When I was a sophomore in high school, I took an English translation of The Metamorphosis off my parents’ shelf and read it in one sitting. I was at the age where it’s important not to care about anything, but the tale of Gregor Samsa turned out to be really good, albeit in a different way than I expected. I’d assumed it was a regular horror story, but so much of it was actually about Gregor’s sucky relationship with his parents. Monstrous vermin—they’re just like us! (Not that my parents were sucky, but I was, after all, what the Germans call a Teenie.) There’s this scene where Gregor’s dad picks up “a large newspaper from the table with his left hand,” and begins “to stomp his feet, attempting to drive Gregor back into his room by swinging the cane and the newspaper.” This a terrifying situation, but Kafka puts in a sight gag, and his prose has all the urgency of a shopping list. It was at once the driest narration of a gruesome visual I’d encountered on the page, and the encapsulation of being a young person in a world that didn’t listen to them. It was the beginning of a very intense and one-sided relationship.
By the time I graduated from high school, Kafka and I were a Thing. His ability to render anguish, at once so intimate and universal, did not merely speak to me; it manifested itself unto me, a glossolalia of angst. And so, by the end of my freshman year in college, when I discovered the author’s reams of intense letters to his girlfriends, I held him in such high esteem that I did not realize that he was also—in the words of another literary icon, Bridget Jones—an emotional fuckwit.
Indeed, it would take twenty more years, a German doctorate, and the dissolution of a marriage before I realized that Kafka’s particular angst was predicated upon the invisible suffering of women. Not just the ones who put up with his angst and placated his insecurities, but the ones who did his laundry and stoked his fires and—as Josef K. so petulantly expected in The Trial on the morning of his arrest—brought him breakfast in bed.
Still, for almost two decades, my sole criterion for a relationship was that the person had chosen me, and this was mostly Franz Kafka’s fault. By which I mean that it was my fault for taking not just my literary cues, but my personal ones, from an alienated male author-hero of the early twentieth century whose situation was non-transferable, at least not onto the likes of me. The universals in his work had translated into an intense literary intimacy, which I then took upon myself to convert into personal intimacy, with disastrous results. It did not matter that countless young literary men—Franzen, Safran Foer, and probably a thousand other non-famous Jonathans—modeled themselves after Kafka and lived to tell the tale. When I did it, it was an impossible problem that broke me entirely.
In 1911, about a year before Kafka met a young middle-class career woman from Berlin named Felice Bauer, he wrote a very sad, very short story, “Bachelor’s Unhappiness.” This story ends with an image, rendered in German third-person man, wherein man, so miserable at lifelong singledom, can only be grateful that he has a forehead to smack with his hand. Of course, Kafka wouldn’t have been able to write such a story if he himself hadn’t been so lonely, and therein lay both the problem and its solution.
Such contradictions commanded Kafka’s fiction: in a pivotal scene of The Trial, for example, a priest admonishes the protagonist, Josef K., that “understanding something correctly and misunderstanding the same thing are not mutually exclusive.” But in real life, Kafka’s particular contradiction of romantic companionship, as both the goal and the enemy, proved unworkable. The prime example was Felice, to whom he would be twice betrothed but zero times married. But their three-year relationship lives on in those letters, the hundreds of pages of which Kafka often wielded as an instrument of romantic torture. (Her replies, which he did not preserve, are lost to time.)
It is only now, when I’m 42—a year older than Kafka was when he died (in a happy relationship at last, with a woman half his age)—that I am able to see any of these relationships, his or mine, with anything resembling clarity. Like Kafka, I once preferred my romances to be epistolary, warped by my own expectations, and ultimately toxic. Unlike Kafka, I also managed to walk all the way down the aisle.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1999. I lived in New York at the time and hadn’t gone anywhere for the holiday, so I was passing the evening at a venue called Don Hill’s. The place was pretty much empty, the only people there being me, three of my girlfriends, and two guys I’d never seen before. These unfamiliar guys were seated about ten feet away from me, in the direction of the bathrooms.
