Book Review Round Up Part 3: More from Foreword Reviews

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a round up of some of the books I have reviewed for Foreword Reviews since October 2020. This week, I am posting yet another selection of books I have reviewed for them lately. Here you will find Latinx speculative fiction, travel through Greece in the Age of Covid-19, the absurdities of life in Communist Albania, and the origins of the conspiracy theories of the American far right, among other things.

I had a great time reading and reviewing these books. Hopefully you will be able to find something enjoyable to read among them.

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews.

Jan Brokken, David McKay (transl.). The Just. How Six Unlikely Heroes Saved Thousands of Jews from the Holocaust (Scribe Publications, 2021).

“Jan Brokken’s history text The Just documents a rescue operation to save Jews from the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. In telling the life story of Jan Zwartendijk, The Just adds one more piece to the memory of the Holocaust.”

Literature about the Holocaust is a massive genre and it continues to grow as research on this genocide continues. This book was very interesting to read because it focuses on one of the many people who, at great peril for themselves and their loved ones, stood up for humanity and what is right.

Hernandez, García, and Goodwin (eds.), Speculative Fiction for Dreamers. A Latinx Anthology (Mad Creek Books, 2021).

“The anthology Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is an exciting and mind-expanding collection of short stories by contemporary Latinx authors. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers uses as its inspiration the lived experiences of the American Latinx community of today, expressed through speculative fiction. Rooted in the theoretical framework established by Gloria Anzaldúa’s ideas about la frontera, the anthology’s stories grew out of the participating authors’ lives, located at the cultural, political, sexual, and ethnic borderlands of American society. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is a fun, subversive anthology of Latinx short stories.”

Another book I really enjoyed. I would say that SFF is one of the most vibrant and dynamic literary genres today. New voices are being added to the choir at a steady pace, which expands our ideas of what this and other worlds could become, now and in the future.

Margo Reijmer, Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Zosia Krasodomska-Jones (translators). Mud Sweeter than Honey. Voices of Communist Albania (Restless Books, 2021).

“Personal testimonials reveal the lived truths of communist Albania in Margo Rejmer’s oral history book Mud Sweeter than Honey. The book is written like a fairy tale. Its introduction sets up the testimonials, which reveal a repressive society based on contradictions bordering on the absurd. From the survivors of the regime, Mud Sweeter than Honey collects important testimonies about life in communist Albania.”

Mud Sweeter than Honey is an important book for two reasons. One, it is an inside view of the least known former Communist state of Eastern Europe, Albania. Two, it demonstrates the importance of literature in translation. Originally written in German, without the work of publishers who believe in translated literature, this book would never have reached us.

Peter Fiennes, A Thing of Beauty. Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece (Oneworld Publications, 2021).

“Musings on the myths of ancient Greece are intertwined with contemplations on climate change and Covid-19 in Peter Fiennes’s travelogue A Thing of Beauty. As climate change set the world on fire and Covid-19 emerged, Fiennes traveled through Greece with ancient Greek travel writer Pausanias and Lord Byron as his guides. The purpose of the trip was to find hope and to search for beauty; these elusive terms are explored in depth, but the book provides no definite answers about them. In the end, it is the journey that matters. A Thing of Beauty is an entertaining, erudite travelogue through Greece, both ancient and modern.”

When Covid-19 shut down the world in early 2020, tourism ground to a halt and communities whose survival depend on money coming from outside suffered. Greece was one of them. Slowly as we learn how to live with the virus, tourism and travel in general is returning, but for those months when the world stood still, those who dared venture out walked in solitude.

