JEFF FORT

THE MAN WHO COULD NOT DISAPPEAR

WHY DO WE SO DESPERATELY NEED TO KNOW THE DETAILS OF KAFKA’S LIFE?

DISCUSSED: Josephine the Singer, The Wish to Become an Indian, Peter Demetz, The Second Trip to Riva, The Swiss Girl, Gracchus, Sebald and Homosexuality, Weeping at the Movies, Fiction and Life, Diabolical Writing, “Without Having Done Anything Truly Wrong,” Kafka’s Last Love, Sun Up San Diego

MACHINE DREAMS

Franz Kafka’s greatest wish was to disappear. Instead, he became an icon, a legend in the literal sense: the work he left behind demands to be read (legenda means “things to be read”). But the elusive force of his work remains irreducible even as the commentaries and biographies continue to proliferate. If he has disappeared, it is in the mode of abundant appearance. At the end of his life he seems to have anticipated this odd fate, which has become only more evident in the eighty-plus years since his death. In 1924, literally starving to death because tubercular lesions in his throat made it impossible to eat or drink, Kafka corrected the proofs of his last story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” With its singing mouse who barely sings and who in the end vanishes into a self-imposed exile (but was she was ever really there in the first place?), “Josephine” is a wry meditation on the artist’s strange invisibility. Its final sentence, which reads like a posthumous farewell, dreams of a “happy” disappearance for the story’s long lost protagonist:

Perhaps we shall not miss her so very much after all, while Josephine, redeemed from the earthly sorrows which to her thinking lay in wait for all chosen spirits, will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.

This last sentence of Kafka’s fiction rings with a dry, subtle melancholy—a sadness sharpened by paradox. Kafka, who self-consciously strove for literary greatness, recognized that true redemption lay in oblivion but also that redemptive oblivion is impossible. Just as Josephine lives on through the narrator, entering into the troubled legends of the mouse people, Kafka, too, became a legend precisely because of his efforts to disappear into a body of work, and even to make that work itself disappear. His notorious instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn his unpublished manuscripts after his death only extended the legend into the work’s very existence.

What’s most striking in the last words of “Josephine”—the fictional analogue to Kafka’s testament to Brod—is the equation of disappearance with happiness. Rarely is the word, much less the feeling, found in Kafka’s work, and few would accuse him of having been a happy man. But here a reconciliation is suggested, a resolution of conflicts, even an exit from history and a vaguely messianic state of peace. It could be said that this happiness—no doubt a reflection of his final months with Dora Diamant in Berlin—surrounds even the most gruesome parts of his work like the hint of a distant, more breathable atmosphere.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Jeff Fort is the author of a forthcoming book on the “imperative to write” in Kafka, Beckett, and Maurice Blanchot. He has also translated books by Blanchot, Jean Genet, Jacques Derrida, and, most recently, Jean-Luc Nancy. He currently teaches at U.C. Berkeley and at the San Francisco Art Institute.

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