Too much Kafka
By Dita Gerry | 21/10/2010
From where do I take the audacity to draw words from the mouths of those that slumber, from where do I take the courage to get under his skin, into the fibers of Franz Kafka's soul and put words into his mouth? I'm not sure, but it is clear to me that Andrew's sense of humor, Andrew, who had the magical capability photo: Alma Richter
to turn the difficult into the human, who caused light to shine on the faces of his listeners and placed a smile on their lips, explains my need to deal with the tension that exists between the hidden and the revealed
Dedicated to Andrew Richter, without whom I could not have written even a single word about Kafka
Andrew grew up in San Bernadino in southern California, on the border of the Mojave Desert, the son of non-Zionist Jewish immigrants to the United States. His father had arrived there as a young man, a refugee from Budapest, and as Andrew used to say, he was “mute in eight languages.” His mother, as a refugee from a Hungarian village on the Polish border, learned already at a young age to keep a low profile, because anyone that stuck out was cut down to size. Andrew grew up with the feeling that his parents were a “cork on the river of history.” Perhaps his attraction to me, the Israeli, could be explained in part by the fact that I was born in Israel to parents who were about the same age as his who had fulfilled the Zionist vision. Every morning, his father would rise early and go off to work. On the empty seat next to him in the car he would place a bowl containing a huge lump of ice, an expression of his immigrant's resourcefulness, his protection against dehydration in the desert heat. He sold basic furniture to immigrants from Mexico: tables, chairs, beds, cupboards, refrigerators and even radios. In the evening, the tiny family would gather around the table for a supper that had been made from a book with recipes in Hungarian from which Andrew the child would read to his mother. During the meal, Andrew would talk about everything: about the how the school's football coach cheered on the players, “Kill him, kill the bastard!”; he would give what was an apparently a too enthusiastic description of the young men with wild beards in the neighborhood, who would take apart motorcycles and put them back together. They were men who had returned lost and shell-shocked from the Korean War and who terrorized the neighborhood, Hells Angels. He also left a special place for the plots of the books he read obsessively, until his father would shut him up saying, “Enough, too much Kafka!”
Franz Kafka died in 1924 at the age of 41. I have been carrying with me the desire to understand the secret spell of the author who wanted to be forgotten for more than eight years. When I discovered the sentence that Kafka wrote, “From the sparks that I received I can barely illuminate my own body,” it occurred to me that he lived not only with the feeling that he had been blessed with a horn of plenty that gave him generously of its bounty but also with a sense of sin. He was never satisfied with what he wrote because he was aware of his limited capacity to share the fortune that was his lot with others.
Every scriptwriter who contends with another person's biography faces the question of what period best illuminates the life of his protagonist and brings it most clearly into focus. It is best if one can compress this period into a time frame of three months to three years at most, the duration of the events of monumental dramatic plots. As an Israeli and a Zionist, as well as an artist who bases her work on the sources, the last year of Kafka's life – when his self-identity roamed from the realm of the “me” to that of the “we” – fascinated me. I knew that the period that I would focus on would start with Kafka's move from Prague to Berlin, the city that was still suffering from the aftereffects of the Great War, but which was already a magnet for the intellectuals who laid the foundations for the modern culture of Europe, and which was also a lively Jewish center.
Books by and about Kafka were piled high on my desk, on the table next to my desk, next to my bed and under it. In addition to talking with my friend Kathi Diamant, who three years ago wrote a biography of Dora Diamant, called Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant, I also met Zvika Diamant, Dora's nephew who lives in Holon. His father was the one who had accompanied Dora's father when he asked his rabbi how to respond to Kafka's request for his daughter's hand. Along with the biographies by Max Brod and Ronald Hayman, there was also an informative booklet Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch, as well as the volume by Evelyn Beck on how the Yiddish theater of his friend Isaac Löwy, who had a theater troupe that presented plays in Café Savoy in Prague, affected Kafka. Reading Kafka himself returned me to a number of short stories by Y.L. Peretz, caused me to peruse Moshe Idel's book on the Kabbalah and look at Pinhas Sadeh and his book, Ish be-heder sagur, libo shavur, uva-huts yoredet afelah [Man in a closed room, his heart is broken and outside darkness falls].
