Type “Kafka” into Google and you can choose from more than 14,000,000 English language sites-twice as many as for James Joyce. In Kafka: The Decisive Years Reiner Stach writes of ‘ well worn “complete interpretations” from the 1950s and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.” As a reader of many of these volumes I agree with Stach’s conclusion of their value:
Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No Theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them.
Although it is possible to revel in Kafka’s artistry without reading a single word of criticism, it is natural after reading the short stories and the three incomplete novels to dip into the diaries and letters. From there a curious mind is drawn to biography and interpretation. Disillusion swiftly follows.
I could use some help to compile a short list of essential Kafka criticism. What are the genuinely enlightening essays or books? After suggestions from Steve Mitchelmore and Flowerville I have updated the bibliography:
- Kafka: The Decisive Years – Reiner Stach
- The I Without a Self (The Dyer’s Hand) – W. H. Auden
- Lambent Traces: Kafka – Stanley Corngold
- A Bird Was In The Room (Writing and the Body) – Gabriel Josipovici
- Kafka’s Children (Singer on the Shore) – Gabriel Josipovici
- Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice – Elias Canetti
- The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (Testaments Betrayed) – Milan Kundera
- Reading Kafka and Kafka & Literature (The Work of Fire) – Maurice Blanchot
- Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form – Stanley Corngold
- Kafka: An Art for the Wilderness (The Lessons of Modernism) – Gabriel Josipovici
- Notes on Kafka (Prisms) – Adorno
- K. – Roberto Calasso
- Conversations With Kafka – Gustav Janouch
- Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays – Ronald Gray, ed.
- The Metamorphosis (Lectures on Literature) – Vladimir Nabokov
- Kafka, Rilke and Rumpelstiltskin (Speak, Silence) – Idris Parry
- Kafka and the Work’s Demand (The Space of Literature) – Maurice Blanchot
Josipovici’s selection for the Everyman Collected Stories edition (for which Kafka’s Children is the intro) includes D&G’s book, Marthe Robert’s FK’s Loneliness and then essays – Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial, Kundera’s In Saint Garta’s Shadow, Benjamin’s essay (not sure how you got that title – it’s called something else in mine) and the two I’d recommend above all: Blanchot’s in “The Work of Fire”.
I’d also recommend Corngold’s The Necessity of Form and Josipovici’s Kafka: An Art for the Wilderness, in The Lessons of Modernism, perhaps the first thing I ever read by him in 1988. And Ernst Pawel’s The Nightmare of Reason was the best biography until Stach came along.
To me it’s interesting that Kafka inspires such great criticism yet Proust so little.
Thanks, Steve, for the suggestions. Of course the Canetti, which Stach refers to frequently. I have added Kundera, Pawel and Blanchot, and the additional Corngold (I have an upcoming Corngold on pre-order). Yes of course the Josipovici from The Lessons of Modernism, forgot that essay.
Strange about Proust vs. Kafka criticism; perhaps that Kafka’s stories are more enigmatic, and open?
i agree re the canetti one
then adorno on kafka (aufzeichnungen zu kafka .. notes on kafka)
i thought the calasso one is not too bad
gustav janouch — conversations with kafka
not sure whether idris parry wrote essays on kafka? if so i imagine them to be interesting as well.
Stach quotes heavily from Canetti, so it must be worth attention. Thanks for Janouch and Adorno: both look compelling. I have added Calasso, at least until I reread. Parry is obviously a Kafka translator, see no evidence she wrote essays. Thanks for dropping by and the suggestions.
at least one idris parry essay: “kafka, gogol, and nathanael west” [in: kafka; a collection of critical essays, ed r gray, 1962] and i am sure there must be more, for instance the introductions to his kafka translations. i don’t know the essay above, but generally parry is a joy to read, really nice. he was friends with canetti too & supervised one of wg sebald’s theses.
Thanks, found Ronald Gray’s collection, which I’ve added; that volume also includes a Camus essay. I’ve also tracked down a set of Parry essays, which includes intriguingly “Kafka, Rilke and Rumpelstiltskin” (and a Kleist essay). Thanks for the introduction to Parry, I look forward to reading his essays.
you’re welcome — that’s right i just saw that rumpelstiltskin one too and came to add it, it’s in his essay collection “animals of silence”.
Blanchot’s essays on Kafka in that volume are “Reading Kafka” and “Kafka & Literature”. I should have added “Kafka and the Work’s Demand” from The Space of Literature.
In French, there’s a volume collecting all his Kafka essays: “De Kafka à Kafka”. An Amazon customer says it is “Undoubtedly the peak of literary criticism”. It is.
Thanks again, Steve. I struggle with Blanchot in English, so I shall delay an attempt on his essays in French.
I have nothing to add or subtract, but will bookmark this post for future reference – what a valuable resource for the internet-curious on the subject of Kafka criticism. Thanks, Anthony! (And everyone else who pitched in.)
Thanks, Emily. Your Disgrace bibliography was the inspiration behind my decision to post this bibliography.
What Blanchot have you been reading Anthony? The essays are written very clearly, with perhaps only Proustian-length sentences perhaps to detain one.
It was “The Space of Literature” that stumped me. I set it aside after the first chapter. Sentence by sentence I could understand, but the meaning eluded me. At your suggestion I read “Orpheus Gaze” and enjoyed it very much. I plan to try “Work of Fire” as a more accessible way into Blanchot.