Excavating Kafka by James Hawes

Persistence was repaid in my reading of James Hawes’ Excavating Kafka. My initial impulse was to throw the book across the room. Hawes took a Ph.D on Kafka and Nietzsche, his research is impeccable.

What grated was the tone of the early book, written with a smug, self satisfied cynicism that passes for irony in some English circles. Examples abound in the first chapter, with sentences like, “No wonder the Herr Doktor passed the Royal and Imperial Austrian Army’s medical board just this June, for the second time.” He frequently refers to Kafka as Herr Doktor, our hero, our lawyer, and it gets a little draining. Thankfully, Hawes eases up on the cynicism as the book progresses.

Drawing on his own research and the work of biographers Reiner Stach and Peter André-Alt (sadly not in an English translation), Hawes successfully deconstructs what he persists in calling K-Myths:

  • Myth 1: Kafka was almost unknown in his lifetime
  • Myth 2: Kafka wanted his works destroyed after his death
  • Myth 3: Kafka’s Jewishness is vital to understanding his writing
  • Myth 4: Kafka’s style is mysterious and opaque
  • Myth 5: Kafka was poor and lonely, or free, and thereby lost
  • Myth 6: Kafka’s father was monstrous
  • Myth 7: Kafka was crippled by TB for years

The emphasis of Hawe’s biography is to humanise Kafka, to lower him from the saintly pedestal on which he is frequently placed by biographers who have been dazzled by the K-Myth machine. Hawes is a good critic of Kafka; the final chapters where he analyses Kafka’s best known writing are marvellous.

Kafka thus takes the novel one step further from Dickens and Dostoyevsky. He pushes the dominance of the “unreal” over the “real”-of psychological states over mappable facts-right to the limit. But he never over-steps that limit, though he comes perilously close in The Castle. The Trial, his greatest work, still has the unmistakable smack of a real place. This is what makes the story so endlessly wrong-footing.