One of them was deep in conversation with Rosa, who was also my roommate in Brooklyn. That made his buddy the sole unclaimed male human in the entire club. This individual had dirty-blonde hair in a Peter Tork bowl cut, and a rather Torkian visage in general. Looking back on what I thought, or didn’t think, of this person, I’m now reminded of Kafka’s first impression of Felice, which he immortalized in a diary entry on August 20, 1912. “Miss F.B.” had been a guest of his friend Max Brod, and when Kafka had arrived “she was sitting at the table and she looked to me like one of the maids.” Kafka writes that he was “not in the least curious as to who she was, but rather took her for granted immediately. Bony empty face that wore its emptiness openly. Bare throat. A blouse she’d thrown on.” He chides himself for judging her looks too closely, before doubling down: “Almost broken nose, blonde, somewhat stiff, dull hair, strong chin. While I sat down,” he concludes, “I looked straight at her for the first time, and by the time I’d been seated I’d already formed an unshakable judgement.” Whether that judgment is for the negative or positive is meant to be obvious. (It is not.)
The word that Kafka uses in German for “judgement” is Urteil—the same word he would, a few months later, use to title the story he believed was the finest writing of his life, which came out of him “all at once, like a birth,” and which he dedicated to Felice. “Das Urteil” is about a young man who informs his father he’s engaged “to a girl from a well-to-do family,” and then, at that father’s urging, jumps off a bridge to his death. Accordingly, the first credo in my own early relationship ethos was that my first impression of a potential romantic partner should be both decisive and ambivalent, and that these two things were not mutually exclusive—that, indeed, the more uncomfortably ambivalent I felt, the more unshakable my judgment should have been.
Not unrelatedly, the first thing the sole unclaimed male of Don Hill’s said to me on that night, when I plunked down next to him on the very sticky banquette, was:
“Are you still tired?”
“You were yawning,” he said. His voice was a deep persistent monotone.
“I guess,” I said.
“It’s rude to yawn without covering your mouth.”
Had I been at work, or at some interminable midnight showing of a Danish psychological thriller that one of my pretentious friends liked, I certainly would have covered my mouth. But this was Don Hill’s. I was sitting in twenty-year-old beer. It was dark. More importantly, however, this guy had been looking at me. His vintage trench and Tork coif were, to be fair, cool. I couldn’t decide whether his meanness was vaguely annoying or vaguely arousing, which was precisely the sought-after romantic queasiness that allowed me to make the unshakable judgment to keep talking to him. The young man’s name, I learned, was Freddie. He was from New Jersey, and was in town for the holiday from Nashville, where he’d gotten a job out of college as a chemical engineer.
Still, Freddie’s biography might have become but another mildly interesting footnote in my unremarkable life had his friend, who was called Colin, not spent the previous hour falling in love with my roommate. This provoked a bubbling jealous panic that it would be me alone with my smackable forehead for time immemorial. That perhaps I should not have recently broken up with Roger, my post-college boyfriend of eighteen months, who alternated between ignoring me, threatening to hit me, and going into jealous apoplexies about my few remaining male friends. Roger was a bastard, but at least someone had loved me—so long as I changed everything about myself. When I’d finally gotten the courage to leave, Roger had said he might kill himself. But maybe I still shouldn’t have gone. Because here I was, lapping up the attention of a random guy who thought yawning was a mortal offense.
And that is how I found myself wilting on the sidewalk outside the club, tipsy under the streetlight, waiting for Rosa and Colin to finish saying goodbye, which they would not do. Every five minutes or so, they would embrace like they meant Auf Wiedersehen for real, and I’d put my hand up and hail a cab. But just as one pulled up, they’d go back to grasping each other’s hands and mooning all over each other, and I’d have to let the cab go. Sincere expressions of affection like this were physically painful to witness, because—as I would be quick to tell anyone—they lacked the intellectual gravitas of, say, Kafka’s letter to Felice of November 1, 1912, wherein he detailed for the better part of a page the minutiae of his daily schedule. (“7:30, 10 minutes of naked exercises by an open window.”) But they were also painful because whatever mangled sense of self I’d managed to cobble together at that age was heavily influenced by someone so haunted by his own nightmares that he treated all his women like garbage, which is how I expected to be treated, and also how I expected other women to be treated.
