Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka; drawing by David Levine


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

The literary Kafka whom most of us cherish is the one who, contemplating the awesome legend of Abraham and Isaac, wrote sardonically that he could conceive of several alternative Abrahams. One in particular, he imagined,

would never have gotten to be a patriarch or even an old-clothes dealer—[he] was prepared to satisfy the demand for a sacrifice immediately, with the promptness of a waiter, but was unable to bring it off because he could not get away, being indispensable.

The tone here is more evocative of Mel Brooks than of some moonstruck heretic. In suppressing the sad-but-hilarious whimsy of a writer who smilingly told his best friend that the Lord of Lords was “having a bad day” when he fashioned humankind, Corngold misrepresents the uniquely Kafkan vision he set out to champion.


Stanley Corngold puts a gun to our head. If we Kafka lovers don’t opt for deconstruction and gnostic theology, he implies, our author will be left at the dubious mercy of literature-hating “cultural studies” thugs. He has two cautionary examples in mind: Elizabeth Boa’s Franz Kafka: Gender, Class, and Race in the Letters and Fiction (1996), which allegedly demeans Kafka as an antifeminist, and Sander L. Gilman’s Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient (1995). If Corngold is to be believed, Gilman hits bottom by charging Kafka, amazingly, with not having been “anti-Semitic enough.”

That is a vicious slur and nothing more. But in other passages Corngold does point to a real weakness in The Jewish Patient. Gilman can perceive only the shamed, negative side of Kafka’s identity as a Jew. His Kafka is a would-be assimilator who does everything except get himself baptized in order to efface his stigmatized characteristics, but his attempts at passing are torpedoed by his unconscious incorporation of the slanders circulated by racist gentiles. Accordingly, Gilman sees Kafka’s writings in symptomatic terms as displaying a return of the repressed—an obsession with the very traits, physical and behavioral, that he was hoping to disown.10

There is surely a grain of truth here. But if Kafka was merely running from his ethnicity on Gilman’s Freudian treadmill, one must wonder why he took an open interest in such causes as Yiddish language and theater, a Jewish relief charity, Zionism, and Hebrew study. Following Gilman’s reading, moreover, we would find it hard to fathom why Kafka went out of his way to invent easily identifiable “crypto-Jewish” heroes, from Georg Bendemann of “The Judgment” and Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis through the misunderstood hunger artist and the supplicant “man from the country” in “Before the Law” who waits a lifetime until he is told that the open but guarded door to justice, reserved for him alone, is now being closed.

Corngold finds it especially urgent to warn us away from Boa’s feminist study. According to him, she awards Kafka’s self-incriminating letters to his two-time fiancée Felice Bauer and to Milena Jesenská “the same or higher rank than the fiction,” and she treats that fiction as unmediated “plagiarism” of “the allegedly wider social text.” Boa’s pathetically inert Kafka, taunts Corngold, “just went slack and ruptured, he took in the collapsing patriarchal…order as the flailing swimmer takes in the water in which he drowns.” Clearly, then, no enlightenment can be expected from Boa’s forbiddingly titled polemic.

The reader who ignores these animadversions and opens Boa’s book, however, will learn that all of Corngold’s charges are false. Boa devotes most of her pages to close analysis of Kafka’s fiction, in which she takes open delight, and she comes to grips with its formal idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, her Kafka is no passive cultural sponge. Although Boa is unsparing in scrutinizing the writer’s psychosexual oddities and relating them to ideological currents in his day, she also credits him with considerable acuteness in self-observation—a trait, she shows, that enabled him to satirize his own recognized deficiencies of attitude.

As a feminist, Boa inevitably wants to study how female figures were treated both in Kafka’s fiction and in his life. Too often his women have been slighted as mere sirens whose base enchantments jeopardize the hero’s path to acquittal (for Josef K.) or his incorporation into an all-male ruling order (for K.) or his artistic immortality (for Kafka himself). Boa shows that his fictive women evolve, in parallel with his own growing capacity for empathy, from merely symbolic functions—think of Gregor’s nubile sister Grete, stretching her budding body as memory of the dead insect fades—to having quasi-independent voices of their own—think of Frieda, Amalia, and Olga in The Castle.

