(Translated by Howard Colyer)

Introduction by HIP Literature Editor Pete Donohue

Kafka’s Letter to my Father is a century old this autumn. A few years ago local writer and HIP Literature reviewer, Howard Colyer, published his own translation of this important part of Kafka’s literary canon. Next month Colyer will be reading from it at Printed Matter bookshop. Here he gives some background as to how the work was originally conceived and executed:

By Howard Colyer

A hundred years ago Franz Kafka asked for leave.  He wanted a fortnight’s holiday to go to a health resort some forty miles north of Prague.  Kafka had gone there before because of his tuberculosis, though this time he wasn’t going for the sake of his TB.  He got on well with his boss, but he was shy of mentioning his true purpose.  Kafka wanted to write a letter to his father, though they lived together in the same apartment.  And write he did, yet he had to ask for a further three days’ leave to get the manuscript complete – it amounted to 104 pages when finished. 

‘Dearest Father,  

Recently you asked me why I maintain that I’m afraid of you. And, as usual, I didn’t know how to answer, in part because of my fear of you; and in part because my fear rests on so many details that I couldn’t even have discussed half of it.  And if now I attempt to give you an answer in writing it will still be far from complete: because I’m still hindered by my fear, and all that flows from it; and because there is far too much for my mind to remember and consider.’ 

The immediate cause of the letter was Kafka’s engagement to Julie Wohryzek – who he had met at the resort the year before – and his father’s objection due to the poverty of her family.  Yet behind this lay decades of antagonism – which loomed so large in the mind of Franz Kafka that his father, Hermann, had become the cause and focus of his stories and novels, ‘My writing dealt with you, I lamented there only what I could not lament on your breast.’  Or so the son claimed. 

Hermann Kafka came from a village of about 100 people, some 70 miles and several centuries from Prague.  Hermann’s father had been a kosher butcher and a man of prodigious strength capable of lifting a sack of flour with his teeth.  And as a child Hermann had been forced to drag his meat cart from village to village, and had been sent away at the age of 14 to fend for himself, and eventually he had moved to Prague.  Hermann Kafka must have been an impressive young man, for his wife, Julie Löwy,
came from a family of doctors, businessmen and rabbis.  And with their financial help they opened a haberdashery shop – and the money from this provided the means to educate their son until he was a doctor of law. 

DIFFERENCES AND MISUNDERSTANDINGS

Franz Kafka did not take after his father, or his father’s father.  For example, he wasn’t a butcher, but a vegetarian and a follower of Horace Fletcher, The Great Masticator, who insisted that food be chewed to a pulp.  Kafka was six foot tall and at his heaviest weighed just ten stone.  And the way he ate drove his father mad.  ‘Look you, I finished ages ago!  Quicker, quicker, quicker!’ he would shout at his son – amongst other things. 

Yet the physical contrast with his father impressed itself on Franz Kafka long before he had any views on what and how he should eat.  Swimming lessons were an early torture, ‘For I was borne down just by your physique. I remember how we often undressed together in a changing room.  I – meagre, weak, small.  You – strong, great, broad.  And already in the changing room I was miserable… and though your intentions were good, you instilled in me a deep shame.’   

This sense of inadequacy reached its peak one night, when he whimpered for water until his father shut him outside.  ‘And for years I was tormented by the thought that this giant man, my father, could almost without reason come to me in the night, and lift me out of bed, and leave me on the balcony: he was my final court of appeal, and for him I was such a nothing.’ 

Whether Hermann Kafka did remember the incident isn’t known.  He never received the letter.  Franz Kafka sent it to his mother, and she gave it back.  Presumably to avoid a domestic explosion for it contained accusations more damning than shutting a child outside for a few minutes.  ‘In your armchair you ruled the world.  Your opinion was right, all other opinions were mad, extreme, freakish – not normal… And you became for me that puzzle which belongs to all tyrants: the law lay in your person and not in your wisdom.’ 

METAMORPHOSIS THROUGH WRITING

But the fundamental accusation was that the father had deformed the son and yet still blamed the son for his deformity.  From which it would be hard to guess that Franz Kafka had drafted industrial regulations, negotiated with factory owners, and, during the First World War, served as one of the three senior civil servants in charge of creating a psychiatric hospital in Frankenstein for soldiers returning from the front. And in his spare time he had written a series of six short books which had been published and made his reputation in the German speaking world. 

However Kafka’s achievements didn’t touch his self-doubt nor his dread – and he saw his father as the primary cause of his inadequacy. 

But to what extent was the Hermann in his mind a true reflection of his father? Two friends – Max Brod and Hugo Bergmann – thought he was mistaken. 

Brod knew Kafka throughout his adult life and wrote the first biography and recorded his bewilderment, ‘In how many talks did I not try and make clear to my friend… how he overestimated his father, and how stupid it is to despise oneself.’

And Bergmann knew Kafka before they went to school and they studied together until they left university. ‘His father stands vividly before my eyes, which I admit are not the eyes of his son, who described him in his Letter to my Father (which I believe and hope never reached his hands).  On the contrary, I see him as a Jewish businessman of those years who had both feet planted on the ground of his physical reality – his shop.’ 

Kafka’s favourite reading included the tales of Hebel, Hoffmann, and the Brothers Grimm.  And Kafka wrote many stories which belong in their tradition, including Metamorphosis – in which a travelling salesman is transformed into a giant insect.  It could be argued that Letter to my Father transforms a shopkeeper just as drastically. 

Franz Kafka’s Letter to my Father, £7.75, is available from Printed Matter Bookshop, 185 Queens Road, Hastings – where Howard Colyer will be reading
from the letter on 27th November at 6pm


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