Gustave Flaubert is arguably the greatest European writer of the nineteenth century. Franz Kafka dominates the twentieth century. Many intriguing points of comparison can be drawn between these two authors, both of whom proclaim as their sole and complete passion their writing.To read Part 1 of 3, click here.
Their physical difference is striking: Flaubert, this strapping blond with broad shoulders and a thick mustache. He says of himself, “I’m a complete Norman, a Barbarian, I have the muscular appearance of these--the peevish lethargy, the green eyes.” With the passing years, he adds, "I am ox, sphinx, elephant, whale, whatever is enormous.”
"I am the thinnest man on the planet," writes Kafka to his first fiancée. Vegetarian, he only eats dairy products and fruits. He does not drink wine, coffee or tea. He swims daily, in order to no longer be ashamed of his skinniness. He rows, rides horses, sleeps with the window open, even in the dead of winter. He hides his timidity under the look of a dandy.
Flaubert lives near Rouen, in Croisset, in a large, beautiful home on the Seine. His father, a brilliant surgeon, is the chief physician at the hospital. His is a liberal, well-off family.
Kafka lives in Prague in a liberal-leaning, middle-class family. His father, Hermann, who started with nothing, became financially successful.
Kafka and Flaubert are confirmed atheists, but one is Christian, like everyone else in nineteenth-century France. The other is Jewish. Perhaps Jewish above all; however, fully conscious of what he was doing, Kafka cut his ties to his community, forever remaining nostalgic for it, while forbidding himself to rejoin it. And he feels guilty about that. A very Kafkaesque attitude: Not to have any religion or country, to belong to no political party or movement.
Flaubert, before him, proclaimed the same thing, but without guilt: "Down with schools. Down with empty words. Down with academies. Down with principles. If I take an active part in the world, it will be as a thinker and demolisher." Mission accomplished.
Unlike Flaubert who, speaking of Lamartine, writes, "He lacks balls, he only pisses clear water,” Kafka never allows himself any deviation from proper language. Perhaps because German is not the language of his people, he feels as if he is appropriating something that does not belong to him: "My hind legs remain stuck to the language of my grandparents.”
When he asks himself about his identity, Kafka states that he’s “a Jew among non-Jews, a non-believer among believers, a German among Czechs.” It’s easy to forget that Kafka’s maternal tongue is not Czech, which he doesn’t know well, but German. Prague, at the time, is the third capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after Vienna and Budapest. Hermann Kafka prides himself on being a German citizen: “Our culture is German culture,” he proclaims to his son, of whose attraction to Yiddish theater and the Hebrew language he heartily disapproves.
In 1917, when antisemitism is disseminating its poison throughout so-called enlightened Europe, Kafka moves closer to Judaism. He saw from his window the mob ransacking shops shouting, “Race of pariahs;” in front of the city halls, hundreds of Russians and Poles await a visa for America. He would like to be one of those carefree children who will soon cross the Atlantic. And he wonders if, to stay in a country “where you are so despised doesn’t resemble the heroism of cockroaches, which nothing can chase from the bathroom.” He suffered from the Dreyfus Affair and from the many acts of violence of which the Jews have been, and still are, victims, despite being so perfectly integrated and non-religious that they can barely be distinguished from their fellow citizens. Except for the scorn of which they are the object, and the resulting feeling of guilt that strikes them, in return.
If the stupidity and mediocrity of the bourgeois outrage Flaubert, it’s the hatred of the Christian towards the Jew that humiliates Kafka. A humiliation so deeply felt that it infuses his entire oeuvre.
Gustave and Franz studied law, but Gustave interrupts his education in the second year following a probable epileptic seizure, an illness to which will be later added the malady of the century, syphilis. Liberated from the university, Flaubert leaves Paris, which was not to his liking, and returns to his beloved Normandy. At twenty-three, like an aristocrat, he lives as an independently wealthy person. He travels to Corsica, the Pyrenees, Italy, and Switzerland with his friend, Maxime Du Camp; he wanders on foot through La Touraine, Brittany, Normandy; their trek through the Orient, accompanied by a servant, lasts two years.
Kafka completes his law degree. Employee in a workers’ insurance company, he only gets a yearly vacation of two-and-a half weeks. Furthermore, his father demands that he oversee his asbestos factory, and help him in his novelty store. Just imagine Kafka as a slipper salesman!
Flaubert frequents the salon of Princess Mathilde; when Napoleon III invites him to spend several days at Rambouillet, he jumps at the opportunity, and when he leaves, he sends camellias to Empress Eugénie. For these expenses of society life, his mother pays two thousand francs to his tailor, another five hundred to the glove maker. Would you like to know how much he earns from Madame Bovary? Eight hundred francs. Five years of arduous labor for the price of a waistcoat!
Kafka never met the Emperor of Austria. He frequents cafes, movie houses and sanatoriums, even before his lungs demonstrate the need for them. Like Flaubert, he has a taste for theater, in particular Yiddish theater. This love of theater, claims Diderot, is based on the desire to sleep with actresses. Such was the case for both of them.
Gustave and Franz, both bachelors, live with their parents. Both are insomniacs subject to migraines. Both are fans of brothels. Both frenetic letter writers, preferring a letter to a meeting. Flaubert writes to his mistress that when one loves, one can spend ten years without seeing the loved one, and without experiencing any suffering as a result. Kafka goes even further: He never loves as much, never better, than when the object of his affection lives a 16-hour train ride away. He would never have been able to be in love with a girl from Prague. To see her every day, in the flesh? The very idea nauseates him!
Flaubert, born in 1821, dies in 1880 from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 58 years, 4 months. Kafka, born in 1883 dies, not yet forty, in 1924 of pulmonary tuberculosis.
Flaubert is very famous during his lifetime. He fills the nineteenth-century western world.
Kafka, during his lifetime, is a perfect unknown. But today he is the writer about whom the most has been written in the world. On whom so much has been written that literature about Kafka has become a subject of study in itself, an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of letters. We’ve gone from “What is the meaning of Kafka’s work?” to “What is the meaning of the works about the works of Kafka?” He dominates our twentieth century.
The two were born to write; they knew this even from childhood. When they speak of their passion for literature, Gustave and Franz use the same words.
“The eighteen months I spent writing the 500 pages of Saint-Anthony were the most voluptuous of my life.”
“The only way to tolerate existence is to intoxicate myself with literature, as if in a perpetual orgy.”
A Perpetual Orgy is the title Mario Vargas Llosa gave to his brilliant book-length study of Flaubert and Madame Bovary.
Kafka declares to his first fiancée: “My life has always consisted of efforts to write. My nights will never be long enough for this occupation, which is voluptuous to the highest degree. If I had to stop writing, I would cease to exist, the sadness would kill me.”
Flaubert takes five years to write Madame Bovary, five for Salammbô, twenty-five for The Temptation of Saint-Anthony, which he rewrites three times. Kafka writes Metamorphosis in twenty days, The Penal Colony in 12 days, The Verdict in a single night.
As soon as Madame Bovary is published Flaubert, accused of offenses against morality and religion, is dragged to court like a criminal. But it’s Kafka who never had any personal interaction with the justice system, who writes The Trial.
Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney