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2014/08/22 - 05:55

Missing Persons: Two Little Riddles About Kafka and Berlin

by Mark Harman



For Franz Kafka, Berlin was not so much the real city on the Spree as his private symbol for much that he felt was lacking in Prague. Already in 1902, as a nineteen-year-old student, he had coined an often-quoted metaphor for Prague: "This little mother has claws." That fiercely maternal, if jocosely ironic, image already suggests the impossibility of his ever quite breaking loose. And throughout his life he felt that Prague was "very un-homelike, a place of memories, of nostalgia, of pettiness, of shame, of seduction, of the misuse of power." Berlin, on the other hand, became a screen onto which he could project inaccessible longings and dreams of escape, and he soon integrated it into the web of metaphors through which he viewed his every experience.

While Kafka's continual preoccupation with Berlin is certainly no secret, critics and biographers haven't quite done justice to the city's place in his inner life. Here I wish to explore the tension between his exuberant initial image of Berlin and the grim reality he encountered when he went to live there in the fall of 1923. I should also like to report on an ultimately futile yet perhaps not entirely unproductive search for missing letters that Kafka wrote for a little girl in the suburb of Steglitz, a search which I carried out on the side while I was in Berlin a couple of years ago writing a series of linked essays about the furtive autobiography underlying all of his writings.

Although some commentators trace Kafka's fascination with Berlin to his first meeting with Felice Bauer at the Brod family apartment in Prague in August 1912, he had in fact visited the city earlier, in December 1910, after cutting short a visit to Paris with Max Brod and his brother. His initial, almost giddy, response to the city blends exuberance, naïveté, and angst in a manner reminiscent of Karl Rossmann, the guileless hero of his first novel, Der Verschollene (best known under Max Brod's misleading title Amerika but which I intend to call Missing or Missing Person in a new translation that I am currently completing). Though Kafka was subsequently forced to acknowledge the less rosy, more complex reality of the city, a strain of this near-euphoria about Berlin persisted to the end of his life.

In 1910 he writes about the city's theater with the enthusiasm of a culture-starved young man from the provinces. Uncharacteristically, he is in such a good mood that "he cannot quite stop laughing," thanks partly to Berlin, partly to comedies by Molière and Shakespeare at the Kammerspiele. he also attends a performance of Hamlet, starring the celebrated silent-movie actor Alfred Bassermann. Like many diffident intellectuals before and after him, Kafka identifies with Hamlet, indeed so much so that he has to look away from the stage to regain his composure. Much the same happens with respect to Berlin. So absorbed is he in his inner musings that he barely perceives the actual city: "I'm just listening in on myself." This inattentiveness to the urban bustle changes whenever he finds a nook where he, the "foreigner," can feel at home, as, for instance, in a vegetarian restaurant where he rhapsodizes about the semolina pudding, raspberry syrup, lettuce with cream, gooseberry wine, and strawberry-leaf tea.

Throughout the voluminous correspondence with his fiancée, Felice Bauer, from 1912 to 1917, he keeps trying to imagine in extraordinary detail her everyday life in a partly real, partly imaginary Berlin. And this preoccupation with Berlin remains even when his relationship with Felice wanes. In july 1914, immediately after the dissolution of their first engagement at a hotel called the Askanischer Hof near the Anhalter railway station, he states in a letter to his parents that his life in Prague can lead to "nothing good" and that he isn't "finished with Berlin." he declares that he will resign from his job, leave Prague, and eke out a living for two years on his savings, some 5,000 crowns.

Unfortunately, the First World War broke out several days after he disclosed those intentions to his parents, and he felt obliged to abandon his plans. When he and Felice reestablished their relationship after a promising rendezvous in Marienbad in july 1916, they decided to live elsewhere: this time the idea was to set up their household not in Prague but in a suburb of Berlin. The following year another fateful intervention put an end to this project-coming this time not as a world-historical thunderclap but as a doctor's diagnosis of TB.

After the dissolution of his second engagement to Felice in 1917, he became even keener on leaving Prague. Although often too absorbed in his personal struggles and fantasy life to pay much attention to political developments, he could not help becoming aware of the increasing xenophobia and anti-Semitism. In November 1920, in the wake of anti-Semitic riots in Prague, he muses to Milena Jesenská: "Isn't it the best course to leave a place where one is so hated?" Given the private myth that Kafka had built up over the years about Berlin, it is hardly surprising that he should have thought of moving there. he hoped that the city would inoculate him against what he regarded as the blight of Prague, for, as he himself put it, "Berlin is the antidote to Prague."

