Kafka’s Repressed Homosexuality

Much has been made of Kafka’s reputation as a womaniser, but a new book by Saul Friedländer argues that there was another more tortured side to his sexuality – a repressed homosexuality that may well have informed the themes of alienation and psychological brutality that underpin his writing. Works like The Metamorphosis and The Trial, often read as allegories for Jewish persecution, may in fact be informed by an entirely different kind of social oppression.

Friedländer bases his argument on the pre-publication changes made to Kafka's correspondence by his literary executor, Max Brod. Though Kafka explicitly requested that all his work be burnt after his death, Brod nonetheless published them – but his excisions, Friedländer argues, indicates an awareness of, and complicity with, his friend’s repression of his homosexual nature.

Take, for example, a letter written to Brod in 1922. The passages Brod censored are re-inserted here in square brackets:

“Struggle on the road to [the] Tannenstein in the morning, struggle while watching the ski-jumping contest. Happy little B., in all his innocence somehow shadowed by my ghosts, at least in my eyes [, specially his outstretched leg in its gray rolled-up sock], his aimless wandering glance, his aimless talk. In this connection it occurs to me—but this is already forced—that towards evening he wanted to go home with me.”

The allusions to homosexual desire are infrequent, but Friedländer's compilation of telling details is persuasive, setting quotations such as “If I want to arouse disgust in myself, I need only imagine putting my arm round a woman’s waist” alongside diary entries that reveal an infatuation with the Prague novelist Franz Werfel and a fascination with Hans Blüher's work on male erotic bonding, The Role of Eroticism in Male Society:

“If I say that in a recent dream I gave Werfel a kiss, I stumble right into the middle of Bluher’s book. But more of that later. The book excited me; I had to put it aside for two days …” Friedländer stresses that it is “highly improbable that Kafka ever considered the possibility of homosexual relations”; instead, he argues that the author channeled his stifled yearnings into his fictional work. These speculations open up a new layer of interpretative possibilities for scholars of Kafka’s bleak, tortured fiction.

Saul Friedländer’s Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, was released in May by Yale UP, 224pp., £17.99. Reviewed by John Banville in the New York Review of Books, October 24, 2013.

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