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Book Review: Kafka in Love

Kafka in Love

by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval

translated by Willard Wood

Other Press, 2012

Only a few months ago Laurent Binet came out with HHhH, a quite brilliant biographical study of Reinhard Heydrich (and the men who assassinated him on the street in Prague in 1942) whose author insisted on classifying as a novel – perhaps because it was written with considerably more verve than is the norm in academia, perhaps because small licenses are taken with quotes and action-narration, or perhaps because novels tend to out-sell their nonfiction counterparts (although all things WWII-related are reliable exceptions, surely). It was strange to read a work in which every fact, figure, and assertion was documented and verifiable and yet be told the whole thing was fiction.

That strangeness returns from another quarter with Kafka in Love, the latest work by the phenomenally talented Jacqueline Raoul-Duvall (here luminously translated by Willard Wood, who perfectly captures the author’s jagged, percipient prose rhythm and leaves out none of the countless little filigrees of beauty)(although the author’s choice of English title gives a tellingly different impression than the French, Kafka, l’eternel fiance, since the French need not even imply the love the English states outright), which imagines the complicated and extremely interesting love-life of Franz Kafka from his youth to his death. Like HhHH, our setting is mostly Prague, and like that other work, there’s hardly a word, hardly a single phrase or syllable uttered or thought by any of the various main characters  – Kafka, Max Brod, and of course the women, Felice, Julie, Milena, Dora, and Kafka’s sister Ottla – that isn’t a verbatim or near-verbatim reflection of attested, documented reality. Le Monde praised Raoul-Duval for “stepping aside” and letting Kafka & Co’s own words do the bulk of the talking, which is putting it lightly. This is a biographical monograph on Kafka’s romantic compulsions, with the softest sprinkling of fictional artifice, presumably to make the whole thing more palatable to easily intimidated (i.e. American) readers. Almost a century ago, the great Francis Hackett took the exact same approach to Henry VIII, called it a biography, and had a bestseller on his hands.

No matter what it calls itself, Kafka in Love deserves to be a bestseller. It does a better, more moving job than any half-dozen straightforward biographies in showing us the flesh-and-blood Kafka, the awkward, nervous, oddly rodentine young man who was nevertheless compelling to women (and some men, obviously, starting with his indefatigable executor) and knew it, as Raoul-Duval points out when her hero meets shy young Gerti Wasner on the shores of Lake Garda:

One day he reads to her. He knows by experience how susceptible young woman are to his voice, to the eyes he raises to check that they are falling into his net, and remaining prisoners there.

Raoul-Duvall expertly captures this and every other aspect of the writer, the movie buff, the diarist, the fantastic correspondent, the office worker, the dreamer, the oddball – and the perennial victim of boredom. “He wants to break the monotony of the passing days,” we’re told. “His life was starting to feel like one of those schoolboy punishments where you are made to write the same absurd sentence a hundred times.”

It’s a bit natural – and damning – to make a jump from the breaking of monotony to all those love affairs, those four engagements that produced so much precious correspondence but so little matrimony. Always Kafka comes as close to the idea as he dares, then talks himself and everybody else out of it all. The parallel with a lovely little moment in Meran in northern Italy are so clear neither our author nor her translator needs to belabor it:

A sparrow visits him at breakfast time. Franz tosses it a few breadcrumbs and watches the reaction. The bird stands in the sunlight on the balcony. It covets the life-giving food, the crumbs that lie in the shadow on the threshold to Franz’s room. A few little hops and the bird could gobble them all down. But it is afraid to venture into unknown territory. It tentatively makes a few jumps forward, stops, advances a little farther, hops away, fluffs out its feathers to give itself courage. Desire propelling it, the sparrow jumps and lands a few centimeters from the feast. Then it retreats. It flies away, ruled by fear.

The loves burn and then burn out, and the lover is, we know, soon to follow. We’re taken through Kafka’s tuberculosis stage by agonizing stage, reminded that in his Diaries he once held, “There is without question something agreeable in being able to write calmly: Suffocation is a thing of inconceivable horror.” Of the death-throes Raoul-Duval writes:

The inconceivable horror, suffocation, is happening. Air is no longer entering his lungs, despite the pneumo-thorax. Stretched rigid on the bed, from which he has violently thrown back the covers, his mouth wide open, no cry emerging from it, no sound, his eyes wild, bulging. Kafka begs for a breath of air, his emaciated arms extended toward the doctor.

Kafka in Love is an attractive little volume from Other Press (the cover, touchingly, simply shows a bundle of letters), a perfect reminder not only fiction’s power to shape fact but also of Kafka himself in all his weird, path-breaking genius. It would take a strong reader indeed – or an oblivious one – to read this book and not turn immediately to their copy of The Trial, or the sturdy old Schocken edition of the Diaries, or the great big Penguin volume of the Letters to Felice. Biographies might tempt too, but even the best of them will seem a little staid after this.

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