Edward H. Miller, A Conspiratorial Life. Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism (University of Chicago Press, 2021)

“The origins of the conspiracy theories that permeate modern American politics are revealed in Edward H. Miller’s biography of Robert Welch, A Conspiratorial Life. Born into a family of North Carolina farmers who fought in the American Revolution, owned slaves, believed in white supremacy, supported the confederacy, disliked Yankees, and distrusted the federal government, Robert Welch made his fortune as a candy manufacturer with the purpose of supporting himself as a political writer. Hypervigilant to conspiracy theories, he found a personal outlet in the death of John Birch, an American military intelligence officer who died during World War II. He founded an anticommunist organization, The John Birch Society, to peddle his theories among American conservatives. A Conspiratorial Life is the first comprehensive biography of Robert Welch. It is revelatory about his role in the development of modern American conservatism.”

This book is quite the chilling read because it shows the origins of some of the conspiracy theories that we are living with on a daily basis, how they developed, and were allowed to spread and sprout very deep roots.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Judith Krantz’s MISTRAL’S DAUGHTER Revisited, Or If Judith Krantz Were a Man She’d Be Declared a Genius

After being prevented from traveling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was finally able to visit my family for the holidays. Rummaging through old closets, drawers, and bookshelves, in the attic, among a set of books that used to be in my old room, I stumbled upon Mistral’s Daughter by Judith Krantz.

My copy of Judith Krantz’s Mistral’s Daughter (Swedish translation). Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I didn’t expect Mistral’s Daughter to be my holiday read, but I adored that book in my early teens, and so I decided to revisit its pages. Rereading this book all these years later, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I was struck by how different this book would have been received had it been written by a man.

Mistral’s Daughter is the story of three generations of women–Maggie Lunel, her daughter Theodora (or “Teddy” for short), and her granddaughter Fauve–and their relationship to the genius artist and painter Julien Mistral. The story starts in the artists quarters of Montmartre in Paris in the 1920s and then branches out to New York City and Provence in the south of France where it ends sometime in the 1970s. It is a story of love, women’s empowerment, male narcissism, and art. The main characters are all women. Except for Julien Mistral, the men are side characters.

First published in 1982, Mistral’s Daughter was Judith Krantz’s third novel after Scruples and Princess Daisy. In 1984, it became a star-studded miniseries, starring Stephanie Powers as Maggie and Stacy Keach as Mistral.

Krantz began writing novels at the age of 50, after a long career in the magazine publishing business. She would go on to write ten novels and one autobiography and sell 85 million copies of her books, which were translated into 50 languages and spawned three TV mini series, despite the fact that the literary establishment immediately and for the duration of her publication career labled her work as schlocky.

When Krantz passed away in 2019, she was remembered as an author of women’s fiction who reveled in the glitz, glamour, and superficiality of high fashion and high-end magazine publishing, and who peppered her novels with explicit and gratuitous sex scenes. In their obituary of Krantz, The New York Times wrote that Krantz’s success came from “a formula that she honed to glittering perfection: fevered horizontal activities combined with fevered vertical ones — the former taking place in sumptuously appointed bedrooms and five-star hotels, the latter anywhere with a cash register and astronomical price tags,” while The Guardian stated that the “shopping in the novels of Judith Krantz had an intensity the sex could never match.” These are assessments that can be traced back to the original reviews of Krantz’s books. In her review of Mistral’s Daughter from 1983, New York Times’ art critic Grace Glueck states that the prose of Judith Krantz is so over-laden that she feels as if she is digesting 1,000 calories every time she turns the page, and that the book is filled with earth-shattering sex scenes with “multiple orgasms every dozen pages.”

What I find interesting is that when Krantz’s work is discussed, the focus is either on Scruples or Princess Daisy, never Mistral’s Daughter. Probably because, even though Mistral’s Daughter clearly is a Judith Krantz novel, it doesn’t fit the critic’s formula.

Yes, Mistral’s Daughter takes place in the world of high fashion and glossy magazine publishing. (But only partially.)

Yes, there is a headstrong female protagonist. (In fact, Mistral’s Daughter has three of them, but ultimately, this is Maggie’s story.)

Yes, there is sex.

Yes, there is shopping.

Yes, the story is told in “modifier-laden detail.”

