Guernica Magazine

The Franz Kafka Marriage Manual for Young Ladies

What to do with the art of a man more monstrous than the monster he created? The post The Franz Kafka Marriage Manual for Young Ladies appeared first on Guernica.
Kafka at five years old.

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

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