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Sat January 18, 2014
Author Interviews

Living, And 'Forgiving,' In A Brilliant Writer's Orbit

Originally published on Sat January 18, 2014 9:35 am

A lot of writers can be fairly easily stereotyped. They write stories about dysfunctional families, star crossed lovers, endearing losers; they write historical fiction, literary fiction or crime novels. But Jay Cantor's body of work defies categorization. His fiction has been inspired by topics as wide-ranging as the revolutionary life of Che Guevara and the comic strip world of Krazy Kat.

In his latest work, Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka, Cantor fictionalizes the lives of people who were close to Franz Kafka. Cantor's Kafka is a powerful force, haunting his friends and lovers even in his absence. His influence follows them throughout their lives, carried with them, in some cases, into the prison camps of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Cantor talks to NPR's Lynn Neary about Kafka's mesmerizing effect on others, his deep gratitude to the writer and the contemporary definition of "Kafkaesque."


Interview Highlights

On what drew him to Kafka

I first read Kafka when I was young, and it felt to me very direct. It felt to me — although they were about a person turning into a cockroach, or an artist whose art is to starve himself while people watch — it felt to me like the stories were the autobiography of his emotions. And I guess I felt some kinship with that.

On whether he was a Kafka expert before he started the novel

Nope. But I was always taken by the fact that Kafka had a very close friend and admirer, Max Brod, and he knew that Max loved him more than anyone in the world, and loved his work. And he told Brod that after he died, after Kafka died, he wanted Brod to burn all his work. And on the one hand, he loved Kafka, and wanted to do what Kafka wanted — and on the other hand, Kafka had to have known that would tear the man's heart from his chest.

So I began to brood on Brod, and that led me to reading about Kafka and about Brod and the people around them and the effect Kafka had had on them. And the book really is not so much about Kafka the writer, or his writing, anyway, but about his effect on people.

... What Brod feels, and what I felt, was he turned Brod's life into a story where Brod was a character in a story by Franz Kafka, which, given Brod's love for Kafka, would have been the greatest gift possible ... and the worst thing to do to a person. And he wants Kafka to have intended that. It's the only way that Brod can die in peace, is to take it as a lesson and figure out what the lesson may have been.

On what 'Kafkaesque' means now

It's passed into the language. Any time anybody has a quandary, they go to Dunkin' Donuts, like, "Should I have the jelly filled or the glazed? It's Kafkaesque," and no, it's not. So I don't know the answer anymore. I think it's a contradiction that ... if you live that contradiction out, it will put you in a very profound relationship to life, though not a happy one. Bearing the burden of a tragic question.

On the Kafka's effect on others, including his lover Dora

Many of the people who knew him found that to be the most memorable encounter of their life, and that it gave them a painful but precious inheritance of tremendous honesty and inability to accept lies in himself or from others. And that was certainly very true for [Dora].

On how Kafka's writing informs his understanding of the camps of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany

I think Kafka's relationship to the insoluble difficulties of existence is, I'm going to borrow a phrase of Samuel Beckett's — "I can't go on, I'll go on" — is some part of describing the experience of the camps. And I hope that the book conveys, at least for [Kafka's lover] Milena, that her experience of Kafka and Kafka's work helped her to understand — and sustained her — when she was in the camps. Until she died. She died in Ravensbruck.

On why the subtitle calls these stories "for" Kafka, rather than "about" or "inspired by"

I'm very grateful for his stories and his life. I felt the articulation of things that I had felt and never seen so wonderfully expressed in Kafka, and I was grateful for it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

A lot of writers can be fairly easily stereotyped. They write stories about dysfunctional families, star-crossed lovers, endearing losers. They write historical fiction, literary fiction, crime novels. But Jay Cantor's body of work defies categorization. His fiction has been inspired by the revolutionary life of Che Guevara as well as the comic strip world of Krazy Kat. In his latest work, "Forgiving the Angel," Cantor fictionalizes the lives of people who were friends and lovers of Franz Kafka. Jay Cantor joins us now. Good to have you with us.

JAY CANTOR: Wonderful to be here.

NEARY: Franz Kafka is not an easy writer for a lot of people. I mean, it's hard for a lot of people to grasp exactly what he's about. So, what drew you to him specifically as a writer?

CANTOR: I first read Kafka when I was young, and it felt to me very direct. It felt to me - although they were about a person turning into a cockroach, or an artist whose art is to starve himself while people watch - it felt to me like the stories were the autobiography of his emotions. And I guess I felt some kinship with that.

