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.1

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,2 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

Thirlwell blames the banality of the Kafkaesque on Max Brod, Kafka’s friend, first biographer, and literary executor, in which latter capacity he defied Kafka’s will (Kafka wanted his work burned), a fact that continues to stain Brod, however faintly, with bad faith. For his part, Brod always maintained that Kafka knew there would be no bonfire: if his friend were serious, he would have chosen another executor. Far harder to defend is Brod’s subsequent decision to publish the correspondence,4 the diaries, and the acutely personal Letter to My Father (though posthumous literary morality is a slippery thing: if what is found in a drawer is very bad, the shame of it outlives both reader and publisher; when it’s as good as Letter to My Father, the world winks at it).

If few readers of Kafka can be truly sorry for the existence of the works Kafka had consigned to oblivion, many regret the way Brod chose to present them. The problem is not solely Brod’s flat-footed interpretations, it’s his interventions in the texts themselves. For when it came to editing the novels, Brod’s sympathy for the theological would seem to have guided his hand. Kafka’s system of ordering chapters was often unclear, occasionally nonexistent; it was Brod who collated The Trial in the form with which we are familiar. If it feels like a journey toward an absent God— so the argument goes—that’s because Brod placed the God-shaped hole at the end. The penultimate chapter, containing the pseudo-haggadic parable “Before the Law,” might have gone anywhere, and placing it anywhere else skews the trajectory of ascension; no longer a journey toward the supreme incomprehensibility, but a journey without destination, into which a mystery is thrust and then succeeded by the quotidian once more.


Of course, there’s also the possibility that Kafka would have placed this chapter near the end, exactly as Brod did, but lovers of Kafka are not inclined to credit him with Brod’s variety of common sense. The whole point of Kafka is his uncommonness. Whatever Brod explains, we feel sure Kafka would leave unexplained; whichever conventional interpretation he foists on the works, the works themselves repel. We think of Shakespeare this way, too: a writer sullied by our attempts to define him. In this sense the idea of a literary genius is a gift we give ourselves, a space so wide that we can play in it forever. Thirlwell again:

It is important, when reading Kafka, not to read him too Brodly.

Take this passage from Brod’s 1947 biography: “It is a new kind of smile that distinguishes Kafka’s work, a smile close to the ultimate things—a metaphysical smile so to speak—indeed sometimes when he used to read out one of his tales for us friends of his, it rose above a smile and we laughed aloud. But we were soon quiet again. It is no laughter befitting human beings. Only angels may laugh this way….” Angels! It is often underestimated, how much talent is required to be a great reader. And Brod was not a great reader, let alone a great writer.

True. Maybe we can say instead that Brod was a great talent-spotter.5 Of his own literary capacities, Brod had few illusions. His friendship with Kafka was monstrously one-sided from the start, a thing carved from pure awe. They met after a lecture on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, given by Brod, after which Kafka approached the lecturer and accompanied him home. “Something seems to have attracted him to me,” writes Brod. “He was more open than usual, beginning the endless walk home by disagreeing strongly with my all too rough formulations.” The familiar pilgrim’s pose, two steps behind the prophet, catching wisdom as it falls.6 These days we tire of Brod’s rough formulations: for too long they set the tone. We don’t want to read Kafka Brodly anymore, as the postwar Americans did so keenly. It’s tempting to think, had we ourselves been those first readers, that we would have recognized at once—without such heavy prompting—the literary greatness of an ex-ape talking to the academy or tiny Josephine “piping” for her mouse people. I wonder.

There exists a second Brod account of Kafka reading aloud:

We friends of his laughed quite immoderately when he first let us hear the first chapter of The Trial. And he himself laughed so much that there were moments when he couldn’t read any further. Astonishing enough, when you think of the fearful earnestness of this chapter.

Here the crime of Kafka’s first biographer is rather benign: a slight overdose of literary respect. Brod couldn’t quite believe that Kafka was being funny when he was being funny. For how could Kafka, in his fearful earnestness, be funny? But it’s strange: Kafka revisionism is also, after a fashion, in love with Kafkaesque purity. We can’t credit the Brodish idea that Kafka writes of “the alienation of modern man”—too obvious. And how could Kafka be obvious? How could Kafka be anything that we are? Even our demystifications of Kafka are full of mystery.


But if we’re not to read Kafka too Brodly, how are we to read him? We might do worse than read him Begley. Gently skeptical of the biographical legend, Begley yet believes in the “metaphysical smile” of the work, the possibility that it expresses our modern alienation—here prophet Kafka and quotidian Kafka are not in conflict. He deals first, and most successfully, with the quotidian. The Kafka who, like other diarists, indulged a relentless dramaturgy of the self; the compulsive letter-writer who once asked a correspondent, “Don’t you get pleasure out of exaggerating painful things as much as possible?” For Kafka, the prospect of a journey from Berlin to Prague is “a foolhardiness whose parallel you can only find by leafing back through the pages of history, say to Napoleon’s march to Russia.” A brief visit to his fiancée “couldn’t have been worse. The next thing will be impalement.”

