Kafka was a pretty regular guy and that pretty regular guys like us should therefore find his writing all the more relevant. And I agree. Bravo!
Hawes does organize his book around a series of myths he wants to debunk. But in order to make himself sound radical he oversells his myths, and the upshot is that half the book reads like a big straw man and the other half reads like the obvious. Take myth #1: “Kafka was the archetypal genius neglected in his lifetime.” Does anyone actually believe this? Hawes marshals all sorts of interesting evidence of Kafka’s literary success, but presents it in a sneering tone, as if he’s got one on somebody. Does he? He makes a lot of the fact that Kafka’s biographers don’t give much mention of his having split the Fontane prize in 1915, but, if they don’t feel that there’s any doubt about Kafka’s moderate literary success, why should they?
Or take the final myth, that “Kafka takes us into bizarre worlds.” If people believed his works didn’t bear on reality, why would they read them?
And Hawes doesn’t only oversell the myths. Sometimes he oversells the anti-myths. One of the myths he takes on is that Kafka, as a Jewish German living in Prague, was part of a “minority within a minority.” He presents numbers to show that most German-speakers in Prague were Jewish, and explains the historical fact that the Germans were the ruling elite. So far so good: the myth, if myth it was, is debunked. But the argument gets weaker when he suggests that because of this, Kafka’s Jewishness couldn’t have been a source of anxiety. Honey, Jewishness can always be a source of anxiety! And how much more so in a country where, as Hawes lets slip in a chapter dealing with a different topic, Kafka’s second serious girlfriend was locked up in an insane asylum by her father for nine months for wanting to marry a Jew? So we lurch from oversold myth (people think all his work can be explained by Jewish insecurity! but do they?) to oversold demythologizing (he couldn’t possibly have experienced Jewish insecurity! but couldn’t he?). It’s a crazy ride.
However, I enjoyed the craziness, and had fun discounting for Hawes’ excitement. And I learned lots of things – no, not things that corrected my false impressions, just things I didn’t happen to know. Like that Kafka was fond of porn. And that he made a good salary as a civil servant. And that he liked Conan-Doyle. And that his father wasn’t (from an objective perspective) any more intimidating than most people’s fathers. Also, that he once wrote that “though the might of his work, Goethe probably holds back the development of the German language.” Which means he was having thoughts similar to those of his contemporaries, Rosenzweig and Benjamin, about the relationship of literature to the history of a language.