Lost in Transformation

Someone must have been telling lies about K., for the popular image of him as the great Gloomy Gus of 20th-century letters (close rivals: Beckett, Cioran, maybe Céline) does not bear very much scrutiny. Consider this incident, which took place as he was dying of tuberculosis, and knew it. One day, when he was walking in a Berlin park, Kafka saw a little girl crying. He asked her why she was sad and she told him that she had lost her doll. Oh no, Kafka said, her doll was not lost - the toy was simply off on an exciting adventure. Understandably sceptical, the girl asked for proof. So Kafka went home and wrote a long, detailed letter from the doll, and gave it to the little girl the following day. Then, every day for the next three weeks, he gave her an additional letter. It seems that the doll had met a boy doll, and become engaged, and then married. By the end of the three weeks, the doll was setting up her marital home and the little girl no longer missed her mute companion.

This is hardly the sort of thing you would expect of the fellow who wrote The Trial or The Castle or 'In the Penal Settlement' (one of the most horrific short texts ever to have sneaked its way into the literary canon), and it is poignant as well as charming, not least because in our own climate of nervy erotic suspicion a middle-aged male writer who attempted such kindliness would have the social services or police on him like a shot. But the story of Kafka and the Lost Doll is instructive as well as surprising.

It explains to the neophyte what an unusually kind and thoughtful man he could be, even when he was drawing his shallow breaths in sharp pain. Some of his fans think that - again like Beckett - he bordered on the saintly. But it also hints at Kafka's knowledge of the power that lies in stories, his own stories in particular. Stories can cure the sadness of small girls. They can also frighten, console, give courage. They can help even a sick and dying writer make some sense of what remains of his short life. Kafka seems often to have thought of writing as a curse or (to borrow a term from the literature of shamanism) a sickness vocation. And yet the thing that makes you ill may also, from time to time, make you powerful.

Some of Kafka's greatness is due to the fact that his work belongs as much to the very long history of storytelling as to the relatively short history of Western literature. On the whole it is plain, simple, direct and tantalisingly cryptic. His stories worm their way under your skin and stay there until you itch. They make some people itch so badly that they have to start telling their own stories about K. In the years when his reputation first began to take off, after the Second World War, he was mainly revered as Kafka the prophet, the man who had read the entrails of his age and foreseen, first, the rise of totalitarianism, secondly the cancer-like proliferation of faceless officialdom, thirdly 'alienation' and finally, especially, the death camps in which most of his close family and lots of his friends were murdered.

That story of dark prophecies is still being passed around, despite its many and increasingly evident flaws. In the last few decades, though, it has had no shortage of competition. Despite the curious fact that Kafka's body of fictional work is slender - three unfinished novels, a clutch of short stories, some prose fragments - it has generated such a gigantic industry of comment that only an eternal graduate student could possibly keep up with the output. Among the regiment of Kafkas now stalking the world, we have Kafka the Christian mystic (though he wasn't a Christian), Kafka the Jewish mystic (he had bafflingly complicated views about Jewish identity and religion), Kafka the Zionist, Kafka the sexual inadequate, Kafka the wicked capitalist (he co-ran an asbestos factory), Kafka the vegetarian, Kafka the socialist, Kafka the social butterfly and laugh riot, and, in Saul Friedländer's new essay - a very good and sane little book, which may safely be put into the hands of newcomers - Kafka the poet of shame and guilt. Having noted how often Kafka writes about canine encounters, I am myself tempted to write a monograph entitled Wie ein Hund: Kafka and Dogs. But it's a fair bet that someone will have beaten me to it.

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