The diaries are the same, only more so: few people, even in that solipsistic form, can have written “I” as frequently as he. People and events appear rarely; the beginning of the First World War is a matter to be weighed equally with the fact that he went swimming that day. The Kafka who wrote the fictions was a man of many stories; the private Kafka sang the song of himself:

I completely dwelt in every idea, but also filled every idea…. I not only felt myself at my boundary, but at the boundary of the human in general.

I am the end or the beginning.

Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often—and in my inmost self perhaps all the time— I doubt that I am a human being.

One could quote pages of similar sentiments: Kafka scholars usually do. Thankfully, Begley has more of a comic sense than most Kafka scholars, tending to find Kafka in quite other moods; at times whiny, occasionally wheedling, often slyly disingenuous, and, every now and then, frankly mendacious. The result is something we don’t expect. It’s a little funny:


It turns out we really do keep writing the same thing. Sometimes I ask whether you’re sick and then you write about it, sometimes I want to die and then you do, sometimes I want stamps and then you want stamps….

This, writes Begley, is

Kafka’s characterization (in a moment of despondency) of the letters that he and Milena exchanged [and it] is not far off the mark for many of them, and applies with even greater force to many of the letters to Felice.

Certainly the love letters are repetitive; there is something mechanical in them, not deeply felt, at least, not toward their intended recipients—the sense is of a man writing to himself. Impossible to believe Kafka was in love with poor Felice Bauer, she of the “bony, empty face, that wore its emptiness openly…. Almost broken nose. Blonde, somewhat straight, unattractive hair, strong chin”; Felice with her bourgeois mores, her offer to sit by him as he worked (“in that case,” he wrote back, “I could not write at all”), her poor taste in “heavy furniture” (a sideboard of her choosing puts Kafka in mind of “a perfect tombstone or a memorial to the life of a Prague official”).

For Kafka she is symbol: the whetstone upon which he sharpens his sense of himself. The occasion of their engagement is the cue to explain to her (and to her father) why he should never marry. The prospect of living with her inspires pages of encomia on solitude. Begley, a fiction writer himself, has an eye for the way fiction writers obsessively preserve their personal space, even while seeming to give it away. You might say he has Kafka’s number:

It’s all there in a nutshell: the charm offensive Kafka commenced with the conquest of Felice as its goal; reflexive flight from that goal as soon as it is within reach; insistence on dealing with her and their future only on his terms; and self-denigration as a potent defense against intimacy that requires more than words.

Poor Felice! She never stood a chance. In his introductory letter Kafka claims:

I am an erratic letter writer…. On the other hand, I never expect a letter to be answered by return…I am never disappointed when it doesn’t come.

In fact, counters Begley,

The opposite was true: Kafka wrote letters compulsively and copiously and turned into a hysterical despot if they were not answered forthwith, bombarding Felice with cables and remonstrances.

Kafka frantically pursued Felice, and then he tried to escape her, Begley writes, “with the single-minded purpose and passion of a fox biting off his own leg to free himself from a trap”— a line with more than a little Kafka spirit in it. “Women are snares,” Kafka said once, “which lie in wait for men on all sides, in order to drag them into the merely finite.”7 It’s a perfectly ordinary expression of misogyny, dispiriting in a mind that more often took the less-traveled path. Apropos: having had it suggested to him by a young friend that Picasso was “a wilful distortionist” who painted “rose-coloured women with gigantic feet,” Kafka replied:

I do not think so…. He only registers the deformities which have not yet penetrated our consciousness. Art is a mirror, which goes “fast,” like a watch—sometimes.8

Kafka’s mind was like that, it went wondrous fast—still, when it came to women, it went no faster than the times allowed. Those who find the personal failures of writers personally offensive will turn from Kafka here, as readers turn from Philip Larkin for similar reasons (the family resemblance between the two writers was noted by Larkin himself).9 In this matter, Kafka has a less judgmental biographer than Larkin found in Andrew Motion; Begley, though perfectly clear on Kafka’s “problems with girls,” does not much agonize over them. Literary nerds may enjoy the curious fact that for both those literary miserabilists (close neighbors on any decent bookshelf) modern heating appliances appear to have served as synecdoche for what one might call the Feminine Mundane:

He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day,
And the money he gets for wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies’ clobber and the drier
And the electric fire….

