How to describe Kafka, the man? Like this, perhaps:
It is as if he had spent his entire life wondering what he looked like, without ever discovering there are such things as mirrors.
A naked man among a multitude who are dressed.
A mind living in sin with the soul of Abraham.
Franz was a saint.
Or then again, using details of his life, as found in Louis Begley’s refreshingly factual The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay: 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 cafes, literary soirees 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.
But this last Kafka is as difficult to keep in mind as the Pynchon who grocery-shops and attends baseball games, the Salinger who grew old and raised a family in Cornish, New Hampshire. Readers are incurable fabulists. Kafka’s case, though, extends beyond literary mystique. He is more than a man of mystery—he’s metaphysical. Readers who are particularly attached to this supra-Kafka find the introduction of a quotidian Kafka hard to swallow. And vice versa. I spoke once at a Jewish literary society on the subject of time in Kafka, an exploration of the idea—as the critic Michael Hofmann has it—that “it is almost always too late in Kafka.” Afterward a spry woman in her nineties, with a thick Old World accent, hurried across the room and tugged my sleeve: “But you’re quite wrong! I knew Mr. Kafka in Prague—and he was never late.”
Recent years have seen some Kafka revisionism although what’s up for grabs is not the quality of the work, but rather its precise nature. What kind of a writer is Kafka? Above all, it’s a revision of Kafka’s biographical aura. From a witty essay of this kind, by the young novelist and critic Adam Thirlwell:
It is now necessary to state some accepted truths about Franz Kafka, and the Kafkaesque…. Kafka’s work lies outside literature: it is not fully part of the history of European fiction. He has no predecessors—his work appears as if from nowhere—and he has no true successors…. These fictions express the alienation of modern man; they are a prophecy of a) the totalitarian police state, and b) the Nazi Holocaust. His work expresses a Jewish mysticism, a non-denominational mysticism, an anguish of man without God. His work is very serious. He never smiles in photographs…. It is crucial to know the facts of Kafka’s emotional life when reading his fiction. In some sense, all his stories are autobiographical. He is a genius, outside ordinary limits of literature, and a saint, outside ordinary limits of human behaviour. All of these truths, all of them, are wrong.[^3 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.