Haunted by Kafka

Author Jay Cantor reflects on the tormented soul who has inspired his latest work of fiction
Jay Cantor
“For many people, Kafka is a religious figure, and his work is about the impossible edicts of a God you can never get in touch with to ask why he put these burdens on you,” says Jay Cantor. Photo: Kelvin Ma
May 1, 2014

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The specter hovering over Jay Cantor’s new collection of stories, Forgiving the Angel (Knopf), is Franz Kafka. He glides in and out of the lives of the characters, which are mostly based on real people who had intimate ties with the writer. Cantor, a professor of English in the School of Arts and Sciences and author of Krazy Kat and The Death of Che Guevara, among other novels, has been reading Kafka ever since he first encountered his books in high school in New York, and has taught his work for years.  

The title story centers on Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor who famously ignored the author’s request to burn his unpublished works, and went on to make Kafka posthumously famous. Brod is haunted by thoughts of Kafka, much as Kafka was haunted by his own angels and demons—he died of tuberculosis in 1924 at age 40, after having spent much of his life tortured and unhappy. We follow the arc of the historical Brod’s life, especially after Kafka dies and Brod doesn’t light the match. Cantor convincingly portrays a man unable to ever fully know if he has done the right thing, ending up in a Kafkaesque limbo, neither condemned nor able to forgive himself.

In the other stories, Kafka is more peripheral, but always lurking, haunting the lives of others—all real people who lived in those troubled times. “Lusk and Marianne” tells of Ludwig (Lusk) Lask, who as the story begins in 1931 is an ardent young German Communist, a dangerous thing to be with Hitler on the rise. He falls for Dora Diamant, Kafka’s last lover, who has never really given up on Kafka, though he died years before. The couple flee with their baby to Stalin’s Soviet Union, but of course it’s only a different face of evil they confront there.

The final story, “Milena Jasenska and The World the Camps Made,” is a vivid portrait of life in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Jasenska was a troubled lover of Kafka’s in real life; here she plays a critical role in the life of Eva Muntzberg, Cantor’s protagonist who has survived Stalin’s slave labor camps only to end up captured by the Nazis.

Cantor talked with Tufts Now about the book, Franz Kafka and why Kafka’s work lives on.

Tufts Now: Why Kafka? Does it go back to when you were young?

Jay Cantor: When I was in high school I took a summer course at Columbia University—that was the first time I read Kafka. I was astounded by him. It’s this other world, like “The Metamorphosis,” where people turn into bugs, and yet it felt like it illuminated my world. It also felt very direct to me, almost autobiographical—as if his stories had been written out of the deepest parts of his being.

What sparked the idea for some of the stories?

At one point I was teaching Kafka, and began to tell the class how much Max Brod had loved him. And yet Kafka had chosen the person who he knew loved his work more than anything in literature and told him to burn everything. Brod kept saying, I won’t do it. And Kafka said, Yes, you will, you’re the only person I trust. And Brod couldn’t do it. It would rip Brod’s heart out of his body to burn Kafka’s work.

That led to the first story. I began to wonder about this guy; how could he possibly deal with this problem? And he deals with it by, when he’s dying, thinking that Kafka must have meant the problem as therapy for him. Somehow worrying about the problem would cure Brod. In my story, Brod makes it into something meant to be therapeutic, but he does that so he can be reconciled with his friend, so his friend would not have done this awful thing to him, just to serve himself. Would he?

The stories seem very true to life. Did you do a lot of research before writing?

I read everything that I could about Kafka. I’ve been studying him all my life, teaching him. Then I began to read about the people around Kafka, the social world around Kafka. Many of the people around him ended up in the camps, the gulag.

What was your goal in writing these stories?

I wanted to explore what it meant to have an encounter with an angel, Kafka being the angel. Everyone who knew him was struck by his extraordinary honesty and his inability to comfort himself with illusions. Like Brod, they could never live up to what it meant to encounter Kafka, nor could they forget him. And that interested me.

But I think more deeply, the book is, as a novelist named David Shields told me in a letter, about grief in general, how to deal with somebody who’s gone and who one has loved—someone who one feels, perhaps because of the grief, is part of the angelic order. Why I was moved to write about that, I don’t know—I couldn’t tell you. But for me that’s what the book is about.

Was Kafka unintentionally prophesying the terrible future of middle Europe?

I don’t know the answer to that. Certainly when Kafka was coming to prominence in the United States, it was after the Second World War, and people thought that he had predicted Nazism in Germany—that horror and paranoia. To me his work transcends that—or seems slightly different from that. Some people feel he was writing about the bureaucracy of the Hapsburg Empire, but I think those characters are versions of authorities people create for themselves, want for themselves, can’t bear. For many people, Kafka is a religious figure, and his work is about the impossible edicts of a God you can never get in touch with to ask why he put these burdens on you.

Why weren’t most of Kafka’s works published when he was alive?

They were mostly unfinished, like The Castle and The Trial. He was in no rush to be published. He felt most of his works were botched, not good enough, which is why he wanted Brod to burn them. Some things had been published, though; he had a small reputation.

The book is subtitled “Four Stories for Franz Kafka”—why is that?

I feel a kind of kinship with Kafka. There’s a kind of terror in his stories that—I want to comfort him and show him that I appreciate and I understand and share his terror. Or maybe I think he shares mine—I’m not sure; one of those two.

Do you think Kafka would appreciate what you’ve done?

That’s a nightmare of a question. I shall spend the rest of my life wondering about that.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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