Just as I have thought that Kafka's father, Herman, has been mis-treated by history, so has Kafka's best friend, Max Brod, been cast in an unfair light. Kafka actively had a hand in denouncing his father, but it is only by association he accounts for Brod's dismissal. Max Brod, it is true, is and was best known for saving Kafka's manuscripts and having them published. And he was a good friend to Kafka - and vice versa. But Brod had a full life as a writer himself, both in fiction and as a commentator. He toiled in the vineyards of Literature all his long life.
The following interview concerns Aharon Megged, a playwright who knew Brod personally. Here he reminisces about Brod, and in turn relates some tales about Kafka.
Friend of a friend Looking back on his own warm relationship with Max Brod, author Aharon Megged writes of a man who today is largely remembered as Franz Kafka's literary executor, but was a 'true intellectual and a creative polymath' in his own right.
By Aharon Megged
Some time before I left Kibbutz Sdot Yam, in 1951, I offered Habima my first play, "Far Off in the Arava" (or as it was later called, "On the Road to Eilat." Max Brod, who at that time was the theater's "dramatic adviser" recommended it to the management, and it was accepted for performance that year. That was 12 years after Brod's immigration here (in 1939 ), at the time of the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia, when he was 50 years old. Since his youth, he had been active in the Zionist movement in Prague, in the same circle as Felix Weltsch, Hugo Bergmann and other Jewish intellectuals. Years after his immigration, he won the Bialik Prize for his book "Galileo in Babylon," which was adapted for the stage and performed at Habima.
My play, "Far Off in the Arava," is about a group of well-drillers in the wilderness of the Negev. In it there is a tragedy of love and jealousy that undermines the solidarity of the group. The play appealed to Brod and he decided to translate it into German and offer it to the Schauspielhaus, Zurich's municipal theater. Since his knowledge of Hebrew was limited, Brod suggested I help him by defining words and explaining expressions and terms in my language. In this way the friendship between us began. Brod lived on the third floor of an old building at 6 Hayarden Street (not far from where Allenby slopes down to the sea ). The entrance was dark because of a protective wall from back in the days of the war. The stairs were narrow and worn, and on the door of his apartment was a sign: "Please do not ring between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00. Be so kind as to make appointments for interviews on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays between the hours of 11:00 and 1:00."
(The whole article can be found here)
Here are the excerpts concerning Kafka.
I wanted, of course, to hear from him about Franz Kafka, Kafka the writer and Kafka the man, his friend and his confidant. Brod was not eager to talk about him (during our meetings he would sometimes stop in the middle of our language exercises, pass his hand over a stack of papers on the table and show me: "All these are letters concerning Kafka - from publishers, universities, scholars from all over the world - and I don't even have the leisure to reply to them ... ). Nevertheless, when I pressed him, Brod told me a number of surprising things about him. When Kafka would read his stories to a group of friends, he would laugh a lot and say they were intended as a kind of humoresque, and of even the most morbid of them, like "The Metamorphosis" or "The Verdict," he said that in his opinion, they were amusing. There was a combination in him of ironic humor and deep depression. When I asked Brod's opinion of "The Castle," which I was deep into reading at the time and of which I had interpretations I kept to myself, he gave me his opinion about all of Kafka's works, which derived from the intimacy between the best friends.
"Kafka's novels and stories," said Brod, "are all ironic fables, seemingly indicative of the human comedy. It seems as though he wrote them - even the most macabre of them - with a sneer on his lips, out of scorn for human conduct. In truth, beneath this irony was deep despair, which on the one hand attracted him to the desire to commit suicide, and on the other hand tilted him toward great compassion for the human race."
As for "The Castle," he compared it to the Christian concept of purgatory and showed how according to Christian doctrine a man could win absolution only after death, whereas according to Judaism - and also with Kafka in "The Castle" - "repentance" exonerates a person even in his lifetime.
The book was translated into English (by Aubrey Hodes ) and was published in England by Victor Gollancz. On its first page was an introduction by Max Brod, in which he wrote, inter alia: "Megged tells the story of a lonely outsider which is really the story of the human conscience. The events take place in a society which has lost its sane criterion. Like Kafka's heroes, Megged's fool has lost his spiritual links with his environment; his life is also a cry of protest against a society which is losing its faith. True, Kafka is more restrained than the figure whom Megged presents as his 'weak hero' in the center of his work. Whether through a passive hero or an active one, both authors voice an equally strong protest ... The background, like the heroes, is unmistakably Israeli and is presented with the satiric bite so characteristic of Megged's other works. But the problems discussed by the book are common to all mankind."
At one of our meetings, and this was after I had read Kafka's shocking "Letter to My Father," I asked Brod if he had known Kafka's father Hermann, and whether he had indeed been such a "monster," the way he is described in the mercilessly accusatory letter. "A monster?" said Brod, astonished by the description. I said it wasn't enough that Franz accused his father of ridiculing him, humiliating him and treating him cruelly. He also blames the father for his own failures in his relationships with women, especially with Felicia, as well as for the fact that because of him, he had distanced himself from Judaism when he realized the father's hypocrisy regarding observance of Jewish customs and the vulgarity of his behavior at the synagogue.
"That was very exaggerated," said Brod. "Kafka indeed formed a bad impression of what went on in the Orthodox synagogue, which I witnessed when we went together to a service at the Altneuschul in Prague. However, the most surprising thing that testifies to the contradictions in Kafka's psyche and his ambivalent attitude to belief in God was the amazing sentence he wrote in his diary in September of 1915, after he did not attend the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur that year." And he quoted the sentence: "Not attending the Kol Nidre service on the Eve of Yom Kippur is like committing suicide."
I stood there amazed, and for a few moments I was dumbstruck. Then I said to him: "When I read 'The Letter to My Father' there were moments when I felt sorry for that father, who ever since he was quite young bore a heavy burden of supporting his family, and I thought it would be appropriate for a kind of defense brief to be written on his behalf, which would reply to the serious things of which his son accuses him. Someone has to write a 'Letter to My Son,' in Hermann Kafka's name ...."
"Write it!" Brod said, looking amused. After a moment he added: "But you should know the letter to his father never reached him. Franz gave it to his mother for her to hand to his father in the hope that thereby greater understanding would prevail between them, but the mother thought otherwise and didn't do as she was asked. But in fact, what would you write to him?" asked Brod, looking at me inquisitively.