Kafka Up Close

K.

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 …

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Letters

Kafka Up Close’: An Exchange April 7, 2005