June 27, 2024

Some Little Known Events in the Life and Afterlife of Franz Kafka

By The Draschba

Translated by Daniel Schifrin1
Franz Kafka as a teenager, photographer unknown

“God doesn’t want me to write. But I have no choice.”
—Franz Kafka

“We don’t know where The Law was given, we don’t know when The Law was given, we don’t know if The Law was given.”
—The Draschba

In 1915, when the mountain of civilization rose in discontent over a frightened people, Franz Kafka published his parable “Before The Law.” It begins like this: 

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.”

At that moment, Europe was faced with the possibility of its own destruction, and Franz – having just been called up for military service, but not yet deferred—was waiting, waiting, waiting for confirmation. The parable was written in one all-night sitting, often pegged to the evening of December 14, 1914, and like many of my literary peers, I read it the next year in Prague’s Jewish newspaper, the Selbstwehr, wedged between reports of Lithuanian Jews forced out of Vilna into the wilderness, and the slamming shut of the gates of freedom in the Americas. 

Many say Franz wrote “Before The Law” in his tiny flat at 22 Golden Lane, in the shadow of the castle on top of the hill, but I’d like to correct the record as to the context of its creation. What I will share here—perhaps against Franz’s wishes, although he never forbade me from describing our encounter—is how on this particular evening he was hunched over a prayerbook at the Old-New Synagogue in Prague, his back against the wall. I was so shocked to see Franz there by himself that I almost tripped over his feet. On the rare occasions he attended synagogue it was with his father, a man so domineering and rule-bound that one could imagine Franz walking into his father’s office on Zeltnergasse, formally called “Kafka & Son,” and immediately sitting down on a low chair, waiting for instructions.2

We nodded to each other, me with great vigor, and Franz with an extraordinary effort that seemed to cost him slightly more than he could bear. We were friendly, but not exactly friends, and I believe he was attracted to my Vaudevillian mysticism as an antidote to his exacting legalism. (In this way he was very much his father’s son.) I sat down next to him, far from my usual seat in the Northeast corner, and saw more or less what he did from this angle—the Ark of the Torah against the Eastern Front of the building, haloed as always by the eternal light in its silver holder, and accessible by ascending the steps to the bima.3 Inside that box God’s Law stood hidden. 

Who knows exactly why Franz bolted from his apartment that evening, ending up in shul. In the posthumous journals that Max Brod preserved, we can read about a typical moment in which the absence of quiet in his flat became unbearable, as Franz was forced to listen to a neighbor and landlady: “Both speak softly, the landlady almost audible, so much the worse. My writing which had finally picked up 2 days ago interrupted, who knows for how long. Pure desperation.” 

Perhaps his journey to the synagogue reflected his lust for the ambiguities of Shavuot, the holiday we had just entered, the day on which Jews are commanded to stay up all night to receive the Torah as if for the first time on Mount Sinai. Franz often wrote all night, and it’s possible that his sense of loneliness had become so great that he was willing to entertain once again the possibility that a supernatural Being held the key to the meaning and nature of The Law.4

As I turned toward Franz to ask what prompted him to come to synagogue on this particular spring evening, I noticed that the page of the prayerbook he had opened to was blank.5 Before I had a chance to ask about this strange development, I saw Franz’s father rise from the other side of the room and ascend the stairs of the bima. It was time to open the ark and remove the Torah for public chanting, an honor Herman occasionally received as a wealthy patron of the synagogue. Herman tore open the heavy door guarding the Torah, and the congregation rose as one. Was Franz aware that his father had been selected for this holy task that evening?6 Did Herman even know he was here? And if so, why did they not sit together? 

Herman stood at the very lip of the ark, blocking the light as the rabbi raised the Torah and its silver finials, then presented the package to him for the parade around the congregation. When this had finished, and the scroll was laid on the table to read, we all sat down. I leaned over again to see Franz’s prayerbook, but it was shut tight. 

Like the rest of us, Franz took out the printed version of The Law kept secure under the seats. This version of the Torah contained both Hebrew and German, and as the rabbi read out loud from the scroll, Franz stared at the book intently, running his index finger down the middle of the page, as if he was following a text that existed solely in the intersection between the two languages.

