• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Kafka Up Close


by Roberto Calasso, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock
Knopf, 327 pp., $25.00


When Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924 at age forty-one, he enjoyed a modest and largely local reputation. With the exception of a few renderings from German into Czech by his sometime lover Milena Jesenská, for example, not one of his works had been translated into any language. Things began to change, but still slowly, when his friend and literary executor Max Brod, making bold guesses about the intended shape and meaning of the three unfinished novels, launched Der Prozeß (The Trial) into print in 1925, followed by Das Schloß (The Castle) and Amerika in the next two years. When Willa and Edwin Muir began their influential English translations of the Brod texts with The Castle in 1930, Edwin could still report in his introduction that “Franz Kafka’s name, so far as I can discover, is almost unknown to English readers.”

A number of factors converged in the 1930s and thereafter to transform Kafka into the preeminent modernist and a giant of world literature. “The Kafkaesque,” a distinctive sense of helplessness before remote and absurdly arbitrary powers, spoke to the experience of many readers who had felt the dehumanizing effects of corporate, bureaucratic, and totalitarian structures of authority. The portentousness of that impression, however, was greatly magnified by Brod’s and the Muirs’ emphasis on metaphysical significance. For Brod, the author of such works as Paganism, Christianity, Judaism: A Confession of Faith, Kafka was a modern saint who, torn between belief and unbelief, “sought God” throughout his later writings and hoped to advise his readers about how to conduct the ethical life.

That conception would fit neatly with the future vogue of existentialism, with ethnicity-effacing liberalism, and with cold war ideology, which placed a premium on universal values that the atheistical and class-conscious Marxists had spurned. The puppet regime of Sovietized Czechoslovakia underlined that contrast by banning Kafka’s works and airbrushing him from the state’s literary prehistory. Meanwhile, emergent knowledge about the Holocaust, which had annihilated all three of Kafka’s sisters, his correspondent Grete Bloch, and two other women whom he loved, Julie Wohryzek and Milena Jesenská herself, imparted further poignancy to his writings, which could now be seen as anticipations of the Nazi terror.

In Brod’s interpretation, advanced through editorial commentary and a biography, The Castle was a religious allegory, and the castle itself stood baldly for “divine guidance.” Accordingly, the Muirs chose language that rendered K., the protagonist, not as the obtuse and selfish two-dimensional figure Kafka had devised but as an authorial surrogate, a sympathetic pilgrim on a grand spiritual quest. And as a corollary, Kafka’s ridicule of labyrinthine bureaucracy, a phenomenon he had wryly studied every weekday in his executive role at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague, became harder to enjoy or even perceive. So did the impishness with which, in both The Trial and The Castle, he courted contradictions, shifted abruptly between violence, slapstick, and hairsplitting debate, and danced away from his own hints of theological and mythic significance.

In emphasizing solemn themes and prophetic insight, Kafka’s early admirers courted a backlash, and it arrived in the form of a challenge by Edmund Wilson in a New Yorker essay of 1947.1 Wilson argued that the Kafka cult was being promulgated by weak and self-hating intellectuals who resembled Kafka himself in that regard. It was strange, he wrote, that a so-called master novelist hadn’t completed a single novel or indicated how the structural dilemmas in his uneven fragments could have been resolved even in principle. And he concluded: “What [Kafka] has left us is the half-expressed gasp of a self-doubting soul trampled under. I do not see how one can possibly take him for either a great artist or a moral guide.”

