IN Prague, he is always present but never mentioned, and it comes as a shock suddenly to find oneself face to face with him in the heart of the city--Kafka's brooding features, life-size, cast in black bronze and mounted above eye level on the wall of a drab building on Maisel Street. On this spot, so a small plaque proclaims, stood the house in which the writer Franz Kafka was born.
It is a modest memorial, conceived in ambivalence and therefore singularly fitting in its way. Commissioned by Communist authorities, designed by the sculptor Karel Hadlik, and unveiled in 1965, at a time when the human face of socialism began to rise above the parapets of Stalinoid concrete, it was intended as the initial stage in Kafka's metamorphosis from decadent nihilist into a revolutionary critic of capitalist alienation. In the summer of 1968, Soviet tanks put an end to liberal illusions, and further efforts at rehabilitating Kafka were suspended. But his presence, once acknowledged, is hard to exorcise in a town where every moment of the day and night recalls his nightmares. The bronze sculpture was left in place, so was the marker on his house in the Alchemists' Lane--concessions to tourism, or one of those Schweikian triumphs of cunning that have kept the Czech cause alive through the ages. Either way, they bear witness to one all-important, fundamental fact of Kafka's existence: that he was born in Prague, was buried in Prague, and spent almost all forty-one years of his life in this citadel of lost causes, the "little mother with claws" that never loosened her grip on him and shaped his vision of the world.
An uncanny world in which to grow up, still solidly embedded in the Middle Ages, walled in by mystery and legend turned to stone. The view from the Kafka windows stretched back over the centuries, and every walk, every errand took the child through the vaulted archways and twisting alleys of a vengeful past. This was to be his life's stage.Friedrich Thieberger, a renowned Jewish scholar with whom Kafka later studied Hebrew, recounts that "once, as Franz and I were standing at the window looking down on Old Town Square, he pointed at the buildings and said: 'This was my high school, the university was over there, in the building facing us, my office a bit further to the left. This narrow circle ...' and his finger described a few small circles, 'this narrow circle encompasses my entire life.'"
But long before the town became a concept in the child's mind, long before the physical reality of even his most immediate environment began to register in meaningful and coherent images, he had to find his way in the far more bewildering shadow world of very large, powerful human beings and learn to deal with the dual threat of both their presence and their absence. What Kafka chose to remember about his childhood is highly revealing, though no more so than what he chose to forget. Even a "memory come alive," as he once described himself in one of his last diary entries, tends to be selective in ways determined by beginnings beyond memory--by a real-life mother who unwittingly betrayed him long before her image fused with the symbol of his quest for love, just as the real-life father, with his waxed mustache and drill-sergeant temper, preceded the image of divine omnipotence.
Posterity has come to know them only as "Kafka's parents"--such are the perils of raising a writer in the family, especially a writer devoid of conscious hypocrisy. Yet Herrmann Kafka was already thirty-one years old when he became Kafka's father, a demanding role at best, for which he happened to be particularly ill equipped. The very qualities that had enabled him to claw his way out of grinding poverty into middle-class respectability and relative affluence--unself-conscious egotism, brute drive, and a single-minded concentration on money and status--did not make for grace, warmth, and sensitivity in his contacts with people in general. As a parent, however, he suffered from an additional handicap: he himself had never had a childhood.
His own father, Jakob Kafka, born in 1814, was the second of nine children--six boys and three girls--raised in a one-room shack in the Czech village of Wossek. Under the laws then in force, he was not permitted to marry; a 1789 decree promulgated to curb the growth of the Jewish population barred any but the oldest son of Jewish parents fromobtaining a marriage license, and Jakob had a stepbrother older by a year. What saved him from dying without legitimate progeny--death twice over, in the context of his faith--was the revolution of 1848, or rather its savage repression. By the sort of ironic paradox that crops up with predictable unpredictability throughout Jewish history, the new constitution, designed to strengthen the hand of the autocratic government, brought Jews the very freedoms which the French Revolution and its aftershocks had promised but largely failed to deliver.