I yield not a particle of my demand for a fantastic life arranged solely in the interest of my work; she, indifferent to every mute request, wants the average: a comfortable home, an interest on my part in the factory, good food, bed at eleven, central heating….11

Yet as it was with Larkin, Kafka’s ideas about women and his experiences of them turn out to be different things. Women were his preferred correspondents and inspiration (in 1912, the Felice correspondence12 competes with the writing of Amerika; in 1913 it wins), his most stimulating intellectual sparring partners (Milena Jesenská, with whom he discussed “the Jewish question”), his closest friends (his favorite sister, Ottla), and finally the means of his escape (Dora Diamant, with whom, in the final year of his life, he moved to Berlin). No, women did not drag Kafka into the finite. As Begley would have it: the opposite was true. Usefully, Begley is a rather frequent and politic employer of modifiers and corrections. In reality, the truth was, the opposite was true. Kafka told his diary that the only way he could live was as a sexually ascetic bachelor. In reality he was no stranger to brothels.

Begley is particularly astute on the bizarre organization of Kafka’s writing day. At the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing; two years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 11 PM (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then “depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o’clock, once even till six in the morning.” Then “every imaginable effort to go to sleep,” as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse. Yet

when Felice wrote to him…arguing that a more rational organization of his day might be possible, he bristled…. “The present way is the only possible one; if I can’t bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it somehow.”

It was Brod’s opinion that Kafka’s parents should gift him a lump sum “so that he could leave the office, go off to some cheap little place on the Riviera to create those works that God, using Franz’s brain, wishes the world to have.” Begley, leaving God out of it, politely disagrees, finding Brod’s wish

probably misguided. Kafka’s failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically best suited him.

It is rare that writers of fiction sit behind their desks, actually writing, for more than a few hours a day. Had Kafka been able to use his time efficiently, the work schedule at the Institute would have left him with enough free time for writing. As he recognized, the truth was that he wasted time.

The truth was that he wasted time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s revelation: He’s just not that into you. “Having the Institute and the conditions at his parents’ apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn’t write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem.”

And here Begley introduces yet another Kafka we rarely think of, a writer in competition with other writers in a small Prague literary scene, measuring himself against the achievements of his peers. For in 1908, Kafka had published only eight short prose pieces in Hyperion, while Brod had been publishing since he was twenty; his close friend Oskar Baum was the successful author of one book of short stories and one novel; and Franz Werfel—seven years Kafka’s junior—had a critically acclaimed collection of poems. In 1911, Kafka writes in his diary: “I hate Werfel, not because I envy him, but I envy him too. He is healthy, young and rich, everything that I am not.” And later in that same year:

Envy of the apparent success of Baum whom I like so much. With this, the feeling of having in the middle of my body a ball of wool that quickly winds itself up, its innumerable threads pulling from the surface of my body to itself.

Of course, that wool ball—a throwaway line in a diary!—reminds us how little call he had to envy anyone.


The impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently. One might add a fourth impossibility, the impossibility of writing…. Thus what has resulted was a literature impossible in all respects, a gypsy literature which had stolen the German child out of its cradle and in great haste put it through some kind of training, for someone had to dance on the tightrope. (But it wasn’t a German child, it was nothing; people merely said that somebody was dancing.)

A perfect slice of Kafka. On May 3, 1913, Kafka’s diary conceives of a butcher’s knife “quickly and with mechanical regularity chop[ping] into me from the side,” slicing thin, Parma ham style, pezzi di Kafka.… The quote above is like that: it has the marbled mark of Kafka running through it. It traces a typical Kafka journey, from the concrete, to the metaphorical, to the allegorical, to the notional, which last—as so often with Kafka—seems to grow obscure the more precisely it is expressed. From this same quote Begley efficiently unpacks Kafka’s “frightful inner predicament,” born of his strange historical moment. A middle-class Prague Jew (“the most Western-Jewish of them all”) both enamored of and horrified by an Eastern shtetl life he never knew; a Jew in a period of virulent anti-Semitism (“I’ve been spending every afternoon outside in the streets, wallowing in anti-Semitic hate”) who remained ambivalent toward the Zionist project; a German speaker surrounded by Czech nationalists. The impossible “gypsy literature” an aspect of an impossible gypsy self, an assimilated Judaism that was fatally neither one thing or the other.

In Kafka’s world there were really two “Jewish questions.” The first was external, asked by Gentiles, and is familiar: “What is to be done with the Jews?” For which the answer was either persecution or “toleration,”13 that vile word. (Writing to Brod from an Italian pensione, Kafka describes being barely tolerated at lunch by an Austrian general who has just found out he is Jewish: “From politeness he brought our little chat to a sort of end before he hurried out with long strides…. Why must I be a thorn in flesh?”)