Kafka would probably not have disputed Wilson’s assessment. Although “The Judgment” had virtually composed itself in one fevered night, leaving him with a sense of great creative power, that mood didn’t return. “I have never been the sort of person who carried something out at all costs,” he lamented to Brod in 1912; “…What I have written was written in a lukewarm bath. I have not experienced the eternal hell of real writers….”2

One of Kafka’s most astute scholar-critics, Malcolm Pasley, has shown that in a number of shorter works the writer was playing what Pasley calls “semi-private games,” turning his plots into extended puns and alluding hermetically to other writings of his own and to circumstances of his life that he never expected to be memorialized by biographers.3 Not only was he content to leave the public in the dark; he seems to have relished the role of trickster, seeding apparent clues that led nowhere and marshaling one set of symbolic associations against an equally seductive but thematically contrary set. As another critic, doubtless thinking of the lengthy bill of grievances in Kafka’s “Letter to the Father,” has plausibly speculated, “the inclusion of spurious and obscure items may well have given him that sense of mastery over the text—and his reader—which he felt his own father exercised over him.”4

If this was indeed Kafka’s usual way of working, it hardly constitutes a refutation of Wilson’s criticism. That essay, however, had no dissuasive impact on the growth of Kafka studies, which now rested on a received view of the author as the “representative man” of his century. Insofar as critics of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties detected indeterminate elements in his texts, they tended to correlate them with profound thoughts about the moral maze we all inhabit after the death of God. More often, however, the ambiguities simply went unnoticed, because the critics had been primed to excavate messages and patterns, not elements of discontinuity and blockage.

This yen for closure survives even today as some critics labor to rectify disproportions and resolve mysteries that Kafka himself evidently wanted to maintain. Thus we still see articles and books declaring why it is fitting, on grounds of the protagonist’s grave personal flaws, that Josef K. get arrested and put to death, or that Gregor Samsa be turned into a repulsive bug, or that K. be denied access to the castle. In supplying a poetic justice that Kafka himself disdained, such commentators spare themselves from the most constant, and possibly the most significant, aspect of his fictional universe: its strict amorality, or the absence of any means by which human beings can appease either heaven or the state by manifesting virtue.


By now many professional students of Kafka’s work do regard the moralizing tendency as an atavism held over from a relatively primitive state of biographical knowledge about him.5 Meanwhile, objective research into every significant aspect of his life and context has proved greatly fruitful, and reliable new editions of his writings have corrected many misjudgments.6 But this is not to say that critics are converging toward agreement about how his fiction ought to be approached. On the contrary—and not surprisingly, after all—Kafka studies during the past three decades have played out the same dispute between deconstructive formalism and sociopolitical engagement that has divided academic literary criticism at large.

For a long while now, Stanley Corngold of Princeton has been regarded as the dean of American Kafka experts. His Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form, written before the disclosure of Paul de Man’s early collaborationist journalism and published shortly thereafter in 1988, represented the deconstructive attitude in its last moment of undefensive self-assurance. So far as Corngold was concerned, de Man had shown that literary history, along with every other kind of history, is an illusion, because apprehended “reality” itself consists entirely of discourse. “As the world and the text are both fictions,” Corngold paraphrased de Man as saying, “the ontological status of both remains suspended. Both fall away in their being to a vanishing point of interminable self-difference….” This was Corngold’s warrant for declaring that Kafka’s life “has no other story to tell than the search for circumstances propitious for the leap out of it into the uncanny world of writing.”

Features of Kafka’s practice that we have already noted—his sly punning, his planting of false leads, his preference for quandaries over neat resolutions, his buried allusions to his own previous work—all lent themselves handily to Corngold’s view of him as a deconstructionist avant la lettre. The less Kafka’s writings had to say about “reality,” the more congenial he appeared to be. Thus “The Judgment,” for Corngold, was really about its own “undecidability.” “In the Penal Colony,” he wrote, “is not about experience but about writing”; in fact, it is about the writing of The Trial, which is in its own turn a novel about writing. The vermin that used to be Gregor Samsa “is not a self speaking or keeping silent but language itself (parole)—a word broken loose from the context of language (langage), fallen into a void the meaning of which it cannot signify, near others who cannot understand it.” And so forth.

