Franz Kafka wrote powerful stories about the powerless — and to make them frightening, he made them funny. Many of his darkest comedies, including the famous one about a salesman metamorphosing into a bug, appear to be rooted in the cowering, but deeply farcical, relationship he had with his domineering father, Hermann.
But if there was a sparkling boyhood memory that Kafka cherished — and recalled as he lay dying of tuberculosis in a sanatarium near Vienna — it was one involving that primal bonding ritual between father and son: sharing a beer.
In Is That Kafka? 99 Finds, a book of trivia recently translated from German into English, the eminent Kafka scholar Reiner Stach highlights his famous subject’s enjoyment of beer and wine.
The image of Kafka lounging in a sunlit beer garden in Prague is a refreshing one, and no doubt the writer spent many happy hours in this manner.
But with Kafka, even beer comes with baggage.
His most joyous — and meaningful — memories of beer were of the drinking sessions he shared with his father. But these memories were also inextricably allied with the twin sites of his childhood humiliation: the dining table and the swimming pool.
Hermann was a blustering bully. But the deeper problem was that father and son had such different personalities, they were like slapstick antagonists. Hermann the confident and coarse shopkeeper vs. the timid Franz, who worked in insurance (Hermann derided it as a Brotberuf, or “bread job”), wrote weird stories in his room, became a vegetarian, and showed no interest whatsoever in the family dry goods store.
Away all day at the store, Hermann met his son and three daughters mainly at mealtime. The trembling young Franz grew to dread these dining-table encounters. At 36, Kafka wrote an emotional 47-page Letter to His Father, in which bottled-up images of those torturous meals boil forth in an accusatory torrent:
“There was a somber silence at table, interrupted by admonitions: ‘Eat first, talk afterward,’ or ‘faster, faster, faster,’ or ‘There you are, you see, I finished ages ago.’ Bones mustn’t be cracked with the teeth, but you could. Vinegar must not be sipped noisily, but you could. The main thing was that the bread should be cut straight. But it didn’t matter that you did it with a knife dripping with gravy. Care had to be taken that no scraps fell on the floor. In the end it was under your chair that there were the most scraps. At table one wasn’t allowed to do anything but eat, but you cleaned and cut your fingernails, sharpened pencils, cleaned your ears with a toothpick. Please, Father, understand me correctly: in themselves these would have been utterly insignificant details, they only became depressing for me because you, so tremendously the authoritative man, did not keep the commandments you imposed on me.”
The only time his father had a word of praise for him, wrote Kafka, was when “I was able to eat heartily or even drink beer with my meals.” (Kafka handed this letter to his mother, who returned it without showing it to her husband.)
Beer made everything better. Father and son “had no common interests, no common language, and they almost never did anything in common,” says Stach, who has written the definitive three-volume biography of the writer.
“The common drinking became a comforting symbol, a symbol of the closeness he had always missed,” Stach says.
Going swimming with his father constituted a similar admixture of shame and joy — shame at the prospect of displaying his “skinny, weakly, slight” body beside his father’s “strong, tall, broad” one, and joy at knowing the ordeal would be followed by the camaraderie of a beer session.
In Bohemia, it was customary to drink a glass of beer or wine with every meal, and Kafka was happy to comply. “Kafka was not a heavy drinker, but, as he ironically said, a ‘passionate drinker’ — that is, he could drink beer and wine with intensive pleasure, like a gourmet, and for that he did not need large quantities,” says Stach. “I don’t think he has ever been really drunk in his life, because losing self-control made him feel extremely uncomfortable. However, he had a very strong social empathy, so it was a pleasure to him just to observe other people while drinking.”
And what beer did he drink? “Czech beer, of course, since it was the best beer in the world, as it is today,” says Stach. “But when he was traveling, he always sampled the local beers.”
Kafka is often perceived as a mournful figure in the popular imagination, something Stach wants to change. He wants us to think of Kafka not as a neurotic running around in a maze of illogic but as a genius who was also a regular fella with a taste for good beer.
He is unlikely to succeed. Apart from the pessimism of his stories, Kafka’s short life was bookended by tragedy. Two brothers died when he was a boy, and all three of his sisters would perish in the Holocaust. Kafka’s own death, by tuberculosis, at the age of 40 was an excruciatingly painful one.
“Even drinking was now possible in only tiny sips,” writes Stach in Kafka: The Years of Insight, the final volume of his biography of those last days. “Kafka was constantly thirsty; he dreamed about all sorts of drinks and relished the sight of people gulping down a glass of water in front of him. He forced down a small glass of wine a day, and sometimes a little beer, even water had to be warmed up before he could sip at it.”
His anxious parents, who hadn’t seen him in a year, wrote that they wanted to visit and have “a good glass of beer together.” Skeletal-thin and able to speak only in a whisper, Kafka did not want them to come. But he was also keen to make peace with his estranged father.
So on June 2, 1924, the day before he died, he wrote to his parents, recycling that one happy memory of how “during heat spells, we used to have beer together quite often, many years ago, when Father would take me to the Civilian Swimming Pool.”
He was too weak to finish the letter, and it was never posted. But his parents did eventually read it when his papers were handed over to them. The letter, however, did not fully convey the boyhood memory in its bittersweet entirety. What did was Kafka’s account of it to his lover Dora Diamant, who nursed him to the end:
“When I was a little boy, before I learned to swim, I sometimes went with my father, who also can’t swim, to the non-swimmer’s section. Then we sat together naked at the buffet, each with a sausage and a half liter of beer. … You have to imagine, that enormous man holding by the hand a nervous little bundle of bones, or the way we undressed in the dark in the little changing room, the way he would then drag me out, because I was embarrassed, the way he tried to teach me his so-called swimming, etcetera. But then the beer!”
Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.