Review: Kafka/Klopstock (German Quarterly)

  • The German Quarterly
  • 1. Oktober 2004

Review in: The German Quarterly 77, No. 4, p. 511-512
Reviewer: Paul Reitter, The Ohio State University

Wetscherek, Hugo, ed. Kafkas letzter Freund. Vienna: Inlibris, 2003, 312 pp. EUR 65,00 hardcover.

Renown came posthumously for Kafka. But the small circle of friends who venerated him during his lifetime did not have to wait long to see their taste affirmed on a massive scale. One of those friends, Max Brod, was in a direct way responsible for Kafka's success. For Brod rescued Kafka's works, the great majority of which were printed after his death in 1924, one and a half times. Brod famously disregarded Kafka's semi-serious injunction to burn his manuscripts. And he got Kafka's manuscripts out of Prague shortly before WW II began, transporting them safely to Palestine, where he guarded over them until the threat of more violence induced him, decades later, to send them back to Europe. In an odd double-gesture, then, Brod at once made Kafka's writing public and kept it private. That is, he edited Kafka's works and arranged for them to be published, while making sure Kafka's manuscripts stayed off-limits. Thus another odd circumstance developed. Despite the steadily burgeoning interest in Kafka -- by 1943 Edmund Wilson had begun to speak of a Kafka craze in American letters -- a scholarly critical edition of his works became available only quite recently.

But Kafka's complicated publication history hardly ends there. When Brod, who edited Kafka with notorious invasiveness, sent the original, hand-written texts of Kafka's literary works to a secure place in Switzerland, not all of the letters on which he based his editions of Kafka's correspondences made the trip. Some letters now count as lost. The Herausgeber of the critical edition therefore had to rely in many cases on Brod's versions of Kafka's letters.

This is true, for example, of most of Kafka's letters to Robert Klopstock. According to Hartmut Binder, Klopstock -- who was a young medical student when Kafka befriended him -- was nothing less than Kafka's most important correspondent during the last three years of his life. For if Kafka's late letters speak "'gewöhnlich nur von praktisch-organisatorischen Dingen und reduzieren sich im Persönlichen auf ein minimales, niemand verletzendes Aufrechterhalten alter Beziehung'" (5), his candid epistolary utterences to Klopstock are a rich exception to this rule. They offer abundant insight into Kafka's emotional state in the final phase of his life.

In this context, finding nearly forty letters from Kafka in Klopstock's Nachlaß, then publishing them in their entirety for the first time -- seven letters had not been published at all -- is no small matter. And that is precisely what the editors of the handsome new Inlibris catalogue, Kafkas letzter Freund, have done. They have done it, moreover, with care and craftsmanship, reproducing in facsimile form many hand-written pages and postcards, and providing scrupulous annotations and helpful biographical essays an Klopstock and his wife Giselle.

The letters themselves are not revelatory. After all, Brod, who seems to have been jealous of Klopstock's close relationship with Kafka, did print some of Kafka's missives to Klopstock, if also generally in abbreviated form -- and sometimes, it turns out, with rather drastic excisions. But the complete versions of those letters do substantially add to our knowledge of how Kafka experienced his final years, and especially the physical toll of his illness.

Kafka and Klopstock, a Hungarian Jew with a vibrant interest in literature, discussed other issues as well, including Judaism and contemporary literature and the points of intersection between those two topics. Indeed, one of the most fascinating and cryptic parts of the correspondence is their collective meditation on the German-Jewish satirist Karl Kraus -- and, more specifically, on the Jewishness of Kraus's vaunted prose style. Here, in effect, Kafka delivers a striking and puzzling addendum to the striking and puzzling -- and considerably more famous -- remarks he makes in a June 1921 letter to Brod, according to which "no one can speak Mauscheln [or Yiddish-inflected German] like Kraus." Fortunately, the editors of Kafkas letzter Freund have included an essay on just that subject, "Fackel-Leser und Werfel-Verehrer. Anmerkungen zu Kafkas Briefen an Robert Klopstock," by the long-time Kraus expert Leo A. Lensing. This admirably learned and elegantly written analysis goes much further than anything extant in Kafka or Kraus scholarship toward clarifying Kafka's claims about Kraus. The final section of an important volume, Lensing's article is an appropriately potent last word.