The rabbi said:

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness…

Franz immediately closed his eyes, and appeared to fall asleep.7 I heard someone cough, and looked across the sanctuary to see Max staring at us. I wondered why he was not sitting with Franz, who was immediately woken by this noise. 

The rabbi continued, with God telling Moses:

…you shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death…’

And now Franz coughed three times, as if he and Max were speaking some tubercular Morse Code. For a few moments they went back and forth, like birds reminding each other at sunrise of the urgent work the day would require. The rabbi, perhaps unnerved by this odd cawing of congregants, finished the recitation, then began to race through the drash, sermonizing on the deep uncertainties inherent in the giving of the Law, including whether it was Moses or God who actually wrote it.

The rabbi trilled, half-chanting and half-pleading:

First the text promises this: “Moses wrote all the words of the Lord.” And then it swears the following: “When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.” And then, doubling back on its first assertion, the text offers, “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel’…and he wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments…” 8

The rabbi stopped speaking, as if he had suddenly reached the end of his script. “Well, which it is?” he asked violently. Franz shifted his weight, perhaps believing that in this liminal state the question was addressed personally to him. Afraid he was about to stand up and answer the question outright, I pressed my arm against his thigh. But there was no need. Franz collapsed back in on himself, and the rabbi hurriedly brought the Torah back to the ark, and the services quickly finished. 

Whether the congregation sensed any of this Vaudeville was unclear. In any case, the men gathered in the other rooms to converse and study until morning, as was the custom. I wondered if Franz would stay until then as well. I had a hard time imagining it. It’s possible that he had done this once before, although I doubt that Franz could have managed the constant buzz of conversation in that echoing space.

But no. Tonight Franz stayed. He budged not one inch from his seat, even as I and Max joined the men in the adjacent room for debate and schnaps. Every once in a while Max or I got up, pretending to stretch or use the toilet, but primarily to check in on Franz to ensure he was all right. 

When morning came, Franz was almost impossible to rouse. It was as if he had lived an entire life overnight, his legs more atrophied than stiff, and his hands too weak to hold onto the unopened notebook that lay across his knees. We walked him to his flat up the hill, me holding up Franz’s left side, with his notebook in my coat pocket. When we arrived, Franz immediately fell onto his bed, coat, shoes, and all. When Max excused himself to get a piece of bread, I opened the notebook, where I read the following:

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”

I heard a cough, and then Max’s humming as he made a cup of tea. The birds screamed from beyond an invisible window.