The following year he accomplished the "Napoleonic" feat of finally moving to Berlin. Even though he initially thought he would stay for only a couple of days, he nonetheless compared his impulsive move in September 1923 with Napoleon's launching of his military campaign against Russia: "a foolhardiness whose parallel you can only find by leafing back through the pages of history, say to Napoleon's march to Russia." Before setting off on the short train journey from Prague to Berlin he had to put down an inner rebellion: "an attack by all the fears that I have, and no army in world history is as big as them." Although some critics have dismissed such comparisons with momentous events in world history as ironic hyperbole or even ridiculous exaggeration, if we wish to understand Berlin's symbolic significance for Kafka, we need to read such seemingly overblown analogies with empathy and imagination. Unlike Napoleon, Kafka seems to have realized that his expedition could not end well. Indeed, his very choice of Napoleon's foredoomed Russian campaign as an analogy implies a stoical acknowledgment of his own worsening illness. By autumn 1923 his physical condition had deteriorated considerably, and he was sporadically aware that the end could not be far off.

On arrival in Berlin in September 1923 he does his best to insulate himself from the increasingly dismal reality of a city where unemployment has risen to almost a quarter million, violence is erupting between extremists on the right and left, and inflation is spiraling. he and Dora find an apartment in Steglitz, first on Muthesiusstrasse, and then on leafy Grunewaldstrasse. he avoids reading newspapers, not only because of the inflationary cost but because he is determined to shut out conversations about street fighting in the center of Berlin and instead to absorb only the green and harmonious world of Steglitz and later Zehlendorf. From Berlin he wants to suck the "sweetness" rather than the "poison" that seeps out whenever he glances at the Steglitzer Anzeiger or other newspapers hanging outside the Steglitz Town Hall. he also tries to avoid going into the city center. Whenever he must go, he returns "miserable." When he gets off at the central Zoo station, the consequences are immediate: "I have trouble with my breathing, start to cough, become more anxious than I ordinarily am, see all the dangers of this city uniting against me." By October 16, he has only been to the center three times, for he prefers his peaceful life in Steglitz where "the children look well, the begging is not frightening." Jokingly, he even dubs the square outside the Steglitz Town Hall his own Potsdamer Platz, then the hub of Berlin. Yet even in Steglitz he cannot altogether ignore evidence that his chosen refuge is rapidly descending into near anarchy. he attempts to sound jocose, comparing the rocketing prices in Berlin to the squirrels jumping about back in Prague. However, he is on a fixed pension, and, in spite of sporadic monetary infusions from his family in Prague, the pair's economic situation becomes increasingly bleak: "My room, whose rent used to be 28 crowns a month, cost over 70 crowns in September; in October it will cost at least 180 crowns." So even he cannot help noticing the oddity of his choice of Berlin as a haven in 1923, especially for "poor impecunious foreigners," who of course also happen to be Jewish. The touching letters he wrote from Berlin to his parents, which were sold anonymously to a Prague bookseller in 1986 and first published in German in 1990-and which unfortunately have not yet appeared in English-offer intriguing perspectives on the circumstances of his stay in Berlin. In those letters he engages systematically in exaggeration and understatement with the goal of reassuring his parents, who do not want him to go to Berlin and who take a dim view of his living out of wedlock with the Eastern European Jewish rabbi's daughter Dora Diamant. No doubt because of his parents' attitude, in his letters home he rarely mentions Dora-the subject of Kafka's Last Love, an absorbing recent biography by Kathi Diamant (no relation). Instead, the city itself is a cipher for liberating alternatives to the perceived frustration of life in Prague, and he seems determined to continue investing it with positive emotions. In his letters home he usually downplays the dangers of Berlin, presumably so as to safeguard his precarious independence in the city, where for the first time in his life he is living with a woman, and, what's more, by all appearances, quite happily so.

