Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How to Read Franz Kafka - with help from Roberto Calasso - The simple story had lost its clear outline

However you want, of course.  I read him literally, mostly, as a fantasy writer.   Gregor turns into a bug; that is what Metamorphosis is about, first.  I think of great fantasy writers as people who make metaphors literal.  Thus reading literally is also reading metaphorically, poetically.

Many enthusiastic readers have wanted Kafka to be allegorical.  They break his code and find that he is a religious writer, Jewish or possibly something else, some kind of gnostic.  Or everything is psychological, really about Kafka’s father, or about his frustrations with or fear of women.  Kafka has attracted totalizers.  He is so complex that they never seem entirely wrong to me.  Only the totalizing tendency is wrong.

It is always a pleasure to find people smarter than me who agree with me.  Robert Calasso’s K. (2002, tr. Geoffrey Brock) is a three hundred page rearrangement of Kafka.  The early chapters mostly put episodes of The Castle in different order.  Eventually other Kafka texts are pulled in, all of the major ones.  Another great temptation with Kafka is to dissolve his individual works, not just his fiction but the fragments, diaries, letters, offhand comments reported by Max Brod, everything, into one omni-text.  I understand completely.  The key to any given text may be somewhere in that other text.  It feels like it should be.  It never is, not quite.

Anyway, this is Calasso, who like me is not really looking for a key:

Kafka can’t be understood if he isn’t taken literally.  But the literal must be grasped in all its powers and in the vastness of its implications.  (25)

You tell ‘em.  Maybe that second sentence moves towards meaninglessness.  The rest of the paragraph is not much help.

It’s awkward to speak of symbols in Kafka, because Kafka experienced everything as symbol.  It wasn’t a choice – if anything, it was a sentence.  (118)

For Kafka, the metaphorical and the literal had the same weight.  The passage from one to the other was smooth.    The metaphorical could take the place of the literal and transform the literal into metaphor.  (119)

Knowledge leads to the evocation of an image.  And that image is immediately recognized as “only an image.”  To move beyond it, it will have to be replaced – with another image.  The process is never-ending.  (122-3)

That last one, that is merely a definition of literature, right?

I am not sure of the source of Kafka’s metaphysics, but it is something like Schopenhauer’s.  Kafka did not merely believe in the existence of a real reality behind the representation of reality in which he lived, he believed that he occasionally experienced that real reality.  It was accessible, occasionally, by means of writing fiction.  Or maybe it was just an image of the real reality, that’s fine too.

Tomorrow I will interpret Kafka a bit myself.  He invites it.  The climax of The Trial, the astounding “In the Cathedral” chapter, is mostly a piece of literary criticism, where Josef K. and the priest close-read and interpret the “Before the Law” parable to exhaustion.

K. said that with finality, but it was not his final judgment.  He was too tired to survey all the conclusions arising from the story…  The simple story had lost its clear outline…  (The Trial, tr. Willa and Edwin Muir, rev. E. M. Butler)

But maybe the characters missed the one true interpretation.  If they had only tried harder, or had access to Kafka’s diaries and letters.


  1. Immersed as I am right now in late Ibsen (which is saturated with symbolism), I’ve been trying to think (as best I can) about interpretations, symbols, and, indeed, about interpretation of symbols. For if we are to look beyond the strictly literal meaning of something, then we can only take it as a metaphor, or as a symbol. And it then becomes a temptation to try to work out what they are metaphors of, or what they are symbols of. And that is to reduce the thing to the level of a crossword puzzle to be solved. So either we refrain from even trying to interpret, or we find subtler ways of interpreting. The former is not possible, even if it were desirable. But for the latter…

    I am very keen to see what you make of the “Cathedral” chapter of “The Trial”, which, as you rightly say, is astounding,

  2. "It is always a pleasure to find people smarter than me who agree with me." Isn't it?" I often find that pleasure here.
    That metaphors become literal in good fantasy writing is the beginning of a satisfactory definition.

  3. Ha, this more or less was my interpretation of the Cathedral chapter, here in this post. The careful interpretation of the parable only leads to more interpretation, which leaves poor Josef K. if anything worse off. Reason is dangerous.

    I think a danger with Kafka and Ibsen is to move the big, brilliant symbols out of the work itself. The Castle is God, that sort of thing. There is plenty to do within the text!

    Jeanne, I think it was the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that taught me that definition long ago. "What if high school were literally Hell?"

  4. I haven't immersed myself in Kafka for decades, but I'm wonderful if I should. I think my reading of him nowadays would be very, very different from first time round. Love those quotes!


  5. The fiction is primary, but I will say that the diaries were great. I had not read those before. Lots of great writing in Kafka's diaries and notebooks.

    Calasso's book was good, too. He makes more references to Indian religious ideas than most Kafka critics. As one might guess from his earlier books.

  6. I've been following the argumentative old git's posts on Ibsen and Dostoyevsky with great interest. They got me thinking about how in their works (the same goes for Melville, James, and Conrad as well) the practice of fictional representation changed and gave birth to Modernist fiction: fiction that needs interpretation, close reading and/or critics to explain it in order to be better understood.

    Even earlier writers as inventive as Cervantes, Rabelais, Teofilo Folengo, Sterne, Diderot or Jean Paul Richter didn't go that far (Shakespeare is a whole different beast altogether).

    Speaking of "find people smarter than me who agree with me", modernism pundit Malcolm Bradbury in his "The Modern World: Ten Great Writers" analyzes the work of precisely the usual suspects: Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Conrad, Mann, Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Pirandello, Woolf, and Kafka.

  7. A lot of early modern writing needed its own kind of interpretation and close reading - allegorical puzzles for the educated elite - but they're in a different category. I agree, as endlessly complex as Don Quixote is, the way to understand it is to read it, read some other things, read it again, read some other things, repeat until death. It is a pleasure to do the same thing with Ibsen and Kafka, but I can use some extra help.

    I am baffled by that Bradbury book - baffled that I do not believe I have heard of it or ever saw a copy. It was published just when I was starting to pay attention to that sort of thing.