Kafka: An End or a Beginning?

HOW STRANGE to return to Kafka. It takes just a few pages for all our preconceptions about literature to become unmoored. The old tools — character, plot, style — are useless to us; those solemn tomes of theory might as well be returned to their exile on the lower shelves; the recourse to undergraduate Freudianism had better be checked. None of it will guide us here. Erich Heller once wrote of the “pathetic plight of critics in the face of Kafka’s novels.” How one sympathizes! Kafka’s entire oeuvre is an assault on interpretation, on meaning; it is the most formidable rebuttal in the history of literature to the undying but misguided question: “What does this text mean?”

And yet, ironically, few authors are so burdened with the cargo of meaning as Kafka. In the century or so since his work was first introduced to a reading public, he has been hustled in under a plethora of interpretive awnings: Judaism, Christianity, Psychoanalysis, the Holocaust, Communism, Symbolism, Existentialism — you name it. He is the prophet of 20th-century atrocity; a slapstick vaudevillian in the Buster Keaton mold; the grim reaper of post-religious modernity. He either founded a new genre or dissolved all of them. Kafka himself seemed to intuit this: “I am the end or the beginning,” he wrote.

Erich Heller, who, like Kafka, became a doctor of law at the German University in Prague, makes a strong case for the central paradox of Kafka’s writing in his canonical essay on The Castle (collected in 1952’s The Disinherited Mind). He gives us the basic outline of the novel’s plot: a stranger known only as K. arrives in a village believing he has been appointed land-surveyor by the authorities (the village is ruled by a castle). What little contact K. has with these authorities — the two assistants appointed to him, the letters he receives, the phone call he overhears — appears to confirm his appointment. But K. is never quite convinced, and least of all when he is informed by the mayor, “You’ve been taken on as a land-surveyor, as you say, but, unfortunately, we have no need for a land-surveyor.” And so K. spends much of the novel doggedly trying to receive confirmation of his appointment from the elusive castle authorities themselves. Heller elaborates:
K.’s belief appears, from the very outset, to be based on truth and illusion. It is Kafka’s all but unbelievable achievement to force, indeed to frighten, the reader into unquestioning acceptance of this paradox, presented with ruthless realism and irresistible logic. Truth and illusion are mingled in K.’s central belief in such a way that he is deprived of all order of reality. Truth is permanently on the point of taking off its mask and revealing itself as illusion, illusion in constant danger of being verified as truth. It is the predicament of a man who, endowed, with an insatiable appetite for transcendental certainty, finds himself in a world robbed of all spiritual possessions. Thus he is caught in a vicious circle. He cannot accept the world — the village — without first attaining to absolute certainty, and he cannot be certain without first accepting the world. Yet every contact with the world makes a mockery of his search, and the continuance of his search turns into a mere encumbrance.
Is our predicament as readers of Kafka not analogous to K.’s? Are we not frightened into unquestioning acceptance of a paradox presented to us with ruthless realism and irresistible logic? Consider “A Message from the Emperor.” A dying emperor dispatches from his deathbed a message intended for you and you alone — you, “his miserable subject.” But this message will never reach you. The messenger carrying it must penetrate the countless chambers and anterooms of the inner palace, not to mention stairs and courtyards and even a second and a third palace. Finally, there is the capital city, with its teeming masses, where no one ever breaks through. “You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.”

The remote and absent figure of authority, the endless bureaucratic encumbrances, the futility of hope — “A Message from the Emperor,” like its sister-parable “Before the Law,” compresses into a few pages the most familiar hallmarks of that dreaded and diluted term, the Kafkaesque — promiscuously used these days to describe even the most trivial inconveniences, like dealing with Verizon. Happily, the term has recently been given a new lease on life by Reiner Stach (whose third and final volume of Kafka’s biography was just released by Princeton University Press); he usefully identifies it as a “peculiar form of rhetoric, which obscures the situation with analytical precision.”

The translator Peter Wortsman’s excellent and bracing new selection of Kafka’s stories, Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka (published by Archipelago Books), brings the author’s peculiar rhetoric to glorious life. It reminds us that delight is a central element in our response to his work — to its mingling of truth and illusion, to the relationship between an extraordinary situation and the “analytical precision” with which it is described. As with other modern translations of Kafka, in particular Michael Hofmann’s, here we are afforded a Kafka less somber than the religious and existential allegorist of yore. Included in Konundrum, for instance, is Kafka’s uproarious account, from a letter to Felice Bauer, of his attempt to keep from bursting out laughing during a “solemn meeting” with the director of the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, where Kafka was employed for a decade. Standing with a colleague before the emperor-like director’s desk, Kafka fights desperately to keep it together. Nothing is as funny as laughter in a situation that doesn’t call for it:
when he launched into his reply, again in that customary, all too familiar, imperially schematic, perfectly meaningless manner, accompanied by heavy chest reverberating moans, while my colleague cast sidelong looks, the object of which was to warn me to control myself, though I had already strained to do so, the effect of which was rather to vividly bring back to mind the delight of that earlier laughter, I could not control myself any longer and lost all hope of ever being able to do so.
One is also reminded here that Kafka is anything but an obscure and impenetrable writer. He is a modernist, I suppose, but you could know nothing of Joyce and Pound and Eliot and still revel in the perfectly formed and invitingly strange world of his fiction. When I first read “The Metamorphosis” at 15, not knowing anything about Kafka or modernism or literature in general (you couldn’t pay me, then, to read a book), I felt that I had either just read the most unsettling story ever written, or had been the butt of a massive joke. Probably that is exactly the reaction a Kafka story should induce in its reader.

Kafka, indeed, is sometimes best read unawares. Too often, interpreting his work is like ruining a good joke by explaining the punch line. We should remember that when he first read The Trial aloud to his friends, they were convulsed with laughter; that in the same novel Josef K. thinks to himself: “if this was a comedy he would insist on playing it to the end”; and that Kafka told his friend Max Brod that “there is hope, but not for us” with a mischievous smile on his face. His fiction is a comedy of proportions and incongruities. In “The Metamorphosis” (which unwisely metamorphoses in Wortsman’s translation into “Transformed”), Gregor Samsa’s first concern upon waking and finding himself transformed into a giant beetle is not his inexplicable bodily change but the much more trivial matter of his employment: “‘Dear God,’ he thought to himself, ‘what an exhausting profession I’ve picked! Day in, day out, always traveling.” There he lies on his shell-like back, his many new legs kicking before him, and his most pressing concern is the train connections and bad meals that characterize his job.

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