At the point when one sets everything aside and starts to write, I looked up and gazed at the portrait of Kafka by Andy Warhol. That portrait, in which light from an unknown source falls across Kafka's face, affected me no less than all the books I read.
“So much blood on such tender hands”
Immediately upon receiving the news – which he shared with no one – that the tuberculosis had spread to his throat, and as he continued to spit blood, Kafka accepted an invitation from his beloved younger sister, Elli, to join her together with her two young children for a vacation in Müritz in northern Germany, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In his bag was the story that he had been writing at the time, A Hunger Artist, some blank sheets of paper and writing implements. He had made up his mind to continue writing up to his final living moments. He once wrote: “Only two things can make me stop writing, marriage and death.” Now, in Müritz, he realized that marriage was no longer an option.
The train crosses the Czech border onto German soil, and Elli's son stands by the window facing the silent trees passing by. Kafka leans toward him, and the child explains how his imagination helps him to see invisible things in the forest.
At the hotel near the sea, not far from the forest, Elli asks how he is and Kafka responds cheerily, saying that he is a born traveler. In the room, he can hear the voices of the vacationers and the loud voices of the young Jewish boys and girls from Eastern Europe, refugees from the war who have arrived here from Berlin and are staying in an inn near the hotel. Kafka, by then already a noted author, who wrote Contemplation, The Judgment, Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony is invited to the Friday night synagogue services. The consciously secular Kafka, who is not a Zionist – at least not an active one, like many of the members of his close social circle – has never attended a Friday night service, and nevertheless, for some reason, eagerly accepts the invitation.
Kafka arrives early; he goes looking for the entrance and finds himself peeping into the kitchen, where Dora, about twenty years old, is preparing the fish for the Friday night meal. Dora looks up and is amazed: it is the man she has see earlier in the company of a woman and two children near the sea. Dora saw the woman place her hand on the man's forehead, first the back of her hand and then the palm. To her, they appeared to be a typically well-off happy middle-class family, except that the woman's outstretched hand reminded her of her mother and the way she used to test if she had a fever. Dora could not help following them with her eyes, noting to herself where they were staying, and suddenly, here he is in all his glory. Kafka somehow reminds her of Herzl, the visionary of the Jewish state. She removes her hand from the quivering fish guts, and Kafka comments: “I have never seen so much blood on such tender hands.” She hurries to wash her hands and goes out to him. He puts out his hand: “Franz Kafka, vegetarian.” She can feel the warmth of his hand as he tightens his grasp: “Dora Diamant,” she responds. He asks where the entrance to the synagogue is and she shows him, walking by his side for a few steps, struggling to understand what he meant when he said what he did about her hands and the blood, “As if it were not just blood on hands.” Kafka responds that they will meet again; after all, he has been invited for Friday night.
In the dining hall, the secular and traditional are combined, and the Diaspora makes way for the spirit of the land of Israel. Kafka learns that the dozens of orphans, the boys and girls in the hall, have been designated for aliya, to immigrate to the land of Israel, and he finds himself almost in tears. The possibility of being reborn anew in a distant place fires his imagination. When the young boys and girls dance the hora, sing El Yivneh Hagalil. El Yivneh Hagalil, Dora stands next to him. He asks her politely whether she too is planning to leave for Palestine, and she says that she is, adding that “her soul too is devoted to the spirit of the Zionist revolution.” “Devoted?” he is taken completely aback to hear this word coming from the mouth of an immigrant, someone who appears to be a simple village girl and who is working in the kitchen. She is aware that he is impressed by her carefully chosen word. Does this assimilated Jew know that the word “devotion” was originally a word used to describe the love between a man and a woman? Perhaps she is only a simple, homeless, uneducated kitchen maid, and he is Franz Kafka, doctor of law and famous author, but since running away from her father's home and moving to Berlin, determined to reach the land of Israel, she too senses powerful and tremendous forces. She responds to Kafka with a victorious smile: “Yes, I too have caught the devotion. Can't you tell?”
