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and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.”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
Excluded from this list because I consider them inferior are Brod’s biography (interesting but unreliable), Pietro Citati’s hagiography and Deleuze and Guattari’s showiness.
[21 Aug: Added a second Blanchot, Gray, Parry and Nabokov; deleted Pawel’s biography due to speculation and inaccuracies. 24 Aug: Removed Benjamin’s two Kafka essays (Illuminations)]