An Excerpt From Reiner Stach’s “Kafka: The Years of Insight”

Authors, Books

Franz-Kafka-with-his-first-fiancee-Felice-Bauer-in-1917-Mono-Print

No sooner was Felice out of her mother’s sight, however, than she blossomed. At the train station in Marienbad, she greeted an anxious Kafka in the tender and natural way he had always hoped for in vain in Berlin. Even the stumbling blocks they had to deal with on their first days in Marienbad–switching hotels, constant rain, and of course Kafka’s sensitivities and rigid habits–did nothing to change that. “Tribulations of living together,” he noted on the third day, and although he was undoubtedly aware that Felice had far more reason to complain, he twisted the knife a little deeper: “Impossibility of living with F. Impossibility of living with anyone at all.”

Above all, it was probably his hyperalert consciousness that kept him in suspense. Kafka knew–and he was unable to push aside this thought by day or by night–that something had to happen soon. Of course, the external circumstances were happy as never before, and he himself had brought them about. But that was exactly why the rendezvous in Marienbad was fraught with the stress resulting from the expectations of an experiment that would decide everything: If four years of preparation were not enough to attain something resembling fulfillment under circumstances like these, any further hope would be illusory. This would be good-bye forever, a good-bye the meaning and necessity of which would be proved beyond a doubt. What was actually driving him to submit to these “tribulations of living together”? Nothing but “strangeness, pity, lust, cowardice, vanity,” he felt, “and only deep down, perhaps, a thin trickle worth of being called love, inacessible when sought out, flashing up once in the moment of a moment.–Poor Felice.”

A desire for intimacy does not appear on Kafka’s list, although he knew that this impulse could mushroom into an almost irresistible craving that would cloud over all his inhibitions and logical counter-arguments. No one knew that better than he, and he had already come up with correspondingly oppressive images in The Trial. But he had forgotten what it meant to savor fulfillment. He considered sexual desire more irksome than ever (prostitutes–even fictitious ones–had not appeared in his notes for quite some time), and he could not bring himself to fuse that desire conceptually with the bittersweet infatuation in Weimar, the moment of happiness in Riva, the awkward flirtations in Prague just a few weeks earlier, or his own surprising willingness to seek out Felice’s company. As keenly as he observed himself, he failed to establish these connections, and the detachment of sex from tenderness, which had had a long tradition in Kafka’s bourgeois milieu, certainly played a part in that–even though it was evident in his case only in internalized form, as a mental filter, a blind spot of self-perception. His psychological experience seems split apart by fundamentally incompatible longings: to escape from the hypervigilant cell of his own consciousness; to be understood by other people and accepted in peace; and to be transported by togetherness with a woman–skin to skin, mouth to mouth–in a way that would engage every fiber of his being. Kafka knew all that, yet he refused to accept that they were manifestations of one and the same desire, a desire deeply rooted in the somatic and therefore impossible to conceive of or fulfill (96-7).

Translated by Shelley Frisch.

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