restricted access Kafka and Pinter: Shadow-Boxing (review)
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Reviewed by
Raymond Armstrong. Kafka and Pinter: Shadow-Boxing. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. x + 198 pp.

Raymond Armstrong’s Kafka and Pinter: Shadow-Boxing is the most detailed study to date of Franz Kafka’s influence on Harold Pinter. Although they worked in two different genres, Pinter the dramatist admired Kafka, apparently read everything he could about the German novelist, and especially became intrigued with his predecessor after the BBC commissioned him in 1989 to write a screenplay of Kafka’s The Trial. Critics such as Francis Gillen and John L. Kundert-Gibbs have written extensively about Pinter’s adaptation of Kafka’s novel, but Armstrong significantly expands their work by including in-depth analyses of Kafka’s influence in three of Pinter’s plays: The Homecoming (1965), Family Voices (1981), and Moonlight (1993). Armstrong argues that the universal motif that intrigues Pinter and imbues the work of Kafka is the revolt of the son against the father. Although the argument is fairly compelling with regard to Kafka, concerning Pinter, it is less convincing when one realizes that this motif is present in his oeuvre almost exclusively in these three plays.

In chapter 1, Armstrong delves into Kafka’s family history to establish grounds for the father-son relationship. There was little direct contact between Franz and his father Hermann Kafka, who is depicted as a Draconian legislator, a successful businessman that the son could never emulate, and a paternal ogre. Armstrong then gives readings of “The Judgement” and “The Metamorphosis” as conflicts about filial chastisement. Armstrong demonstrates that the conflict between Georg Bendemann and his father in “The Judgement” follows the Genesis story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac and thus became Kafka’s means to come to terms with the father-son estrangement. In “The Metamorphosis,” the struggle with the father ends with the death of the son, which equates to a Christlike, conciliatory sacrifice. Armstrong concludes that Kafka’s quasi-religious ecstasy in killing off his fictional alter egos implied a sense of wish-fulfilling propitiation of his own father.

Whereas Armstrong makes a convincing argument in chapter 1 about the father-son motif in Kafka’s work, he is on shakier ground when he gets to Pinter in chapter 2. Although Pinter, like Kafka, was from a Jewish background, his father Jack was hardly the stern [End Page 1065] disciplinarian of a Hermann Kafka. Nevertheless, undeterred, Armstrong finds affinities between Max in The Homecoming and Pinter’s own father, even suggesting that Pinter’s failure to follow in his father’s career as a tailor parallels Lenny, Teddy, and Joey pursuing their own professions rather than Max’s choice of running a butcher stall. Indeed, The Homecoming is the ideal choice for this type of biographical précis, for the play has long been considered to be Pinter’s wish fulfillment of the prodigal child returning home with the forbidden shiksa, who is at first defiled by the father figure and then fully accepted into the family. Armstrong identifies Max’s three sons with various aspects of Kafka’s personality, discusses images of paternal purity and filial filth/alienation in Kafka’s prose and The Homecoming, and hints that Pinter’s marital difficulties parallel Kafka’s own unsuccessful attempts at marriage. Unfortunately, the father-son conflict may be one of many motifs in The Homecoming, but it does not seem to be at the core of the play. For example, it does not reveal anything about Sam’s status as Max’s brother, Ruth’s pivotal role as manipulator or as a source of psychic wholeness for the family, or Pinter’s portrayal of the ubiquitous nature of human animality and predation—the latter a theme that more fully unites all of the characters on stage, rather than merely four of them.

Armstrong is on steadier ground in chapter 3, which effectively examines the father-son relationship in Pinter’s 1981 radio drama, Family Voices. Pinter’s use of interior monologues told through letters reminds Armstrong of the same sort of epistolary device Kafka used in “The Judgment” and his first novel, America. The young man in Family...