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SH*T Kafka's Dad Says




Kafka's father would most certainly have used this vulgarity - and many more which are much worse. Hermann was a rough man who had a hard life. He worked his way up from hauling hand carts of butchered meat in a small village to being a prosperous businessman with a shop in a palace in Prague. And he married well (though it seems a mutual love affair). Much is said about Kafka's relationship with his father forming him into a frightened introvert. And then there is the famous Letter To His Father. But Kafka was not a terrified introvert and his father (for whom I have much sympathy) was no monster.

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Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern – review

by Nicholas Lezard

Fathers, to do their work of taking the child away from the mother, should be a little scary. Sometimes they can overdo it. Franz Kafka's Letter to His Father begins: "Dearest Father, You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you," and one of the reasons he says he couldn't answer the question was because . . . he was afraid of him. And he quotes his father saying: "I have always been fond of you, even though outwardly I didn't act toward you as other fathers generally do, and this precisely because I can't pretend as other people can."

 The result of this is, of course, a body of work which explores and untangles the relationship of the individual to authority like no other. Justin Halpern's father, like Kafka's, is quite clearly fond of him, and also does not act as fathers generally do, for he, clearly, cannot pretend as other people can. Most of us who are fathers, upon being adjured by our young son to go down a waterslide at a public swimming pool, would, if willing, do so, or, if unwilling, plausibly feign an injury making such an act, alas, unfeasible. What we would probably not say is: "You go on ahead. I'd rather not be shot out of a tube into a pool filled with a bunch of nine-year-olds' urine." It might have occurred to us to say it; but we wouldn't. We can pretend.

And so welcome to the mind of Sam Halpern, MD (an oncologist, to be precise), who has been dispensing such folksy homilies and apothegms to his three boys for many decades, well into their adult lives. Young Master Halpern seems to have done very well for himself now, largely due to the huge success of this very book (it is now a TV series starring, with what I do hope proves to be inspired casting, William Shatner in the role of the father); but you can't help suspecting that such a father might have made life a little more fraught than Justin would have wished.

One wonders, for instance, what a Freudian analyst, or even Freud himself, would have to say to a man on his couch who told him that, when he had told his father that he was afraid to use the elementary school toilets to defecate, received the reply: "Son, you're complaining to the wrong man. I can shit anywhere, at any time. It's one of my finer qualities. Some might say my finest." Or, at the outset of a family car ride: "You think I'm gonna drive around with my wife in the backseat and a nine-year-old in the front? You're a crazy son of a bitch."