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.

Joseph Roth: Hotel Savoy (1924)

Hotel Savoy

Written in 1924, Hotel Savoy is a dark, witty parable of Europe on the verge of fascism and war.

I read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March years ago in school and had sworn at the time that I will re-read it and read as much as I can of this incredible author. A while back I stumbled upon a really nice discovery in a local bookshop, a little slipcase containing seven of Joseph Roth’s novels. It consists of Hotel Savoy (Hotel Savoy) (1924) Hiob (Job) (1930) Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) (1932) Beichte eines Mörders (Confession of a Murderer) (1936) Das falsche Gewicht (Weights and Measures) (1937) Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor’s Tomb) (1938) and Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls) (1939).

Roth is one of three Austrian authors (the other two being Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer) who wrote about the end of the Danube Monarchy. The end of an era, the changing of the times, is often central in his books.

I decided to read Roth’s books chronologically and started with Hotel Savoy.

What an absolutely wonderful novel this is. Beautifully written, astonishingly varied in style, themes and characters. How can you capture so much in under 120 pages? The style is very different from Radetzkymarsch but not less enchanting. His sentences are very special, often composed of a list of nouns which might have been a challenge for a translator.

I am happy, once more, to shed an old live, like I did so often these past years. I see the soldier, the murderer, the man who was almost murdered, the resurrected man, the captive, the wanderer.

Or this powerful sentence:

I enjoy the floating feeling, calculate how many wearisome steps I would have had to climb if I wasn’t sitting in this luxurious lift, and I throw down bitterness, poverty, homelessness, migration, hunger,  the past of the beggar, throw them deep into the shaft, from where they cannot reach me, the hovering one, ever again.

Hotel Savoy is a “Heimkehrer Roman”, the story of the former soldier Gabriel Dan who after WWI and several years of having been a prisoner of war in a Siberian camp returns to Poland. He is a descendant of Russian Jews and one of his uncles lives in the city in which he stops. He wants to travel westwards to Paris or any of the other big Western cities. As far away as he can get from Russia and a painful past full of deprivations, it seems.

He moves into a room on one of the upper floors of the grand and glamorous looking Hotel Savoy. As pompous as it may seem from the outside, the interior is rundown.

The first three lower floors are reserved to rich people, bankers, aristocrats, factory owners and patrons. The upper floors belong to the poor who cannot pay their rent. After a few weeks their suitcases and luggage is confiscated and they are left completely destitute.

What a colorful group of people they are in those upper floors. Dancers and clowns and people who return from the war or people who have lost everything in one foolhardy transaction. They are eccentrics and lunatics and more than one of them is terminally ill. There is singing and dancing and cheerfulness and a lot of dying going on.

Gabriel hopes to be able to extract some money of his rich uncle, Phöbus Böhlaug, but to no avail. His uncle’s avarice is frightening.

There is nothing else to do for Gabriel than stand at the train station daily and hoping for work. Every other week the train station is flooded by prisoners returning from the camps. One day he meets one of his old comrades the peasant Zwonimir.

What a character, this Zwonimir. Full of life, exuberant, funny and droll. He makes friends easily has a funny sense of humour and detects everything phony in the rich and pompous people around him.

They work hard and enjoy themselves in the evening, drinking copiously, going to cabarets and the vaudeville, walking through the city, exploring the quarters where only Jews live.

I always enjoy novels set in hotels. They are full of interesting characters from the most diverse social backgrounds. In this inter-war period hotels were often the only place where people could stay. It took those who returned from the war an awfully long time to get back to their homes and they had to stay somewhere on the way. Others had lost their houses or just fled the countryside.

It is a fascinating microcosm this Hotel Savoy. The very poor and the very rich rub shoulders.

One of the central episodes is the arrival of Henry Bloomfield an incredibly rich banker who left Europe for America but returns once a year to his hometown. No one really knows why he chooses to come back to this little town when he could stay in Berlin.

While he resides at the Savoy, people cue up to talk to him and present their business ideas hoping he might finance them. Gabriel is lucky and is chosen by Bloomfield as temporary assistant. He will listen to all the stories and sort the valuable ideas out.

This novel has really everything. It is funny, sad, picturesque, touching and bitter-sweet and the ending is perfection. Roth describes people, the hotel and the little town with great detail. And every second sentence bears an explosive in the form of a word that shatters any illusion of an idyllic life. Roth served in WWI and never for once allows us to forget that the horror of one war and subsequent imprisonment have only just been left behind  while the next one is announcing itself already.

I was reminded of other novels set in hotels, pensions or clubs like Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, Vicki Baum’s Menschen im Hotel (Grand Hôtel), Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Assouline’s Lutetia, Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.

I am sure there are many more. Do you know any others?

I translated the quotes from the original German. Any mistakes are entirely my own.