- When Kafka Says We: Uncommon Communities in German-Jewish Literature
Surely, there are plenty of books about Franz Kafka. So, why yet another book on Kafka? Vivian Liska's study isn't actually a book on Kafka. Instead, this is a remarkable piece not only shedding new light on Kafka's complex relationship with Judaism, but, more importantly, providing a frame to consider some of the most significant German-Jewish writing during the twentieth century by Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, Else Lasker-Schüler, Ilse Aichinger, Robert Schindel, Robert Menasse, and Doron Rabinovici. Taking Kafka's question, "What do I have in common with Jews?," as starting point and centerpiece for her analyses, Vivian Liska delivers careful close readings of selected texts that all explore the relationship of their writers with their respective social, ethnic, and religious communities, Jewish and otherwise.
After a short but illuminating introduction, the book is divided into five parts. "Kafka's Communities" sets up the frame, while also commenting on the role of Yiddish in Kafka's work and re-examining Kafka's complex relationship [End Page 147] with women. "Revisiting the Common Ground" explores Theodor Herzl's and Else Lasker-Schüler's religious roots, and to what (limited and/or differing) extent religion and religious thought informed their writings. The next chapter provides the perhaps least surprising combination in "Communities of Fate," where the poetry of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs is revisited. However, Liska here delivers fascinating interpretations of some of Celan's and Sachs's lesser known or earlier poetry, introducing readers to incredibly moving lines that delineate Celan's kinship with the community of the dead, and Sachs's relationship with Israel. Part Four, "Contentious Commemorations," yields the most intriguing blend of German Gruppe 47 poetry and Aichinger's role in it, silence over the Holocaust, and Austrian-Jewish writings. This chapter, in a nutshell, delivers a precise and chilling account of how German and Austrian silence over the Holocaust affects German-Jewish writing to this day. The final part, "Kafka's Companions," returns to Kafka , and here the previous chapters' groupings are once again re-arranged to provide interesting illuminations of connections between Celan and Kafka, and between Aichinger and Kafka, to end with "the gap" between Hannah Arendt and Kafka, an ending that shows how Liska also, when appropriate, resists overdrawing connections.
I was at first suspicious of a book that so clearly approaches its subject matter via writers' biographies, statements, and diary entries, rather than primarily focusing on the texts themselves. Since writers' claims are often ambiguous, intentionally or not, this approach could lead to a problematic blurring of boundaries between lived experiences and (fictional or poetic) texts. However, Liska artfully and skillfully interjects her textual analyses with writers' statements so that neither intrudes nor over imposes onto the other. Hence, this book does indeed do justice to the works and their creators without becoming esoteric or aloof.
There are two main reasons why Liska's readings are successful and important. First of all, the idea to use the notion of "community" as the anchor of a study that encompasses German-Jewish writers' works before and after the Holocaust makes visible that not only for German, non-Jewish writers, the idea of a "zero hour" ("Stunde Null") after World War II was, at best, a convenient illusion, but also for German-Jewish writers. While communities of fate have necessarily changed, and were of course severely disrupted by the Holocaust, many German-Jewish writers (such as Aichinger) seek the company of fellow German-Jewish writers even if they are not of their own generation or part of their specific community. Thus, we might view German-Jewish literary history of the twentieth century more in terms of elected affinities rather than as distinct time periods or separate generations. Secondly, juxtaposing German-Jewish writers of earlier generations with contemporary Austrian writers [End Page 148] of Jewish background allows the reader to draw connections that did not seem obvious or even conceivable without such...