The satisfied observer of himself
Although it is still incomplete, Kafka allows his sister to read his new story, A Hunger Artist. “An endearing name, is it connected to someone I know?” she asks, and he avoids giving a direct response, saying that he has hidden instructions on “how to live and how to die” in the story and that he hopes that it also contains a lighter side. Elli goes back to Kafka's room after reading the story, and with teary eyes asks him for an explanation. He quotes: “For, in fact, no one was in a position to spend time watching the hunger artist every day and night without interruption, so no one could know, on the basis of his own observation, whether this was a case of truly continuous, flawless fasting. The hunger artist himself was the only one who could know that and, at the same time, the only spectator capable of being completely satisfied with his own fasting.” Was her brother here describing his world as that of an artist, providing signs from the domain of art? Or was he cutting himself off from all criteria not his own? Or, even worse, was he referring to his life itself? Was this a story about his state of mind and emotional and physical state? Elli always had difficulty with her brother's lack of faith in God, but nevertheless, she had often heard him say that in his world, literature replaced religion, and she found comfort in that. But if Kafka wanted to be forgotten, why did he sanctify his writing rather than the covenant of marriage?
Kafka tells her the truth about his health; she realizes that his fate is going to be to starve and choke to death. Elli asks him to return to Prague and to sign himself into a hospital. He promises her that he desires to live, and tells her that he is not fearful of the future, for he is an experienced acrobat, having lived with his tuberculosis for many years now. When his sister returns to Prague, Kafka remains behind.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
As they walk on the beach, Dora tells Kafka that she came to Berlin from the Polish town of Będzin on the Czech border. After her mother's death, she felt she needed to go out into the world, and she tells him that she despised the isolated way of life of the Ger Hassidim. He asks her jocularly if he “is speaking with a dead woman,” and Dora responds that her father indeed sat shiva for her after she left and that it has been a long time since she has had any contact with him or her siblings. She lives all alone in Berlin, and despite the rampant inflation and terrible loneliness, her life is better now than ever. Kafka walks along the forest paths and she follows him, until he stops next to a dark cabin. Kafka asks Dora to tell him about the “event.” The surprised Dora stammers that all that she knows is from excerpts of conversations she heard from men, things that she happened to hear when she was a little girl. Her father had been a young boy at the time, and the story about R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk was not the type of story one bragged about. Kafka urges her on and she tells him that she heard that on that day, R. Menachem Mendel had been walking about in silence in the forest, and that he had arrived at the tish in his cabin only at midnight. His Hassidim were still standing about waiting for him. He sipped the wine that had been poured into his cup and then, suddenly, burst out shouting, saying that he was no longer their rebbe and that they were foolish followers, and “There is no justice and no judge!” Afterwards, the rabbi shut himself up in his cabin for years, she didn't know how many, but that picture has remained stuck in her mind. She giggles, but Kafka does not even smile and she is overtaken by awe, like that time in her childhood when she happened to be pushed and found herself standing next to the rebbe. Kafka explains that R. Menachem Mendel had stopped believing in God and that that is why he liberated his followers from his authority, sentencing them to a freedom that is not normally found in religious cultures: to be responsible for themselves. “If that is so, then why did he continue to learn Torah all the days of his life?” she challenges him. And Kafka responds that there is no connection between the study of Torah and faith; look, he explains, he too reads the Bible and he is not a religious person and does not believe in God.
