I got a print-out of Dearest Father and therefore was able to underline my favourite sections. The first one’s from Kafka’s childhood, from the time he and his father would go swimming together:
“I was already weighed down by your sheer bodily presence. I remember, for example, how we often undressed together in the same cubicle. I skinny, frail, fragile, you strong, tall, thickset. Even in the cubicle I felt a puny wretch, and not only in front of you but in front of the whole world, because for me you were the measure of all things. But when we stepped out before all the people, I with my hand in yours, a little skeleton, unsteady and barefoot on the planks, afraid of the water, unable to copy your swimming strokes which you kept on demonstrating with the best of intentions but actually to my profound shame, then I would lose myself in despair and at such moment all my past failures would come back to haunt me” (24).
I thought of two things when I read this bit. First, Cemal Süreya and his father in the Turkish bath: that is exactly the opposite of how young Cemal felt. Apparently Cemal Süreya composed his poem “Has Your Father Ever Died?” after a childhood memory in a Turkish bath. When father and son undress, the son discovers that his father’s body is not as firm and strong as he’d imagined it to be, so his father “dies” in his eyes. That’s why he cries as his body is covered in soap. Second, the father of the family who lives downstairs. I imagine Kafka’s father to be just like him, distant, authoritative, thickset – “thickset” is the adjective that conjures him up in my mind. I think he has self-esteem issues himself, but he chooses to project these on his son; the son is shy and fragile as a result, although he is a handsome and bright young man. His father insisted that he be a doctor like him, but he felt that he was not made to be a doctor. (I am so glad that he didn’t go to medical school after all.)
So the story is, two years ago, they went to their hometown in eastern Anatolia for the Feast of the Sacrifice, and apparently the father was on a shift or something and there were not enough men to skin the slaughtered sheep, so the son – who was merely a teenager (16?) and who wasn’t feeling ready for medical training – volunteered to skin one of them himself. He pierced the skin of the sheep a few times with the paring knife, but did an acceptable job – at least didn’t cut himself, which was very likely (ambulances have a very busy time during the Feast of the Sacrifice in Turkey) – but his father still had a go at him, for piercing the skin of course, not for attempting such a dangerous task, let alone congratulate him for his courage and skill. I find this episode to be a potent illustration of their relationship.
Second passage, this is a bit longer:
“From the very beginning you reproached me […] with living an easy life in peace, warmth, and plentitude, all at your expense. I am referring here to those remarks that must literally have become etched in my mind, such as: ‘When I was no more than seven I had to push the cart from village to village’. ‘We all had to sleep in one room’. “We counted ourselves lucky when we got potatoes’ (40-41) […] What you had had to fight for, we were given straight from your hand; but that struggle for an independent life which was granted to you from the beginning and which, of course, even we cannot entirely avoid, that is a privilege for which we are forced to strive belatedly, as adults with the strength of mere children. I am not saying that this necessarily makes our situation harder than yours, rather the two are probably equal […], our only disadvantage is that we cannot use our deprivation to glorify ourselves or to belittle others, as you did with your deprivation” (43).
I am familiar with this attitude; my younger aunt’s husband keeps doing it to my cousin. And I’ve caught myself doing a symmetrical version to my mother, because I had to grow up without a father, (I don’t have a brother, and I’m not married) whereas she had the comfort and protection of a father, and later a husband, and when she didn’t have the husband any more, she still had the father. But I still take pride in my independence as a woman 🙂
“Your loathing dealt a heavier blow to my writing and everything that, even unknown to you, was related to it. Here I had in fact gained a little independent distance from you, even if in doing so I slightly resembled a worm, its tail pinned to the ground under somebody’s foot, tearing loose from the front and wriggling away to the side. I was to some extent safe, I could breathe freely; the revulsion that you felt for my writing was, unusually, a relief to me. […] My writing was about you, all I did there was to lament what I could not lament on your shoulder. It was a deliberately long drawn-out parting from you, yet although you instigated it, I was able to choose its eventual direction” (62-63).
Well then, that means his relationship with his father inspired his writing, he should be thankful! “The Metamorphosis” is perhaps the story he is best known for, and maybe, it’s this imaginary worm that served as the basis for the story.
As I read this, I got curious about Orhan Pamuk’s essay “My Father’s Suitcase,” where he explores his relationship with his own father. (Apparently as soon as his father read the manuscript of his first novel, he prognosticated that he’d win the Nobel Prize for Literature one day – sorry for the spoiler). And, I’ve read somewhere some author saying “I’m writing in order to preserve my sanity”; I thought that’s what Kafka must have done too.