Boa’s concluding chapter on the “dystopian pastoral” of The Castle shrewdly relates the sexual politics of Kafka’s era to that novel’s social order, in which young women, having been seduced into marriage by the false promise of bourgeois romance, grow into petty matriarchs who then uphold the privileges of the castle autocrats. Those old boys need never articulate their governing rules, because the castle itself is nothing other than “an externalization of the customary practices in village life and their imaginary heightening in village minds.” In mapping the caste exclusions of this Lilliputian society, Boa convincingly argues, Kafka acknowledged the limits of female emancipation in his own imperfectly modernizing world.

When Boa’s monograph is compared with Gilman’s, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as “the” cultural-studies attitude toward Kafka or any other writer. Nor should a frank declaration of sociopolitical interest be automatically regarded as a barrier to objectivity. Kafka criticism, we have seen, has been ideological from the outset, not excepting Stanley Corngold’s quietistic epiphanies. Boa’s feminist agenda doesn’t inhibit her from shuttling deftly between social and literary analysis—as Gilman has some trouble doing and as Corngold won’t even try—without ever mistaking one kind of investigation for the other.


Most people who love Kafka are less interested in the quarrels of the literature departments than in immediate encounters with the life of his disorienting texts. This is one reason why advance notice of Roberto Calasso’s K.—elegantly translated from the 2002 Italian edition by Geoffrey Brock—has aroused much interest and hope. The erudite and sophisticated Calasso belongs to no academic faction. He is the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni in Milan and the author of stunningly brilliant books about Greek and Hindu religious myths (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka, respectively), about literary uses of myth (Literature and the Gods), about the premises and the ultimately sinister evolution of European modernity (The Ruin of Kasch), and about authors who have risked incomprehension and madness for the sake of pressing beyond the arbitrary categories of Western thought (The Forty-nine Steps). No one could bring more intelligence and cultural range to a fresh encounter with Kafka.

Calasso’s habit is to pass lightly over controversies and to delve directly into an issue so huge and fundamental that specialists rarely perceive it at all. This is the question of how experience feels to people—and what they are accordingly incapable of feeling—when they reside within one or another metaphysical mindset, whether archaic-demonic, polytheistic, monotheistic, or rationalist-materialist. From this standpoint, Kafka has always struck Calasso as a fascinating throwback who, unlike other atheistical writers, eschews skeptical secularism and puts his characters’ fates in the hands of an awesome “prereligious” power, unknowable and indifferent to prayer and sacrifice.

Calasso does not want his K. to be regarded as one further interpretation of Kafka’s fiction; indeed, he finds interpretation tiresome and symptomatic of a fussy, logic-chopping age. He is making a bold attempt to “inhabit” Kafka’s work empathetically, with prime stress on The Trial and The Castle, and thereby to make the unique qualities of those works patent without falling into discur-siveness. And because he is himself a master stylist, he does succeed in evoking the atmosphere of both novels as it is manifested in endless “proceedings” that go nowhere, in pseudo-clever stratagems to placate a system that welcomes bribes but gives nothing in return, and in an array of “subordinate, erotic” women who seem, uncannily, to have “always inhabited some niche in [the protagonists’] minds.”

But Calasso isn’t just paying tribute to Kafka’s art. When Kafka suffered a brief nervous collapse in 1922, his thoughts turned to his own works as an attempted “attack on the frontier” of human experience—a project that, he told himself, could have “developed into a new secret doctrine, into a Kabbalah,” if distractions hadn’t intervened. Since the original Kabbalah consists of esoteric commentaries that purport to disclose hidden meanings in Scripture, Kafka appears to have been hinting at intuitive lore that might have been revealed to him through a shattering of his rational ego. Calasso, one of whose book titles, The Forty-nine Steps, also alludes to the Kabbalah, evidently believes in just such wisdom himself.

In one way or another, all of Calasso’s writings have waged a guerrilla war against the Western logos. He has never forgiven Plato for disparaging Homer’s world of luminous amoral fatality, and he regards theology as a decadent form of reflection, one that already at its origin was headed downhill toward the modern wasteland of denatured “facts,” algorithms, and the banalities of “public opinion.” This is why he has been drawn to Kafka, whose own philosophical clock, Calasso suspects, has been turned all the way back to animism, before a sense of the undifferentiated power of the cosmos was precipitated into tales about gods and demons. And so Calasso sees the plot of The Castle unfolding at “the dividing line between vyakta and avyakta,” early Hinduism’s “manifest” and vastly larger “unmanifest,” or imperceptible, portions of reality.

