It is already known that Kafka is one of the most complicated, inscrutable, and tortured spirits of world literature. In Dearest Father we find Franz himself attempting to provide a full account of how he came to be so. In Franz’s view, from his childhood onwards it was his father’s arrogance, abrasiveness, and contempt that stymied his progress at every turn. His long letter might be imagined as a set of concentric circles, evoking the particularities of Kafka’s relationship with his father, then the general nature of childhood and parenthood, and finally human nature itself.
One of the letter’s attractions is the way in which the son’s sufferings are not only described in great detail, but actually become manifest through the very style of Kafka’s prose, through the contortions of his sentences. “Dearest Father,” the letter begins, “You asked me recently why I claim to be afraid of you. I did not know, as usual, how to answer, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you...” We learn that Kafka always stutters and fumbles when trying to hold his own against his father, which is why he has chosen to express his thoughts in writing.
Moving from one incident to another, one feeling to another, the 36-year-old son – sickly, self-conscious, indecisive, in stark contrast to his vigorous, self-assured, and authoritarian father – explains how the older man’s behaviour “damaged me on the inside.” Although Hermann rarely ever beat his children, his constant threats of corporal punishment reduced the child Franz to a state of submission and abjectness. Later, the older man sought to fashion the younger after his own image by force, not realising that he was cut from totally different cloth. Whenever Franz took some initiative, his father’s contempt was absolute; when Franz made friends, his father made disparaging comments about them (“He who sleeps with dogs wakes up with fleas”). Finally, and most disastrously of all, when the son sought his independence and escape by deciding to marry, Hermann reduced him to a wreck by implying that he had foolishly succumbed to the wiles of a low woman. The father's actions had the effect of driving the son into a sort of psychological cave. In a memorable metaphor expressing how family, which is what prepares the self for the world, can also come between the self and the world, Kafka writes:
Hence there were for me three worlds, one where I lived, a slave under laws that had been invented solely for me and, moreover, with which I could never fully comply (I did not know why), then another world, infinitely distant from mine, in which you dwelt, busy with ruling, issuing orders and being angry when they were not obeyed, and finally, a third realm where everybody else lived happily, free from orders and obligation. I was forever in disgrace, either I obeyed your orders, which was a disgrace for they applied, after all, only to me; or I was defiant, that was also a disgrace, for how dare I presume to defy you, or my reason for failing to obey was that I lacked, for example, your strength, your appetite, your aptitude, although you expected it of me as a matter of course; that was, in fact, the greatest disgrace of all.“I was no real match for you, you soon disposed of me; all that then remained was escape, bitterness, grief, inner struggle,” writes Kafka. The general tone of Dearest Father is one of a helpless flailing in the face of a remote and unshakable power that recalls the exact existential condition of the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, such as Josef K. in The Castle. Indeed, at one point Kafka confesses: “My writing was about you, all I did there was to lament what I could not lament on your shoulder.” But if we are left convinced about the atrocities half-consciously perpetrated by Hermann, we see no less clearly the extreme fragility and anxiety of Franz, a condition that turns all the colours of the world into grey. The letter becomes all the more tragic and moving for the few moments of happiness that it records:
Fortunately there were some exceptions to this, mostly when you suffered in silence, and your love and goodness joined forces to succeed in moving me, in spite of all the obstacles. This was admittedly rare, but it was wonderful. For instance whenever I saw you exhausted and nodding off in the shop on hot summer afternoons, elbows on the desk, or on Sundays when you came running to us breathless in the fresh summery weather; or once when Mother was seriously ill and I witnessed you shaking with tears, steadying yourself by the bookcase; or the last time I was ill and you came silently to me in Ottla's room, standing in the doorway and merely peering round to see me in bed, acknowledging me with a single considerate gesture of your hand. At times like this I lay back and cried with happiness, and I am crying again now as I write these lines.In closing, Kafka suggests to his father that although the problems between them are too many and too basic to be eradicated, his attempt to make a record of their relationship for their mutual perusal “might comfort us both a little and make it easier for us to live and to die.” So we naturally want to know how the letter was received by Hermann. But the most striking fact about the letter was that it was never sent. Perhaps the same fear and guilt exhibited by Kafka in the letter prevented him from delivering it to his father. He left the typewritten letter behind in a bundle of manuscripts at the time of his death, asking his friend Max Brod to burn them all. So it is the reader today who has become the letter’s real recipient, and it is upto us to imagine a rapprochement, and a new understanding between father and son that might have been but never was.
An excerpt from Dearest Father can be found here on the website of the publishers, Oneworld Classics, who are devoted exclusively to publishing new editions and translations of classics from European and world literature (two other recent publications of theirs that I'd like to read very much are Dante's Rime and Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. Last year the novelist Justin Cartwright composed an imaginary reply to his son's letter by Hermann Kafka, which can be found here (Franz himself imagines his father's response in Dearest Father).
And here are some essays on Kafka, including several by contemporary novelists: "F. Kafka, Everyman" by Zadie Smith; "Before The Law" by Louis Begley; "The Human Stain" by John Banville ("The question has been asked: Was Franz Kafka human? He seems to have had doubts himself."); "Double Thought" by Michael Wood; "The Figure in the Castle" by Jonathan Lethem ("Kafka's the greatest writer, by a long shot, whom you can polish off in two or three weeks' reading"); "On The Castle and its translations" by Eric Ormsby; and lastly, "At Home With the Kafkas", an excerpt from Reiner Stach's 2005 biography.