Dora asks to return immediately to the inn, but Kafka does not let her leave. He has never felt as close to a stranger as in these moments when Dora is at his side; at the same time, he also feels close to R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a hunger artist. Did she understand that the need to seek out devotion was no less important than the devotion itself? He looked at her hands, hands that did not shrink from any work in order to realize the vision. Was fate offering him an opportunity in the form of Dora to be reborn in the land of Israel? Was it proposing that he become a partner to the new Exodus from Egypt, that of their time?
Kafka waits for her in his room, and as he sits at his desk, before him is a blank sheet of paper upon which not a single word is written. He waits for the words to come, and when they do, he will write them almost effortlessly, hardly lifting his hand from the page, as often happened to him when the horn of plenty would descend and his hand would fly over the paper. Dora arrives trembling with awe and he asks her to rent him an apartment in Berlin. She asks when he plans to arrive and he responds, as soon as possible. She shows him that she is on the list of candidates waiting for an immigration certificate to the land of Israel, and he promises to join her before she leaves. He does not reveal that he is forty years old, still lives with his parents and has never left Prague, although he has often dreamt of doing so; and that his thinness and cough are due to the tuberculosis that has spread to his throat.
A time of beginning, a time of truth
In order to move to Berlin, Kafka needs to gather paramount strength. The possibility that he might change his mind, as happened to him before with his other loves, is not insignificant. People close to him see that he has difficulty swallowing, and that under his black suit and bright, white shirt, he is becoming increasingly emaciated. His sister Elli, who has discovered his association with Dora, expresses her surprise at his relationship with a Polish kitchen maid who is about to immigrate to the land of Israel, and suggests that he compensate her for the expenses and trouble involved in finding him an apartment in Berlin and that instead of joining her there, enter a special sanatorium for people with tuberculosis.
That night he meets with his good friend Löwy, who had a Yiddish-Polish theater troupe, and asks him if he thinks that his age, forty, is a sign that he is approaching the moment of truth. When taking the letter aleph from the letters of the Hebrew word for truth – emet – a new truth emerges: Aleph, the first letter, whose numerical value is one, represents one year of life, and the two remaining letters spell out the Hebrew word met – dead. What if he has only one year of life left? If so, what truth would it contain? Kafka opens up the book of Genesis, Chapter 2, verse 24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” It was clear to him that he must cleave unto Dora. When Kafka asks Isaac Löwy for his advice as to what he should do with all the many manuscripts in his room, Löwy asks him if he believes that what he writes illuminates. Kafka laughs. “Illuminate?” And when he responds: “From the sparks that I have received I can barely illuminate my own body,” Löwy has no choice but to suggest that Kafka follow in the footsteps of the Kabbalists: “Whatever does not illuminate, burn!”
Max Brod arrives in his room in Kafka's parents' home and takes the story A Hunger Artist from him. Even though it is not yet winter, the logs burn in the fireplace in Kafka's room and Kafka himself burns with fever. Brod can see that Kafka is helpless. He suggests to him that he leave most of his things in his room in Prague and leave for Berlin. After his friend leaves, Kafka sits down to write his will, in which he asks Max Brod to burn all his unpublished manuscripts. He sets up a meeting with his friend Robert, a medical student doing his residency, and asks him to help him die when he is no longer able to write. Robert firmly believes that Kafka should enter a hospital. Kafka refuses to give in: “If you don't kill me, you are a murderer.” Robert agrees after hearing from Kafka about Dora, and adds that he believes that even at time of terrible illness, the human spirit can overcome the weakness of the body.
The parting of the Red Sea
In the past, when Kafka realized that his lover Milena, the woman who translated his book Metamorphosis into Czech, was unable to leave her husband, he decided to give up his simple dream of living with a woman in the same apartment, sitting with her at the same table, body to body. And suddenly, Dora appears in his life and offers him a devotion of a different kind. On a walking tour of the old Jewish quarter of Prague together with Gustav Janouch, Kafka tells him that in Prague, he feels Jewish with every step that he takes: “The old city of the Jews, the sick one among us, is far more palpable than the new city around us.” In Berlin, he will not be able to experience the past, so crucial for the soul of the artist, but Berlin is the future. Kafka writes: “One can better see Palestine from Berlin.” And thus, in his feverish dilemma between being reborn and starving and choking to death, Berlin becomes an exit station on the way to the land of Israel.
