Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

Kafka: A Very Short Introduction by Ritchie Robertson
001. …the author himself is hard to distinguish from his fictional self-projections. … It is equally difficult to separate Kafka from the protagonists of his novels, whose names are progressively reduced (Karl Rossman, Josef K. and the mere K. of The Castle). Kafka himself encountered this difficult in January 1922, checking in at a mountain hotel, he found that the staff had misread his booking and written his name down as Josef K [afka] . ‘Shall I set them right or shall I let them set me right?’ he asked his diary.
002. Franz had the added difficulty that as a boy he was, by his own account, so uninterested in sex as to be prudishly offended by any mention of it…a hint by his father that he ought to visit a brothel seemed to the teenage Franz ‘the dirtest thing there was’.
003. [Regarding University] So, since every subject was unattractive, he might as well study one–law–which was completely repellent. ‘In the months before the exams,’ Kafka recalls bitterly, ‘I suffered great nervous tension and lived on an intellectual diet of sawdust, which, moreover, had been previously chewed by a thousand mouths.’ …for anyone without definite plans or interests the study of law was the obvious university course to choose…
004. Even so, creating such figures, half-terrifying and half-ridiculous, is clearly Kafka’s way of gaining distance from and control of his own situation.
005. The flight from life into literature must fail because literature has to be about life.
006. [Re: Letter to His Father] It presents the writer, in a highly dramatic but broadly plausible way, as someone whose self-esteem has been severely damaged by an insensitive upbringing…
007. [Re: Letter to His Father] But in large measure it is a story–a story such as Kafka told himself about his own life. That is no objection: perhaps the best that even psychoanalysis can provide is a satisfying story of how we became who we are.
008. ‘I consist of literature, I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.’
009. [Kafka fantasized about] a life at a writing-desk in the innermost room of an extensive cellar, interrupted only by walks to fetch his meals from outside the cellar door. Even when solitude was available, writing was difficult and frustrating. Kafka’s diaires are full of stories that peter out after a page or less, and of lamentations and self-reproaches at his inability to write. Only occasionally did he manage to write successfully and without conscious effort. The greatest such occasion was the night of 22-23 September 1912, when from 10.00 pm to 6.00 am he sat at his desk writing The Judgement in a single sitting. “That is the only way to write,’ he told his diary the next day, ‘only with such coherence, with such complete opening of body and soul.’
010. By writing, he could escape futile self-analysis through assuming a higher perspective. The consolation of writing, he noted in 1922, was that it enabled him to leap out of the ‘line of killers,’ in which every action was immediately nullified by self-observation, and to create ‘a higher kind of observation, a higher, not a sharper one, and the higher it is, the more inaccessible from the “line”, the more it follows its own laws of motion, the more incalculable, joyous and ascening is its path.’
011. [Kafka’s] literary blood-relatives, he said, were Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Kleist and Grillparzer.
012. [Kafka] admired precision, economy, and understatement, espeically in short prose sketches such as those by Peter Altenberg and Robert Walser, and in short fiction like that of Chekhov and the early Thomas Mann. It may be surprising that he also enjoyed Dickens, but he was impressed by sheer overflowing energy, especially since he felt its lack.
013. Reading Kafka is a puzzling experience. Impossible events occur with an air of inevitability, and no explanation is forthcoming.

Not only are the characters bewildered: so is the reader. As in the cinema, events are shown only from the viewpoint of the main character. With very rare exceptions, we see only what he sees. As early as 1934 Theodor Adorno wrote that Kafka’s novels read like texts accompanying silent films. The reader’s knowledge is similarly limited. We learn no more than the central character knows about his situation.

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