By this point, Rosa, Colin, Freddie, and I were the only people left awake within a ten-block radius. “You’re not like the girls I know in Nashville,” Freddie said. “You’re intriguing.”
Nobody had ever said that to me before—first of all, because it was not true. What Freddie actually meant was that I was uncharacteristically taciturn, which—just ask The Rules™—made me mysterious. The more of a gaping void I presented, the less I said anything, the less interested I appeared, the more interesting I was.
All of this is to say that Freddie and Colin both came back “to ours,” which was in an area of Williamsburg that had yet to be razed for lawyer condominiums. Kafka once referred to “coitus” as “the punishment for being happy together,” so my standards for why to participate, and to what end, were certainly themselves Kafkaesque, in a somewhat off-label use of that maligned adjective.
Freddie was already halfway back to Nashville by the time I got to work the next morning (my job was to moderate a primitive social network for book lovers), at which moment I made the unshakable judgment to write to the tall, slightly rude guy who’d said I was intriguing for no reason. For, in addition to saying I was intriguing, the best thing about Freddie was that unlike Roger, he was safe, because he was far away. And also, because he was far away, I could write to him, and (like I’d learned from Herr Doktor Kafka himself) create both my own identity and his in the carefully-chosen words of letters, the spaces between letters that would host wildly inaccurate imaginings.
The problem was that Kafka taught me how to write what I certainly thought was a “good” letter at the time: evocative descriptions of what I, a non-New Yorker, considered remarkable (where are the baby pigeons?), interspersed with carefully-parceled-out oblique compliments for my interlocutor: a memory of the smell of his hair, a reference to an errant yawn. But would Kafka tell me what to do if the letters worked, and this safe, imaginary relationship became an unsafe, real one? Because, four weeks later, after near-daily correspondence, I was suddenly spending money that I did not have to spend three days in the aggressively carpeted apartment Freddie rented in a complex in the Nashville suburbs. On his couch, he looked at me and said: You are everything I have ever wanted.
Again, my immediate reaction was terrified ambivalence: There was a distinct possibility that nobody would ever say this to me again (and, indeed, nineteen years later, nobody has). Who wouldn’t want a partner that felt this way? However, this person had known me for one month and been in my physical presence for less than 72 hours—and he did not make clear what, precisely, it was that he wanted, or how I fulfilled it. Again, however, this interaction happened to be exactly in line with the kind of feelings Kafka seemed to have for Felice: intense in their ambivalence, horrifying and heart-swelling in equal measure. And so the emails continued, three or four throughout every workday, and Freddie essentially became a made-up individual whose only dimension was that he liked me—not unlike the version of Felice that Kafka concocted as his pen burned up letter after letter.
It was January of 2000, and I’d been dating Freddie for ten weeks. I’d ducked out of the bar 7A, so that I would not miss our brief nightly call. But when I asked Freddie how his day went, he made a sort of mfft sound and then said same old, as if the question itself were a grievous imposition. The rest of the conversation, which consisted of me asking what was wrong, did not improve. By the time I hung up, I was in existential crisis. Freddie had said that he just didn’t feel it the way that he used to. You know, back before the relationship turned ten weeks old and became stale. This was unacceptable. I’d largely entered into this endeavor for the intense queasiness that came from being loved so suddenly and so much, not really knowing what to make of it. And I was willing to entertain dramatic measures to stop the adoration from stopping.
In an unsent letter draft to Felice from November of 1912—shortly after they met—Kafka suffered a meltdown, which he sought to displace onto his new correspondent. “Dearest girl!” he wrote. “You are not to write to me anymore, and I won’t write to you anymore either. I must be making you very unhappy with my writing, and as for me, I am beyond help.” In the absence of Felice’s side of things, we’re left to improvise what went awry. Anyway, Kafka changed his mind and trashed that letter, and their first engagement followed that spring, after they met in person for the second time. Depending on which side you’re on in the Kafka-Felice situation, it was either a blessing or a curse that Kafka did not yet have access to email at work, or 500 cellular phone minutes per month, or some other way to communicate instantly, albeit limitedly. With a letter, you can think better of it, crumple it and throw it away, or leave it in your notebook for generations of misguided acolytes to find.
