Erich Fried about Franz Kafka

Igor Pomerantsev in conversation with Erich Fried, London 1983



Igor Pomerantsev: Kafka was born in Austria-Hungarian Empire, graduated in Prague, graduated from the University of Prague. He holds very prominent place in Jewish Encyclopaedia. At the same time he is the German-speaking classic. What can you say about his Austrian profile?

Erich Fried: Of course at the time he was born and for the last 6 years of his life, Prague was the part of the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy and he was of at least bilingual background. Prague intellectual Jews in the Austrian Empire were of German language and he and his great friend Max Brod for example and quite a lot of others like Rudolf Fuchs and so on were all German speaking people and he is, I would say, one of the greatest, if not the greatest writer of the German language in this century. Of course he himself would never have been happy of putting himself into a particular category. He was a Jew and Judaism meant a lot to him, but he was by no means a religious Jew. After the war in Germany and in Austria, there were attempts to recruit him for Christian ideas like Simone Weil, but he wouldn’t have been happy about that either. He had of course taken in Christian Ethics, but he was averse against Christian mysticism. He was deeply impressed by Chasidic tales and Chasidic Jewish mysticism. But he was not a believer in it. But it meant a lot to him as a background. The important thing about him, I think, is that all of these things the Austrian, the German cultural elements, the Jewish, all were very much absorbed by him. He suffered from the conflicts, tried to bring about a synthesis of them. And he wrote the things that he had to write in order to stand life all together. In that sense it is profoundly realistic literature because the reality of life does not end at one’s skin but goes into one’s heart. Once inside, it is just as much reality as outside. At the same time, of course, it is absolutely the opposite pole to what has been called socialist realism and which is very vulgarized Marxist aesthetics.

That was, of course, the ground of religious, philosophical moral ground for those writers who lived at the time of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. 

It’s very difficult to say because he held different views at different times of his life. The early expressionists tremendously impressed him because they seemed to have the spirit of rebellion that was very important to him. The protests against the inhumanity and injustice, which he experienced both in politics and in his everyday life.  For example he said about Georg Trakl who committed suicide during the war, was too sensitive to stand what he experienced and had too much fantasy.  He added that he thinks that one of the many reasons of wars is the general lack of fantasy of people’s imagination. And I think that this is a very good reason because it also shows what other people would call alienation, but it amounts to the same thing. I think that when one looks at the conditions under which he lived and worked, particularly at the insurance company. When one friend of mine named Klaus Wagenbach researched what Kafka has done, investigates his milieu in all his books like The Trial and The Castle and even in The Short Stories. There is much more taken from the outside reality of the last years of the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy than one would think. Only all that gets balanced by a counter weight of what it’s own soul makes of it. It is not that he tries to give naturalistic or politically intended descriptions of anything, thereby achieving a deeper criticism of some political behaviour patterns than all the political writers of his and our time.

On one side, Kafka was the contemporary of  Rainer Maria Rilke or Robert Walser. On another side he was contemporary of Thomas Mann. Do you see his place more in the context of the Austrian writers or generally the context?

Yes. I think he has more to do with Rilke than with Thomas Mann. For that we have to say that Rilke’s image laws extremely falsified in the years after his death by his publishers who could not understand that their favourite poet liked the defeat of Germany, was a rebel and had anarchist tendencies. He was for the Munich Soviet Republic. But Kafka, of course, had very anarchist sympathies, but certainly not sympathies with any central political organization. One thing, which stuck with me deeply, was when he worked for the Workers Accident Insurance Society, he had to sometimes conduct cases as a lawyer against workers who claimed compensation. When these workers were not very good in their claims, he secretly paid out of his own money for lawyers to go to them and prepare their claims decently so that he could lose the case for his firm with good gain. I think that shows the underhand subversiveness of Kafka against established injustice. I mean the established injustice that is inherent in any strong democratic state; he would have been subversive in his very internalized way. Any society that has existed in the recent past or the present.

If we were to be more general, for instance comparing two cultural systems or individual as a result of culture, the Austria-Hungarian from one end and the German from another one.  Do you see any distinct border between the types of cultural or philosophical thinking?

Kafka himself was very much a person of the Austria-Hungarian civilization, but also knew all its faults and superficialities and he liked some German thinking and German literature, but one feels that he enjoyed his days in Germany, partly because as a tourist you have a kind of pseudo freedom that you don’t have when you are in your own civilization.  Wilhelminian Germany was not to his taste and he liked the downfall of it in 1918.

In literary encyclopaedias and according to directories, Franz Kafka is named as an Austrian writer.  To which extent do you feel this is true?

