I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

A Visit to the Deathhouse



Enda O’Doherty writes: Zadie Smith, in a NYRB review back in 2008 of a biographical essay on Franz Kafka by Louis Begley, made the to my mind somewhat unlikely connection between the (apparently) tortured Prague fabulist and the merely grumpy Hull librarian Philip Larkin. But while the comparison may not work across all departments, it does seem that both writers were miserabilists and both misogynists, at least in theory.

For Cyril Connolly, there was ‘no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. The person producing, or not producing, the good art in this case would of course be male and the person who had, somehow or other, landed him with a squalling baby, would be female. For both Larkin and Kafka, as Zadie Smith notes, it is domestic heating appliances that ‘have served as synecdoche for what one might term the Feminine Mundane’. (Orwell, another anti-modern grump, might have sympathised.) Here is Larkin:

He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day,
And the money he gets for wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies’ clobber and the drier
And the electric fire …

And here Kafka:

I yield not a particle of my demand for a fantastic life arranged solely in the interest of my work; she, indifferent to every mute request, wants the average: a comfortable home, an interest on my part in the factory, good food, bed at eleven, central heating ….

One might remark that while the latter is a diary entry (which of course does not necessarily make it straightforwardly ‘honest’), the former is a poem, in which the gap that already exists between the poet (or the man) and the poetic voice is further widened by that ‘He’ and the further distancing effect of the comic-demotic ‘kiddies’ clobber’.

It is clear that neither Kafka nor Larkin could live without women, though they also – and in particular Kafka – had great difficulty envisaging living with them. Is it possible that this was mere selfishness with Phil but pathology with Franz, who, according to Zadie Smith had great difficulty ‘belonging to’ anything? I have never felt Larkin’s work to be particularly depressing, as some readers (who mostly give it a wide berth) apparently do. True, he takes us to places where joy is absent and aloneness affords plenteous time for regret – Mr Bleaney’s room, ‘bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook’, or asks us to think about what we might prefer not to think about – ‘age, and then the only end of age’. Is it the frequently chummy tone that seems to, if not dissipate the gloom, at least displace it? The poet may be guiding us around the hospice and the funeral parlour but he is also in a way holding our hand; his, I imagine to be slightly clammy.

Enough of Larkin though. All of the above is only by way of introduction to a commemoration of the centenary of the other one, Franz Kafka, who died 100 years ago today on June 3rd, 1924. I am republishing below a short blog post I wrote eleven years ago after quite inadvertently discovering that the small guest house I was staying in on the outskirts of Vienna was just a short walk from the clinic where Kafka had died – and that this pleasant suburb, built on rising ground above the Danube where the city fades into the Vienna woods, had other interesting history too.

Franz Kafka is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in the Prague suburb of Žižkov, but he died, on June 3rd, 1924, some three hundred kilometres to the east (and south) in the Hoffmann clinic at Kierling, near Klosterneuburg on the northern outskirts of Vienna. He was just a month short of his forty-first birthday.

Kafka’s place of death (Sterbehaus) can be visited, though it is now no longer a clinic but a private apartment house. There is a small exhibition in a couple of rooms there chiefly devoted to the measures taken to alleviate his medical condition, a tuberculosis of the larynx which was in fact untreatable. Kafka could not, at this stage of his illness, eat or drink or talk and his cause of death is given as starvation; successful methods of feeding a patient with such an advanced throat condition had not then been developed.

Admission to the Franz Kafka Gedenkraum (memorial room) is straightforward, gratis and surprisingly free of bureaucratic obstruction, waiting, form-filling or misdirection. Just drive into the Hofer supermarket car park next door: it is unlikely that you will have any difficulties with the High Car Park Admission Authority but you might, all the same, call into the shop after your visit and buy something small as a gesture of good will. If you ring the bell at the house an elderly lady who lives on the ground floor will admit you and hand you a ticket and two keys. You then make your way upstairs to the exhibition room and small academic library on the second floor and let yourself in. You will be alone, and on your honour.

Kafka’s medical records for the final days of his illness, showing daily temperature readings, are displayed in a glass case, as are some unpleasant-looking medical instruments used in the treatment of tuberculosis and facsimiles of his last letters to his father and mother in Prague. In another case there is the register of deaths, kept neatly and conscientiously, though written in a challenging hand.

The notice of Kafka’s death (you would not easily decipher the name, or indeed any other name) is identifiable chiefly from the difference in the religion column between him and the patients who go before and after him: each of the others is marked with a clear K (Katholisch); Kafka is marked not with a J (for Jude/Jew, as he might have been) but with a squiggle, a squiggle one supposes to represent “nothing”. “And what shall I register you as, Herr Kafka, in the event ..?” “Oh, you can put me down as a nothing.”

In the village of Gugging, now called Maria Gugging, a kilometre or two further up the road that climbs from Kierling into the beautiful Vienna Woods, local doctor – and early Nazi party adherent – Emil Gelny murdered several hundred (perhaps six hundred) psychiatric patients and elderly infirm during the Second World War both by poison (tablets and injections) and with an apparatus he had designed himself to administer electric shocks. The war was a period of crisis and acute shortage in which even German soldiers were being underfed. The inmates of the Gugging asylum, Dr Gelny felt, were just “useless mouths”.

Gugging was also the site of a grand replica of the Lourdes grotto, built in 1923 and consecrated, in the year after Kafka’s death, by Father Ignaz Seipel, leader of the clericalist and anti-semitic Christian Social Party and twice prime minister of Austria in the 1920s. Father Seipel’s distinctive contribution to national politics was to move the Christian Socialists (CS) into a position of total opposition to the Social Democrats and an alliance with big business, Austria’s pro-German party and right-wing militias. His presumed responsibility for the deaths of civilians in the 1927 “July massacre” in Vienna led the left to name him “the bloody prelate”. Seipel was called upon again to be foreign minister in 1930 and who knows where his career might have ended had his life not been cut short by tuberculosis? He died in the Wienerwald Sanatorium, where Kafka had also once been treated, in 1932.

Few of us harbour any warm feelings for hospitals or clinics. Anglophones also often feel that there is something more sinister about a Doktor and a Klinik than a doctor and a clinic, and we know where that comes from. There is no reason, however, to believe that the people who ran the institutions where Kafka, and later Father Seipel, died were anything other than humane and philanthropic persons: the fact that the two Jewish founders of the Wienerwald Sanatorium, Hugo Kraus and Arthur Baer, were either murdered or cornered and forced into suicide by the Nazis tends only to confirm this view.

When Kafka died in 1924 he was the only surviving male child of his family (two male siblings had died in infancy). He had three sisters, Elli (Gabriele), Valli (Valerie) and Ottla (Ottilie). They were all to be murdered in the Nazi extermination camps.

Justice did not catch up with Emil Gelny after the war. He disappeared. Perhaps he had influential friends. We do know that he turned up in Syria and later in Iraq, where he was made welcome and enabled to practise medicine again. He died in Baghdad in 1961.

In 1989 the village of Gugging renamed itself Maria Gugging in recognition of its special connection with the Marian devotion. It is now a significant place of pilgrimage for Catholics from both Austria and abroad. One imagines they must have quite a lot to pray about.


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