In granting full citizenship rights to the roughly 400,000 Jews within the empire--including the right to marry at will, to settle in the cities, and to enter trades and professions--the Habsburg bureaucracy was moved not by humanitarian impulses but by political and economic considerations. The business skills and energy of peddlers, moneylenders, and craftsmen were an untapped resource invaluable to a country on the verge of industrialization, and the Jews' peculiar, cohesive, but supranational allegiance made them a potential counterforce to the radicalism of contending nationalities that threatened the survival of the multinational state. But all that mattered to Kafka's grandfather Jakob, in 1848, was that at last he could marry, and he proceeded to do so at once, taking as his wife the daughter of his next-door neighbor.
A kosher butcher by trade, Jakob Kafka was a surly giant of a man, reputedly able to lift a bag of potatoes with his teeth, but all his backbreaking labor never netted him more than the barest subsistence. His wife, Franziska Platowski, already thirty-three when she married, had an outgoing and cheerful disposition that, under the circumstances, should have qualified her for sainthood. Between 1850 and 1859, she gave birth to six children and raised them all in that one-room shack, in abject poverty; for long stretches, the family's diet consisted of little more than potatoes.
Somehow they survived--the parents as well as all six of their children--itself a rare feat in its day, and evidence of robust genetic equipment. (The shack itself, though, still inhabited after the Second World War, outlasted them all.) The children were put to work as soon as they were strong enough to pull a cart. Summer and winter, in any kind of weather, they had to make the rounds delivering slabs of meat to Jakob's far-flung clientele. The frostbites and footsores that Herrmann, the second-oldest, suffered as a result became his battle scars; he kept regurgitating the inventory of his childhood privations with a mixture of pride and self-pity which his own son in turn found singularlyrevolting. In fact, the perennial paternal litany, half boast and half accusation, of "You don't know how well off you are ... When I was your age ..." loomed large on the list of grievances Kafka hoarded against his father.
This sniping across the generation gap is common enough. But in contrast to so many fathers licking their imaginary wounds, Herrmann did not have to invent or exaggerate the hardships of his youth in order to score points, and no one saw this more clearly than the target of his scorn. In "Josephine, the Singer," Kafka's last story, written on his deathbed, he evokes the world in which his father came of age:
Our life [he wrote, referring to Josephine's "nation of mice"] simply happens to be such that a child, as soon as it can get about a little and is to some extent able to find its way in the world, must take care of itself just like an adult. We are, for economic reasons, scattered over too large an area, our enemies are too numerous, the dangers that everywhere lie in wait for us are too unpredictable--we simply cannot afford to shield our children from the struggle for existence; to do so would doom them to an early grave. But one additional reason should be cited, this one hopeful rather than depressing: the fertility of our tribe. One generation--and each is immensely populous--crowds the other; the children have no time to be children ... no sooner has a child made its appearance than it is a child no more; other children's faces press in from behind ... rosy with happiness. Yet however charming this may be, and however much others may rightly envy us for it, the fact remains that we cannot give our children a true childhood.
The ancestors of both Jakob and Franziska had for at least a century lived in Jewish enclaves surrounded by a Czech peasant population. Unlike most of their coreligionists, forced by a 1787 decree to adopt German surnames, they had--presumably by special dispensation--chosen Slavic names; the Kafkas, at any rate, always assumed that their family name derived from kavka, the Czech word for "jackdaw," although Jakovke, a Yiddish diminutive for Jakob, is another and not unlikely derivation.
The Kafkas spoke Czech at home but, like all Jews, sent their children to the Jewish school--schools were denominational, a six-year attendance compulsory for boys--where, by law, German was the language of instruction. Herrmann did his compulsory stint, the full extentof his formal education, and became fluent in spoken German, though he never quite mastered the intricacies of the written language and, to the end of his life, evidently felt more at home in Czech.
At fourteen, one year into manhood under Jewish law, he left home for good to make his way in the world. Despite stiff competition, the young peddler survived on his own. Retail distribution in rural areas was still in its infancy, while the i...