But. The novel only contains four sex scenes. They are all at the beginning of the book (which should tell you how much of the novel Glueck actually read back in 1983), they are all important to the plot, and all of them take place at lower-class locations, such as Mistral’s Montmartre studio, Maggie’s scruffy Paris apartment, and a room above a countryside inn in Provence. It is notable that the relationship between Maggie and her life-partner Jason Darcy, which begins when both of them already belong to the elite of New York City, is never given its own sex scene. They hardly even kiss. Fauve, who clearly has an active sex life, is never given her own sex scene. The closest the book comes to giving her one is when she wakes up naked in a bed that is not hers.

Nobody goes shopping. Maggie agrees to be taken shopping by others, but only reluctantly because her clothes are worn out and because she is moving up in society. What eventually will be of consequence to the story are items that initially are mentioned only in passing. Teddy wears the clothes her stylist gives her without any input of her own. Fauve treats fashion as an after thought. Kate Browning, the woman Mistral eventually marries, doesn’t go shopping either; she’s too busy controlling her husband’s career. Daughter of Kate Browning and Julien Mistral, Nadine Mistral goes to a showing at Yves Saint Laurent where she jots down the numbers of all the clothes she wants to buy. However, the scene is written in anger, and in the end, she leaves without buying a single thing.

Krantz’s text is peppered with adjectives, which understandably comes across as subpar writing to a publishing world where “show-don’t-tell” reigns supreme. But what this prolific use of adjectives does is to draw the reader in and place them in the scene. It is direct, cuts to the quick of what is important, and paints a vivid picture using only a couple of brush strokes instead of a whole paragraph. This becomes particularly important in a novel such as Mistral’s Daughter where the artistic talent of Julien Mistral is at the center of the plot. To be able to convey someone’s visceral reaction when they see a painting by Mistral only adjectives will do.

What is completely overlooked when it comes to Mistral’s Daughter is that it is a book steeped in Jewish spirituality. The story builds towards its climax by having Fauve research the persecution of the Jews of France during World War II as it played out in Provence, and as part of her quest visit a centuries-old synagogue and learn about Mistral’s behaviour towards his old Jewish friends. The climax of the novel takes place after the death of Mistral with the unveiling of his final paintings, which turn out to be a series based on the Jewish holidays. And the coup-de-grace: as Fauve exits her father’s studio after seeing the paintings, there is a small piece of paper nailed to his easel, and she bends over to take a closer look. By having Fauve read the note out loud, part of the last sentence of the novel’s climax is the Shema.

What is also overlooked, is that behind the glitz, glamour, and the idolizing of Mistral as the alpha male that affects the lives of three generations of women is an indictment of the veneration of the male genius. Mistral is a genuinely unpleasant person who puts his work before everyone, including his family and friends running for their lives. Where everyone else would be held accountable for their actions, Mistral gets a free pass because he is a Genius.

The reception of Judith Krantz’s work as an author is a typical example of how fiction centered on women is villified by literary critics and society in general. Krantz was a good writer, she knew her craft, she created compelling stories propelled by the actions of well-rounded characters, and Mistral’s Daughter is one of the best books I have read. Had she been a man writing about Julien Mistral and the women he seduced, rather than a woman writing about Maggie Lunel and her descendants, she would have been declared a genius. Because as Krantz herself makes clear for those who are open-minded enough to see, the man who is declared a genius can get away with anything.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Sleepy Hollow and the Issues of Diversity and Antisemitism

MV5BODk0Nzg3OTAwMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM0OTIzMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_At this time last year I was elated. I had a new favorite TV show—Sleepy Hollow on FOX. Based on Washington Irving’s stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow is a TV show with a humorous, yet respectful, take on the American Revolution in the 21st century. What made Sleepy Hollow stand out from other shows was the updated premises of these three narratives by introducing a diverse cast, unparalleled on TV.

Sleepy Hollow‘s season one was fun, exhilarating, and groundbreaking. In contrast, season two has lost its direction, white-washed its core cast of characters, and given air-time to antisemitic prejudice.

