Franz Kafka: Brief an den Vater – Letter to My Father (1919)

This letter is the closest that Kafka came to setting down his autobiography. He was driven to write it by his father’s opposition to his engagement with Julie Wohryzek. The marriage did not take place; the letter was not delivered.

In his preface he [the translator Howard Colyer] states that he was most concerned to reproduce the raw “venting of feelings” in the letter as well as the extraordinary “momentum of the prose.” In both these aims he succeeds. Unlike earlier, and fussier, versions, his translation catches the naked energy of the original.

Written in 1919 and published posthumously in 1952 Brief and den Vater or, in its latest English translation, Letter to My Father, is a unique piece of writing. Although decidedly a letter, Max Brod, did not include it in Kafka’s correspondence but in his other work.

Before going into details I have to say a few words about the title. Being a native German/French speaker I did read the German original but since this blog is written in English I attached the English cover.  This latest translation is called Letter to My Father while former translations were either known as  Letter to His Father or Dearest Father. The title of the German, which of course hasn’t been given by Kafka himself,  would best be translated as Letter to the Father. I think that choosing a pronoun wasn’t a good idea, be it “his” or “my”. Dearest Father isn’t satisfying either. It is the opening of the letter but it gives the wrong idea. This isn’t a nice letter by a loving son. A neutral title like the one chosen for the German original is by far the best version, closely followed by Letter to His Father. Why a translator, who claims to want to stay close to the raw venting of feelings, chooses the possessive determiner “my” eludes me.

Putting aside my reservations regarding the choice of the English title, I would really like to urge anyone interested in Kafka who hasn’t done so already to read this book. It is incredibly precious and sheds a light on many of Kafka’s novels and stories, and can show where a lot of the angst and torment came from.

Kafka was already 36 years old when he wrote this letter that he never gave or sent to his father. Five years later Kafka would be dead. The trigger for the letter was his father’s reaction to Kafka’s engagement with Julie Wohryzeck. This is the second engagement in Kafka’s life, the first to Felice Bauer was equally broken off.

In his long letter Kafka gets square with his father. He describes in detail his upbringing, analyzes his father and himself and leaves almost nothing unsaid. It would have been interesting to know how his father would have taken such a letter but judging from the descriptions he wouldn’t have been impressed.

Reading the letter was equally fascinating and painful. We understand how much Kafka was afraid of this Über-Vater who was nothing less than a preposterous tyrant. Whatever he said was the abolute truth. He never doubted himself for one second and would never tolerate any contradiction. One of his favourite methods of education was irony and crushing his children with his verbal superiority. He would abuse and swear and make them look ridiculous. All of Kafka’s friends were criticized, all of his ideas were ridiculed.

The worst was how different the two men were. Hermann Kafka was a strong, vulgar, muscular, irascible, energetic man with a very loud and overbearing voice. He loved to eat huge amounts of food and swallow them down very fast. Franz on the other hand was weak and frail, sensitive, hesitant and delicate and represented everything his father despised.

The constant bullying and criticism infused him with feelings of guilt, anxiety and insecurity. But he also realized that his father wasn’t a superior being at all. Being degraded by someone who isn’t special must have made him feel even worse. His father scolded the children when they misbehaved at the dinner table but everything he asked of them, he didn’t do.

One part I found particularly interesting was Kafka’s analysis of his father’s Judaism. He clearly saw it as what it really was, a phony way of being accepted by society. He didn’t really believe or live according to the religion, he only used it to show himself in public and to further intimidate his son.

An endless source of pain were the different ways of seeing sexuality. When barley 16, Kafka’s father urges the young man to visit brothel,s and every time he wants to get married, he tells him to go and see prostitutes instead of getting married to the next best woman.

I can imagine how painful, crushing and ultimately damaging it must have been to grow up with such an egotistical bully.

The letter is very dense and offers much more on different other topics. If you are interested in Kafka and like his work, you shouldn’t hesitate to read it. The fear of the father hasn’t often been put into such eloquent words.

20 thoughts on “Franz Kafka: Brief an den Vater – Letter to My Father (1919)

  1. I think Litlove also mentioned this book. I’ve always been curious about Kafka–have read some of his letters and a biography of Felice Bauer but only a couple of his short stories. I’ve never read any of his other fiction. I will see if I can get a copy of this (my library doesn’t have it unfortunately), but it sounds like one worth buying!

