The Hazards of Kafka

Browsing my bookshelves for something to read to fill half an hour – before being collected for the cinema – I am drawn back to Auden’s essays in The Dyer’s Hand. Today, it is to The I Without a Self that I turn, Auden on Kafka.

Kafka is one of two writers who have remained with me from my teenage years, read annually, the other being Eliot. The ‘meaning’ I extract from both has changed much over the passage of years. I am in sympathy with Auden’s reading.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

Just before this statement, Auden writes, “Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on whose whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.”

Sylvia Plath is the other writer about whom one could make the same statement. Any others come to mind?

8 thoughts on “The Hazards of Kafka

  1. It’s perhaps not exactly true of Woolf, but I do feel her death by suicide draws in an unfortunate number of readers who want to dwell on it ad nauseum and thereby miss the playful, exhilarating, and otherwise life-affirming aspects of her work.

    That Auden quote also applies to my music-listening strategies: I tend to save my Billie Holliday and Cat Power records for moods of tranquil stability.


  2. Ah yes, now you mention musicians, Emily, there’s a few that come to mind in addition to those two: Leonard Cohen, Belle and Sebastian and possibly even Mahler.

    My intention of working through Woolf’s diaries this year is still in the realm of the possible. What I see in the literary work of Kafka and Plath is that intoxicating blend of morbidity, and what Auden calls ‘an equal passion for the good life.’ Though I know Leonard, Angelica Garnett and others refer to Woolf’s vivacity and humour, it is hard to find in the limited work that I have read.


  3. I find more humor in Woolf’s short stories – I get the sense she allowed herself to be more playful in the short form and not go too far with the story, which, in her longer works, tends to find a mediated happy ending. No one perfectly happy, no one perfectly destroyed. Maybe To the Lighthouse is her most vivacious work, but I’d have to think about that some more. And I haven’t read all of her work yet, so perhaps Orlando or Jacob’s Room will change my opinion.

    I’m going to put Houellebecq in this same category of writers – one needs a firm hold on some form of realistic optimism before being able to read him critically.


  4. I’m not sure I knew Woolf even wrote short stories, Michelle; is there a collected edition?

    You’ve read much more Houellebecq than me. I can see the playful side, and the unpleasant side, but do you find him dark enough, sufficiently bleak? Does it not come across more as a performance?


    • For Woolf, there is a collection. It’s what I’ve been reading – The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf and it’s arranged chronologically. I’m really enjoying it.

      As for Houellebecq – I like the word performance and I think this is often a good way to “read” his work, although I’m hard put to say whether I think he’s being intentionally so. And I would say his work is sufficiently bleak, but only on certain subjects – for example, if you read his work and focus on his treatment of, say, children, and his view of how children experience life, it is really bleak. Where adults are concerned, there is a range of possibilities. I’m still thinking about Houellebecq, however, and have one more book to read…


  5. Thanks, Michelle, added the Woolf to my wish list.

    I’ve pencilled more Houellebecq in for the autumn, if I don’t get distracted by something else.


  6. Robert James Waller of Bridges of Madison Count fame. Just the thought of that book makes me want to hurt something 😉 I have the Auden book checked out from the library and sitting on the corner of my desk. I am really looking forward to reading it.


    • Hurt something? Is that a suggestion to read Waller or avoid him, Stefanie? I think you’ll enjoy Auden’s essays, the one that precedes the Kafka study, about detective fiction, is also very good.


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