The Issue of Diversity
The two main characters of Sleepy Hollow are African-American police officer Abigail Mills (Nichole Behari) and Caucasian Oxford history professor Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison). Ichabod and Abigail have been chosen as Witnesses who need to work together to stop the End of Days. With a team of allies, Ichabod and Abigail take on the demon of the week to prevent evil from taking over the world.

In season one, the people surrounding Ichabod and Abigail were
Jenny Mills (Lyndie Greenwood). Abigail’s sister who, unbeknownst to Abigail, for years had been working on preventing the End of Days by becoming an artifacts expert.
Frank Irving (Orlando Jones). Police captain of the town of Sleepy Hollow and Abigail’s superior.
Luke Morales (Nicholas Gonzalez). Abigail’s colleague and ex-boyfriend.
Andy Brooks (John Cho). Abigail’s colleague who has joined the dark side and is working towards the End of Days.
Katrina Crane (Katia Winter). Ichabod’s wife who is imprisoned alive in purgatory.
Henry Parrish (John Bishop). A Sin Eater who helps Ichabod and Abigail solve mysteries. In a plot twist typical of season one, Henry turns out to be Ichabod and Katrina’s son.
Cynthia Irving (Jill Marie Jones). Frank’s ex-wife.
Macey Irving (Amandla Stenberg). Frank’s daughter, confined to a wheelchair after being hit by a drunk driver.
The Headless Horseman (several credits). The first horseman of the Apocalypse, the Horseman of Death.
Of these characters four are African-American, one is Asian-American, one is Latino, and two are Caucasian.

Jenny Mills (Lindy Greenwood)

Jenny Mills (Lindy Greenwood)

From a point of view of diversity, my two favorite episodes of season one are Necromancer and The Vessel. In Necromancer, Ichabod and Abigail work together with Jenny and Frank to capture the Apocalyptic Horseman of Death and convince Andy to be the Horseman’s interpreter. In The Vessel, Macey is possessed by a demon. Jenny and Abigail perform an exorcism that frees Macey of the demon, while Ichabod, Frank, and Cynthia stand watching.

In season two, the people surrounding Ichabod and Abigail are
Katrina Crane, who has been liberated from purgatory.
Henry Parrish, who has become the second Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Horseman of War.
Frank Irving, who is incarcerated at a mental institution for a murder he didn’t commit.
Jenny Mills, who has joined Ichabod and Abigail’s team after reconciling with Abigail in season one.
Leena Reyes (Sakina Jaffrey). Sleepy Hollow’s new police captain.
The Headless Horseman/Abraham van Brunt (Neil Jackson). The first Horseman of the Apocalypse, The Horseman of Death. Also, Ichabod’s best friend and Katrina’s former fiance.
Nick Hawley (Matt Barr). An expert in occult artifacts.
Of these characters, four are Caucasian, two are African-American, one is Latino, and none is Asian-American.

Frank Irving (Orlando Jones)

Frank Irving (Orlando Jones)

Throughout season two, each episode centers on Ichabod, Abigail, Hawley, Katrina, Henry, and Abraham. Jenny, Frank, and Sheriff Reyes are pushed to the side. More energy is spent on the love triangle between Katrina, Ichabod, and Abraham than on the actual fight against evil. Hawley becomes the go-to person for artifact expertise instead of Jenny. Frank manages to escape from the institution where he is held only to be shot and killed in the mid-season finale.

In other words, Sleepy Hollow has turned itself into a white-washed soap opera where persons of color are disposable spectators.

 

The Issue of Antisemitism
Frank’s death is not the only issue that needs to be discussed regarding the mid-season finale of Sleepy Hollow‘s second season. Because not only is the only black man on the cast killed, the words and deeds of Henry Parrish are steeped in classic antisemitism.

The mid-season finale was divided into two parts. In the first part, the demon Moloch enters our world from purgatory. In the second part, Moloch attempts to take over the world.