    • It’s a very short book but as far as I know, at least in German, it is never included in any other editions, it always stands alone. It is barely 80 pages long, 100 handwritten pages originally. Litlove mentioned Kafka’s voice recently and I was astonished because I never had the feeling that he sounded particularly “true” but I had only read his short stories. I think once you have read this letter you see the stories/novels in a different light.
      I have his letters to Milena which are said to be some of the most beautiful letters that have ever been written (in German). I need to read them soon.

  2. Interesting. I want to read some Kafka soon – although I probably won’t start with this one. I can only handle so much of the tyrannical father character and I’ve already encountered 2 so far this year… I’ll certainly keep this book in mind though for the future.

  3. This seems quite interesting. I took a course on Kafka in college, but the prof never really went into his background and treated all his works as standalone. I think this might be rather insightful as to why Kafka wrote as he did.

    • It is very interesting. I was thinking of The Trial when I read this. To be accused of a crime you dind’t commit and and not to know what it is. Sounds like his father criticizing him for everything. Some dark powerful force against which you cannot do anything. I think it helps you understand his work much better when you read this.

    • I think it really helps understand him better and it is short. I hope the translation is really good. Judging from the title I would rather choose an older one.

  4. I received the book you show in your post just last week! I read it originally in German, but that was 20 years ago and I haven’t retained enough German vocab since then to tackle the original (shame!). But I so wanted to read this again – it’s my favourite piece of Kafka writing, so much power, so much pain. I hope to get to it myself in the next week or two.

    • I’ll be interested to see what you think of the translation. While reading it I understood why you mentioned Kafka’s voice. It’s a book to re-read. And there is a lot of pain in it. I’m in the mood to read his letters to Milena now.
      The book reminded me of Alice Miller’s excellent books.

  5. I’ve not been that keen, to be honest, to read kafka as he was shoved dwon my throat in too many classes. Shame really but there you go. I haven’t heard of this one, and my reaction to it was to wonder what I’d write to my father.

    • For one reason or the other I had only to read one of his short stories at school so that wasn’t too bad but had to sit through and absolutely horrible stage adaptation of The Trial. my most painful theater experience. But that wasn’t Kafka’s fault.
      You can’t help questioning yourself what you would write. In my case it would be a Letter to My Mother and it would be not that far from Kafka’s. They have a lot in common.
      It’s worth reading.

  6. I should read this, it seems fascinating. I agree with you about the English title. (It’s Lettre au père in French btw, published in the great collection Folio 2€). When you write “my father” you expect something like Pagnol and not this.
    How was his mother ? A frightened little mouse living with a ogre? I wonder if Kafka’s father was really an exception among fathers of that time.

    It’s been year since my last Kafka. He’s my best friend’s favourite writer and we both read him in high school. I should re-read The Castle, I’m sure I missed things when I read it.
    I have also read Letters to Milena and her biography by Margaret Buber-Neumann and a collection of her essays (Vivre, published by 10:18)She was incredible and it is such a pity that she died in Ravensbrück.She was bright and full of life.
    Have you seen the film Kafka by Soderbergh? I remember it was good.

    • “Letter au père” sounds fine. On the other hand we don’t know what title Kafka would have chosen but I doubt it would have been “my”. I guess the mother didn’t have too much to say, he does mention her but she isn’t very important. My father bought a book years ago called “Die Angst vor dem Vater” and it was apparently (I never read it) a study of the German black pedagogy that worked through fear and coercion and is now said to have been one of the sources that made the Third Reich possible. The Germans were used to obey. This is just to agree with you, that Kafka’s father was problem not an exception.
      I haven’t read the castle. I should probably re-read the short stories and read The castle. The letter is invaluable to understand him better.
      I read an excellent biography of Milena Jesenska as well. She was an astonishing woman and cheered up people until the very end. Those who survived had fond memories of her.
      I haven’t seen the movie. Thanks for mentioning it, I might try and watch it.

  7. Pingback: Hermann Hesse: Kinderseele – A Child’s Heart (1919) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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