“From Kafka’s Window” by Jeffrey Condran
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. When writer and editor Jeffrey Condran found his novel research on Franz Kafka colliding with the need to shelter in place, the result was this delightful literary reflection on how Kafka would have fared during a pandemic.
From Kafka’s Window
An Essay of the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Jeffrey Condran
Catching myself daydreaming recently, it struck me that there are many reasons to believe the Czech author Franz Kafka would have known just how to handle himself during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kafka could fairly have been described as a hypochondriac long before he actually became chronically ill with tuberculosis, from which he died in June 1924 at the age of forty, and he had perfected the routines of a professional invalid, often visiting sanatoriums during his vacations from the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute to take faddish cures. My favorite among these is Herr Doktor Hartungen’s institute in Riva del Garda, where there were constructed several Lufthütten—little shacks with no glass in their windows so that the fierce winds coming off Lake Garda would storm through, the fresh air theoretically invigorating the health of patients with respiratory ailments.
More to the point, Kafka contracted and survived influenza during the 1918 pandemic, taking to his bed in October and not rising again until more than three weeks later, his temperature at one point recorded as 105.8 degrees. He endured long days in which he could barely breathe and soaked his bed through with sweat. For much of this time, his family believed he would die.
To be honest, though, these experiences aren’t really what I have in mind. Kafka’s potential pandemic “success,” let’s call it, has more to do with temperament. Sheltering in place, living in quarantine, and becoming acclimated to the idea of illness over an extended period take their toll. The Internet is awash with stories of people dealing with the sudden change in their lives, struggling to adapt to new responsibilities at work, in child-rearing, and in the care of the sick or elderly.
Everyone I know or talk to feels a kind of fatigue. Many are not getting enough sleep or eating well; they’re drinking too much, and even if their hours are being shared with family members, compared to pre-pandemic days, people often feel alone—cut off from the idea they had of themselves before the disease struck. Our Zoom meetings and teleconferences only bring into stark relief how much we miss our friends and coworkers or, if you’re an educator like me, our students. What’s ensued is a new sustained level of anxiety, yes, but also an ennui that develops when we are alone for too long in our minds, a condition that has us seeing the world in ways both claustrophobic and kaleidoscopic.
Isolation, insomnia, claustrophobia: a world still recognizable but steeped in incomprehensible, anxiety-inducing change? All these circumstances are immediately familiar to anyone interested in the life and work of Franz Kafka. So often in his diaries and letters, Kafka describes himself standing alone by the
window of his father’s house in Prague and bearing silent witness to a society he either couldn’t participate in or, just as often, simply chose not to. It must be remembered that he organized his life around quiet and isolation in order to dedicate his time spent away from the Insurance Institute to reading and writing.
Kafka biographer Ronald Hayman believes this was, for the young writer, “an alternative to suicide.” And there’s absolutely no doubt that Kafka was most at ease with his own company, dreaming even as a child of ways to remove himself from social situations that made him uncomfortable. In many ways he fits wonderfully the stereotype of the bookish introvert: the undersized boy who is chosen last for every team and hates mathematics, whose “Terror at his inadequacy led straight to daydreams of escape. What if he could get up invisibly from the school bench, slip like a ghost past the teacher, and through the door and out into the undemanding air?” It was a path that would eventually lead him to the safety of the family home, the familiar confines of his bedroom, where the only way he had to talk to potentially difficult people was through the voice he used in his letters.
Kafka was a deeply invested letter writer, partly due to the control he could exercise over the persona that came through on the page. Letters also offered a way to test out ideas that might eventually find their way into his fiction; and they were a method of procrastination from the creative writing on which so much of his self-esteem rested. Hayman says of him, “Kafka could better overcome his nervous reserve when writing a letter than when looking into another human face,” and he was “also writing to the people (and especially to the women) who looked at him with an indifference he found intolerable.”
Arguably most famous among his correspondents was his first fiancée, Felice Bauer—Kafka was engaged four times, but never managed to marry. His side of the correspondence was voluminous: in all, he wrote more than a quarter million words to Felice, telling her how much he missed her, how marriage and rearing children were among the greatest things a human being could achieve, how if they were bold they might run off together and visit Jerusalem and see the growing Zionist project for themselves.