As in Kafka's fiction, however, it isn't always easy to pinpoint the tone of his letters, which blend candor, irony, and at times even sarcasm. In the letters to his favorite sister, Ottla, he is certainly more open about his economic plight than he is in the letters to his parents; for instance, he urges Ottla to get his father and mother to send him money that they had promised him. A tinge of sarcasm comes into his voice when he asks whether their failure to do so isn't part of a "pedagogical" effort to force him to earn money. One might also assume that he's being ironic when he states that if there were such a thing as a school for furniture movers in Berlin, he'd sign up for it right away. There is no trace of irony, however, when he discloses in a letter to Max Brod that he longs to sign up at a horticultural school in nearby Dahlem. Leading a simple Tolstoyan life had long been an ideal of his, and his illness did not lessen its attractiveness, though he realizes regretfully, after hearing a description of the demands of the theoretical and practical course work from a "Palestinian" student, that he is no longer physically equal to such challenges.

Intriguingly, he is most forthright about the potential threat posed by the Berlin, of 1923 in a letter written not in German but in Czech to his brother-in-law Josef David, Ottla's husband. Far from idealizing Berlin, he concedes the dismal reality of conditions in the inner city: "And here it's truly awful, to live in the inner city, to fight for groceries, to read newspapers. I don't, though, I couldn't stand it even for a day." Yet although he is grateful to be living in Steglitz, he also feels guilty about cutting himself off from the misery of ordinary people. Dora Diamant recalls that he, the one who took care of the shopping, would occasionally join lines of shoppers so that he could share in the general suffering. Mixed in with the compassion for ordinary people is a tinge of, well, masochism: he wants to remain in Berlin not in spite of but rather because of the worsening social and political conditions: "So it's entirely reasonable to stay a bit longer here, especially since the great disadvantages of Berlin still have a pleasing and pedagogical effect." In Kafka's life script even misery has its pedagogical uses.

Yet Kafka's stay in the city was not utterly bleak; hence the first of my two little riddles-a story about Kafka and a little girl in Steglitz. Dora Diamant told it to the French critic and translator Marthe Robert, and, in a slightly different version, to Max Brod. While out on a walk one day in Steglitz, Kafka and Dora met a little girl in a park who was crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka told her not to worry since the doll was away on a trip and had sent him a letter. When the little girl asked suspiciously for the letter, he told her he didn't have it with him, but that if she returned the following day he would bring it.

True to his word, every day for three weeks thereafter he went to the park with a new letter from the doll. Dora Diamant emphasizes the care he devoted to this self-imposed task, which was of the same degree as that which he lavished on his other literary work. She also dwells on his difficulty coming up with an ending that would let him off the hook while also reaching a reasonably satisfactory conclusion, for the little girl. In the version that Dora told to Marthe Robert, Kafka did so by having the doll become engaged: "He (Kafka) searched about for a long time and finally decided to have the doll marry. he first described the young man, the engagement. . . , the preparations for the wedding, then in great detail the newlyweds' house." Because of those ongoing "wedding preparations"-a word that recalls the title of one of his earliest stories and suggests the degree of fictive autobiography that went into his spinning of this engaging tale-the doll could understandably no longer visit her former mistress.

While Max Brod does not mention this ending, he writes that before leaving Berlin for Prague, Kafka made sure that the little girl received a present of a new doll. This is, of course, only a minor discrepancy and to my mind doesn't diminish the credibility of this story, which reveals a gentle, considerate, empathetic Kafka not as widely known as the introverted, self-tormenting Kafka of "The Metamorphosis" and "A Hunger Artist."

In Berlin in the spring of 20011 occasionally escaped from my desk at the American Academy and went looking for any witnesses who might still be alive-if not the young girl herself who would now be an elderly woman, probably in her nineties, then perhaps somebody from her family who had heard about the story but had not yet come forward. I knew that similar efforts had been made in the past-for example, several decades ago by the Kafka biographer and Berlin publisher Klaus Wagenbach; and even a couple of months before I had arrived there had been a brief inquiry about the doll story in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel'mseriza by Maja Rehbein, a journalist and critic who was also acting on behalf of Project Kafka, a Dutch-based effort to track down missing Kafka material. Although I realized that it was unlikely that anything would turn up at such a late date, I thought it might be fun to have a try. Even if nothing particularly significant about the doll letters materialized, I might stumble on something else. To my surprise, the story about the doll letters was taken up with remarkable alacrity by the media in Berlin and eventually by national newspapers such as Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, perhaps in part because the story is-and may forever remain-tantalizingly incomplete.