What Calasso has in mind may sound much like Stanley Corngold’s gnosticism, but there is an important difference. In Calasso’s version, Kafka never writes directly about a transcendent state. Instead, his two major novels simulate a mad chase “away from humanity” (Kafka’s phrase) toward a receding otherness that can be intimated only through images, one succeeding another without progress or exit. That labyrinth, Calasso implies, is Kafka’s literary home, and it is embodied in Josef K.’s attempts to influence a rigged justice system and in K.’s one step forward, two steps back as he vies for the favor of The Castle’s indifferent and withdrawn authorities.

Where, then, has the primordial “unmanifest” gone? In a post-Enlightenment condition, says Calasso, it has supposedly been banished, but that is a secularist illusion; the unmanifest has actually migrated into “society,” which then takes on an ersatz aura of divine sanction. Yet “the majesty and the articulations of the old order are retained even as the memory of it is erased.” And so, in Kafka’s world, “beyond the windows, the air teems with the tribes of the invisible.”

But does it, really? Who has placed those tribes just out of sight, Kafka or his exegete? One longs to see some evidence here, not just assertion; but evidence, as we can gather from Calasso’s other writings, is one of those soulless notions that he considers inferior to “metamorphic knowledge, all inside the mind, where knowledge is an emotion that modifies the knowing subject….”11 And so we must take it on faith that in writing The Trial and The Castle, Kafka was steering by the same star that now guides Calasso.

Despite Calasso’s distaste for interpretations, his book amounts to one, and the question to be asked of any interpretation is how much it can and can’t explain. The strangeness of Kafka’s novels may derive simply from allegorical intent—the desire to implicate ideas through discontinuous and unrealistic narrative elements—rather than from a vision of hidden noumenality. In both The Trial and The Castle, and in Amerika as well, the protagonist is subjected to a battery of farcical predicaments that appear designed to reveal deficiencies of awareness or attitude on his part. These plots acquire their coherence, such as it is, not from verisimilitude but from the reader’s translation of each discrete episode into the moral or psychological point it was meant to illustrate. Such schematism would seem to discourage the positing of spiritual agents not actually represented yet somehow entailed in the world of The Castle.

Calasso never allows himself to entertain that potentially deflating hypothesis. Moreover, he appears to have understated the thoroughgoing drabness and sordidness of Kafka’s represented world. There is no “majesty” to be discerned in a court that holds its unruly sessions in slum dwellings and condemns its victims without disclosing why, or in a dilapidated rural castle whose officials are good for nothing but sexual predation and the smoking of cigars.

Surely we ought to relate such corruption to the conditions in which Kafka actually lived. He suffered through the decay and eventual demise of a quite uninspiring order, the pompous and dubiously legiti-mate Habsburg Empire, whose “equal rights” for its member states were a sham and whose dim afterlife in the Czech Republic continued to tax him with indignities as a Jew. And as Calasso himself recognizes, both novels evoke Jewish themes of persecution, unequal justice, denied recognition, and ostracism, none of which seems to fit very well with a sacral emphasis.

When Kafka gave an oral reading from the supposedly anguish-ridden Trial for a group of friends, he was repeatedly interrupted by his own uncontrollable laughter. Those friends were all Prague Jews like himself, and it seems reasonable to infer that the absurdism of his plot spoke to a shared sense, at once desperate and funny, that the Habsburg system held little in store for them but oppression and a legalistic runaround. Calasso takes note of the manically farcical element in both The Trial and The Castle, but, once again, he is unable to fold it into his supernaturalism. Like a preceding regiment of tenure-seeking critics whom he wouldn’t care to meet, he may have apprehended these books with more sobriety than Kafka exercised in writing them.

Roberto Calasso always repays close study, his prose is a marvel, and K. makes for an exhilarating adventure. But Calasso’s cordial embrace of Kafka, like Heidegger’s of Nietzsche, threatens to suffocate the admired party. From Brod to Corngold and now Calasso, the transcendentalizing impulse has tended to efface the one truly obvious fact about Kafka’s writing, its wry and surreal reference to the circumstances of his own life. As Edmund Wilson already put it in 1947, some of Kafka’s critics have been turning him, unnecessarily, into “a human shadow thrown on the mist in such a way that it seems monstrous and remote when it may really be quite close at hand.”

This Issue

February 10, 2005