February 27, 2009

Kafka in Riva

Kafka, who wrote under the pressure of an illness that he must have known was mortal--as mortal as the wound from the rotten apple Gregor Samsa’s father threw at the dung beetle Gregor had become--destroyed much that he wrote in the last months of his life, burning it. Mostly we remember that his friend and literary executor Max Brod decided not to follow Kafka’s wishes, and saved what remained; it comes as sort of a shock to realize that Kafka had beaten him to it and burned we don’t know what! We may regret that he was strong enough to destroy work he didn’t think good enough, just as we are grateful that he was weak enough to leave so much in the hands of Max Brod, who was incapable of destroying any of it. But probably Kafka’s judgment about the quality of the work he destroyed was sound. If to write literature you must write as if each day is your last, living as if each day is your last may enable you to distinguish between work that is worth coughing up blood for and work that fails--by that standard, if no other. That it would be better for us had Kafka left all his work behind is at least possible, but it would be better only for us. So much of Kafka’s life unfolded while he was one foot in the grave—his “breakthrough” story, "The Judgment," is a suicide story, after all, even a literary suicide note.

Had only the few short works he gave up to publishers during his lifetime survived him, he might well have been completely forgotten. “A minor writer in the Walser manner,” Musil called him, comparing Kafka to a writer who almost was forgotten. Instead, many unpublished stories, three unfinished novels—all seriously, even fatally flawed—and his complete journals and notebooks were published in quick succession. Max Brod wrote the first biography of this man who had no life, and eventually a voluminous, absurd, and pathetic correspondence with his fiancée, his lover, and his family followed the wreckage into print. He became known as a great modern writer. He was no modernist.

What he needed most, and absolutely didn’t have, was time, and many of his surviving works are flawed by awkwardnesses forgivable only because of the one thing they do supremely well, that no one had done before, which is to convey with apparently absolute veracity the details of the dreaming state. The rest of us, waking from our dreams, find it impossible to remember them as continuous narratives even as we attempt to relate them to a psychoanalyst or write them down in the little notebook by the bedside. It is as if Kafka had written in the middle of his dream, as everyone else writes (and reads) in the middle of ordinary waking life. If the unconscious is structured like a language, Kafka was the first writer to write in that language. We forgive him stories that break off too suddenly and never finish. Even his darkest, most suggestive stories, such as "Hunger Artist" and "Hunter Gracchus," leave us thirsting for more as readers but in their afterlife, in our unconscious minds, it does not matter: the ship on which the dead man sails (who is not really dead) is rudderless, and we know he is lost. That has an impact on the unconscious mind far deeper and more effective than a well-worked-out plot or tidy resolution. We forgive strange discontinuities and gaps in such books as The Trial, which Max Brod assembled from manuscripts that didn’t even provide clues to the sequence of the chapters. We forgive the clumsy, repetitive syntax, the dullness that sometimes infects his prose just as it must have infected his bureaucratic reports, even the fatal flaws that made each of his novels impossible to finish. No other writer ever brought to the page the texture, the logic, and the feeling of dream life that Kafka did.

He goes to meet Milena Jesenzska in Vienna, where she lives, after vacillations, cancellations, false starts. She is a married woman but the real love of his life and, evidently, he of hers. He stays in a fleabag hotel named the Riva. No record of his hotel stay survives, nothing of its real, daily aspect is known. Instead, Kafka gave us the Hunter Gracchus, a name reminiscent of a blackbird (and a dream-Latinization of "Kafka:), dead in one way, alive in another, whose ship--a frail “bark” or death ship, a ghost ship--adrift without rudder on the waters of oblivion for years at a time, trying to find the river to the other world, but never able to do so--finally sails into a “little” harbor on a lake. What lake is this? Although unnamed, it is Lago di Garda in Italy, near Verona. The body of the Hunter Gracchus is carried as if by pall bearers on a bier to a house on the quayside, which belongs to a man who identifies himself as the Burgomeister of Riva, that is, the Mayor. The reader assumes that Riva is the name of the lakeside town, but it comes as a shock when we learn, later, that it was also the name of a one-night cheap hotel in Vienna where Kafka went to keep a tryst with Milena Jesenzska, she married to another man, he often believed (wrongly) to be a virgin. In life, Gracchus was known as “The Great Hunter of the Black Forest,” or the other world, a transposition and magnification absolutely typical of “dream logic,” which Kafka understood from the viewpoint of a hunter, or woodsman, in contrast to Freud’s analytic genius and outside inspector’s stance: Kafka gives us his dreams from the dreamer’s standpoint. What Freud explains, Kafka describes. After the passage of almost a century, Freud’s explanations seem like quaint Victorian novellas, claptrap, while Kafka’s descriptions are as eloquent as last night’s dream. “Was there any sin in that?” But the hotel Riva in Vienna was a place where Kafka had attempted to sin in real life.

And then we learn, still later, that Kafka stayed on holiday at a hotel in the harbor of the town of Riva, on the shore of Lago di Garda, not far from Sirmione, Catullus’s home of blessed memory, and here in Riva, trying to find his way to death, he met a woman with whom he had a brief liaison. And was there any sin in that?

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