Tuesday, November 13, 2018

It’s not at all like me! - I love Kafka

I don’t know why I am drawing up this summary, it’s not at all like me!

Franz Kafka, Diaries, Dec. 31, 1914, tr. Martin Greenberg

Much of this book blog website consists of literary criticism and quotation of great writers I do not even especially like that much when we get right down to it, thus 103 posts tagged "JAMES Henry" at this moment, although who cares what I like.  And if we do care, what I like is literature, and is Henry James ever literature.  He’s endlessly interesting.

I am looking at a stack of books by or about Franz Kafka, ten books that I read recently – and the stack is missing a couple that went back to the library.  Some I had read a long time ago, some not until now, and a few I had visited somewhere in between.  I find that I do not particularly want to write about them.  I love Kafka.  Talk about endlessly interesting.  It has been like an old friend dropped by and stayed for a couple of months.  A brilliant, hilarious, exasperating old friend.

I am glad he did not actually drop by.  We have had an issue with a neighbor’s barking dog.  How Kafka hated noise.  Keep an ear out for references to noise and silence in the works of Kafka.

How much have I read about Kafka in the last thirty years, without making any kind of a study of him?  Literary magazines are full of Kafka, whether in the ongoing flow of books about him or in references to him.  My impression is that he has always been there, while references to, reviews of, books about Proust have exploded.  Henry James, he was always there, too.  I have never grown tired about reading about any of them.  Some kind of citation count in major American literary magazines would likely prove that I am wrong about all of this.  What I am trying to say is that even though it has been almost thirty years since I read The Castle (1926), I feel that I have been reading Kafka all along, that I am always reading Kafka.

That last phrase is not true, but it sounds like something Italo Calvino would turn into a story.  “My author is Kafka, and my favourite novel is Amerika.”  Is that a real Calvino quotation?  Not phony internet nonsense?  I had not read Amerika until recently, and there were parts that were so Calvino-like.  But Amerika is, in Kafka’s compressed career, an earlier work, when he was still susceptible to the influence of unborn writers.  They have a similarly clear prose.  “Pure” is Walter Benjamin’s word for Kafka’s German.

The two authors had a similar sense of the absurd, a sense of humor.  I share the sense of humor, but not Kafka’s numerous and varied neuroses, nor his worldview, as far as I can make it out – there are books on this subject.  Though I am more of a creature of the Enlightenment than Kafka, I agree with his powerful psychological critique of reason to the extent that I understand it.

Kafka’s prose, his jokes, his arguments such as they are.  His imagination – as a pure fantasy writer, he is among the greats.  What pleasures there are in Kafka.


  1. Yes, Kafka is wonderful, and wonderfully hard to write about. I've just run across another example of this in the new History of Russian Literature I'll be reviewing for The Millions soon. They devote pages to Gorky and, immediately following, a paragraph to Bunin (the last part of which is taken up with a crack Nabokov once made about Bunin), but Bunin is ten times the writer Gorky is, and he got the first Russian literature Nobel, for Pete's sake! Then it occurred to me there's nothing really to say about Bunin, especially for an academic. He didn't join literary groups (a big focus of the HRL), he didn't radically change style, he didn't emigrate and then return and have an interestingly complicated relationship with the Bolsheviks like Gorky, he just wrote great short stories, decade after decade. What can you say about that? As a reader you wallow in it (and talk about "clear prose" -- it's maddeningly hard to translate), and I keep a fat Complete Stories around to read a bit of before bedtime because it never disappoints, but a scholar is going to find it frustrating. "Bunin... excellent writer, really very good!... OK, moving on..."

  2. I think I will write a bit about this. My Kafka is something like the way you describe Bunin, but Kafka invites - for many, demands - explication, and as a result there is so much written about him.

    With Gorky, there is so much to do with the context, the life and times. Maybe sometimes that is even more interesting than his writing. But with Kafka, the life is so short, the times so constrained. It clearly frustrates some people. Thank goodness for them that Kafka wrote those diaries and all those letters. Material to mine.

  3. So, Brecht and Walter Benjamin are talking, mid-1934: “’Suppose you read a very good historical novel and later you discover that it is by Lenin. You would change your opinion of both, to the detriment of both. Likewise, it would be wrong for Confucius to have written a tragedy, say one of Euripides’s tragedies; it would be felt as unworthy of him. Yet his parables are not.’ All this leads, in short, to a differentiation between two kinds of writers: the visionary , who is in earnest, and the intellectual, who is not completely serious. At this point I raised the question of Kafka. To which of the two groups does he belong? I know that the question cannot be answered. And it is precisely its unanswerability which Brecht regards as proof of the fact that Kafka, whom he considers to be a great writer, is, like Kleist or Büchner, a failure. Kafka’s starting point is really the parable, I should add that Brecht is convinced that Kafka would not have found his own special form without Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor”

    “He was interested in Kafka only as a phenomenon; looked on his work as if it -and likewise its author- were a product of nature and isolated it from every possible context, even the author’s life.”

  4. My interest in Kafka is quite different than Brecht's, but I sympathize. Kafka is a phenomenon, an ongoing phenomenon. Even his life becomes a cluster of texts, a series of parables, available for exegesis.

    Interesting that Benjamin finds his question unanswerable. Kafka is a rare thing, a visionary who knows how to tell a joke. A visionary who laughs at his own visions.

    The source of the conversation, for anyone interested. Brecht is wrong about Kafka "only" being interested in "the problem of organization." That's Brecht turning Kafka into Brechtian Kafka.

  5. I think of Kafka the way I think of, say, Nick Drake in music. He's not one my favorite authors, I haven't read everything he's written and I don't think about him all that often. But I take it as such a given that he's one of the greats that I'm genuinely surprised if I hear that somebody doesn't like his work.

  6. That's funny. I have only recently gotten to know Drake. I Liked Pink Moon quite a bit. Five Leaves Left had way too much goldang harp and flute. I haven't heard Bryter Layter. English folkies always give me some trouble.

    There, some opinions on Nick Drake.

    1. I kind of feel the same way about Kafka, now that I've read all of his fiction. I like the short stories a lot, but the novels are all unfinished and have way too much this and that sometimes and give me some trouble.

      Nick Drake turns out to have been terribly influential, too.

  7. I like The Trial as much as any Kafka. Parts of the other novels. The Castle has some tedious parts that mostly have conceptual justification but are a slog.

    I mean, I am reading The Rainbow right now - talk about justified slogs - not that Lawrence's have much resemblance to Kafka's.

    Love those assistants, though.

    The artists most influenced by Nick Drake, the few whose music I know, tend to be among my least favorite musicians. Bon Iver, no, please.

    1. I like Kafka, for all his unfinishedness and sometimes adolescent humor, much more than I tend to like the writers who most show his influence. It's like they've chosen to just emphasize narrative impenetrability, having mistaken that for an exploration of social alienation.

      Parts of The Trial and The Castle are amazing, as good as anything anyone has written. The chapter of The Castle about the inner life of the bar maid is pure gold, man.

    2. I keep forgetting to read The Rainbow. I'm quite fond of Women in Love, so I really should see about the first half of the story at some point.

    3. I read The Rainbow almost 30 years ago but never read Women in Love. I should - and will - read it, so I thought I would reacquaint myself. Plus for some reason I have read a lot of Lawrence in the last year.