Kafka’s unsent demand that Felice not write had come at roughly the same time in their relationship as Freddie’s apparent crisis about me. But all hope was not lost, because Kafka had followed this with a wrenching declaration of love. “Write to me only once a week,” he demanded, also in November of 1912, “so that I get your letter on Sunday. I cannot endure your daily letters, I am incapable of enduring them. I’ll answer your letter, for example, and then lie seemingly still in bed, but my heart will be beating through my body and it will know nothing other than you. There is no other possibility than to say that I belong to you, and even that is too weak of a way to say it.” See, Kafka was cruel to Felice because he loved her so much. I knew just what I had to do.
My letters to my first husband are also lost to the annals of the first generation of the Internet, so I don’t remember what, precisely, I wrote to him on the morning after that fight, having arrived to work an hour early to write it. (Struggling message-board moderators in 2000 didn’t have internet in their homes.) But I had the single-minded goal of coaxing his entitled man-feelings back towards my general direction, and this would require some top-notch I belong to you-ing. That I wasn’t sure I did belong to him seemed secondary to the certainty that I wanted him to belong to me, and I figured the rest of the details would work themselves out eventually.
Whatever I did, it worked. By the end of the day, we were talking about eloping and drinking champagne off each other’s bodies. And on Freddie’s third visit to New York to see me, three months to the day after the great uncovered yawn, he rode the bus and then the subway from the airport to my place of work and, with a plastic ring he got out of a quarter machine that he promised he’d replace with a real one, he got down on one knee.
The ending of “The Judgment,” Kafka’s engagement story, is weird, even for an author whose weirdness has become his brand. Georg Bendemann’s father calls his fiancée a slut, and Georg by extension a man-slut who has sullied the good family name, and then proclaims: “I sentence you to death by drowning!” And Georg thinks, well, okay, if you say so, and that’s that. Marriage, to Kafka, was the most important accomplishment of a man’s life—and also its end.
There was no way around this; and yet, he persisted. On June 16, 1913, he asked Felice to “consider this […], which in the face of this uncertainty is difficult to bring forth into words, and must also sound very strange. It’s just too soon to say it,” he went on. “But,” he said, “it’s also already too late.” There was “no more time for hesitation,” and so he had to ask: “Do you want to consider,” he wrote, “whether you want to become my wife?” Felice accepted.
My engagement to Freddie would be short. He moved to New York, quit his job, refused to look for another one, and lived in miserly satisfaction off the revenue of his sold Audi. The wedding ceremony was also short, and unsubtly removed any mention of objecting now or forever holding one’s peace. By the time we were halfway across the Pacific on the way to our honeymoon, and Freddie had spent most of the flight criticizing my habit of attempting to make clever small-talk with strangers—“Never talk unless you have to”—I had begun to wonder how long I should stay married in order for everyone I’d ever known not to tell me they told me so. I settled upon the arbitrary (and, in hindsight, short) number of two years, which as of yet was longer than I had ever spent in a relationship.
I knew that I deserved other people telling me so, and yet I also believed I could and should get out of having to hear it. Understanding something and misunderstanding the same thing, etc. Indeed, as that Air Pacific 747 roared across the ocean, I found myself again thinking of The Trial. That novel is rumored to be an extended metaphor for an interrogation in the Hotel Askanische Hof in Berlin, wherein Felice’s relatives confronted Kafka for, among other things, allegedly schtupping her friend Grete Bloch, who was supposed to serve as their go-between (and thus either very bad or very good at her job). That is, even The Trial is basically about marriage, and not coincidentally it also ends in gruesome demise. After a year under arrest with no charge, K. finally faces execution. Two big dudes come to fetch him from his apartment and lead him into a dark alley, where he goes without complaint. “One of the gentleman,” Kafka wrote, “put his hands on K.’s throat, while the other stuck the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes, K. saw how the men stood cheek to cheek near his face, observing the verdict. ‘Like a dog!’ he said, as if the shame would outlive him.”
