Wednesday 13 May 2009

'the measure of all things'

Dearest Father
by Franz Kafka

Oneworld Classics is a publisher from the same team behind Alma Books who I mentioned recently. Their list ranges from the popular (Jane Eyre, Frankenstein) to the lesser known (Jonathan Swift's The Benefit Of Farting - anyone?) and with the addition of the Calder publications list, now has a wide range of European classics. I recently identified that if there was a gap in my reading it probably lay in this area, which is probably why when they offered to send me an 'evaluation copy' of one of their titles I was both pleased and a little daunted by the importance of making the right selection. In the end I copped out slightly by going for a short work by a writer I knew of, and one that isn't really fiction at all after all that.

Although, as translators Hannah and Richard Stokes point out in their introduction, 'No "factual" writing is without an element of fiction.' The very act of recalling and ordering his thoughts would have altered from the truth of events and despite the ordered almost legal structure to the 'case' against Hermann Kafka, there is of course strong emotion running throughout the letter (the Stokes' excuse any 'clumsiness' by explaining their wish to retain the 'awkwardness of Kafka's fevered, fermented Germanic original'). It is unclear whether the letter was ever really intended to be read by his father. After writing it, Franz made a typed copy, added some annotations for proof-reading and asked his mother to forward a copy to his father, which she couldn't bring herself to do of course. The letter was amongst other papers entrusted to Max Brod on his death and rather than burn it as instructed he published it all in 1953.

Kafka Sr. was clearly a strict and sometimes fierce parent and Franz found himself incapable of dealing with that scrutiny as the only child for many years. In one memorable episode he recalls being unceremoniously dumped on the balcony after keeping the house awake, whining for water.

Years later it still tormented me that this giant man, my father, the ultimate authority, could enter my room at any time, almost unprovoked, carry me from my bed out onto the pavlatche, and that I meant so little to him.

The tyranny of his father is constant, the rules all pervasive and yet never satisfied, it is no wonder that authority figures should loom so large in his fiction. Going back to what was said earlier about the fictionalisation of fact there is something very literary about his summation of a life lived under these rules.
Hence there were for me three worlds, one where I lived, a slave under laws that had been invented solely for me and, moreover, with which I could never fully comply (I did not know why), then another world, infinitely distant from mine, in which you dwelt, busy with ruling, issuing orders and being angry when they were not obeyed, and finally a third realm where everybody else lived happily, free from orders and obligation.
There are several ways in which he attempted to escape this control, for example his pursuit of religion, his work as a writer and his wish to be married. He approaches each of these methodically in the letter, his frustration clearly growing with each one. His writing allowed him to gain a little independence, '...even if in doing so I slightly resembled a worm, its tail pinned to the ground under somebody's foot, tearing loose from the front and wriggling away to the side.' But it is his humiliation through sexuality and his failure to marry which dominates the latter parts of the letter. He knows that 'Marriage certainly promises the clearest form of self-liberation and independence' and yet it would be no real independence at all because through marriage he would attain the same status as the man he is attempting to escape, and emulate his oppressor because he is 'the measure of all things'. For the reader today, the knowledge that his ill health would end his life before being able to achieve that goal makes this impassioned section the hardest hitting.

How true his representation of Hermann Kafka is is almost beyond the point. The simple act of writing an eighty page, well argued letter (which even contains an imagined retort and reply from the addressee) speaks volumes about the strength of the injustice Franz felt. And yet at the same time by appearing in written form it's physical presence attests to his inability to confront his father in person.

There are a few explanatory notes for the text (which are at the back of the book and if you're an impatient bugger like me lead to that constant flick forwards/flick back/lose place/stop reading notes scenario) and some interesting letter extracts and diary entries which provide some context and wider reading in what is a slim volume. But the small size shouldn't detract from the importance of what it contains especially for the reader who wants to know more about the forces that helped shape such a distinctive writer.


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