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The vacuous politics of Franz Kafka His books were about daddy issues not despots

More sex fiend than tortured saint. Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

More sex fiend than tortured saint. Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images


June 10, 2024   9 mins

We have been lied to about Kafka. Our received image is that of a morose manic depressive, a gloomy and sickly bundle of nerves hacking away at his craft in isolation, like some Lana del Rey avant la lettre. But as shown by his diaries, published afresh by Penguin on the 100th anniversary of his death, nothing could be further from the truth. We have Franz Kafka’s best friend and spin doctor Max Brod to blame for this hackneyed distortion.

To be fair to Brod, there would be no Kafka without him. As Kafka’s literary executor, Brod did posterity a favour by refusing to consign his friend’s diaries to flames, as was instructed of him. Fifteen years later, in 1939, he did another good turn, ferrying the files to Palestine along with him when Prague fell to the Nazis. By then, however, Brod had already committed his original sin of apotheosising his mate in Kafka: Eine Biographie, which came out in 1937. There, Kafka appeared less the sex fiend that he was in reality, and more the tortured saint that he later became in the public imagination.

Brod set the tone. After the war, he ran his blue pencil through Kafka’s diaries, which appeared in two volumes in English in 1948-9, the second translated by the humourless Hannah Arendt. It was on the strength of Brod’s bowdlerisation that the contemporary TLS reviewer was able to conclude that Kafka’s diary was “one of the saddest books ever written”. Brod himself artfully leaned into the theme. Kafka’s diaries, he wrote in 1955, “resemble a kind of defective barometric curve that registers only the lows, the hours of greatest depression, but not the highs”.

This was, to say the least, utterly disingenuous. If there were no highs in his edition, it was because he had expunged all of them. He had his reasons, of course. In canonising Kafka as a writer with serious pretensions, he was seeing to it that his own star rose. There was perhaps a touch of pudeur, too, in his calculus. Brod may not have wanted kith and kin to find out about their nocturnal escapades to brothels together. Not for nothing did Kafka’s father think Brod was a meshuggener ritoch — a crazy hothead.

Ross Benjamin, by contrast, has no axe to grind. In translating a German edition brought out by the S. Fischer Verlag, he has now restored the diaries to their original form. What we have here is a record of Kafka’s life in all its messy glory. Benjamin has essentially given us a facsimile: 700 dense pages of mid-sentence pauses and spelling mistakes, anachronisms and repetitions, doodles and drafts.

This is, above all, the portrait of a sex-mad dandy. “Wrote nothing,” reads more than one diary entry. “Nothing, nothing,” reads another. As a writer, I can attest to the inverse relationship between living and writing. What was he doing? Those laconic entries tell us that the man who wrote little knew how to live a little. A trip to Paris finds him and Brod living it up during the last gasps of the belle Ă©poque: “how easily grenadine with seltzer goes through one’s nose when one laughs.” Back in Prague, we find Kafka among his friends, all of them cackling heartily as he read aloud drafts of his stories. The Kafka of these diaries is a bon vivant, a man who enjoyed his puerile jokes and Quaker oats, a theatre aficionado who hit it off with a Yiddish theatre troupe, the kind his father — an assimilated German-speaking Jew — disapproved of.

As a law student at Charles University, Kafka desultorily did his doctorate. His rather unoriginal thesis, by his own admission, was “intellectual sawdust that thousands of others’ mouths had already chewed up for me”. His heart evidently wasn’t in it. More important were his literary and sexual pursuits, in which Brod was a partner in crime.

These continued into adulthood proper. Kafka took up a job as an insurance assessor — dealing with workplace accidents and the like — that apparently frayed his grey cells and left him too knackered to moonlight as a writer. But this isn’t quite true, though Kafka himself is in part responsible for the misleading picture. As he has it in the diary: “here, in the office, for the sake of so wretched a document I must rob a body capable of such happiness.” As a result, he sought solace in seedy brothels. It is a sentiment that Don DeLillo was able to pin down later with droll brevity: “talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.” Yet in Kafka’s case, it doesn’t have the benefit of being true.

