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Max and Franz’s Woman Problem

A new translation of Max Brod’s early 20th-century novel ‘Jewish Women’ echoes to today’s confusing and awkward romance scene

Kat Rosenfield
March 10, 2020
Illustration: Tablet magazine; Original photo: Wikipedia
Swipe rightIllustration: Tablet magazine; Original photo: Wikipedia
Illustration: Tablet magazine; Original photo: Wikipedia
Swipe rightIllustration: Tablet magazine; Original photo: Wikipedia

When it was first published, the biggest question surrounding Max Brod’s novel Jewish Women was, well, a Jewish one—or rather, the Jewish one, according to a particularly pointed critique from Franz Kafka. Brod’s friend and colleague (Kafka would ultimately entrust Brod as the executor of his literary estate) wrote a disgruntled diary entry on the topic that is quoted by Benjamin Balint in his introduction to the new English translation of Brod’s novel.

“[No] such solution is indicated, indeed not even conjectured, for just those characters who busy themselves with such questions stand farthest from the center of the story at a point where events are already revolving more rapidly,” Kafka wrote.

It’s easy to imagine this same scenario playing out if Jewish Women were published today: a novelist might write in tantalizing proximity to a potent political issue and yet decide not to engage with it—and that certain readers would find this deeply frustrating. Now, as then, there’s a sense in some corners that authors who dance too close to one of these metaphorical mires are shirking an important obligation if they don’t step right in it. Kafka felt all the more entitled to a tackling of the Jewish question when “the writer would have had to take only a few last steps in order to find the possibility of a solution suitable to his story,” a complaint that would feel right at home in a 21st-century hot take.

But if Brod doesn’t offer a solution to the Jewish question or even particularly acknowledge its existence in this novel, this might be because its titular subjects genuinely had other concerns. Set in the spa town of Teplice in the Czech Republic, Jewish Women depicts a summer in the lives of several prosperous Jewish families whose hopes, anxieties, and prospects were for all intents and purposes as much the same as anyone’s (in stark contrast to the persecution of the coming years, a dark turn that neither Brod nor his characters saw coming when the novel was published in 1911). Zionism and German nationalism are peripheral issues, academic, and ultimately uninteresting to the main characters—either because of gender roles (Jewish women at the time were largely excluded from scholarly circles, a suitable marriage being their only real hope for entry into society) or youth (as with Hugo, the 17-year-old student who serves as the book’s protagonist.)

Instead, Jewish Women is primarily preoccupied with issues of love and friendship between the sexes. And as for the women in question, there are several, which some scholars have identified as a collection of archetypal Jews, but which could just as easily be a study in female stereotypes: the grasping social climber, the mercurial flirt, the adolescent hellraiser, the sturdy caretaker, the frail old mother. The most important female character (embodying several of the aforementioned types in turn, or sometimes all at once) is Irene Popper, with whom Hugo finds himself in a one-sided pining romance. He obsesses over his place in her life; she obsesses over her place in the world.

“She divided German society in Prague into classes; the top one consisted of the aristocracy and the best Aryan circles. Then came the big businessmen, the rich lawyers, the top financiers, and the richest Jews…”

Being Jewish limits Irene’s prospects as a member of the elite; her small and much-boasted-about inroads into high society are a product of her own charms and manipulations. But despite her status-obsession, she doesn’t wallow or resent where she comes from. As a romantic heroine, she’s as unperturbed by the modest circumstances of her birth as Jane Austen’s Fanny Price, if much more willing to engage in social deviousness to improve them.

Hugo imagines that he and Irene are united by their respective possession of an embarrassing secret, and spends most of their summer together dwelling on the relationship: its frustrations, its future, its eventual and obvious lack thereof. But his fantasy, of lovers bound by tragedy, is blind to the difference between them. Hugo’s dark secret is that he has failed a physics exam—but he’ll have a second chance to pass it, and whether he learns the material well enough to do so is entirely up to him.

Irene, having suffered a broken engagement at the tail end of her marriageable years, is trapped at the mercy of social convention and her own waning eligibility; it’s no wonder she behaves the way she does. Her only hope is to serve herself up to suitable men, one of whom might want to marry her. She may manipulate, but she’s never in control, and Hugo never grasps this disparity as he feels alternately love-addled, superior, competitive, annoyed, astonished, disenchanted. At least until the end of the book, when, at long last, he sees Irene happily engaged—and feels sorry for her.

Hugo’s sentimentality and naiveté obscure for him that he’s only limited by what he can make of himself, rather than what he can convince others to make of him. This lack of perspective persists even as Hugo is virtually surrounded by women, including a buxom cousin who serves as a sort of mother/sister/nanny/crush object, in contrast with the icy and calculating Irene. He reveres them to the detriment of his own understanding; he puts Irene on a pedestal only to complain that she doesn’t look as nice when seen from the ground, at a distance. He worries that she’ll fall off—and crush him.

Reading Jewish Women in 2020, it’s hard not to think of our own present-day oeuvre of viral literary fiction, in the form of bleak short stories where identity seems to mean everything but solve nothing. Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” comes to mind, or more aptly in this case, Tony Tulathimutte’s “The Feminist,” in which a young man obsessed with social justice frameworks tries to fit them to his life, and his life to them, until he’s impossibly broken and resentful.

Hugo is no incel, of course (although for those who’ve read “The Feminist,” there’s a surprising and amusing moment of synchronicity between Hugo and Tulathimutte’s protagonist, both of whom are worried over the narrowness of their shoulders and cruelly emasculated when a woman mocks them. But the princely role Hugo imagines himself playing in Irene’s life—indeed, in the life of any woman—has a certain red-pilled chivalry about it. He’s never kissed a girl, but he knows just how he’d do it if he did: “He wouldn’t even touch her, only put his lips hear her skin, so that she would feel his breath which caressed her cheek.” (Fortunately, we never have to see this “kissing” technique attempted, and one hopes Hugo eventually matured enough to reconsider it before he panted on anyone’s face.) And of course, Irene’s behavior would be outrage catnip to the men who groan on message boards about the calculated hypergamy of desirable woman, even though she herself is something of a cool girl.

“I am not the emancipated type,” she scoffs. “I hate all that business. A woman has other things to worry about than being intellectual.”

And yet, like any young man caught up in the cat-and-mouse coyness of heterosexual courtship—and particularly one who sees himself as being perpetually on the losing end—Hugo struggles to comprehend how Irene’s infuriating behavior is the product of a system that constrains her, too. He tries to imagine what she’s thinking, but he can’t stop blocking his own view. Hugo loves Irene, loathes Irene, admires and condemns her game-playing in turn, all without ever really getting it, because he can only see her in relation to himself. When he realizes he’s been rejected, his response is a rant that would be right at home on a Reddit message board: “I will never have luck with woman, I will never be loved as I deserve. It will never be any different until I die. And however I act, whether I flirt or behave modestly am arrogant or reserved, it’s always the same story.”

But—as Brod notes in the book’s final moments, stepping back to observe his hero with the rueful fondness of a man looking through his own childhood photos—Hugo is only a boy. There’s hope for him yet.

Jewish Women isn’t obligated to steer young men toward a better appreciation for the plight of women, any more than it’s obligated to supply the political solutions to which Kafka felt so entitled. Brod’s novel doesn’t need to instruct. It observes, thoughtfully and carefully, leaving readers with a choice. We can wonder what will became of Hugo in a world which we know—where Brod did not—that so much was about to change, in horrible ways. Or we can linger where the novel ends: on the threshold, between youth and adulthood, between peace and wartime, watching the boy sleep.

Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.

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