The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature
Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Castle
Kafka’s drawings, said to be newly discovered and now published for the first time, are witty, disturbing, and rather like Rorschach ink-blots. This is not surprising, since the writings themselves are like ink-blots, and the manifold interpretations (a sample of which can be found in the collection of essays edited by Peter Neumeyer) perhaps tell more about the interpreters than they do about Kafka. The drawings are not all easy to place in relation to the chapters of The Trial: one is obviously Joseph K. before the Court: his stance is defiant, the hands behind his back are anguished, the out-of-perspective railings suggest claustrophobia and vertigo. Others show him collapsed over his desk at the Bank, and tottering feebly with a stick. In the fourth he is either throwing this stick or thrusting with it rapierwise against the invisible antagonist, with gay defiance, but the weapon like his body is going limp. Fifth, he stands before a mirror or an easel, narcissistic in either case. The last I think would be just as suitable for The Castle: he sits on the ground overcome by the awful fatigue that affects everyone in that story, holding a giant pair of compasses, appropriate to the Landsurveyor, indeed his body itself forms a disintegrating set-square.
Apart from the drawings, this paperback has the old Muir translation, revised and with additional material translated by E. M. Butler, and excerpts from Kafka’s Diaries. It can’t be, as it claims, “definitive,” since the order of the chapters of The Trial is not yet certain. Kafka is now in the hands of the scholars, and there will be, I imagine, many surprising discoveries when all of Max Brod’s papers become available. At the moment any review of Kafka and his critics must be backward-looking or speculative.
There Goes Kafka must be counted among the works of scholarship. Johannes Urzidil, who belonged to Kafka’s literary circle in Prague, offers a mixed bag of biographical and topographical information. This does not however add up to much, even when helped out by half-a-dozen poignant photographs of the Old Town. Anything that relates Kafka to the physical background of Prague and the Jewish-Talmudic tradition is potentially useful, but I couldn’t take more than a few things from this scrappy work, perhaps because the translation is in such awkward English. Most memorable is Kafka’s remark just after the publication of Metamorphosis in 1916: “What have you to say about the dreadful things going on in our house?” Although the tone in which he said that and his physical presence are not clearly evoked, it at least tells one how to start reading the story of Gregor Samsa.
In a sense any interpretation of Kafka must be speculative. The writings seem to contain a built-in mechanism which insures that no single reading can be authoritative. Kafka would not perhaps have shrunk from the possibility that almost all intelligent readings may be partly correct. I have noticed that …