Edmund Wilson claimed that the only book he could not read while eating his breakfast was by the Marquis de Sade. I, for different reasons, have been having a difficult time reading Franz Kafka with my morning tea and toast. So much torture, description of wounds, disorientation, sadomasochism, unexplained cruelty, appearance of rodents, beetles, vultures, and other grotesque creatures—all set out against a background of utter hopelessness. Distinctly not a jolly way to start the day. Kafka doesn’t make for very comforting reading at bedtime, either.
Hypochondriac, insomniac, food faddist, cripplingly indecisive, terrified by life, obsessed with death, Franz Kafka turned, as best he was able, his neuroses into art. As a character in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “A Friend of Kafka” says, Kafka was “Homo sapiens in his highest degree of self-torture.” Still, the consensus remains that Franz Kafka is a modern master—a master, more specifically, in the modernist tradition, housed in the same pantheon as Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, Mallarmé, and other artists who have radically altered contemporary understanding of the world.
Kafka created “obscure lucidity,” Erich Heller wrote in his book on Kafka. “His is an art more poignantly and disturbingly obscure,” he added, “than literature has ever known.” One thinks one grasps Kafka’s meaning, but does one, really? All seems so clear, yet is it, truly? A famous aphorism of Kafka’s reads: “Hiding places there are innumerable, escape is only one, but possibilities of escape, again, are as many as hiding places.” Another runs: “A cage went in search of a bird.”
As with Kafka’s aphorisms, so with his brief parables. The parables, Walter Benjamin wrote, are “never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.” Whatever these precautions may have been, they were inadequate, for the works of Franz Kafka—apart perhaps only from the Bible and the works of Shakespeare—may be the most relentlessly interpreted, if not overinterpreted, in the modern world.
The September 7, 2012, issue of The Times Literary Supplement ran a review by Gabriel Josipovici of several recent books on Kafka. Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, by Saul Friedländer, is another strong entry in the derby. Friedländer is by trade not a literary critic but a historian. His affinity for Kafka is historical and personal. Like Kafka’s, his family, German-speaking and Jewish, originated in Prague. His father went to the same university Kafka did, though some 15 years later. As Kafka lost his three sisters, so did Friedländer lose his parents in Nazi camps.