Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes

I picked this book up thinking, by the title, that it would be a good jumping off point for someone who has not studied Kafka and has yet to read any of his works. For the most part…I was wrong.

“Why You Should Read Kafka…” is written for those deeply familiar with “the K-Myth” and the theories of the Kafka experts.

The only “myth” with which I was familiar before reading this book was that Kafka wanted all of his works destroyed upon his death. According to Hawes this story is not true. However, he quotes a letter from Kafka stating just that fact. Hawes bases his understanding of the situation on a second letter from Kafka indicating that he only wants his personal writings, letters and such, destroyed, although, clearly, that wasn‘t done either. It’s a bit of nit-picking, I suppose, but, it would appear both interpretations are correct. Had Kafka died before the second letter, the first would have stood as his final word.

This is not a biography, strictly speaking. It’s a bit of a Bio/Lit Crit hybrid. Much of this book is dedicated to pointing out Kafka’s sex/non-sex life, from erotica that he kept in a locked bookcase to brothel visits to his correspondences with his fianc├ęs who he rarely ever saw. His letters to these women are great reminders as to why one should never put their personal relationships in writing. Kafka had definite, glaring, commitment issues. No doubt, the reason he wanted these letters burned upon his death.

James Hawes actually asserts a belief that there should be no author biographies, his reasoning being that people read these books and then intertwine the authors’ lives with their works. I guess that may be true for the scholars but certainly not for me. I tend to read biographies independently, almost as if I’m reading about fictional characters. The good news is this will never come to be.

Hawes does, however, mention often and with great respect Peter-Andre Alt’s “Der ewige Sohn“. Unfortunately, for me at least, this Kafka biography is not available in English. For a work written in English, he suggests Ritchie Robertson’s “Kafka: A Very Brief Introduction”. Now, I only need to decide whether to first give Kafka a shot or hunt down Robertson’s book.

I found the tone of this book to be a bit off-putting. Hawes’ “voice” is pompous and pithy to the point of distraction. The intended audience, however, may well appreciate this style.

If I understand the author correctly, he is trying to get through to the Kafka scholars that Franz Kafka was merely a man. No different, really, than any other man in his time or place. He had his quirks but really no different than any other man of his age and standing then or, even, now. And his books should be read as works of fiction, not high philosophy. For me, this is very comforting. The concepts of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and “The Trial” have always been intriguing to me but also highly philosophical, something I really need to be in the mood for. Now, I feel, I’ve been given permission to simply read and enjoy as, as Hawes points out, did the original readers of these works.

Author: James Hawes
ISBN: 978-0-312-37651-2


JK said...

love your blog! I've copied down several titles already for my "wish list"...

Baakanit said...

Coincidentally I'm right now reading the Trial by Kafka, I'm almost done with it. I've read in the past his collection of short stories and I can tell you that Kafka's writing is not as difficult as many people might think. The myth of his work being hard to understand, and highly philosophical keeps many people far from he's work and it shouldn't be that way. Camus learned a great deal by reading Kafka, The Trial is in my opinion very funny and entertaining. It has depth too. The manifestation of the absurd is great. When I read him I have fun, and I can also see that he enjoyed writing, that he had fun too.

If you haven't given Kafka a chance yet, I can tell you that you won't be disappointed.