NEARY: How much did you actually know about his life and the people who he loved before you began working on this novel? Did you know much about him?

CANTOR: Nope. But I was always taken by the fact that Kafka had a very close friend and admirer, Max Brod, and he knew that Max loved him more than anyone in the world, and loved his work. And he told Brod that after he died, after Kafka died, he wanted Brod to burn all his work. And on the one hand, he loved Kafka, and wanted to do what Kafka wanted, and on the other hand, Kafka had to have known that would tear the man's heart from his chest. So, I began to brood on Brod...

(LAUGHTER)

CANTOR: ...yeah, sorry - and that led me to reading about Kafka and about Brod and the people around them and the effect that Kafka had had on them. And the book really is not so much about Kafka the writer - or his writing, anyway - but about his effect on people.

NEARY: Yeah. And in the Max Brod story, the way you tell that story, it's as if Max Brod has entered into a Kafkaesque kind of world because he was faced with that decision. And, I think, you seem to imply that Kafka might had done that on purpose.

CANTOR: Yeah. Well, that was - finally, exactly right. What Brod feels, and what I felt, was he turned Brod's life into a story where Brod was a character in a story by Franz Kafka, which, given Brod's love for Kafka, would have been the greatest gift possible - and the worst thing to do to a person. And he wants Kafka to have intended that. It's the only way that Brod can die in peace, is to take it as a lesson and figure out what the lesson might have been. And I guess an old Jew's chief desire is to figure out a way to die in peace.

NEARY: You know, I used the word Kafkaesque, and before we go any further, I think that...

CANTOR: Not a clue.

NEARY: ...you should define...

CANTOR: Not a clue.

NEARY: Oh, come on.

CANTOR: Nope, no, can't. It's passed into the language. Anytime anybody has a quandary, like they go to Dunkin' Donuts and should I have the jelly filled or the glazed, it's Kafkaesque, and it's not. So, I don't know the answer anymore. I think it's a contradiction that if you live that contradiction out, it will put you in a very profound relationship to life, though not a happy one. Bearing the burden of a tragic question.

NEARY: You know, I was about to say, I was about to say there's a great deal of tragedy in these stories. And I think the person who sort of emerges most strongly from the pages is the great love his life, Dora. And, you know, she only spent a few years with him but it seems like she never got over her association with Franz Kafka. And it's almost like it haunts her for the rest of her life.

CANTOR: She's an extreme case of that. Many of the people who knew him found that to be the most memorable encounter of their life, and that it gave them a painful but precious inheritance of tremendous honesty and inability to accept lies in himself or from others. And that was certainly very true for her.

NEARY: Well, Dora's story and the final story in the book, which is about another lover, his love Milena, both of those stories take us deep into the prison camps of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. And this is where, of course, the stories become very tragic. And also those worlds, again, and this time in the very profound sense, not in the humorous sense we've been talking about, but those worlds become very Kafkaesque also. These people are trapped under conditions over which they had no control and in some cases don't even know why they're there, really, or understand why they're there.

CANTOR: They understand the world has given for why they're there, and they know that it's no reason at all. So, they understand and don't understand.

NEARY: This was not a world that Franz Kafka ever experienced himself, but these people who were associated with him, you put them in those worlds.

CANTOR: Me and history puts them in those worlds. They really were in those camps.

NEARY: And what did they have to do with Franz Kafka? How does the writing of Franz Kafka in any way inform your understanding of those worlds or what those characters went through in those camps, both in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany?

CANTOR: I think Kafka's relationship to the insoluble difficulties of existence is - I'm going to borrow a phrase of Samuel Beckett's - is: I can't go on, I'll go on. It's some part of describing the experience of the camps. And I hope that the book conveys, at least for Milena, that her experience of Kafka and Kafka's work helped her to understand and sustained her when she was in the camps. Until she died. She died in Ravensbruck.

NEARY: And I wanted to ask you about the subtitle of the book, because the book is called "Forgiving the Angel." The subtitle is "Four Stories for Franz Kafka," not inspired by or about, but for Franz Kafka. Why for?

CANTOR: Gratitude. I'm very grateful for his stories and his life. I felt the articulation of things that I had felt and never seen so wonderfully expressed in Kafka, and I was grateful for it.

NEARY: Jay Cantor. His new book is "Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka." Thanks so much. It was good talking with you.

CANTOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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