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Excavating Kafka [Paperback]

James Hawes
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Feb 2010

Kafka's features, and that dreaded word, Kafkaesque, are known to millions who have never read serious literature. Generations of academics and critics have maintained the image of Franz Kafka as a tortured seer whose works defy interpretation. In Excavating Kafka James Hawes reveals the truth that lies beneath the image of a middle-European Nostradamus with a typographically irresistible name. The real Franz Kafka was no angst-ridden paranoid but a well-groomed young man-about-town who frequented brothels, had regular sex with a penniless-but-pretty girl and subscribed to upmarket pornography (published by the very man who published Kafka's first stories).

Excavating Kafka debunks a number of key facets of the Kafka-Myth, including the idea that Kafka was the archetypal genius neglected in his lifetime; that he was stuck in a dead-end job and struggling to find time to write; that he was tormented by fear of sex; that he had a uniquely terrible, domineering father who had no understanding of his son's needs; that his literature is mysterious and opaque; that he constructs fantasy-worlds in which innocent everymen live in fear of mysterious and totalitarian powers-that-be.

Written with the panache of a supremely gifted comic writer, Excavating Kafka is an engaging and involving reassessment of a major figure of literary modernism that will be welcomed and enjoyed by students of Kafka and by general readers alike.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 243 pages
  • Publisher: Quercus (4 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184916164X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849161640
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 959,422 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


'A thorough demolition of the myths that surround one of the greatest writers in the German language' Times.

'Hawes's Kafka is a canny, funny, worldly man and the book's galloping prose is highly entertaining... witty anti-biography' Observer.

'Superbly irreverent book debunks prevailing myths about the author... His flippant style is hugely entertaining, but he is also unwavering in his appreciation of Kafka' Guardian. 'This absolutely brilliant and utterly infuriating book has a simple purpose: to demolish a number of myths and misconceptions about the life and work of Franz Kafka... Hawes is one of the most audacious, obsessive and endlessly inventive critics of an author with whose work he is clearly and wonderfully obsessed' Ian Sansom in the Guardian.

'Hawes loves Kafka and his combination of zeal and cynicism is irresistible' Daily Telegraph. 'This wonderful book, a revelation and a scream... wonderfully irreverent' Scotsman.

'Literary biography usually reduces the work to the peccadilloes of its author: Hawes' glorious piece of iconoclasm uses the same technique to save it' Spiked.com.

'Settle in to enjoy Hawes' galloping, lucid prose' Observer.


A revelation and a scream, this wonderfully irreverent book ends up paying Kafka a greater compliment than that of the `Kafka-myth', 5 stars --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excavating Kafka 9 Aug 2009
This is a fascinating and infuriating book that adds to our understanding of Kafka in places and massively over eggs its own pudding in others. Its central discoveries are that Kafka kept a collection of pornography and that his use of prostitutes was more regular throughout his life than had been realized. Moreover, Hawes maintains it would have been easy enough for earlier biographers to find all this out but they preferred not to because it would have contradicted what Hawes calls the K-myth - namely that Kafak was an otherworldly, over-sensitive recluse. So far so good. Unfortunately Hawes then gets carried away. He lists other parts of the `K-myth' - that Kafka ordered all his work destroyed in his will, that he was unknown in his lifetime, terrified of his brutal father, crushed by a bureaucratic job, crippled for years by TB, too honest for his own good about his feelings in his relationships with women, was a minority within a minority as a German speaking Jew in Prague, that his work is based on his experiences as a Jew, that his works predict Auschwitz and that his works were burned by the Nazi's - and then dismisses them all as `rubbish'(page 7).Let's see

Kafka did indeed write one letter for his best friend Max Brod (who became editor of Kafka's work after his death) asking him to destroy all his works. However, Hawes is right that there is doubt about how serious Kafka was. Kafka was respected as a writer by people who mattered in Prague and further afield but, compared to his rightful position as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century whose books are in print, he was indeed virtually unknown in his lifetime. To say Kafka was terrified of his brutal father is an exaggeration but he was afraid of his father throughout his life.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
James Hawes is passionate about Kafka but believes that the bulk of modern scholarship is misguided in painting him as a lonely, heroic figure, bullied by his overbearing father, ignored in his lifetime - a "fair unsullied soul" almost saintly in his appeal. Excavating Kafka is his attempt expose the "K Myth" and to inject a note of reality into the study of Kafka, a man of his times who as we might expect had all the usual foibles and failings as the rest of us - and a few unique to himself for good measure.

The first thing to say about this book, is apart from the writer's attempt to correct other Kafka scholars, its actually a very readable biography of Franz Kafka, written in an amusing style and imparting vast amounts of information in a relatively compact package. I think you'd have to read a substantial biography and then a couple of books of literary criticism to get quite as much information (unless of course you favour the cartoon approach!).

James Hawes certainly makes no attempt to cover up some of the more unattractive part of Kafka's personality. A whole chapter (Into the Locked Bookcase) is devoted to his hobby of collecting exotic pornography and it is not difficult for Hawes to demonstrate that Kafka was a frequent user of brothels, often with a degree of obsessive compulsion, and an at times callous disdain for the women concerned.

I enjoyed this book, not only for the information it provides about Kafka but also for the entertaining way in which it presents his life-story. It gives a wonderful flavour of life in Kafka's Prague haunts, like the Café Corso. It is illustrated by many photographs and facsimiles of papers and documents which present a vivid sense of the times.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars search for the historical kafka 5 Dec 2008
It seems to me that what the reviewers above have done is to actually fixate upon the media furore about James Hawes book rather than actually read it for what it is. In my opinion, as an academic working in the field and who teaches Kafka at undergraduate level, this book deals a double-headed blow to both the "death of the author" dogmatists on the one side and those who reduce the texts simply to the psychological workings-out of some pre-existing psychological trauma within Kafka himself on the other. Now, this is a hard line to tread and Hawes does it very successfully, so that at the end of the book one feels that one has had certain prejudices undermined, been informed further about both the historical and intellectual context of the work but also had the quasi-saintly and untouchable status of Kafka healthily rebuked. This kind of "search for the historical Jesus" approach is long overdue and very welcome. Of course there are exaggerations and problems with it but the porn issue is actually a very minor part of the book. I find it interesting that those who protest so much about it have elevated it to the central point. I wonder why? This is a great and valuable addition to the literature on Kafka and should be welcomed as such.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kafka was human after all 24 Sep 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I agree that Hawes does overdo the "revelations" a bit but this book does make worthwhile reading to any lover of Kafka.
I hadn't read Kafka for 30 years but after reading this I do want to go back and read him again to try and put his writing into context of the time as described in this book. I was also surprised by some of the influences on Kafka's writing which are both social and literary. Too many of the biographies are influenced by Brod's interpretation of the great man and too much emphasis placed on the relationship between Kafka and his father.
The use of footnotes is somewhat irritating: the book tries to be a piece of academia which it isn't. The book is actually written in a very chatty "Daily Mail" sort of style which I suppose is intended to add to the drama of the revelations. Prior to reading this it does help to be aware of some of Kafka's life and how history has perceived him. What we conclude at the end is that Kafka wasn't such an enigma after all but he was a great writer.
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