Skip to Content


Christmas Short Story

When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas
by Justin Cartwright

12 December 2008

12:00 AM

12 December 2008

12:00 AM

When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas
by Justin Cartwright

In 1920, at the age of 38, Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his father, Hermann, accusing him of ruining his life by his dictatorial and insensitive behaviour, which left him lacking in self-belief and unable to escape his father’s dominance.

Kafka never sent this letter to his father, but instead showed it to friends.

Justin Cartwright imagines the father’s reply.

My dear Franz,

Your letter to me, which I read with disgust and sorrow, is the product of your oversensitive imagination and your weak constitution, both of which are, alas, faults with which you were born.  

You are misguided on so many points, starting with the nature of a father’s duty to his children and the nature of a son’s obligations to his father, that I hardly know where to start, except to say that your spite and lack of gratitude are monumental.

The most vicious aspect of your letter is the charge that I have deprived you of a happy life. You say that I have made you afraid, not only of me, but of life. You claim that I threatened you, raising my hand to you, saying that I would rip you open like a fish. You say too that at mealtimes I behaved like a peasant, always criticising the food and ridiculing my children. You say that I have — I am quoting — a mysterious innocence — a ridiculous phrase — which permitted me to abuse anyone I chose to, without regret, while never allowing anyone else to utter a word of criticism. Your list of charges goes on over many pages and they are all the product of your inflamed and unstable mind. I have, apparently, deliberately fostered a sense of worthlessness in you in order to bolster my own importance, as if I needed to do so in competition with a little worm like you. You even claim that when, out of the goodness of my heart, I took you swimming, I would show off my physique, deliberately to belittle you, because you have always had something of the insect about you. You chose to describe yourself as like a little skeleton and I cannot argue with that. It is as if you believe that my vitality and robustness have been bought at your expense. This is the logic of the feeble, who will not understand that life is essentially a struggle.

Well my dear Franz, you are now 38 years old and still snivelling about ill-treatment while, incidentally, still living in my house in some comfort. Let me just say that I only wish I had been brought up so ill-treated and that I had had your troubles. Also, I wish I had had three meals a day and newspapers and a cook and servants.

Now I would like to give you some of the relevant facts, which seem to have escaped your notice as you scribbled away in your room, taking every opportunity to avoid me or denigrate me, who did not have the benefit of a good education, something which no doubt you mocked with your intellectual friends. As you know, the reason I did not have a good education is that from the age of ten I was pushing my father’s peddler’s cart, six days a week, rain or shine, winter or summer, wearing the same thin set of clothes for months, my legs covered in untreated sores, and returning home only on the Sabbath. Not for me the luxury of sitting in coffee houses with your pal Brod, discussing weighty literary and political themes. No, when I was young, Jews were still living in ghettoes and had to do whatever work was available to survive. Excuse me if I have missed something, but I don’t think you have ever pushed a cart or soiled your hands. All this has passed you by; as you say, you cannot live the life I had to, but you go on to say that this has created a gulf between us. The difference between us is that I accepted my fate and decided to make the most of it. I worked hard and cheerfully and finally came here to Prague, and opened a shop and prospered. When we Jews were the subject of attacks, my shop was spared because of my good relations with my customers who I dealt with in Czech. They called me a good Czech, with a Czech name, Kavka — the jackdaw. Even now, right here in Prague people say that Jews drink the blood of Christian babies.

But for you this is not a matter of survival, but an interesting study of human nature as it is written in literature. In fact, you have never had to struggle to survive: your only struggle has been in finding ways to blame me for your inadequacies and whining about my physique and my hard work — something, sadly, you have failed to engage in. No, for you life is frightening and it seems that you, of all the people in the world, must be protected from the harsh facts for fear that your delicate health may not be able to stand too many shocks, and all the while you are being shielded from the world, you attack me and at the same time live off my generosity. I have tried in my way to protect you and help you and advise you, but of course you believe that my help is designed only to weaken you further. Is it any wonder that I was impatient with your so-called writing and your idle friends who have hung around in cafés talking about art and literature while I bear all the responsibility and worry of the shop and the fac- tory? When your cousins were away at the war, you could hardly bear to go to the factory to help out, and when you did go, you did it with a show of reluctance and claimed that it made you suicidal. 

If I am guilty of anything, it is of an excessive concern for you. When your brothers died and you were my only son, I felt a special concern for you, and I thought that I had to help you understand the ways of the world. But to you this was terror and oppression and your insults have now found new expression in your shameful letter. 

One of the ways you insulted me was to fall in with the Yiddish Theatre. You took every opportunity to make goo-goo eyes at the singers you loved more than your own family. It wasn’t just that you loved them more than your own family, the fact was that you deliberately and ostentatiously made it plain that they, from the very bottom of the herring barrel, were superior to your own family. You liked to believe that the ridiculous ghetto grimacing and völkisch songs and crude acting were somehow more echt than the honest, German, love of music and opera which is our true culture.

