Tall Kafka and His Sisters by Cynthia Ozick

BOMB 65 Fall 1998
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Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka.

In contemplating Kafka, there are two surprises to be gotten over. The first is what we might call a “normal” surprise; the second is abnormal and disheartening and momentous.

The first is that Kafka was tall—six feet or more. The shriveling of Gregor Samsa hiding under the sofa; the wasting of the Hunger Artist; K. during his obsequious stint as school janitor; the tiny squeals of the mouse folk … all these intimate a smallness, a fearfulness, an obloquy, the self-concealing littleness of dread. In his famous letter to his father, Kafka described the crushed child he had been as a “slave” who “lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could never comply with, I did not know why.” Frightened smallness and self-immolation—this is Kafka. And there are other compelling reminders of smallness. Kafka belonged to a minority within a minority—a Prague Jew whose language was German in a sea of Czechs whose language was Czech. These interlocking smallnesses of life and letters reinforce our idea of Kafka as confined and shrunken. But in any populated room he was likely to be the tallest.

What are we to make of this curious reversal of an organism? Remember Alice in Wonderland—when she took a bite out of the mushroom, she “collapsed like a telescope” and her chin suddenly shot down to hit her shoe. What fungoid growth did Kafka eat? When we think of the actuality of the tall Kafka, and then of our insuperable images of the small Kafka, we are all at once thrust into the meaning-hungered mind of the small caged ape in “Report to an Academy.” The ape, looking out at a man looking in at him, reflects with chilling clarity: “He could not understand me, he wanted to solve the enigma of my being.” Yet the ape, a beast who learns the way of men, is an enigma himself.

Tall Kafka Inhabits Small Kafka—that is the name of the first surprise; and the enigma stands.

The second surprise is an atrocity rather than an enigma. Call it Dead Kafka Evades Death. We know that Kafka died of tuberculosis a month before his 41st birthday in 1924, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Prague, where his parents too came to rest in the early ’30s. It is easy to forget about his three sisters—Ottla, his favorite, Valli, and Elli. We are entitled to forget about them because, unlike their brother, they had no genius and left no astonishing literary corpus. Nevertheless they deserve notice, if only for the sake of one commonly overlooked fact: between 1941 and 1943, all three of the sisters were murdered at Auschwitz and Lodz. Kafka was most fond of Ottla, but he was certainly not fond of his father, and was generally indifferent to the bourgeois concerns of his relatives and their circle. In 1918, when he was 35, six years before he succumbed to his disease, Kafka wrote in his diary: “I hate everything that does not relate to literature, conversations bore me (even when they relate to literature), to visit people bores me, the joys and sorrows of my relatives bore me to my soul. Conversation takes the importance, the seriousness, the truth, out of everything I think.” (This quotation, by the way, is pinned over my writing table. Obsessiveness is both trustworthy and inspiring.)

But suppose Kafka had not died of tuberculosis in 1924. Of all the speculations and hypotheses about Kafka, this may be the most significant. If he had not died of tuberculosis in 1924, in 1940 he would have been 57—if only he had lived that long! The Castle and other works would have been completed, and how many further masterpieces would now be in our possession! Yet what would those extra years have meant for Kafka? We can understand from the fate of his three sisters what they would have meant. By 1940, the Jews of Prague were forbidden to change their address or leave the city. By 1941, they could not walk into the woods around Prague, or travel the trolleys, buses, and subways. Telephones were ripped out of Jewish apartments, and public telephones were off-limits to Jews. Jewish businesses were confiscated; firms threw out their Jewish employees; Jewish children were thrown out of school. And so on and so on and so on, until ghettoization, degradation, deportation, and murder. That is how it was for Ottla, Valli, and Elli, and for all those unliterary relatives who bored Kafka to his soul; and that is how it would have been for Kafka. The work that survived him was at first restricted to Jewish readers only, and then banned as “harmful and undesirable.” Schocken, his publisher, escaped to Tel Aviv. Despite Kafka’s attraction to Zionism and the study of Hebrew, it remains doubtful that he would have done the same.

If we forget about what happened to Kafka’s sisters, it is a little like Kafka’s forgetting that he was tall. If we forget about the sisters, we are likely to miss something pointed about Kafka’s method as a writer and his credo as a thinker. It has frequently been remarked that Kafka’s stories, with their hints of marginalization and persecution, are uncannily premonitory; and that “In the Penal Colony,” a meticulous recounting of a great killing machine, is the most premonitory of all. “Josephine the Singer,” it might be added, can stand as a mocking parable of a vocal demagogue’s power over a susceptible population. That Kafka “foresaw” the hideous shape Europe took after his death is considered extraordinary—but it is the one element in Kafka that is possibly the least extraordinary, the one most visibly graven in his prose. It is a prose that never expects the abnormal and is bewildered by unreason. Kafka was, after all, not prescient; he was not a prophet; he foresaw nothing. It is no use pursuing the pretty fancy that middling genius writes of the reality it knows, while highest genius writes of the reality it cannot know. Kafka in 1924 had no inkling that 17 years later his sisters would be tortured to death in a German penal colony. Though “Kafkaesque” has entered the English dictionary as a synonym for the grotesque, the surreal and the menacing, all that is a deep yet commonplace mistake. It is not how the central engine of the Kafkan mind expresses itself. “Kafkaesque” ought rightly to connote the opposite: rationality, the working of pure logic. The typical Kafkan figure is devoted to reason, and has the cognitive force of a chess master. Kafka’s creatures, human and animal, never premise the world on the zigzag or the unintelligible. What they anticipate is an external counterpart of their own orderly and plausible ways of comprehension. They rest on a presumption of the usual rather than the unusual, the ordinary rather than the erratic. Logic rules, or should; ordinariness is relied on, or should be; and what is most characteristic of the Kafkan quest is precisely this expectation of normality.

In this the protagonists of Kafka’s stories are like his sisters, and like all the Jews of Prague: they live by reason in a surround of unreason, and are undone. It is not the fault of the Kafkan rule of logic if the world fails to conform. Kafka—singular literary sufferer of the 20th century—is always on the side of the normal: even when unintelligibility is most ferociously, most piteously, arrayed against it.


From a speech given by Cynthia Ozick, March 1998, at “Metamorphosis: A New Kafka,” a symposium sponsored by the PEN American Center to celebrate the publication of a new translation by Mark Harman of The Castle by Schocken Books.

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Originally published in

BOMB 65, Fall 1998

Featuring interviews with Yusef Komunyakaa & Paul Muldoon, Ian McKellen, Sam Taylor-Wood, Thomas Nozkowski, Geoffrey O’Brien, Alexander Nehamas, and Mark Richard.

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