Moloch enters our world when Henry, in accordance to the Book of Revelations, sounds a trumpet. In Sleepy Hollow, the trumpet that Henry sounds is in fact a shofar. A shofar is a ram’s horn used during the synagogue service on Rosh HaShana.

A Temani (Yemenite Jewish) style shofar makde from a horn of the greater kudu. Photo: Olve Utne

A Temani (Yemenite Jewish) style shofar made from a horn of the greater kudu. Photo: Olve Utne

In Judaism, the blowing of the shofar symbolizes many things. For example, it symbolizes the human heart calling to God and God hearing that call. The shofar also symbolizes calling for the future and the arrival of the Messiah. The fact that the shofar is made from a ram’s horn alludes to the Biblical story of the Binding of Isaac, admittedly one of the most controversial and difficult to understand passages of the Bible. Instead of sacrificing Isaac, God gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice. In other words, the shofar symbolizes the close connection between the Jewish nation and God.

When Henry blows the shofar to summon Moloch, the symbolism of the shofar is perverted. Instead of the human heart calling to God and God hearing that call, Henry’s evil heart calls to Moloch and Moloch hears him. Instead of calling for the future and the Messiah, Henry calls for the end of the world and a demon.

In the second part of the mid-season finale, Henry speaks of the Binding of Isaac. He twists the story and speaks of the Hebrew God as being a cruel God unworthy of the faith of human kind.

The actions and words of Henry Parrish call upon centuries-old antisemitic prejudice and hate-speech towards Jews. Using the shofar to summon Moloch is an example of the antisemitic myth that Jews practice black magic. Sleepy Hollow is not the only example of this happening in entertainment. For example, Ingmar Bergman used this myth in the movie Fanny and Alexander, where a Jewish father and son practiced voodoo-styled black magic on a doll to rid Fanny and Alexander of an abusive stepfather. But seeing it in Sleepy Hollow, a show that has made its name from being culturally and ethnically diverse, is shocking.

Henry’s twisting of the Binding of Isaac and denouncement of the Hebrew God stems from the antisemitic interpretation of the Christian idea of the Second Covenant. The First Covenant happened at Sinai, when God gave the Jewish nation the Ten Commandments and the Torah. This covenant was annulled with the arrival of Christ, whose death for the sins of mankind marked the beginning of the Second Covenant. The core idea of the Second Covenant is that the God of the Jews is cruel and damning, while the God of the Christians is loving and caring. It is the idea of the Second Covenant taken to its extreme that lies at the roots of the pogroms in Europe throughout the centuries, including the Holocaust.

Henry’s blowing of the shofar to summon Moloch and his twisted interpretation of the Binding of Isaac, combined with the white-washing of the cast and the shooting of Frank Irving, has made Sleepy Hollow one of the most racist shows on American television.

Season two of Sleepy Hollow picks up again in January 2015. What do I think about that? Well, to continue on the theme of racism in entertainment, let me quote Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources
James Carroll Constantine’s Sword. The Church and the Jews. A History (Mariner Books, 2002)
The Meaning of the Shofar Part 1
The Meaning of the Shofar Part 2
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Sleepy Hollow (2013– )

History Judges But Who Is Presiding?

A commonly used phrase in political debate is “History will judge.” For example, in 2011, in a comment on ending the Iraq war, President Barack Obama stated that “History will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.” President Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, also used the phrase, for example in July of 2013 when he, according to The Washington Times, stated that “history will be the judge of his record in office.” Several others, ranging from journalists and pundits to politicians and writers, use the phrase on a recurring basis.

As an historian, the phrase intrigues me. It seems as if history somehow is seen as a person with a law degree.

Gavel_&_Stryker
Gavel and stryker.
Source: KeithBurtis

What does the phrase “History will judge” actually mean? And why would an historian worth his or her salt never use it?

First we need to take a closer look at what history actually is.

I define history as an academic discipline that researches the human condition through the study of written documents. History is the study of events connected to one another within the framework of human society, interpreted from the viewpoint of the individuals participating in those events as they happen.