Once you put a label on it is always an over simplification.  For example, he loved the Czechs.  He spoke Czech very well.  He was deeply in touch with Czech Literature, which was at the time still looked down upon by the Germans and particularly by the Austrians.  Very few translations of good Czech literature existed.  He loved Rudolf Fuchs who was then a very young poet because of his decency and deep feelings for Czech Literature.  That incidentally he had in common with young Rilke.  Everybody wants Kafka and I think that to annex him for Austria would be just as wrong as if the Czechs wanted to annex him for Czechoslovakia, which unfortunately at the moment they are again far from doing, officially.  I think that he belongs to this strange mixture in a place like the Austria-Hungarian monarchy, which was sometimes called the prison of nations. By contemporary standards in was not a totalitarian prison, but it wasn’t too pleasant either for the non-German speaking nations, but this togetherness even on the basis of partial injustice produced a kind of in ideological cosmopolitanism of which Kafka was a good representative.  I think he doesn’t belong to the Germans, he doesn’t belong to the Austrians, and he doesn’t belong to the Czechs.  Not to the Jews.  Not to the Christians, but something is for all of them.

Speaking about modern Austrian and German Literature to which extent can you say that Kafka’s traditions and shadow is cast onto modern Austrian Literature? 

Very much on the German Literature.  Probably more on the German than on the Austrian if I looked at it on the whole.  There was even an attempt to show his influence to England.  I don’t think the influence goes very deep in England in spite of the decent work that was done in regards to translating, but he is very respected in England very much more than other German writers of our time.  I don’t know how deep his influence was in France.  I suspect that in order to find out his philosophy there was some influence.  I think that in Hungary, Kafka has a considerable influence on some writers because there the depression wasn’t too bad and on the other hand it was part of the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy and his elements are noticeable in Hungarian Culture.

In regards to Austrian and German interpretation of Kafka, it seems to me that in Austria the writers take more subtlety, delicacy, and finesse, of Kafka and the Germans writers take more the style of Kafka’s writing.

I think you are quite right and I think again that both of them tend to select from Kafka what is to their particular taste and particularly they develop sensitivities according to their special needs.  A writer is a very impersonalized scientific too, but a very sensitive organism as far as his own needs are concerned therefore you here writers speaking about literature you won’t get a balanced rule, but instead you will get what they specialize in, which corresponds to what their individual needs are at the moment.  I think that both his subtleties and his thoughts are part of the same process.  He tried to survive under circumstances in a society of which he did not feel he could be a loyal subject, but very much isolated.  He tended to side with the revolutionary movement more than with the establishment, but he saw how the revolutionary movements tend to deteriorate.  I think both his subtlety and his thinking are part of his intent attempt to find a meaning in life.  Something that gives him enough strength to say, “yes” to it all.  He never found that completely except in being very charitable and good to other human beings.  He didn’t believe in any of the great heroes of our time or a believer of any of the established official beliefs.  Consequently, he had to struggle with philosophizes.  He did not try to live for his emotions or his imagination as people think.  He did read contemporary philosophers and political theories.  He was even interested in Lenin and even expressed a hope that Gorki would write about Lenin sometime.  Since he couldn’t believe in something, his subtleties of despair could exist.  If you are desperate, but try not to give into despair, was his basic attitude about life.  Then you develop conscienceless of life.  He didn’t write in order to develop a new art form or to develop a particular style.  He wrote to find the best means of expressing what is really true.

What was your first impression the first time you read Kafka?

My first Kafka impression was a horror that filled me with great relief because it was a question of those horrors and nightmares, which one had anyway.  The first books I read were Metamorphosis and the Penal colony.  In the Penal colony Kafka does a wonderful job of foreshadowing of fascist loyalty.  It really shows the tragic quality of emotional patterns in which people get involved by using their human faculty for inhuman relationships with each other.  I think that people say that Kafka is morbid, but I find on the contrary that Kafka has a very wholesome effect on people who are very depressed, neurotic, or in danger or becoming psychotic because they are not left alone with their own nightmares and depression, but instead get some confirmation and are able to speak about it.  I have spoken with several analysts who are sometimes using Kafka’s literature as reading material for their patients to help them and make them more approachable.

Two years ago when Elias Canetti got the Nobel Prize some newspapers and critics felt that in his place the whole generation of Kafka was given the Nobel Prize. To which extent of your simplification and whether it’s right

I do not think that Canetti is a very good man to speak about all of his influences. He has many, but obviously Kafka is one of his main influences. Canetti is not just a pupil of Kafka but that Kafka must have profoundly struck related things in Canetti’s soul. I have no doubt; I have known Canetti for over forty years. He could be a figure invented by Kafka sometimes.

Thank you very much.


©Igor Pomerantsev, London 1983

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