Reviews — From the September 2017 issue

The Escape Artist

Nicole Krauss and her precursors

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Forest Dark, by Nicole Krauss. HarperCollins. 304 pages. $27.99.

In 1939, fifteen years after his death, Franz Kafka finally found his way to Palestine. An ambivalent Zionist for much of his life, he had been thinking about making aliyah since at least 1912, when he discussed it with Felice Bauer at their first meeting. (Bauer would become his fiancée but not his wife; Kafka was even more ambivalent about marriage than he was about Zionism.) On the evening of that encounter, which took place at the home of their mutual friend Max Brod, he was carrying the latest issue of Palästina, a German-language Zionist monthly. Writing to Bauer in Berlin afterward, he reminded her that she had promised to one day accompany him to the Jewish homeland.

Photograph © Rafal Krela

They never made the journey; her bourgeois family didn’t approve, and after a five-year involvement, during which they were rarely in the same country, they separated. But Kafka could not stop thinking about it. From Prague, he followed the Zionist press and attended meetings of the World Zionist Congress. In 1918, he wrote “Workers Without Possessions,” a sketch for a “socialist plan” that envisions life in a kibbutz as “the most frugal existence” possible, with subsistence wages and a diet of bread, water, and dates. (Being Kafka, a man known for his eccentric and self-flagellating tendencies, he probably did not see this as a drawback.) A few years later, already seriously ill with tuberculosis, he began taking Hebrew lessons twice a week from a Jerusalem native studying in Prague. “He still dreamed of Palestine,” she told an interviewer many years later. Hugo Bergmann, a friend who made the journey in 1918, suggested that Kafka join him in Jerusalem, but the writer worried he was not strong enough for the trip. Nevertheless, in 1923, he and Dora Diamant, the new lover with whom he spent the last months of his life, spoke to friends about emigration. Perhaps they would open a little restaurant in Tel Aviv — Diamant would do the cooking, Kafka would wait tables.

It didn’t happen. Kafka died in Prague in 1924, at the age of forty, having published only a small portion of his writing, fiction so stark and disorienting it would ultimately require its own adjective. Most of the great works that would establish him as “the Dante of the twentieth century” (W. H. Auden) were discovered largely unfinished among the many manuscripts, letters, diaries, and other papers he bequeathed to Brod with the instruction that everything be burned. To his eternal credit, Brod disregarded his friend’s wishes, editing and, in some cases, completing the works and publishing much, but not all, of what was in his possession. As Hitler’s armies approached Prague, Brod fled to Palestine, carrying Kafka’s papers in a suitcase. The journey that the founding father of contemporary Jewish literature dreamed of making in his life could be completed only in his afterlife.

Though Kafka died “too soon for the Holocaust,” as Philip Roth once wrote, generations of readers have seen him nonetheless as a kind of Ur-victim. This may be because the major theme of his fiction is entrapment: within an authoritarian state, within the body, within one’s own mind. But it may also be because his life presents an excruciating paradox. We feel instinctively that he ought to have lived longer — to have had more time to complete his works, to see them published, to enjoy the recognition that was rightfully his, rather than to suffer his cruel fate: dying virtually unknown after toiling away at an insurance agency for most of his life. Yet we know too that had he lived much longer, he likely would have been swept up, along with many of his Jewish friends and neighbors, in the tsunami that engulfed Europe.

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is the author of, most recently, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright). Her essay “Trial and Error” appeared in the November 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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