Dear Franz, it is people like your friend Yitzhak Löwy from the theatre who drag us down and make us vulnerable to insult and oppression. When you brought him to our house, despite my obvious displeasure, it was clearly intended to upset me, and it succeeded. You were indicating to me that these people who wallow in outdated Jewish ghetto customs, who speak Yiddish, are more important to you than your father, who lives in the modern world of commerce and industry. What this meant was that you believed that the Jew should forever be stuck in the ghetto of the mind. I was deeply insulted, and that is why I said to you, of course not in the language of the cafés, ‘when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas’. Of all the sayings my father, the humble peddler, taught me, none is truer than this. And, sadly, you have willingly lain down with dogs.

You complain that I say I like you but that unlike other fathers I am unable to demonstrate the fact, even though you believe that I do in fact like you. But you add that this is just an excuse: I praise and excuse myself, you say, by suggesting that other fathers put on a performance, which I am incapable of. At ten years old I was helping my father push the cart; for a small boy it was a very hard life, and it has perhaps made me impatient of sentimentality and incapable of expressing what is inside me, but is that any reason for me to be the butt of your anger? And is it surprising to you that I should at times have been impatient with the fact that while you needed my approval and love, you also rejected me at every opportunity? In your letter you admit that you deliberately provoked me by crawling away to you
r room to hide with your books in order to avoid my company. You have not had the blessing of children, and now it is probably too late for you, but let me give you one piece of advice: parents need the love of their children just as much as children need the love of their parents. To be rejected by your child is very hurtful and you have injured me deeply. But I should not be surprised: it has always been your habit to do nothing for me but everything for strangers.

What I am most guilty of is an excessive concern for your welfare. It has pained me to see you so fearful and hesitant. But one of the ways you repay me is to blame me for your indecisive personality, your constant nervousness and your ill health; you also blame me for your inability to find a wife — all of this you claim is entirely my fault, because, apparently, I undermine you at every turn. You are easily led on by a woman who shows her bosom or legs, and I have, it is true, tried to protect you from the women of this sort you have become involved with, because of your weak and hesitant nature. When you did become engaged to be married for the first time, to Fraulein Bauer, you claimed that I was the obstacle, not by doing anything, but because of my very existence. You write, and I quote you, that ‘marrying, starting a family, accepting all the children that come, supporting them in this uncertain world, while still guiding them a little — this is, as far as I am concerned, the greatest success a human being can aspire to’. This has always been my belief and I have tried to live by it. But what it demands is a consistency of purpose and principles. When you giggle at the gossip with little hunchbacked Brod and your other intellectual friends who — let us be frank — contribute nothing whatever to the wellbeing of our people or of our country, I am sure that principles and consistency are far from your minds. I must be excused, because I deal in the real world: I produce the goods people want and I sell them at a fair price. But you sneer at my endeavours. To your fine friends, no doubt I am a crude figure, a crass, uneducated peasant from a small village who understands nothing about the artistic world. I plead guilty: my understanding extends only to the real world.

You are still angry, it seems, that when you were just becoming a man, 20 years ago, you asked my advice about the sexual nature of women and how to deal with it. When I offered you manly advice about how to have relations with women without risk, which was what you were in truth asking, you thought that I was suggesting something indecent and repulsive and you say that this has affected you profoundly all your life. I understand from your sister that you have been influenced by Dr Freud and perhaps his mumbo-jumbo has had this effect on your impressionable mind. In fact, I was merely trying to explain to you how things are arranged in the world. You said that as a father I was too strong for you, that I had health, strength, appetite, a loud voice and that I was quick-witted and worldly wise, but also prone to violent rages. It seems that being strong and healthy are crimes in your book. As to violent rages, I think it is true that I am easily moved, but my rages pass quickly. I react too intensely, but I do it because I feel too much for you and the family. You say that working in the factory made you suicidal, yet it is the factory that gave you the leisure to think about suicide. You also say that when you visited the shop, you could not stand it because I was so often in a rage with the staff and abused them. I called them the paid enemy. But of course, what you apparently didn’t know was that the Czechs hate us and lose no opportunity to fabricate stories about us to the police and are longing to get rid of us and seize our goods and our houses. They envy us and hate us. But in your world, of Brod and Czech professors and writers, and flea-ridden Yiddish actors, you don’t, of course, see any of this. To you all men are potentially civilised and rational.

When you gave me a copy of your so-called story ‘In the Penal Colony’ last year, I refused to accept it and you were offended. From what I have heard of it, it is a ridiculous and provocative account of a machine which tortures and tattoos individuals. Your preoccupation with such things is deeply unhealthy, but even this preoccupation, I would guess, you ascribe to me. The reason I would not accept your story is that my policy is to stick to my principle of living calmly within our society while believing that our future lies with a new Germany in an empire of German-speaking peoples, which will forever replace these superstitious and outmoded peoples who surround us. That is my dream. But you choose always to stick your fingers into wounds. That is your nature.

In the meanwhile, that section of your letter to me in which you artfully imagine my response in fact sums up very accurately what I think about your complaints and self-justification. I quote our own words: ‘all this does is confirm for me that my reproaches were justified — all of them. But I should have added that you were insincere, a sycophant and a parasite and this letter, if I am not mistaken, is further evidence of your parasitic attitude to me’.

Your father,
Hermann Kafka 

The Song Before It Is Sung, by Justin Cartwright, is published by Bloomsbury.

Show comments