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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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When Kafka Says We: Uncommon Communities in German-Jewish Literature, by Vivian Liska.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.  239 pp.  $29.95.


Surely, there are plenty of books about Franz Kafka. So, why yet another book on Kafka? Vivian Liska’s study isn’t actually a book on Kafka. Instead, this is a remarkable piece not only shedding new light on Kafka’s complex relationship with Judaism, but, more importantly, providing a frame to consider some of the most significant German-Jewish writing during the 20th century by Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, Else Lasker-Schüler, Ilse Aichinger, Robert Schindel, Robert Menasse, and Doron Rabinovici. Taking Kafka’s question, “What do I have in common with Jews?,” as starting point and center piece for her analyses, Vivian Liska delivers careful close readings of selected texts that all explore the relationship of their writers with their respective social, ethnic, and religious communities, Jewish and otherwise.

              After a short but illuminating introduction, the book is divided into five parts. “Kafka’s Communities” sets up the frame, while also commenting on the role of Yiddish in Kafka’s work and re-examining Kafka’s complex relationship with women. “Revisiting the Common Ground” explores Theodor Herzl’s and Else Lasker-Schüler’s religious roots, and to what (limited and/or differing) extent religion and religious thought informed their writings. The next chapter provides the perhaps least surprising combination in “Communities of Fate,” where the poetry of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs is revisited. However, Liska here delivers fascinating interpretations of some of Celan’s and Sachs’s lesser known or earlier poetry, introducing readers to incredibly moving lines that delineate Celan’s kinship with the community of the dead, and Sachs’s relationship with Israel. Part Four, “Contentious Commemorations,” yields the most intriguing blend of German Gruppe 47 poetry and Aichinger’s role in it, silence over the Holocaust, and Austrian-Jewish writings. This chapter, in a nutshell, delivers a precise and chilling account of how German and Austrian silence over the Holocaust affects German-Jewish writing to this day. The final part, “Kafka’s Companions,” returns to Kafka , and here the previous chapters’ groupings are once again re-arranged to provide interesting illuminations of connections between Celan and Kafka, and between Aichinger and Kafka, to end with “the gap” between Hannah Arendt and Kafka, an ending that shows how Liska also, when appropriate, resists overdrawing connections.

              I was at first suspicious of a book that so clearly approaches its subject matter via writers’ biographies, statements, and diary entries, rather than primarily focusing on the texts themselves. Since writers’ claims are often ambiguous, intentionally or not, this approach could lead to a problematic blurring of boundaries between lived experiences and (fictional or poetic) texts. However, Liska artfully and skillfully interjects her textual analyses with writers’ statements so that neither intrudes nor over imposes onto the other. Hence, this book does indeed do justice to the works and their creators without becoming esoteric or aloof.

              There are two main reasons why Liska’s readings are successful and important. First of all, the idea to use the notion of “community” as the anchor of a study that encompasses German-Jewish writers’ works before and after the Holocaust makes visible that not only for German, non-Jewish writers, the idea of a “zero hour” (“Stunde Null”) after WWII was, at best, a convenient illusion. But also for German-Jewish writers, while communities of fate have necessarily changed, and were of course severely disrupted by the Holocaust, many German-Jewish writers (such as Aichinger) seek the company of fellow German-Jewish writers even if they are not of their own generation or part of their specific community. Thus, we might view German-Jewish literary history of the 20th century more in terms of elected affinities rather than as distinct time periods or separate generations. Secondly, juxtaposing German-Jewish writers of earlier generations with contemporary Austrian writers of Jewish background allows the reader to draw connections that did not seem obvious or even conceivable without such an approach. Different poetic styles, narrative techniques, and themes as well as writer backgrounds are thus brought into conversation with one another, and Schindel’s Born-Where of 1995 references, not only by the (mis)quotation of one of its characters, Paul Celan’s poetry. Both on the level of the individual works under discussion and on the level of the writers’ biographies, readers are invited to draw connections in literature that are new and interesting and that, still today, shape German-Jewish history and society.

              It is by now clear that this is a convincing and remarkable study, focused, yet of impressive breadth. There are small errors (such as the one-time misspelling of Günter Grass), but they don’t take away from the overall import of this book, which should be a mainstay in every university library offering German Studies or Jewish Studies on the graduate or undergraduate levels. Additionally, it might be useful as an accompanying text or even a literary history for advanced courses in German Studies and German-Jewish Studies. Lay readers will find the jargon-free yet sophisticated language both enjoyable and compelling.

Agnes C. Mueller

University of South Carolina