Consequently, based on this definition of history we can determine what history is not.

History is not the same thing as time.
In other words, history does not begin when time begins. Neither does history end if or when (depending on your belief system) time ends. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there were voices who declared “the end of history,” as if historical research, indeed human society as we then knew it, had lost its reason for existing.

History is not the same thing as all human activity.
History is only interested in those human activities that contribute to the creation of human society, expressed in writing in a literate society. Study of the human condition and the creation of human society within a non-literary context belong to research disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology.

History is not the same thing as retrospect.
When looking at past events it is easy to take the outcome or result of those events and extrapolate them to a time before the events took place, as if the people involved would have known what we know. However, this is not possible when researching history. Neither is it possible to predict what events will become historical. At the same time as President Obama stated that history will judge the reasons for the Iraq war, he also said that ending the war after nine years is “a historic moment.” Unfortunately, this is something that not even the President of the United States of America can decide.

The phrase “History will judge” indicates that history is all-encompassing and omnipresent in human society. It also indicates that eventually it will be decided if actions taken and decisions made were right or wrong.

However, it is only possible to judge actions or decisions to be right or wrong if you base that judgment on a set of moral and ethical values. Such values, as we all know, change. For example, less than one hundred years ago it was normal that all women, as well as men below a certain level of income, were not allowed to vote in political elections. Less than fifty years ago it was normal for school children to be hit by their teachers. Today neither of these practices are acceptable. In certain parts of the world, I might add.

Ali G interviews Sir Rhodes Boyson on British Education (YouTube)

The phrase “History will judge” also indicates that sometime in the future there will be someone who makes the judgment as to what actions and decisions were right or wrong. When people say that history will judge, who do they envision making that judgment?

Based on the above definition of what history is or is not, I would argue that if history judges, those presiding will be the historians doing research at that time. The reason for this argument is that what we know about our past is based on information found, interpreted and analyzed by historians.

The only problem with this statement is that if the true judges of history are the historians, the bench will be empty when the court is in session. Any historian who takes his or her work seriously would never pass judgment on past events, processes, or individuals. In other words, an historian would never state whether something is right or wrong, but rather present the context in which an event took place and draw conclusions from there. However, this is not to say that historians accept or condone atrocities, such as, for example, The Holocaust or the Genocide of Rwanda.

Therefore, in public debate, whenever a biased statement on past events is made, that person is either not an historian, or an historian with an ulterior motive.

Next time you hear someone use the phrase “History will judge” or declare a moment to be historic, ask yourself: Who is saying it and why?

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Politico Obama: “History will judge Iraq” war
The Washington Times George W. Bush: History will be the judge; as for opinion polls, “I could care less”
Wikipedia End of history

Note:
Image of gavel and stryker downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Previous posts on related topics:
The Historian as Time Traveler
Historical Truth vs. Historical Validity
Historical Science in Science Fiction
Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History
Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History

 

 

 

Franz Kafka. A German-Speaking Jew from Prague

Franz Kafka (1883–1924) is arguably one of Europe’s most fascinating authors. Kafka is rightfully associated with the city of Prague, today the capital city of the Czech Republic. But was Kafka Czech? No, Kafka was a German-speaking Jew from Prague.

Kafka
Franz Kafka
Source: Anonymous

To understand this statement, we must first understand the city of Prague and its history, as well as the region where it is located, Bohemia.

Prague was founded during the second half of the 9th century. During the High Middle Ages, the city flourished as a political and economic center for its surrounding region, Bohemia, or Čechy in Czech and Böhmen in German.

Prague played an important role in Bohemia and Central Europe from the Middle Ages until the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). In fact, the Thirty Years’ War is considered to have begun in Prague with what is known as the Second Defenestration of Prague. Defenestration is a method of execution where the intended victim is thrown out of a window. The name of the this method comes from the Latin word for “window”: fenestra.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Prague Castle (2006)
Source: Wizzard

The Second Defenestration of Prague was the execution of the governors of Bohemia, installed on their posts by the Catholic Habsburg dynasty to subdue Protestantism in Bohemia. The citizens of Prague responded to this policy by defenestrating the Habsburg officials from the windows of the Hradčany, or Prague Castle.