He likes the apartment that Dora has rented for him in Berlin. For a while, they behave cautiously with one another. He knows that she is on her way to the land of Israel; she realizes that she is unworthy of someone of his stature. Both are well aware of their incompatibility: the difference in ages, culture, education and financial status, their place in society. But one day, Dora reveals to him that she fell in love with him at first sight. It is important to her that he make no mistake: Her soul is devoted to the revolution, but also to him. He asks her to remain and move in with him.
Dora remains. She continues to work in the Jewish orphanage, and he writes. One day, she asks him why he and Felicia parted ways. He responds that she was “too bourgeois.” Dora asks if they are not also living a bourgeois life. Kafka laughs. He tells her that perhaps he is, but she isn't. In the evening, he shows her a verse in the Talmud, “That which a handmaiden saw on the banks of the Red Sea, even Ezekiel son of Buzi did not see.” Although Dora's mastery of Hebrew is better than his, he is the one who explains to her that she, Dora, has identified a window in Jewish history and clung to it, whereas he has reached it only thanks to her. At that moment, Kafka asks her to give up her desire to be a farmer during the day and dance around the bonfire at night, in favor of a dream they would share. He proposes that after he has grown stronger, they will both travel to Tel Aviv and open a restaurant there; she will cook and he will serve. And Dora, who thinks that he is the funniest person she has ever met, agrees.
Dora, who is concerned for his health, notices that since she has moved in with him, he has begun to spit blood. Together they study Hebrew and she teaches him Yiddish. She tells him that her favorite sentence in Yiddish comes from a song that her mother used to sing to her, “Sheine Reizeleh dim shoychet [the ritual slaughterer's beautiful Reizeleh].” And Kafka beams with happiness at this because it is so unexpected for a slaughterer, whose hands are covered in blood, to have such a beautiful daughter. He takes her hand and kisses it and then sits down to write a letter to her father, to ask for her hand. Dora objects: They do not need her father's blessings. Kafka insists, but so does Dora: Their love needs neither the permission of her father nor his rabbi! The letter arrives at the home of her father, and on the Sabbath eve, the father takes his eldest son, Dora's brother, and goes to the home of his rabbi. After the tish, he shows the rabbi the letter. Although the rabbi is impressed by the letter, he criticizes those Jews who do not cover their heads and who hurry the coming of the Messiah, those who are “sitting on their valises” in Berlin instead of trusting in the Almighty. Dora receives the one-word letter of refusal, “No,” after Kafka has collapsed and it is already clear that his illness is incurable.
Before Robert takes him back to Prague, without Dora, Kafka asks her to burn all his writings left in the apartment, and she does so with her own tender hands, without flinching. Satisfied, he writes to her, “You have me, I have you, nothing bad will happen to us; this is our marriage contract,” as he is taken to the train station on his way to his parents' home in Prague and from there to Vienna.
Franz Kafka was helped to die in Vienna, with Dora and Robert at his side. Dora believed that his soul had in fact departed a few hours earlier, during the eighty-kilometer ride from the Kierling sanatorium to the hospital in Vienna, as he lay on the back seat of the roofless automobile, with Dora standing during the entire journey, shielding him with her raincoat from the wind and rain.
Kafka never arrived in the land of Israel with Dora. Dora lived here for only a short time before she returned to Europe. Andrew, who was so American, who had fought in Vietnam, in the last six months of his life agreed that we should move to Israel. When I was a young, inexperienced scriptwriter, I declared that there was not a single subject that I could not contend with. Everything changed with Andrew's sudden death. Since his death, I know that there are in fact very few subjects that I can take on, that I must write about. One of them is Franz Kafka.