What is Kafkaesque?

Is there any writer whose works and person has generated as much secondary literature as Kafka? For a writer that “left about forty complete prose texts […] nine [of which] can be called stories” the secondary outweighs the primary literature. As Reiner Stach says in the first volume of his work Kafka: The Decisive Years, “Indeed, it appears unlikely that if Kafka were to rise from the dead, he would be able to tell us something that has not already been discussed.”

Unlike so many of the speculative contributions to the cult of Kafka, Stach’s book (so far) has a different heft. Stach explains, “My biography of Franz Kafka does not fill in the gaps. All the details, even occurrences that are self-evident, are documented; nothing has been invented.”

Any reader of Kafka’s diaries or Brod’s biography of Kafka knows the importance to Kafka of his story The Judgement. Stach detects this as the text where Kafka’s dominant themes came together for the first time.

Suddenly-without guide or precedent, it seemed-the Kafka cosmos was at hand, fully equipped with the “Kafkaesque” inventory that now gives his work its distinctive character: the father figure who is both overpowering and dirty, the hollow rationality of the narrator, the juridical structures imposed on life, the dream logic of the plot, and last but not least, the flow of the story perpetually at odds with the hopes and expectations of the hero. Reinhard Baumgart has correctly noted that by comparison the short pieces in Meditation seem like “probationary prose,” writing that is still tentative in its radicalism and just manages to steer clear of struggle and catastrophe. Indeed, if we take literally Kafka’s famous sentence from the “Letter to His Father-“My writing was about you”-this writing dodged its central subject for a good fifteen years, which explains Kafka’s shock of recognition when he contemplated “The Judgement.” For the first time he had linked theme, imagery, and plot to ignite a spark between literature and life. He called the brightness of this spark “indubitability.”

This volume is the first of three written by Reiner Stach. Translated by Shelley Frisch, who is working on translating the second volume from German to English.

[Coincidentally Tales from the Reading Room is also thinking of Kafka today.]

7 thoughts on “What is Kafkaesque?

  1. Your title makes me think of Auden’s essay on Kafka, in which he argues that we don’t bump into people on the street and think ‘there’s someone right out of a Kafka novel’, but we can and do have Kafkaesque experiences. He compares that to, say, the adjective Dickensian, which is more readily compared to people than to situations. I thought that was an intriguing idea.

    I think Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw has generated a huge amount of secondary literature, enough to make it a strong competitor, but you are probably right that Kafka outdistances James in the end!

    • I’ve quoted that Auden essay a couple of times before, as does Reiner Stach. I enjoy it a lot.

      After I finish the Stach biography I am going to seek help to compile a bibliography of the secondary Kafka literature that is worth reading.

  2. This biography sounds really good. Funny how Kafka crops up in groupings. I just finished Bleak House by Charles Dickens and the whole Chancery court thing made me think of Kafka.

    • Stach’s biography is brilliant, Stefanie. His stitching together of Kafka’s life is extraordinary, and unlike other Kafka biographers it is not a work of hagiography.

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