Far from sucking his energy, his job was in reality a sinecure. He typically clocked off at 2 pm and spent his afternoons writing and whoring. What’s more, there was nothing sordid about his life. Kafka was a known quantity in the beau monde of Prague. As his biographer Reiner Stach shows, Kafka frequented not the shabby establishments of the lower orders but Weinstuben, those permissive wine bars where waitresses joined guests at tables. The draw was harmless flirting, though the chambres sĂ©parĂ©es held the possibility of deeper connection. Sometimes, Kafka and Brod used to meet at 5 am and, as it were, “have two girls” for breakfast before heading off to work.

These days, we would call Kafka a hipster. He was certainly a faddist. Before the war, he moved about in Lebensreform circles, where ventilation and vegetarianism were in vogue. Kafka took up the creed of Horace Fletcher, “the great masticator” who was given to maniacally chewing food until it turned into mush. Then there was the Wandervögel movement, which turned on coming to terms with vile bodies, au naturel and in nature. Kafka exercised twice daily, naked, with windows open. From his diaries, we learn that he spent two weeks in a nudist colony in the Harz Mountains. He had green fingers, liked spas, and enjoyed rambling and wild swimming. He succumbed to bouts of gluttony: “candies are poured into me like hail.”

The biggest advance of these unredacted diaries is unquestionably in our understanding of Kafka’s sex life. Brod had prudishly done away with such passages as the one in which Kafka waxes poetic about a hirsute Spanish prostitute, with “hair running thickly from her navel to her private parts”. At a synagogue, Kafka observes a brothel-keeper in attendance; Brod had kept the line, even as he omitted the relevant detail that Kafka knew the man’s occupation not as a finger-wagging busybody, but as a patron of the place.

Brod had likewise censored anything that suggested that Kafka’s sexuality was more complex than what the Hays Code could handle. Now, we have Kafka lustily eyeing up two Swedish boys, their legs “so formed and taut that one could really only run one’s tongue along them”. Then we have him fantasising about the “sizeable member” of a commuter in his train carriage. Posing in the nude at a sanatorium for a friend, Friedrich Schiller, must have no doubt thrilled him; though it transpires that Kafka had been coy about getting his kit off — perhaps on account of circumcision. To Brod, he confessed dreams in which he kissed Franz Werfel, the author of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the epic novel about the Armenian genocide.

But Kafka wasn’t a homosexual as we would understand the word today. For sexuality wasn’t a binary business in 1910s Bohemia. Indeed, he was something of a womaniser, a tubercular lady-killer consumed by an insatiable appetite — “senselessly drawn, senselessly wandering through a senselessly dirty world,” as he put it. His diaries are littered with references to his mistresses. The great love of his life was Felice Bauer, to whom he was engaged twice; though they saw one another in person only on 17 occasions. It was, for the better part, an epistolary relationship. Kafka sent her more than 500 letters. All the same, he was quite disillusioned about the affair. “Blonde, somewhat stiff, charmless hair” was his first observation about her. When they met, he had casually introduced himself as a “gadabout”. To his diary, he confided the main reason for wanting to marry her: his “inability to endure life alone”. The engagement ceremony found him “bound like a criminal”. When they went shopping for furniture together, all Kafka could think of were tombstones.

Then there was his engagement to the tubercular clerk Julie Wohryzek, broken off when he transferred his affections to his Czech translator, the married grass widow Milena Jesenská. This was followed by an affair with the waitress Juliane “Hansi” Szokoll, who called him “Franzi” and had a penchant for living life lockdown-style, Proustianly in bed for days on end.

