Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kafka and Brod

What if Brod had destroyed everything? Would Kafka have become Kafka? Would we know his writing? Yes, several stories were published in his lifetime, and would have remained theoretically extant. And this includes, crucially, not just "The Metamorphosis", probably his most famous work, but also "In the Penal Colony", "A Report to an Academy", "First Sorrow", and "A Hunger Artist". Overall, by my edition of the collected stories, approximately 250 pages of fiction, much of it essential reading. Obviously, we would not have The Trial, the second most famous work, or any of the other novels, or certainly the diaries.

Brod emerges as something of a comic figure, pathetic even, the lesser writer in the shadow of his friend, ethically unforgivable to some for the singular crime of not following Kafka's directive to burn. But how much of Kafka's reputation rests on Brod's efforts? That is, without Brod providing a critical framework, in the context of the posthumous novels and saved stories, do these early published stories necessarily survive? Not survive literally, but gain a foothold? I know I'm asking a more or less impossible question, but I like to think about contingency, how easily things could have been different, worse, better.


Lloyd Mintern said...

The more Kafka you read the clearer it gets that he was speaking to the future. Surely, Brod saw that to destroy his work was to violate it's very nature, it's whole trajectory, and snuff out the voice of Kafka himself. The burden is too great, the prophetic, parabolic voice too intimately addressing far off readers. Kafka's note to Brod to burn his manuscripts is just another Kafka story. And the literary monument grows, with its shadow even longer... Only the complete, the still not fully disseminated, work of such an author does the world deserve; keeping in mind that these works are not a guaranteed blessing, but work their own duplicitous magic.

Rebecca H. said...

These are fascinating questions, and I like to think about how different the literary world might possibly be, given some changed circumstances, even small ones. I find myself coming down on the side of those who refuse to burn or destroy a writer's work -- I can't help but feel that what the individual writer wants matters less than the good of preserving work for posterity.

Anonymous said...

This paradox is like Judas needing to betray Jesus in order to bring about the events necessary for mankind's salvation. Only a little less epic.

Jacob Russell said...

Is a simple statement, indicative or imperative, ever really simple in Kafka's writing? A single possible interpretation?

Does "burn them" mean... literally, set them on fire? If Brod had a shredder and used it... would that have violated Kafka's intent? The door opens to a corridor with many other doors.

What could be more absurd that arguing over anything Kafka wrote as though it could only have one possible meaning?

Richard said...

Thanks everybody.

Lloyd, I think that's a very nice way of putting it.

Dorothy, I'm not sure about "preserving work for posterity", per se, but I do come down in favor of saving... much of literary history would be very different otherwise! But also once a work is written, unless you actively destroy it yourself, it is beyond the writer.

tpfkazrs, nice analogy, but are we sure it's less epic?

Jacob, yes, I agree, the whole argument is silly; if I had more time I'd speculate about why some are so invested in the idea that publishing such work is really a "betrayal" of the writer... in some cases, of course, posthumous publication seems gratuitous; Kafka's case is distinctly different; Kafka is always the special case.

Jim H. said...

Of course, as executor, the way to draw attention to a body of work is to make it somehow illicit. Joyce's Ulysses is a primum examplum with that whole obscenity thing. Now, how do we actually know what Kafka's wishes were? Was he, e.g., delirious at the time? Was he, like most really good writers I know, simply being modest or self-deprecatory—that is to say, he meant it but he didn't REALLY mean it. Did he actually say it or did Brod make it up as some sort of a PR ruse? We are speaking about the 20th Century, after all. Forgive me if I seem ignorant on this matter, but these are the sorts of questions I would want to pursue.

Jim H.

Richard said...

Thanks, Jim. I haven't yet read any of the bios, but I've always wondered whether there was any truth to the idea. How do we know what Kafka really wanted?