Looking for Kafka

New piece for the Wordsworth Editions blog…

For an author so revered and obsessively studied, Franz Kafka remains as enigmatic as his fiction. Like Shakespeare, he is a writer about whom so much has been written that it would now be impossible to read it all in a lifetime. And any scrap of textual evidence, however quotidian and inane – a laundry list, an address on an envelope – will be pored over by academics searching for hidden meaning.

His best friend and later biographer Max Brod likened Kafka to Goethe and Tolstoy. Brod characterised his writing as a metaphysical quest for God – an opinion shared by Thomas Mann ­– while the literary scholars Harold Bloom, Lothar Khan and Pavel Eisner all saw Kafka as the quintessential ‘Jewish writer’. Wikipedia categorises him as a ‘Modernist’ and his work has been claimed by the Expressionist, the Surrealists and Absurdists, just as an argument can also be made that he anticipates postmodernism, or perhaps, like Samuel Beckett, forms a conceptual bridge between the multiple and complex discourses of modernism and postmodernism.

W.H. Auden called Kafka the ‘Dante of the 20th century’, and Nabokov, William Burroughs and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have all cited him as a major influence. For Burroughs, Kafka’s literary focus was always the struggle, pain, and solitude of the human condition, and the search for connection. Fellow Czech author Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) reads Kafka as inverting Dostoyevsky’s view of crime and punishment, reflecting life in a totalitarian state. Conversely, the influential French post-structuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have argued that the themes of alienation and persecution in Kafka’s work seized on by generations of critics have been overemphasised at the expense of Kafka’s subversive sense of humour. Brod wrote, for example, that when Kafka read the final scene of The Trial to his friends, taught in universities around the world as a powerful symbol of the plight of modern man in a godless universe and the futility of the cosmos, he could barely speak for laughing. The Israeli literary critic, Dan Miron, has, meanwhile, made a case for Kafka the Zionist, and the National Library of Israel was able to acquire unpublished manuscripts bequeathed by Brod to his secretary – and probably lover – Esther Hoffe as ‘cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people’ after a lengthy court battle.

In his own day Kafka was largely unpublished, unknown and unread. As Brod put it, ‘Few writers have had the fate which was that of Franz Kafka: alive, to remain almost entirely unknown; dead, to become world famous almost overnight’. Occasionally publishing in small Expressionist journals, Kafka was admired by Der enge Prager Kreis (‘The Close Prague Circle’), a tight group of writers and intellectuals who hung around the Café Arco in Prague after the Great War as European Modernism flourished. But his hyper-critical dismissal of his own writing and his anxiety over dealing with publishers did not exactly broadcast his beautiful but confusing prose to a wider audience. Only later did it find favour with European and American Modernists between the wars after his three unfinished novels were posthumously published by Brod. As Kafka himself told the young Czech poet Gustav Janouch:

Max Brod, Felix Weltsch, all my friends always take possession of something I have written and then take me by surprise with a completed contract with the publisher. I do not want to cause them any unpleasantness, and so it all ends in the publication of things which are entirely personal notes or diversions. Personal proofs of my human weakness are printed, and even sold, because my friends, with Max Brod at their head, have conceived the idea of making literature out of them…

‘Publication of some scribble of mine,’ he concluded, ‘always upsets me’…

To read the complete article please click here – thank you.

You can find Wordsworth’s Essential Kafka collection here.

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