At some point before that was his fling with Hedwig Weiler. She was “very bright, very Social Democratic”, he wrote to Brod, but she needed “to keep their teeth clenched so as not to come out with a conviction, a principle, at any provocation”. Kafka was wholly uninterested in her politics, which clearly mattered a lot to Weiler, who went on to earn a doctorate in 1914. Needless to say, the affair didn’t last very long.

Finally, there was Dora Diamant, a Jewish Chassid girl on the run from her ultra-Orthodox Polish family; later a prominent communist actress. The two lived together in Berlin during Kafka’s dying days, day-dreaming about opening a restaurant in Palestine. Dora would cook, and Kafka would wait tables. His tuberculosis, with which he had lived for seven long years —“with such a body, nothing can be achieved”, he noted in his diaries — killed him in Klosterneuburg in 1924. Kafka was only 40.

“He was too consumed by his interiority to really be preoccupied with politics proper.”

All in all, it had been an uneventful, fairly apolitical life. Later critics made him out to be a raging critic of communism and fascism, but these are posthumous annexations. The fact is that he was too consumed by his interiority to really be preoccupied with politics proper. In his diaries, he devotes some 500 words to the subject of Russian circumcision, but then registers the onset of the Great War with laughable concision. His 2 August 1914 entry can be quoted in full: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming school in the afternoon.” Indeed, his indifference to world-historical events is the most striking aspect of his diaries.

Much has been made of Kafka’s pacifism. But this view, too, rests on over-interpretation. Kafka simply didn’t have too strong an opinion on the war. If he didn’t fight, it wasn’t on principle but because he failed to make the cut. Kafka tried thrice to enlist in the Austrian army. Later, he purchased war bonds and visited replica trenches in Prague to vicariously live life on the front.

Kafka was, according to the historian Ritchie Robertson, a “conservative modernist” like Conrad. True, he was fond of Flaubert, but for the most part, the culture he consumed was rather pedestrian. He enjoyed adventure stories. When it came to cinema, he had a preference for Westerns and melodramas. His literary tastes, Robertson writes, were cosmopolitan if “mildly conservative” — as one would expect from a subscriber of Die Neue Rundschau. His themes, both in his short stories and novels, were ambiguity and decline. His protagonists are typically weak men in the throes of existential crises flailing about in a world of bureaucratic intransigence.

It is easy to see why Cold Warriors took so well to his oeuvre. In the age bookended by the rise of Nazism and the fall of the Soviet Union, Kafka’s works were effortlessly appropriated as antitotalitarian pamphlets. At first blush, they appear to be on the money. The Trial, for instance, is the story of the arbitrary arrest, then execution, of Josef K. Hairs have been split trying to figure out whether Kafka had the Soviets in mind when writing the novel or the would-be autocrats closer to home. Some have argued the book is really about colonial violence — about the Herero, who were consigned to German concentration camps in Namibia in 1904-7, an episode generally regarded as the harbinger of the Holocaust.

It’s a persuasive thesis. But those of us who have caught a glint of Occam’s razor may prefer a simpler explanation: Kafka’s books aren’t about authoritarianism at all. They’re instead about his father. They’re not so much about anti-statist as filial rebellion.

Kafka had daddy issues. The young Franz was mortally afraid of his father, who used to beat him. Hermann Kafka was by all accounts an abrasive and choleric character, given to banging on insufferably about the poverty of his youth, and abusing his employees, who once threatened to resign en masse from his haberdashery shop. It was left to Franz to cajole them one by one into staying on. “All I have written has been about you,” Franz wrote in a letter he never had the courage to send Hermann. “I was oppressed by your sheer corporeality.” Hermann was a huge man, whereas Franz was “a little skeleton”. He developed a stutter in his father’s presence. In his diaries, Kafka workshops a story that was later published as “The Judgement”, about a carefree twentysomething condemned “to death by drowning” by his killjoy father. More famously, in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect who is, in the end, fatally wounded by an apple hurled at him by his father.