This bold, enthusiastic Franz Kafka, however, is mostly literary invention. When it came time to visit his fiancée in person or make tangible plans for a wedding, suddenly a new Kafka appeared—the real Kafka, perhaps—who found so many obstacles to action in the real world: there were complications at work, ruffled feathers to be smoothed over with his parents, and, most important of all, the concern that these pedestrian, middle-class aspirations would take him away from his one true calling, literature. Oh, yes, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kafka would have been wonderfully free to let his pen take him wherever it would. Why not be a letter-writing Cyrano de Bergerac when the virus would prevent any flesh-and-blood lover from climbing Felice’s balcony and making love to her? In the safety of medical isolation, Kafka the literary lover could thrive.
I’m teasing Kafka here a little bit, possibly because it’s so easy to do. His romantic failures are a broad target, and his writing is filled with characters who are dithering and ineffectual, especially against the largely invisible tidal influences of social institutions—or maybe simply against fate, against the world. I often dwell, for example, on those people in 2020 whose pandemic thoughts turn to ideas of crime and punishment. This disease, some suggest, comes to us not by chance, not even from some geopolitical adversary, but from the hand of an unknown power. We are like the victims in Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” who have the law they have ignorantly broken tattooed onto their bodies. We’ve clearly done something terrible, and we’re being punished for it—we simply don’t know what “it” is.
Even if your mind doesn’t turn to cosmic powers to understand COVID-19, there’s no denying that people are desperate to understand themselves and the world within the context of the disease. When I had to stop seeing my students in March and rethink how we’d finish the semester, one of my assignments asked them to keep a “Plague Diary”—the name my attempt at levity, even though I knew what they wrote in the diary might be some of the most significant work they did all term. My hope for the assignment was simple: I wanted a mountain of words to act as a shield against the unknowable. Even if those words offered no solutions to the writer, I suspected they’d eventually take on an unexpected power. My decision was partly influenced by the diary Kafka had started in 1910. It was a place that “gave him a pretext and a medium for talking to himself.” And, as the years went by, he came to rely on the sounding board those pages represented. “I won’t give up the diary . . . I must hold onto myself here, for it’s only here that I can.”
Many of us will emerge from sheltering in place changed in unexpected ways. Before COVID-19, I’d thought of myself as an introvert who, through professional obligations, had compelled himself to pass as an extrovert, expending a tremendous amount of emotional energy to keep up the performance. What have the online personality quizzes taken to calling it? The extroverted introvert? That was me. Except as the months of quarantine ticked by, I went from feeling like a caged animal inside my apartment, desperate to get a drink with my friends, to someone who had legitimately lost all desire to speak to anyone. I dropped out of a Zoom book club, I answered messages two weeks after they were sent—if I answered them at all. Even showering felt optional. Deodorant still is. The only person I wanted to hear from anymore was myself.
And, of course, in a pandemic all that troubles you rises to the surface. In the normal course of our lives, the daily routine is filled with obligations that distract us from our troubles. So many people simply don’t have time to examine their lives and deal with whatever emotions develop. Not so, now that isolation has created an echo chamber from which it is impossible to escape. Maybe this is simply a long-overdue reckoning, but for many people, the process is painful and, at least for the moment, unrelenting. Alone with ourselves, we must face down what Kafka called “the swampy viscosity of time.”
There is no better example of this than in Kafka’s most famous work, “The Metamorphosis.” From the moment Gregor Samsa changes into a beetle, he is kept confined to his bedroom, largely visited only by his sister, Grete, who brings him food and sometimes tidies the room. In his isolation, his only pastime outside of acclimating himself to his new insect body is to eavesdrop on the conversations of his family. What he discovers is that his transformation, which has clearly made any kind of employment impossible, has threatened the family with economic ruin. His elderly father must take work as a bank messenger, his mother earns money sewing undergarments, and his sister, whose musical talent might have seen her studying the violin at the Conservatorium the following year, has taken a job as a clerk. Gregor is distraught at the way he’s let down his family, feeling “hot with shame and grief.”