Footnotes

  1. [Translator’s Note] Readers of this publication have met the Draschba, a twentieth-century flaneur and litterateur whose intimate reflections and anecdotes about cultural figures continue to be discovered in archives around the world (see Ayin, January 22, 2022, “The Rabbi and the Translator” for further background). This recently uncovered essay, with new details about Kafka’s life, is presented in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death. The Draschba wrote in Ursprecht, a dialect of Yiddish, of which there are a vanishingly small number of translators. I don’t have space here to unpack the history and spiritual contradictions of Ursprecht, but one of the surprises of my research into both Kafka and the Draschba is that they shared a deep appreciation for this most obscure dialect of Yiddish. In a letter the Draschba wrote to his wife just after the war, he noted that “Kafka appreciates German for what you can say, but shouldn’t; and Yiddish for what no one wants you to say, but have no choice but to try.” Kafka’s jagged, halting Ursprecht, at least according to the Draschba, existed at the liminal intersection of the two languages, where almost every literary idiom is both required and forbidden. In other words, everything must be said, but none of it can be correct.
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  2. I often joked with our friend Max Brod that Franz’s presence at synagogue was as rare as that of the Golem, the illegal beast dreamt up in that very building by Rabbi Loew centuries earlier, and which—according to legend—still waits upstairs in the Geniza, like a scrap of holy writ that can neither be used nor discarded. Franz was like the Golem in other ways too. The Creature obeyed no law but that of the perfect word emet, or truth, which Rabbi Loew wrote on its forehead to bring it to life; and the anti-perfect word met, or death, which the rabbi created by removing the letter aleph from emet, sending the Golem back to sleep. Franz loved the idea that Truth and Death are separated by just one letter. But perhaps he loved it too much? Franz’s fanatical precision to language created a suffocating pressure that made it almost impossible for him to finish a sentence, as writing the wrong sentence was a worse fate than not having written a sentence at all. Franz felt the pain of this eternal, constant failure right between the eyes.
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  3. Franz knew that the Hebrew word for pulpit, bima, was the same for stage. This idea came up many times in conversation, and Franz’s obsession with the absurdity of authority (as well as the authority of absurdity) explained in part his delirious enjoyment of the Yiddish stage.
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  4. In actuality, I wonder if it was something quite different. I think Franz wanted God to stop him from writing—or perhaps to stop him from wanting to write. If Franz were at home, he would certainly not obey the traditional Jewish injunction not to write on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays. And so he had no choice but to come to synagogue, to the one place he was explicitly forbidden to compose. And by doing so, by sitting publicly with those most stringent in preventing him from writing—most notably his father—Franz tried to prevent himself from receiving his own Law. The irony, of course, is that the story he tried to prevent, but failed in every respect, was about the impossibility of receiving such a Law.
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  5. Franz once told me, staring out onto the river, that there was no such thing as a blank page, only a text that has already been erased. To reveal the text, one must ask permission, and one must wait.
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  6. I was reminded recently of an evening at the Cafe Savoy, when Franz, having become enraptured by the Lemberg Yiddish company a few years earlier, introduced a reading of a selection of poetry. Franz knew enough Yiddish to get the gist of what was said, but not enough to fully understand. There was a giddiness to Franz when he watched these actors, as if he were a child again, with just enough distance from the worries of the adult world to enjoy the hilarity of the human attempt to make sense of the world. He was allowed, in these moments, not to understand. Max and I both noticed the change in Franz’s work around this time, the infusion of a deep theatrical absurdity into his writing. It was in those moments, watching Franz watch the actors pretending to be monomaniacal Hasidim, or star-crossed lovers, or ghosts haunted by divine errors, that I wondered what ecstatic violence he might one day allow of himself. For instance, in that moment at synagogue, I could imagine Franz imagining pushing his father into The Law, itself taking up all the oxygen in the coffin-sized ark . . . But this is mere speculation. What I can say is that walking home with Franz one night from the theater, I saw his father smoking a cigar outside in the warm evening. Without a word to me, Herman opened the door of their home and offered Franz a sliver of his wisdom: “Whoever lies down with dogs gets up with bugs.” Franz breathed in the acrid smoke of his father’s wit, before Herman shut the door in his face.
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  7. Franz once mentioned to me that his favorite Biblical midrash had to do with the injunction to stay up all night on Shavuot. This commentary tells us that the ancient Israelites went to bed early the night before they were to receive The Law, to ensure they were well-rested for the big day. But apparently they overslept, and Moses had to wake them so that they would be ready when God appeared. In retrospect, I wonder if Franz saw himself as still standing at Sinai, desperate to be alert when The Law appeared, even while being certain that The Law didn’t exist.
    In retrospect, another conversation I had with Franz some years later might clear this up. One morning he and Max were having coffee when I showed up unannounced. Max pointed to an empty chair, and Franz concluded what appeared to be a long kabbalistic anecdote. “After all the years in the wilderness of Egypt, and then in the desert, one morning the Israelites wake up and visit Moses en masse. ‘Everyone strives after The Law,’ they ask, ‘so how is that in these many years no people except us has requested entry?’”
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  8. Here I had to stop myself from bursting out laughing. I recalled another evening of Yiddish theater with Franz and Max, where a sketch was presented in which Franz’s friend the director Joseph Lowy, Franz’s other rabbi (apart from Max), played a character named Yankel. Yankel stood among the multitudes at Sinai, asking Moses for clarification about who or what had written The Law. “Are you saying,” Yankel asked God, an actor pretending to hide behind a papier-maiche rock in the corner of the makeshift stage, “that even you don’t know who wrote the Law?” Franz howled from the back row.
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Before the Law

Translated by Ian Johnston

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”


Dan Schifrin’s fiction and essays have appeared in AyinExposition Review, the Los Angeles TimesSan Francisco Chronicle, and McSweeney’s, and he is the winner of numerous short fiction awards. Dan was a 2020 LABA Fellow, developing a play about the influence of kabbalistic storytelling on contemporary life, and is finishing a book about the intersection of creativity and care in the twenty-first century. Dan currently teaches writing at Stanford University through the School of Continuing Studies. From 2008 –2014 he was Writer-in-Residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.