Who was I when I discovered this book? What was I? These questions haunted me most of my life and reached an apex in my middle twenties--what I refer to as my first midlife crisis.
At war with my father, at war with myself, having sacrificed my music ambitions for a college education, I felt myself spinning in a vortex of confusion, depression, ennui, and self-loathing. I felt like a failure and incapable of achieving my dreams. Before switching my major to English Lit/Creative Writing, I was a Business Admin. Major, studying Economics, Accounting, Finance. Needless to say I hated it, resented myself, resented my family: Enter Kafka.
The Sons contains three stories: "The Judgement," "The Stoker," and "The Metamorphosis." It also contains a letter, written by the author to his father, called, simply enough, "Letter To His Father." It was this letter that made me feel in kindred spirits with a great writer. Whereas before I identified with characters in books, Kafka's letter helped me identify with the person behind the literary work. It was that letter which led me to read the other stories in the collection, each of of which I hold dear to my heart for different reasons. His passions were things I could relate to: the fragility of relationships, the impossibility of connecting, the absurdity of life, the grotesque, transformations, the impossibility of love, the anemia of understanding.
But it was that letter that pulled me into his work; it contained all the loneliness, fear, longing, yearning for appreciation and acceptance I also felt inside, with a candor that broke my heart. The moment I read its opening lines, I was struck with strange feeling; it was as if I were reading my own thoughts reflected back to me: "Dear Father, You asked me recently why I maintain I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you." I love the tautology (I fear because I fear), the circular reasoning, perfectly embodying my own feelings towards my own father, a towering presence in my life, a man who I felt saw no good in me, a man who wanted to transform me into a respectable businessman, a man who could only love me if I undertook his hobbies and passions, assumed his thinking, became in a very real sense, him. Like Kafka I yearned for acceptance and appreciation and understanding.
Looking at the letter, I see so many passages, phrases, sentences highlighted. Addressed to his father it employs the second person POV, a direct to the recipient (or reader) address, "You." For example, "It looked to you more or less as follows: you have worked hard all your life, have sacrificed everything for your children, above all for me, consequently, I have lived high and handsome, have been completely at liberty to learn whatever I wanted, and have had no cause for material worries, which means worries of any kind at all."
"You do charge me with coldness, estrangement, and ingratitude. And what is more, you charge me with it in such a way as to make it seem my fault."
"You had worked your way so far up by your own energies alone, and as a result you had unbounded confidence in your opinion...From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild...not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right."
Even now, after all these years, the letter is painful for me to read, and I find myself weeping openly at the boy who wanted so much to be loved in the right way, in a way that respected his sensitivity, his shyness, his eccentric silences, creativity borne out of curiosity for the world. I am speaking both of Kafka and myself, of course.
As a literary artifact, The letter is an important tool in understanding Kafka's oeuvre; but for me it was more than that. Kafka gave me the words to understand my own relationship with my father, the fears the insecurities, all of it, in prose that was heartbreakingly honest. It is that level of honesty and soul baring I explore in my own writing, along with my obsessions: Family, a powerful father, the meaning of home, time, identity, memory and loss.