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.