The Trial was composed in its entirety during Kafka’s engagement(s) to Felice, which, again, lasted for three years, a.k.a. one year longer than I thought I could hack being married. Kafka would eventually break off the second engagement, with extreme and palpable relief, when he was diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis and deemed unfit to marry. As such, I had no model—outside of terminal disease—for how to extract myself from this relationship that I’d wound around myself, tighter and tighter, thanks to Kafka’s example. In his life, and in his books, there was only death.
On the five-month anniversary of our wedding, as Freddie chastised me for wearing a low-cut shirt on the subway, since my breasts now belonged to him, I realized I was going to have to do something difficult but banal, and with no Kafka to guide me. And so, as the late winter of early 2001 thawed to spring—as everyone in New York went about their business, unaware of the events soon to reshape the city skyline and the sociopolitical landscape of the world—I came home from work one night, sat my first husband down, and told him I was leaving. He was very upset, and then very angry.
The shame of it has yet to outlive me, and I guess that’s something.
By the time I became Rebecca Schuman, Ph.D., fake doctor of German literature, at the age of thirty-three, my relationship with Felice Bauer’s worst ex-boyfriend had soured almost as much as my first marriage did. Kafka’s self-absorption and ineffectuality as a person aside, I had spent so much time pedantically entwined with his fiction that I no longer derived any emotion from it. I also blamed him (in addition to myself) for my unemployability, for—aside from his status as an emotional fuckwit—Kafka is the most overanalyzed personage in the field of German studies, and my specialization was not helping me land a coveted tenure-track professorship. It was, then, perhaps the truest expression of our relationship that Franz Kafka had let me down in every possible way, given that the expectations that his own work created were done so with the specific purpose of being impossible to meet.
Right around the time Kafka’s romance with Felice was experiencing the ten-week freak-out, in early November of 1912, he shared with her every rich male author’s lament, I assume in an attempt to gain sympathy: “My life,” he wrote, “is only suited for writing and when I experience changes, they are only to suit the writing better, for time is short, my abilities are small, the office is a horror, the apartment is loud[.]” I read this now, as a working mother in my early forties, whose every fifteen-minute snippet of laser-focused alone time is the spoil of a multi-tiered battle against the constant forces of caregiving and bathroom cleaning (or of the avoidance of said tasks). And I wonder if Kafka realized how easy his life really was in his horror of an apartment (which his parents paid for), how lucky he was to be an upper-class male in 1912 and to have every domestic responsibility be someone else’s problem. To have so much time alone with his angst. To have that be a foregone conclusion. Oh, he’s considering letting Felice have the honor of quitting her interesting career at the dictation-machine company, so she can stoke his fire and butter his bread and wash out his underwear and bear his children, while he enjoys the luxury of existential alienation?
Felice ended up doing all that thankless Scheiße for some other guy she married later. But as of 1917, she and Kafka were dunzo. Felice would ultimately never understand that Kafka’s first love (the sole telos of his “organism,” he wrote in his diary) was literature, and married life—whatever that entailed from the 1912 male perspective, which does not seem like much, if you ask me—was destined to be terminally at odds with literary life.
Today, equally removed from both my youthful emulations and my dissertation, I can finally enjoy Kafka’s work again. I prefer his fiction to his diaries, and have no patience for his correspondence. Most days, I don’t have occasion to think about what, precisely, I should do with the art of a man who, in certain respects, turned out to be a degree more monstrous than the famous monster he created—a monster who had such a kind heart inside that exo-shell.
I’ve decided, in my oldish age, that, for example, the real climax of The Trial isn’t that knife in the heart. It’s the scene in the cathedral, one chapter before, when K. and the priest engage in a battle of upside-down hermeneutics of the parable “Before the Law.” At one point, the priest insists to K. that “the Law wants nothing from you,” that instead it “bids you hello when you arrive and goodbye when you leave.” This is a great thing to say to someone who’s about to be stabbed in the chest, yes, but it may also be the only Kafka instructions worth following, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that they are not meant to be instructions at all. Today, I greet Kafka the author amiably on the occasions he returns to my life, and try not to not think about Kafka the person at all, now that he’s gone.
All names and some identifying details have been changed. Translations from the German are my own.