Review: Excavating Kafka

By Nicholas Murray, September 25, 2008

By James Hawes
Quercus, £14.99

Milan Kundera, impatient at the excesses of Kafka critics, once lambasted what he called "Kafkology". Without the former's elegance of style but with plenty of chutzpah, novelist and former academic Germanist James Hawes has produced an indictment of what he calls "the K.myth".

Hawes says we need to read Kafka the real writer, not the creature of "myth", and get as close as we can to "the clean, beautiful originals" in brand new translations of the original German.

His plea to get rid of the critics, and, for example, to drop any ideas about Kafka's Jewishness having any bearing on his art, does occasionally make him sound like a rather bumptious undergraduate, but his enthusiasm for Kafka seems genuine.

The first 50 pages of this book are concerned to demolish the first of many putative "myths" - that Kafka was unknown in his lifetime. Hawes detects a conspiracy to suppress the fact that, in 1915, Kafka was so esteemed in Austrian letters that the winner of the major Fontane prize, the rich Carl Sternheim, gave it instead to the young Kafka, then at the centre of an admiring literary elite in Prague. Well, there was certainly no suppression in my own biography of Kafka in 2004 - the most recent in English - which interprets this very event in precisely the manner that Hawes advocates.

And then there is the "porn". Hawes's blurb-writers are very excited about this "discovery" which seems to have consisted in taking down from the top library shelf copies of an erotic literary review called The Amethyst. In an unconscious parody of the News of the World reporter prissily leaving the scene of debauch, Hawes exhibits his shock at this favourite periodical of Kafka's, whose content would seem laughably mild to the average teenager who can access far nastier material with a few clicks of the mouse.
Hawes twice mentions in horror Kafka's fondness for Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, a Penguin Classic that can be bought in Waterstone's. The point, apparently, is that "we" think of Kafka as "saintly" and it is Hawes's mission to remind us that he liked upmarket porn, consorted with prostitutes, and treated his women rather badly, none of which will be news to anyone who has any basic knowledge of Kafka derived from recent biography.

Hawes is sounder when he concentrates on the text. He points out that the famous beetle image in The Metamorphosis could have been derived from a similar image in Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. But scholars, he says, have refused to admit that their hero could have borrowed his most memorable image from elsewhere. "It's the K.myth, with its mania for a rose-tinted obsession with Kafka's emotional and family life, that is to blame for this incredible blindness of Kafka scholars," Hawes writes in a sentence that typifies his slapdash prose.

Excavating Kafka is not devoid of insight into the man, but it wastes a lot of energy running its sword through a series of straw men.

Nicholas Murray's biography of Kafka was published by Little, Brown in 2004.

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011



Sat, 09/27/2008 - 18:57

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It is a shame that JC of all publications invited Nicholas Murray of all people to review my book: I assume JC was unware that Murray has carried on a wretched one-man campaign against this work in various blogs (including his own) ever since it was published. The predictable result is that JC's review is by far the worst this book has recieved anywhere in the UK: I heartily invite JC readers to compare online the highly favourable reviews in FT, Guardian, Observer, Scotsman, Telegraph!

Gerald Jacobs

Thu, 10/02/2008 - 16:49

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It seems quite reasonable to commission a biographer of Kafka, declared as such at the foot of the piece, to review a new Kafka biography. This should guarantee that the writer's opinion  is informed. We are led to understand that Nicholas Murray has made only two comments in blogs about James Hawes's book, one of them a response. This hardly constitutes a "campaign". Lit Ed JC