In November 1919, at the age of 36, Franz Kafka wrote his father a letter. “Dearest Father,” it begins, in Richard and Clara Winston’s translation. “You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking.” What follows is extraordinary: 15,000 words of confession and accusation–a shocking outpouring of love, fear, self-loathing, irony, and unutterable loss.
And ambiguity. For even pouring out his soul in what appears on the surface to be a last-ditch effort to reconcile with his father, Kafka is still Kafka: enigmatic, parabolic, a creator of images that lay bare the workings of the world while explaining nothing.
On one level, Kafka has written the letter every parent fears. He recalls every unfairness, every heedless action; he broods on them, cherishes them, and finally builds them into a sort of horrific theology of the second fall of man. You were loud, he tells the old man. You were sarcastic. When we went swimming, you were broad and tall, and I “a little skeleton, unsteady, barefoot on the boards, frightened of the water, incapable of copying your swimming strokes.” You made rules about table manners and then broke them yourself. You made me fail.
But Kafka isn’t content simply to accuse his father. He accuses himself: of laziness, of weakness, of timidity, of silence. He analyzes each memory into an enigma. Did his father chase him around the table? Well, he knew that his father didn’t mean to tear little Franz apart “like a fish.” And yet, wasn’t he terrified at the time, wasn’t he terrified still? Wasn’t his father to blame? No, he answers repeatedly, neither was to blame, and that is what they must both learn.
There are riches in “Letter to My Father,” and pitfalls. Larry Novikoff, who has adapted the text for a short-run, free-admission performance at Strawdog Theatre, gives us some of each. That Novikoff has managed to turn the unruly, lengthy text into 90 engaging minutes is admirable. As he learns to deal with its eerie depths–its mysteries–he’s going to have a terrific one-man show on his hands.
For the moment, he’s caught at the level of irony. That’s understandable. Kafka deals out impossible contradictions without giving the slightest verbal cue to how they’re to be resolved. The performer, who can’t let them float in the irresolution of the printed page, has to resolve them somehow. Novikoff mostly opts for humor; he hears the sound of Jewish comedy in the letter and brings it to the surface. His Kafka has odd overtones of Woody Allen.
I’m not sure that’s entirely wrong. But ultimately it robs Novikoff’s performance of some tools it needs. For one thing, it makes us cozy with Kafka, when we should be doubting him; this may be a real letter, actually intended to influence Hermann Kafka, but as several of Kafka’s biographers and critics have pointed out, it bears the earmarks of his fiction. We need to remain conscious of Franz Kafka as a character of his letter–an unreliable one–even in what appear moments of transparent personal revelation.
And the humor flattens the emotional range of the piece. Kafka’s terror about his father may have been an exaggeration, a metaphor, or even a hallucination, but it wasn’t a shtick. Novikoff’s reading occasionally lets us forget that. Near the end, for instance, after Kafka’s heartrending discussion of his inability to marry, there’s a moment when Kafka imagines his father answering the letter with an astonishing, excoriating attack: “I admit that we fight with each other, but there are two kinds of combat. The chivalrous combat, in which independent opponents pit their strength against each other, each on his own, each losing on his own, each winning on his own. And there is the combat of vermin, which not only sting but, on top of it, suck your blood in order to sustain their own life. . . .That’s what you are. You are unfit for life.” A moment later, Kafka is taking it all back, reminding his father, and the unacknowledged audience he seems certainly to have had in mind, that it was he, Franz, who made the attack. But unless we can hear the imagined violence of the father’s attack, and the son’s terror, we cannot experience the point.
It’s no accident that in lashing out at himself, Franz Kafka called himself vermin. His letter is yet another draft of the story he began writing in Metamorphosis: the tale of a child inexplicably reborn as something monstrous, and his parents who understandably and horribly fail him. The miracle of Kafka’s fiction is that he can transform a private world of fear and pain into tools for knowing the world we all live in. In Dearest Father we see him trying to explain, without metaphors, how a man is transformed into an insect. That he fails is, in his hands, a sort of triumph.