Many of the same interpretations reappear, with variations that are by no means clarifying, in Corngold’s new book, Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka. When Kafka decides to have Josef K. executed in The Trial, for example, he “implicitly sentences his authorial personality to death as K.’s guilty executioner.” And the actual death sentence in “In the Penal Colony” is now said to be the author’s self-fatwa for “not knowing or no longer knowing—disowning, forgetting—[his] story ‘The Judgment.’” Corngold issues such capital decrees with an alacrity matched only by the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, and the results are equally phantasmagorical.

As Corngold grudgingly admits, however, deconstruction has lost its éclat in recent years. His new book reflects this altered climate by somewhat confusedly welding an old-fashioned intentionalist argument to his de Manian emphasis on writing-about-writing. This move, however, leaves Kafka looking more ethereal than ever. Corngold’s idea—by no means original, and already considered by knowledgeable scholars to constitute a dead end—is that Kafka was a gnostic dualist who rejected the entire realm of the senses as demonic and meant his literary works to be acts of communication with a realm of transcendent essence.7

A handful of Kafka’s scattered remarks, which Corngold is obliged to keep repeating because of their scarcity, do point in this direction. Kafka deplored scientific materialism; theosophy was among his occasional interests; and he did aspire at times to draw immutable and unmimetic art, and deep truth as well, from what he called “the indestructible” and “the decisively divine” within his soul. Nevertheless, there are three crippling problems here.

First, although Kafka’s library contained one book about gnosticism, neither he nor any members of his immediate circle are known to have expressed sympathy for any gnostic movement, ancient or contemporary. Second, the great majority of his religious references, including his very skeptical ones, have a traditional Jewish cast. As many scholars have shown, Kafka concerned himself with a single creator God who, though now absconded if not downright mythical, nevertheless was unmistakably the Jehovah who wanted his people to thrive on this imperfect earth and who exacted ethical obligations from them—obligations that Kafka took seriously, as a gnostic dualist would not.8 And third, however strongly Kafka yearned to leave flesh and property behind, his works are not ecstatic but consistently ironic, turning every lunge toward the absolute into a pratfall. As Robert Alter, citing the shared perception of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, has said, Kafka is notable for his “ruthless satiric exposure of pretenses to the transcendent.”9

  1. 1

    See Edmund Wilson, “A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka,” reprinted in Classics and Commercials (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1950).

  2. 2

    Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (Schocken, 1977), p. 82.

  3. 3

    Malcolm Pasley, “Semi-private Games,” in The Kafka Debate: New Perspectives for Our Time, edited by Angel Flores (Gordian Press, 1977) pp. 188–205.

  4. 4

    Peter Hutchinson, “Red Herrings or Clues?,” in The Kafka Debate, pp. 206–215; the quotation is from p. 214.

  5. 6

    The leading Kafka scholar has been Hartmut Binder, whose two-volume collaborative Kafka-Handbuch (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1979) is invaluable. Two ongoing “manuscript” editions now compete to be recognized as definitive: Fischer Verlag’s Schriften Tagebücher Briefe (1982–), edited by Gerhard Neumann, Malcolm Pasley, and Jost Schillemeit, and Stroemfeld/Roter Stern’s Historisch-kritische Ausgabe sämtlicher Handschriften, Drucke und Typoskripte (1995–), edited by Roland Reuss and Peter Staengle. English versions profiting from the newer scholarship include translations of Amerika by Michael Hoffman (Penguin, 1996; New Directions, 2002), of The Trial by Breon Mitchell, and of The Castle by Mark Harman (both Schocken, 1998).

  6. 8

    Kafka’s ties to Jewishness, in the broad sense of Judentum, are the subject of many valuable studies by Giuliano Baioni, Jean Jofen, Mark Anderson, Régine Robin, and Karl Erich Grözinger, among others. The fullest study in English is Ritchie Robertson, Kafka: Judaism, Politics, and Literature (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1985).

  7. 9

    Robert Alter, Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem (Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 112.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print