Good Reading : December January 2009
writer’s life Kafkaesque In the first of a series of six extracts from Secret Lives of Great Authors by ROBERT SCHNAKENBERG, we present Franz Kafka, the brilliant Bohemian author whose habits and hobbies were almost as bizarre as his stories. FRANZ KAFKA JULY 3, 1883 – JUNE 3, 1924 NATIONALITY: BOHEMIAN ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: CANCER MAJOR WORKS: THE METAMORPHOSIS (1915), THE TRIAL (1925), THE CASTLE (1926) CONTEMPORARIES & RIVALS: MAX BROD, RAINER MARIA RILKE LITERARY STYLE: LUCID, CONCISE, MATTER-OF-FACT WORDS OF WISDOM: as ‘Kafkaesque’ if not for Kafka? It’s a question that probably never occurred to the nondescript haberdasher’s son from Prague, who died without knowing how perfectly his nightmarish novels and stories captured an age, a society, and a universally recognised feeling of alienation and despair. Y MR SAFETY Did Kafka invent the hard hat? Management professor Peter Drucker makes that claim in his 2002 book Managing in the Next Society. Drucker credits Kafka with developing the first civilian safety helmet while working as a claims manager at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute of Bohemia. It’s unclear whether the author invented the headgear or just mandated its use. What is clear is that Kafka was awarded the gold medal of the American Safety Society for his efforts, which helped reduce industrial fatalities and gave us an enduring stereotype of construction workers that we still rely upon today. CHEW ON THIS As a result of his poor self-image, Kafka became a sucker for quack diet schemes. One that really captured his 14 goodreading i DECEMBER 2008 / JANUARY 2009 ‘BEYOND A CERTAIN POINT THERE IS NO RETURN. THIS POINT HAS TO REACHED.’ ou know you’re a great writer when your last name becomes an adjective. How could we describe something imagination was Fletcherism, a crackpot chewing regimen devised by a Victorian health food faddist known as ‘the Great Masticator.’ Fletcher argued that you should chew a mouthful of food precisely forty-five times before swallowing it. ‘Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate,’ he warned, and Kafka took it to heart. According to one diary entry, his father was so disgusted by this constant cud chewing that he hid behind a newspaper at the dinner table. MEAT IS MURDER Kafka was a strict vegetarian, for both health-related and ethical reasons. (As the grandson of a kosher butcher, this conviction reinforced his father’s belief that his son was a complete and utter failure.) One day, while admiring the fish in an aquarium, he declared, ‘Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore!’ An early proponent of the raw food diet, Kafka was also involved in the antivivisection movement. THE NAKED TRUTH For a man who wrote so often about cramped, dark, interior spaces, Kafka sure loved the fresh air. He was known to take long walks around Prague, accompanied by his good friend Max Brod. He also joined the then-faddish nudist movement, cavorting among the clothing-optional crowds at a naturist health spa known as ‘The Fountain of Youth.’ It’s unlikely Kafka actually dropped trou himself, however. He was extremely skittish about nudity - his own or anyone else’s. The other resort residents called him ‘the man in the swimming trunks’. More than once, he was unpleasantly surprised when other residents showed up naked in front of his living quarters or sauntered past him au naturel on the way to the nearby woods. Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg is published by Quirk Books, rrp $24.95.