The second Jewish question, the one that Kafka asked himself, was existential: “What have I in common with Jews?” Begley does not shy from citing this and many of the other quotations “used by scholars to buttress the argument that Kafka was himself a Jewish anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew”:

I admire Zionism and am nauseated by it.

At times I’d like to stuff them all, simply as Jews (me included) into, say, the drawer of the laundry chest. Next I’d wait, open the drawer a little to see if they’ve suffocated, and if not, shut the drawer again and keep doing this to the end.

Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated?… The heroism of staying is nonetheless merely the heroism of cockroaches which cannot be exterminated, even from the bathroom.

To this evidence, Freudians add exhibit number one: fantasies of self-slaughter (“Between throat and chin would seem to be the most rewarding place to stab”), shadowing Kafka’s lineage (grandson of the butcher of Wossek), and those tales of Jewish ritual murder that are as old as anti-Semitism itself.14 For Begley, though, the accusation of auto-anti-Semitism is “unfair and, in the end, beside the point.” He sees rather the conflicted drama of assimilation: “The fear was of a crack in the veneer…through which might enter the miasma of the shtetl or the medieval ghetto.” In this version, affection and repulsion are sides of the same coin:

It would have been surprising if he, who was so repelled by his own father’s vulgarity at table and in speech, had not been similarly repelled by the oddities of dress, habits, gestures, and speech of the very Jews of whom he made a fetish, because of the community spirit, cohesiveness, and genuine emotional warmth he was convinced they possessed.

It’s an awkward argument that struggles to recast repulsion as “the cumulative effect on Kafka of the ubiquitous anti-Semitism” all around him, which in turn caused a kind of “profound fatigue,” compelling him to “transcend his Jewish experience and his Jewish identity” so that he might write “about the human condition”— a conclusion that misses the point entirely, for Kafka found the brotherhood of man quite as incomprehensible as the brotherhood of Jews. For Kafka, the impossible thing was collectivity itself:

What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.

Kafka’s horror is not Jewishness per se, because it is not a horror only of Jewishness: it is a horror of all shared experience, all shared being, all genus. In a time and place in which national, linguistic, and racial groups were defined with ever more absurd precision, how could the very idea of commonness not turn equally absurd? In his Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, fellow Austro-Hungarian Gregor von Rezzori presented the disquieting idea that the philo-Semite and the anti-Semite have something essential in common (the narrator is both): a belief in a collective Jewish nature, a Semiteness. Kafka, by contrast, had stopped believing. The choice of belonging to a people, of partaking of a shared nature, was no longer available to him. He often wished it was not so (hence his sentimental affection for shtetl life), but it was so. On this point, Begley quotes Hannah Arendt approvingly though he does not pursue her brilliant conclusion:

…These men [assimilated German Jews] did not wish to “return” either to the ranks of the Jewish people or to Judaism, and could not desire to do so—not because… they were too “assimilated” and too alienated from their Jewish heritage, but because all traditions and cultures as well as all “belonging” had become equally questionable to them.”15

Jewishness itself had become the question. It is a mark of how disconcerting this genuinely Kafkaesque concept is that it should provoke conflict in Begley himself.

“My people,” wrote Kafka, “provided that I have one.” What does it mean, to have a people? On no subject are we more sentimental and less able to articulate what we mean. In what, for example, does the continuity of “Blackness” exist? Or “Irishness”? Or “Arabness”? Blood, culture, history, genes? Judaism, with its matrilineal line, has been historically fortunate to have at its root a beautiful answer, elegant in its circular simplicity: Jewishness is the gift of a Jewish mother. But what is a Jewish mother? Kafka found her so unstable a thing, a mistranslation might undo her:

Yesterday it occurred to me that I did not always love my mother as she deserved and as I could, only because the German language prevented it. The Jewish mother is no “Mutter,” to call her “Mutter” makes her a little comical…. “Mutter” is peculiarly German for the Jew, it unconsciously contains, together with the Christian splendor, Christian coldness also, the Jewish woman who is called “Mutter” therefore becomes not only comical but strange…. I believe that it is only the memories of the ghetto that still preserve the Jewish family, for the word “Vater” too is far from meaning the Jewish father.

Kafka’s Jewishness was a kind of dream, whose authentic moment was located always in the nostalgic past. His survey of the insectile situation of young Jews in Inner Bohemia can hardly be improved upon: “With their posterior legs they were still glued to their father’s Jewishness, and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground.”

Alienation from oneself, the conflicted assimilation of migrants, losing one place without gaining another…. This feels like Kafka in the genuine clothes of an existential prophet, Kafka in his twenty-first-century aspect (if we are to assume, as with Shakespeare, that every new century will bring a Kafka close to our own concerns). For there is a sense in which Kafka’s Jewish question (“What have I in common with Jews?”) has become everybody’s question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts.16 What is Muslimness? What is Femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer,17 now.