Kafka no doubt had good reasons for being politically passive. The Bohemia of his youth was an intensely political place, brimming with Czech nationalists who had it in for the elite German minority. As a Jew, though, Kafka had no skin in the game. Moreover, he knew from experience that, for all their differences, both sides were united in their antisemitism. In 1897, when Count Badeni made Czech one of the two languages of government along with German, violence broke out between the Germans and Czechs. The biggest casualty, however, was Prague’s Jewish population, whose homes and shops were singled out for attack.

For Kafka, aged 14, it must have been a formative episode, even if the business owned by his parents was spared. It might have been what turned him off politics. It also goes a long way in explaining Kafka’s Zionism, though it must be said he wore these ideas lightly. It seems he was less interested in following the mundanities leading up to the creation of a settlement in Palestine — the tawdry business of lobbying the Ottomans and the like — than in learning Hebrew and dabbling in Jewish history. Indeed, there was no more to his Zionism than a healthy cultural curiosity. As Kafka himself put it, “What do I have in common with Jews? I have scarcely anything in common with myself.” Convictions of any kind he found boring. But above all, he was bored by politics.

Kafka had fun. He liked to Ă©pater la bourgeoisie, but beyond that, if his diaries are anything to go by, he was a rather vacuous chap.


Pratinav Anil is the author of two bleak assessments of 20th-century Indian history. He teaches at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

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Peter B
Peter B
8 days ago

If anyone’s a “rather vacuous chap”, I suggest that Pratinav Ali’s a far better bet than Franz Kafka.
Doing even a small amount of research on Ross Benjamin’s new translation of Kafka’s diaries shows that these are a far more serious work than this rather trivial, sensationalist article.
Any great work of literature ultimately exists in the mind of the reader and leaves scope for interpretation. What we take from Kafka’s novels and stories is necessarily subjective and individual and even varies during our lives.
My own current view is that Kafka wasn’t political or making any political comment, but rather identifying the deadening and dangerous nature of unaccountable bureaucracy. Does it matter whether that’s the message he intended (if indeed he intended there to be any message at all) ? Whether that’s a metaphor for his relationship with his father didn’t seem relevant.
I’d quite like to read this new diary translation (and re-read Kafka). I have no enthusiasm to read anything more from Pratinav Ali.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
7 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

To which i might add:

All in all, it had been an uneventful, fairly apolitical life.

This, as a summation of a life which – by any but the most rumbunctious standards – appears to been anything but uneventful.
As for “apolitical”, the writer needs to learn the difference between an aversion to politics and disinterest, a conclusion which he himself alludes to due to his experiences as a Jew.

Last edited 7 days ago by Lancashire Lad
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
7 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

My theory is that Pratinav Anil is a new pseudonym that Terry Eagleton is operating under to try and sell more pieces by riding the DEI wave. He’s picked up a random grainy old picture of some babu from bombay, and has sent that in to UnHerd to scam the editorial team. It’s the only possible explanation. The dead giveaway is the writing style. I mean, has anyone ever seen the two of them together in the same place?

Last edited 7 days ago by Prashant Kotak
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Thumbs up for a good laugh! Though I think the comic comparison does a slight disservice to Eagleton’s wit–which is uneven and not a general hit here.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
7 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I’d like to see some evidence of Eagleton’s wit.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

I think you’d prefer to remain convinced he has none.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Very well said. Are we next meant to trash the Diary of Samuel Pepys or Confessions of Augustine because they reveal human failings, sordid or not, and “incorrect” politics?

Andrew H
Andrew H
5 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Well said indeed

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
8 days ago

The author is entitled to this ridiculous clickbait titled opinion. What the hell did I just read? Balderdash.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
8 days ago

I found this article entertaining, in a pretty trashy way. So Kafka’s whoring and bouts of gluttony contained “nothing sordid”, at least in Anil’s reconstructed Bohemia?
This whole piece is suffused with a lurid judgement that seems to drool at the same time it scolds, reminiscent of Carvey’s SNL character The Church Lady: “Isn’t that special?!”
Perhaps an author of Anil’s considerable reading and rhetorical skill could try harder to avoid catty takedown jobs like this and the one he performed on Gandhi here over a year ago.
And yeah, I can feel a tinge of hypocrisy in writing that and would rather not pass a mirror right this instant. But I still think my point is valid–not that I’m impartial.