As I had half-anticipated all along, nothing much came to the surface. Why, despite several searches, of which mine was only the latest, have no witnesses to the doll story ever materialized? One obvious hypothesis is that Dora Diamant simply made up the incident. However, it seems unlikely that she would just have invented this encounter in the park. The details about the incident and the doll story itself sound authentic, and, though Dora had an exalted, mystical streak, evident particularly in comments reported by J. P. Hodin and the German novelist and erstwhile Kafka scholar Martin Walser, who interviewed her in London, she had too high an opinion of Kafka to engage in any such fabrication. Besides, what motive would she have had? So what happened to the little girl and the doll letters? As is often the case with Kafka, there are multiple possibilities. The little girl may have died many years ago, or been traumatized by later events, or perhaps even been Jewish and been killed during the Holocaust. As for the letters themselves, there is a remote possibility that they could still surface. Kafka may not have given them to the little girl to keep or he may have held on to copies. We know that Dora Diamant burned quite a few manuscripts on Kafka's instructions, and it is possible that the doll letters also went up in flames. However, she did not destroy as many manuscripts as she initially claimed. After Kafka's death, she told Brod and Moshe Spitzer, an editor from the then-Berlin-based Schocken Verlag, that she no longer had any manuscripts in her possession; but that turned out not to be true, for when in spring 1933 the Gestapo raided a Berlin apartment where she was living with the man she subsequently married, Ludwig Lask, a German Communist leader, they carted off a number of Kafka manuscripts, including, possibly, the doll letters. Dora sought help from Brod, who contacted the Prague poet Camill Hoffmann, then cultural attaché at the Czech embassy, who tried to intervene but was told by the Gestapo that there was no hope of recovering any such manuscripts from the mass of confiscated material. Perhaps they're still lurking somewhere in a former East German-or perhaps even Russian-archive along with other manuscripts from Kafka's stay in Berlin.

Be that as it may, the sole truly intriguing response to my queries came as a phone call from an alert and engaging lady in her early nineties, Frau Christine Geyer, who could not tell me anything about the doll story but made me aware of another small riddle about Kafka's stay in Berlin. Christine Geyer is the daughter of Frau Busse, Kafka's last Berlin landlady, in Zehlendorf, at Heidestrasse 25-26, now Busseallee (the house itself was demolished several years ago). Frau Busse had introduced the new tenant to her two daughters not as Dr. Kafka, a writer from Prague, but as Dr. Kaesbohrer, a chemist, who would be conducting experiments in the basement. The name Kaesbohrer-literally Dr. Cheeseborer-made the girls think of a then-current children's ditty:

Meine Oma in der Schweiz

Die hat's gar fein

Die beißt in den Käse

Die Löcher hinein.

A less than literal translation, mimicking the rhyme so important in children's verse, might read as follows:

My Swiss Grandma

She's the bee's knees

She bites the holes

Into the cheese.

Long after Kafka's death, Frau Geyer's sister, Ute, approached Max Brod and related the story about Dr. Kaesbohrer: apparently, Brod couldn't make head or tail of it, which is no doubt why K.'s real-life alter ego in Berlin has not yet entered the public record.

Why did Kafka assume this fictitious identity, to which he lent a degree of plausibility by at least initially dressing in a white coat and fiddling about with glass bottles in the basement, where Christine Geyer saw him on a couple of occasions? Christine Geyer undertook to explain that the initial impetus for the name change came from her mother, Frau Busse. Her mother was Jewish and had suffered from anti-Semitic prejudice in Hamburg before moving to Berlin and marrying the writer and critic Dr. Carl Busse.

Kafka himself speculated that Busse, who had died in 1918 and whose astringent reviews he knew from a journal called Velhagen & Klasings Monatshefte., would probably have regarded him "with revulsion." Busse's literary tastes were traditional and anti-modern, and one could imagine the dim view he would have taken of the author of such a then-and still-shocking story as "In the Penal Colony." be that as it may, Frau Busse evidently did not want a writer from Prague with a name so patently un-German-sounding as Kafka living under her roof, and so Kafka had to establish another identity for himself. Incidentally, Frau Busse's efforts to conceal her own Jewishness did not prevent her from being deported to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, which, with the help of food packages that her daughter Christine was finally allowed to send, she managed to survive.

