Kafka as illustrated by Crumb

Today is the 70th birthday of artist Robert Crumb.

I have written before about Harvey Pekar and that also got me thinking about R. Crumb who helped Harvey get first published.  Like Pekar, R. Crumb was best known in the “comic book” world but, also like Pekar, he wrote some serious graphic books.

A bit of background on Robert Crumb, AKA R. Crumb. He  is an American artist and illustrator known for his drawings and his critical, satirical, subversive view of the American mainstream. He is considered one of the founders of the “underground comix” movement. Though he has made a good living from comix, his comic book output is really outside the mainstream comic book industry (hence “comix”).

If you think you don’t know him, you may be familiar with his Keep on Truckin’ comic, or at least that phrase which was a pop culture meme and icon in the 1970s.

You may also know via films for his highly sexualized Fritz the Cat and hippie Mr. Natural characters.  The film version of  Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic were quite controversial when they were released. Fritz the Cat in 1972 was the  first animated feature film to receive an X rating in the United States.

If Crumb was an outsider, then it makes some sense that he might identify with the writer Franz Kafka.

I bought Crumb’s brief but interesting biography of Franz Kafka, called Kafka, a few years ago. Though I have read a lot of Kafka’s stories and novels, it has been years since I read them. The Crumb book was a way to get back into Kafka and his writing.

Even if you never read Kafka, you probably know something of him. He reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe in that way. Everyone seems to know about him, though most people haven’t actually read the works.

People know the often-misused term “Kafkaesque” and have at least heard of his story “The Metamorphosis” – the one where a man wakes up to find he has changed into a cockroach – which is regularly anthologized and assigned in school and even has its own book-length critical edition.

I don’t know how many people will read Crumb’s graphic biography and then move on to Kafka’s short stories or his challenging novels like The Trial, but I’m sure some readers will make the leap.

Kafka once said “What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself,”  but his style is often said by critics to be in the tradition of the Yiddish storytellers who used bizarre fantasy mixed with humor and self-loathing.

Kafka brings to that tradition a higher level of consciousness, alienation and paranoia.  (I can also see all that in Woody Allen, whose writing and films have interested me since high school.)

Like many people, my first exposure to Kafka’s writing was “The Metamorphosis” which I loved. A high school English teacher had us read it and then assigned us to write a story where our character wakes up as something non-human. (An unimaginative prompt that at least forced us to consider point of view.) I wrote a dreadful story of a boy who wakes up as a fish that I now realize was borrowed from a scene of young Arthur in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King which I was reading at that time.

I eventually went to the library to try to find more Metamorphosis-like stories by Kafka. I remember that I connected with the fact that he was born in Prague, which was then Bohemia, but is now part of the Czech Republic. My grandparents on both sides were from what was then that same Austro-Hungarian Empire, so I felt some odd kinship with Franz. Sometime I’d like to visit the house in which he was born, on the Old Town Square next to Prague’s Church of St Nicholas.

I tried reading a few other Kafka short stories, but they didn’t seem at all like “The Metamorphosis.” I didn’t understand them.

I didn’t return to his writing until his novel The Trial was assigned in college. That also led me to watch the Orson Welles’ film of The Trial and try his other novels, The Castle and Amerika, as well as the collected stories again.

In his life story, I was also attracted to his sad love life. He met Felice Bauer and wrote to her for five years while they only met occasionally. Twice they were engaged to be married, but their relationship ended in 1917.

That was the year Kafka began to suffer from tuberculosis, which required frequent convalescence. He had another relationship with a Czech writer Milena Jesenská. In 1923, he met Dora Diamant and briefly moved to Berlin to concentrate on his writing. There he lived with Dora, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher, who became his lover. He would not marry her because he felt his worsening tuberculosis meant she would only become a widow.

He returned to Prague when the disease got really bad and died on 3 June 1924. It is said that he died from starvation – the condition of Kafka’s throat made eating too painful. (This was before feeding tubes had been developed, so there was no other way to feed him.)

Kafka was certainly alienated from his family, his “friends” and his surroundings. If you read his stories as autobiographical, then he is the one turned into a cockroach, an ape, a dog, a mole, or a circus artist who starves himself to death in front of admiring crowds.

The other part of the Kafka story that many people know is that his writing had almost no attention until after his death. He published only a few short stories during his life, and never finished any of his novels. He wrote his friend and literary executor Max Brod that his “last request” was that “Everything I leave behind me… in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.”

Brod did not obey. He had told Kafka that he wouldn’t burn them.  Brod arranged for the publication of most of Kafka’s work in his possession and it was well received.

Crumb’s Kafka book book is a good, brief introduction to Kafka and will give you a pretty concise biography and the plots of many of his works, all illustrated, and will hopefully get you to want to explore Kafka’s writing in the original.

I wonder if any teachers ever assign R. Crumb’s America and Kafka’s Amerika on the same reading list?

New Jewish Cemetery (sector 21, row 14, plot 33) in Prague-Žižkov