The Thirty Years War ravaged the European continent and Prague’s political and economic success waned. However, new life was breathed into the city during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. When Kafka lived in Prague it was a bustling and modern city at the heart of Europe.

When Kafka was born in 1883, Prague and Bohemia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire came into being in 1867 when a constitutional compromise between the Austrian Empire and Hungary was reached. This compromise meant that Hungary would continue to acknowledge the rule of the Austrian emperor, but was autonomous in all political issues except war and foreign relations.

Outside of Hungary, the empire consisted of a not-clearly defined agglomeration of regions called “the kingdoms and lands represented in the [Austrian] Reichrat” or simply “the other Imperial half.” What these different regions had in common was the dynastic claim of the Habsburgs, the royal dynasty to which the Austrian royal family belonged. Bohemia and Prague belonged to this other half.

Austria-Hungary1899
Austria-Hungary in 1899. Prague is located at the map coordinates 14:50.

Throughout history, Bohemia had three major population groups: Czechs, Germans, and Jews. Czechs lived in Bohemia because of it being a region within the Slavic cultural and ethnical sphere. Germans lived in Bohemia because of its proximity to German regions such as Bavaria. Jews lived in Bohemia because of the Diaspora, which after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. spread the Jewish population across the world. Jews are known to have lived in Prague since the 970s, with a permanent community established there in the 11th century.

Reading articles, texts, and private correspondence contemporary to Kafka, it becomes evident that these three groups defined themselves as separate from one another. In fact, tensions were at times rife between Germans and Czech nationalists with Jews trying to find a place in the middle while avoiding anti-Semitism from both sides.

During Kafka’s lifetime, approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Prague, most of them spoke German and mainly identified with the German-speaking culture. They lived a secularized, mostly bourgeois lifestyle and distanced themselves from Jews living in rural areas further east. Yiddish, the language most often connected to eastern European Jews, was unknown to them. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Prague’s Jewish population consisted of 92,000 people, one of the largest in Europe. 60% of them are estimated to have perished in the Holocaust. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews live in Prague.

Franz Kafka was born into a wealthy merchant family, where everything centered around the family business. Kafka himself worked as an official at an insurance company and dedicated his spare time to writing, which lead to conflict with other family members. A relentless self-critic, only a handful of his stories were published during his lifetime. Most of Kafka’s works that we know and admire today, were published posthumously by his friend Max Brod, who disregarded Kafka’s wish to burn all the manuscripts after his death. All of Kafka’s stories were written in German.

Although secularized through his upbringing, Kafka identified himself as a Jew. He became engaged in the Zionist movement in early 20th century Prague and that movement’s discussions on Jewish identity and culture interested him a great deal. He frequented the Yiddish theater whenever such plays were available in Prague and made friends within the theater companies.

Reading Kafka’s works, Jewish folklore and Talmudic discussion techniques jump out off the page. The Jewish sense of humor and the twists and turns of Talmudic discourse lay the foundation of an absurd and unpredictable reading experience. Believe it or not, but the step from Kafka to Mel Brooks is not a big one.

Throughout his life, Kafka lived in Prague, the main city of Bohemia but only a regional capital in the other half of the Austro-Hungarian empire, belonging to and identifying with one of the three main ethnic and cultural groups. When he died in Vienna at the age of 40, Prague had been the capital of the new nation of Czechoslovakia, created after the collapse of the empire brought on by World War I, for only six years.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Britannica.com Czechoslovakia
Britannica.com Bohemia
Britannica.com Prague
Jewish Virtual Library Prague
Franz Kafka The Trial (Der Prozess) (New York, 1998)
Reiner Stach Kafka: The Decisive Years (Princeton & Oxford, 2005)

Note:
The images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.