I suspect that Kafka, who had fabricated so many fictional alter egos, participated actively in the creation of the biographical alter ego of Dr. Kaesbohrer, the chemist. For one thing he himself had briefly studied chemistry before switching to law, so the choice of an alternate profession would not have come entirely out of the blue. Also, the choice of Kaesbohrer as a name betrays his characteristic flair. Though an authentic Bavarian name-one can still encounter trucks on German highways bearing that surname as a company name-it also sounds quite comic, as if the chemist's true occupation were that of boring holes into cheese. The name Kaesbohrer may also allude to Kafka's literary métier, about which he had become increasingly disillusioned, and, more specifically, to the Berlin story "The Burrow," which at one level is about an unspecified animal's obsessive digging of holes, or even to "Josephine, or the Mice Folk," which he would not put down on paper until he arrived back in Prague but may already have been drafting in his mind as he walked about Steglitz. After all, in that movingly elegiac yet also corrosively self-ironic mouse story, Kafka imagines an alternative life and death for himself as a female rodent singer or, if you will, as a cheese-borer.

While skeptics about biographical approaches to literature may ask whether this Berlin lore has any significant bearing on our reading of Kafka, I would suggest that, if delicately applied, an awareness of his subjective image of the city and of the real circumstances of his stay can at least allow us to perceive another dimension in his two surviving Berlin stories.

In the case of the short text "A Little Woman," Kafka's imagination appears to have been triggered by his first landlady in Steglitz, and some commentators have used this biographical context to interpret the story in a reductive way. Such localized interpretation detracts from the universal resonance of his fiction, and I would suggest that a better argument for the importance of Berlin in interpreting his fiction can be made in the case of "The Burrow," which Kafka also wrote in Steglitz. In exploring the parallels between the Berlin fiction and his correspondence from Berlin, one can just as productively use the art to interpret the life as vice versa.

Just as the unspecified animal hero in "The Burrow" is preoccupied with securing and arranging provisions, so too is Kafka in the letters. References to butter, eggs, and chocolate abound in the correspondence between Berlin and Prague. Of course, unlike the carnivorous animal in the story, Kafka is a vegetarian, though he does at one point report to his worried parents that he has consumed a pigeon. just as the animal in "The Burrow" is constantly sensing or imagining dangers, Kafka himself is intermittently aware of the terrors of central Berlin from which he attempts to flee by burrowing deeper into one of his suburban lairs. Also, just as the animal in "Der Bau" is constantly sensing or imagining "dangers," Kafka cannot entirely block out the terrors of central Berlin. At times the Kafka of the letters sounds remarkably like the fearful, ever vigilant animal in the story: "out here it is beautiful . . . only sometimes news, some angst or other gets through to me, and then I have to struggle with them." Then, as if feeling obliged to defend his positive image of Berlin against that encroaching fear, he adds, somewhat defensively: "but is it any different in Prague?" Likewise, the following line in "The Burrow" could almost come from one of his letters: "I am living deep inside my house in peace, and meanwhile from some direction my adversary is slowly and silently boring his way toward me." Of course, unlike the creature in the story, who keeps speculating about the location and identity of an enemy whom he imagines hearing, the biographical Kafka knew quite well the direction from which the threats were coming: from the city center and from his own body. Kafka had not intended Berlin as a final destination but rather as a way station. As is well-known, he and Dora never gave up on the dream of going to Palestine, and in Berlin they dreamed of opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv with Dora as cook and Franz as waiter. That would have been an odd restaurant, since Dora had little experience as a cook and Franz would most likely have had little aptitude as a waiter. Another less-noted possibility-though one recounted by Dora Diamant-is that they might have gone to live in a Jewish community somewhere in the East, this dream being a reflection of Kafka's longstanding idealization of the Yiddish-speaking East, a world from whose restrictions Dora had fled and where, if his tuberculosis had somehow gone into remission, they-like Kafka's three sisters-might have been murdered in the Holocaust.

Although Berlin not surprisingly failed to live up to Kafka's exalted expectations, he couldn't let go of his intensely subjective and at times even euphoric image of the city. In March 1924, when his family and friends began urging him to move to a sanatorium, he still clung to the city as if it were a symbol of life itself. In wishing to remain ensconced in his "burrow" in leafy Zehlendorf, he wanted to postpone the humiliating return to his parents' apartment in Prague, the loss of his prized independence, and, ultimately, the specter of death itself: "Uncle is driving me away and Dora is driving me away, but I would prefer to stay."

Of course a few days later, on March 17,1924, he had to leave, and ten weeks later he died at a sanatorium in Kierling, outside Vienna.

Copyright Mark Harman and New England Review, 2004
Revision: 2011/01/08 - 00:18 - © Mauro Nervi




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