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
7 days ago

“Back in Prague, we find Kafka among his friends, all of them cackling heartily as he read aloud drafts of his stories.”
Yes. Perhaps the most absurd aspect of posterity’s valorisation of Kafka as a tormented genius who somehow intuited the totalitarian horror-show that was to come after his death is its failure to appreciate that he was above all a great comic writer.

Maighread G
Maighread G
7 days ago

‘there was nothing sordid about his life.’
Isn’t visiting brothels and using prostitutes is the very definition of sordid?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 days ago
Reply to  Maighread G

Yes, what a non sequitur! I think Anil mean to make “sordidness” purely a social judgment, and imply that Bohemia circa 1910 was so utterly decadent that such behavior would have been accepted by just about everyone there. Or to affect a moral neutrality of his own: “Who am I judge? I’ll leave that to conventional dullards”. Yet Anil clearly stands in some stance of disapproval toward Kafka, both for his (once) private behavior and perceived lack of political conscience.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
7 days ago

He was ‘vacuous’ based on what? His personal diaries are concerned with everyday human pursuits and relationships rather than intellectual abstractions?
Imagine that.
Vacuous seems like a vacuous word-choice

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
8 days ago

He sounds like a kindred spirit*. I ought to read some of his stuff.
*Except for the whoring bit.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
8 days ago

The Trial is a masterpiece.I haven’t a clue what motivated this article other than perhaps envy.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
7 days ago

Start with the short stories

Eric Mader
Eric Mader
7 days ago

[Re: above, since I can no longer edit my comment:]

Kafka’s parables of bureaucratic power and inscrutable, arbitrary judgment are no less *political* parables just because the writer first acquired his horror of such under the thumb of an irascible father. Anil trying to brush off Kafka’s work as “Daddy issues” is cheap, easy, and hardly to the point.

Anil mentions pop singer Lana del Rey in Paragraph 1. Maybe that’s the literature he should be writing on.

Last edited 7 days ago by Eric Mader
Eric Mader
Eric Mader
7 days ago

Ali is so busy doing the Smug and Chatty that he doesn’t once look at his own moves. A staggeringly hypocritical piece of writing.

Brod’s stage-management of his friend’s legacy was understandable in context and at least in service to the work. He gained Kafka a serious readership. Ali is so daft as to suggest the work has less stature because 
 Kafka and Brod went to brothels! So who is the ridiculous busybody here?

Ali’s framing of the political in Kafka is equally witless.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
7 days ago

The most asinine article yet to be contributed by the younger generation here.
Clearly even French post-structuralism has escaped this shower of digital pygmies. At least you can say that their narcissism mirrors Kafka’s but unlike his, it is entirely sterile.

Andrew H
Andrew H
5 days ago

Dear oh dear, this is desperate stuff, knocked out in a couple of hours it seems. So Kafka had daddy issues, did he? Who knew? Kafka’s fiction is what it’s all about – works of extraordinary imagination and linguistic genius that are, quite rightly, considered a key part of the 20th century literary canon.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
7 days ago

A very nice article by a writer new to me. Henry Ford said, “History is bunk.” It seems biography is as well. I had just begun reading The Trial — a dull business if I’m frank — and can now set it aside without a particle of guilt.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
6 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

It’s anything but “nice”. I guess if you’re looking for an excuse to lighten your self-assigned reading load (and I admit I often am), you can combine Ford’s cute bumper sticker quote with Anil’s latest hatchet job to free you from the whole genres of history and biography. Shouldn’t be hard to find criticism that saves us from every other branch of learning too.