It’s impossible for me to read this section of the story without immediately thinking of Americans whose lives have been transformed by the loss of their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic and who must rely on the inconsistent help of government stimulus and unemployment payments. Who, like Gregor when assailed by the chief clerk’s admonition that a season of the year to do no business at all “does not exist . . . must not exist,” must despair when they hear Ivanka Trump suggest that the unemployed should simply “find something new.” Aggravating this financial need is the historical relationship of Americans to their employment; it is, for many, the mainstay of their personal identities. To be so suddenly unmade by this invisible virus, to live in fear of your life and to no longer know yourself so easily as you once did, is a catastrophe that has many, again like Gregor Samsa, literally climbing the walls in despair. And when exhaustion comes over us, as it eventually must, what’s there to do except lie wherever it is we’ve found ourselves and wait for something to change:
Often he just lay there the long nights through without sleeping at all. . . . Or he nerved himself to the great effort of pushing an armchair to the window, then crawled up over the windowsill and, braced against the chair, leaned against the windowpanes, obviously in some recollection of the sense of freedom that looking out a window always used to give him. For in reality day by day things that were even a little way off were growing dimmer to his sight; the hospital across the street, which he used to execrate for being all too often before his eyes, was now quite beyond his range of vision, and if he had not known that he lived in Charlotte Street, a quiet street but still a city street, he might have believed that his window gave on a desert waste where gray sky and gray land blended indistinguishably into each other.
His vision dimmed by the new reality of his transformation, Gregor’s inner eye, the one governed by his tormented brain, sees only the gray haze of the unknown. Through the frames of our windows, what do most people see today? Often now, the view is the even crueler irony of clear, blue summer skies, the sunlight dappling the green leaves on the trees, our personal prisons verdant with a possibility that, until a vaccine is created—or peoples’ behaviors change—will continue to taunt and elude us.
Those who choose not to follow CDC guidelines for wearing masks to cover the nose and mouth and who refuse to abide by any of the recommended procedures for social distancing are, to be blunt, reprehensible. Anyone even vaguely familiar with ideas regarding freedom versus responsibility in a democracy will know what to do. Kafka might have been terrified by the anti-maskers; at the very least his hypochondria would have been piqued. Yet I can’t help but believe he also would have understood them. Those who have grown weary after months of isolation, who fear for their financial well-being, or who are desperate for the company of others, are simply all too human. To check my frustration, I often think of what it would have been like to have fallen in love during, say, the second week of March. To have been kept apart by the threat of the disease. As I say, even Franz Kafka, notorious introvert, would sympathize. For him there would have been moments when, like so many of us this summer, he was almost bursting with the desire to get out into the world and see people. Even for the man whose life has been described as “a series of hesitations” that left him full of self-loathing and who professed that “because reality is so terrifying, the only refuge is in the pretense that everything is happening to someone else, an alter ego,” Kafka still hated the idea of being completely excluded from the world. To save himself, he relied on what so many of us rely on, and which is now in such short supply: happy accident.
One such moment well known to Kafka biographers occurred during his law school years. Studying for an exam on Roman law, Kafka paced back and forth in front of his window that looked out on Zeltnergasse. A dress shop was across the street, and the young woman who worked there often stood outside its door. Through what Kafka describes as a series of “signs”—one is left to imagine exactly what those signs might have been—they agreed to meet at eight o’clock. When Kafka appeared on time, to his surprise another man was there as well. The woman took this man’s arm and had begun to walk away when she discreetly signaled that Kafka should follow. They went to a place on Schützen Island and drank beer, Kafka setting himself up at the table next to the couple. When they left, the other man walked the woman home, said good night, and then Kafka watched her disappear inside the house. She reappeared a few moments later, and at her suggestion they went together to a hotel on the west side of the river. Kafka described the night he spent with the shop girl as “charming, exciting,” and wrote that he finally had some “peace from the constant whining of the body.”
It being Kafka, however, he looked back on his unexpected night of passion with tremendous ambivalence, even describing it as having been “vile and filthy,” though that didn’t stop him from spending a second night with the shop girl in the hotel before the Kafka family left the city for a long summer vacation. Eventually, time lent a different perspective. Recollecting the incident seventeen years later, he described his lover as “a good-hearted, friendly girl.” Maybe this is what quarantine makes us desire most, the possibility that fate has something remarkable in store for us, some happy accident that will transport us in unexpected ways—if only it were safe to go outside. If I’m going mad, if all the world is crumbling around me, let me die in the arms of someone good-hearted and friendly. Looking down on us from his window, Kafka would have understood.
Begley, Louis. The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head. Atlas & Co., 2008.
Brod, Max, ed. The Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken Books, 1965.
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka. Da Capo, 1995.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Schocken Books, 1971.
Hayman, Ronald. Kafka: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1982.
Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1984.
Jeffrey Condran is the author of two story collections, A Fingerprint Repeated and Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night. His debut novel, Prague Summer, received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Silver Medal. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the 2010 William Peden Prize from the Missouri Review. He is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books.