Kafka: A Bibliography of Criticism (updated 24 Aug 2011)

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and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.”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:

  1. Kafka: The Decisive Years – Reiner Stach
  2. The I Without a Self (The Dyer’s Hand) – W. H. Auden
  3. Lambent Traces: Kafka – Stanley Corngold
  4. A Bird Was In The Room (Writing and the Body) – Gabriel Josipovici
  5. Kafka’s Children (Singer on the Shore) – Gabriel Josipovici
  6. Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice – Elias Canetti
  7. The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (Testaments Betrayed) – Milan Kundera
  8. Reading Kafka and Kafka & Literature (The Work of Fire) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form – Stanley Corngold
  10. Kafka: An Art for the Wilderness (The Lessons of Modernism) – Gabriel Josipovici
  11. Notes on Kafka (Prisms) – Adorno
  12. K. – Roberto Calasso
  13. Conversations With Kafka – Gustav Janouch
  14. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays – Ronald Gray, ed.
  15. The Metamorphosis (Lectures on Literature) – Vladimir Nabokov
  16. Kafka, Rilke and Rumpelstiltskin (Speak, Silence) – Idris Parry
  17. 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)]

Dreyfus in Our Times

“What is collective passion?” begins an incisive article in the London Review of Books. Jacqueline Rose examines the Dreyfus affair, the argument that, “What happened [to Dreyfus] in France at the turn of the century was in many ways a forerunner of Vichy,” and the part played in the affair by four heroes:

The affair has three heroes: Zola, the less known Colonel Picquart, one of Dreyfus’s few defenders inside the army, and Bernard Lazare, the Jewish socialist-anarchist and critic who was first to speak out publicly in Dreyfus’s defence. But we should also add a fourth: the radical, little-known literary journal La Revue Blanche.

Rose also explores contemporary parallels:

On grounds of national security, the state prosecutors argued that the most incriminating evidence against Dreyfus, which in fact did not exist, could not be revealed in court. David Miliband recently used exactly the same argument to justify withholding details of Great Britain’s policy on and, the evidence suggests, complicity in rendition and torture. National security as the cover for the erosion of civil liberties is something we have all become familiar with since 9/11.

If your knowledge of the Dreyfus affair was as meager as mine, you may find the article illuminating. I have ordered Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters (2009), cited by Rose in her article. (Begley wrote the first-rate The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head, Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay.)

Jacqueline Rose’s article is adapted from a lecture available here.

The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head by Louis Begley

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.”

Understanding Kafka (or not)

Anchored in Prague and Prague’s German-speaking Jewish middle class, Kafka had the sensibility of a man of his place and time. Haas [Willy – a friend of Milena] observed that

Kafka had certainly said it all, all that we had on the tips of our tongue and never said, never could say . . . . I cannot imagine how any man can understand him at all who was not born in Prague in the period 1880 to 1890 . . . . Kafka seems to me to be . . . an Austrian, Jewish and Prague secret to which only we have the key.

– Louis Begley, The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head