Odd figures recur in the tales of Kafka and Walser, childlike yet with the potential for duplicity. That the assistants in The Castle have their prototype in Walser’s Jakob Von Gunten did not escape Coetzee’s attention.
In Illuminations Walter Benjamin likens these resolute figures to the gandharvas of Indian mythology: “celestial creatures, beings in an unfinished state.”
Benjamin retells Brod’s account of a conversation with Kafka:
‘I remember,’ Brod writes, ‘ a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. “We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. “Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.” “Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.” He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.”
Benjamin adds, ‘These words provide a bridge to those extremely strange figures in Kafka, the only ones who have escaped from the family circle, and for whom there may be hope.’
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and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.”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)]
These bookshelves are metaphorical as Kafka lived a Spartan existence. Somehow I don’t picture a book-lined study, more a monastic cell, but Kafka’s library card was in heavy use.
A secondary pleasure of reading Franz Kafka: A Biography is that tMax Brod records the authors and, in some cases, particular books that Kafka enjoyed. Kafka read widely, citing influences from Dickens to Mann; his love of Goethe and Flaubert was unwavering during the twenty-odd years that Brod was a close friend.
This list comprises those writers that Brod mentions Kafka reading deeply at different periods of his life. Several of Kafka’s favourite writers are unfortunately not commonly available in English translation: Rudolf Kassner, Emil Strauss, Wilhelm Schäfer, Hans Carossa, Franz Seraphicus Grillparzer, Stefan Anton George.
- Heinrich von Kleist – Selected Prose and An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist (out of print but sometimes available)
- Hugo von Hofmannsthal – The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal
- Thomas Mann – Tonio Kröger (available in an Everyman Death in Venice and Other Stories)
- Johann Peter Hebel – Little Treasury and Diaries
- Theodor Fontane – Letters
- Adalbert Stifter – Indian Summer
- Robert Walser
- Ernst Weiss
- Johan August Strindberg
- Blaise Pascal
- Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen – London Fog
- Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin
- Božena Němcová – The Grandmother
Dispense with objectivity and Max Brod’s biography Franz Kafka succeeds in reclaiming Kafka from a monotone reputation for despair and paranoia.
What I emphasise, and what I believe distinguishes my exposition of Kafka from all the others-e.g. Schoeps, Vietta, and Stumpf-is the fact that I consider that the positive side of him, his love of life, of the earth earthy, and his religion in the sense of a properly fulfilled life, is his decisive message, and not self-abnegation, turning his back on life, despair-the “tragic position.”
In this respect Brod succeeds, building his argument with numerous extracts from Kafka’s diaries and letters.
To have registered the negative and fearfully defective sides of nature without veiling them in any way, and yet at the same time to have seen continually from the depths of his heart the “World of Ideas,” in the Platonic sense-that was the distinguishing feature of Kafka’s life and his works, that was the thing that proclaimed itself to his friends, without a word being said about it, as a kind of revelation, peace, certainty, in the midst of the storm of suffering and uncertainty.
Come to Brod’s biography not seeking balanced critical interpretation but an elegiac and lyrical speculation about a friend who died too early. Turn to Stach’s definitive biography for a study with more robust critical priorities.
What type of person comes to mind when you think of Franz Kafka? How about:
. . . over six feet tall, handsome, elegantly dressed; an unexceptional student, a strong swimmer, an aerobics enthusiast, a vegetarian; a frequent visitor to movie houses, cabarets, all-night cafés, literary soirées and brothels; the published author of seven books during his brief lifetime; engaged three times (twice to the same woman); valued by his employers, promoted at work. (Changing My Mind – Zadie Smith)
Not quite the Kafka that emerges from Max Brod’s 1947 biography. Louis Begley’s biographical essay is an essential complement to Brod’s book. It strips away both the banality and the mystique of Kafka, the man, the genius and the writer.
Kafka’s life so imperatively commands our interest because his short stories and novels stand among the most original and greatest works of twentieth-century literature. Without them, there would be little to remember him for . . . . Apart from moments of triumph, when a work he had completed met his superbly exigent standards, the only significant events in his private and humdrum life were occasional infatuations and the ups and downs of his relations with Felice and Milena . . . . and, of course, the milestones marking the progress of his illness.
Begley has drawn from Kafka’s letters and diaries an interpretation that makes Kafka accessible as a complex but understandable person, living through difficult personal and historical circumstances. In doing so he makes possible a refreshed reading of Kafka’s incredible stories. Zadie Smith again: “But if we’re not to read Kafka too Brodley, how are we to read him? We might do worse than to read him Begley.”