It would be perhaps Kafkaesque to walk into a used bookstore and not find a fairly large section of books by and about one of the most influential writers of the 20th-century: Franz Kafka (1883-1924). American author John Updike regards him this way: “So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; a century after his birth he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament.”
Fortunately, editions of Kafka’s novels and short stories abound. Perhaps the best collection of Kafka’s short stories was published by Schocken Books in 1983, marking the centennial of the author’s birth. The book, titled Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, was edited by Nahum Glatzer with a forward by John Updike. This collection brings together all of Kafka’s stories, parables, and shorter pieces that were only released after his death. With the exception of his three novels (The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle), all of Kafka’s narrative work is included in this book. Updike’s foreword is excellent, however a far more insightful foreword was written by Joyce Carol Oates for the simultaneous publication of the paperback edition (Quality Paperback Book Club), which is now quite difficult to find. Kafka fans, students, and scholars alike will surely benefit from reading Oates’ exploration of the brilliant writer and his mesmerizing work. Below are some key excerpts:
“It would be an illuminating if arduous task to tabulate how frequently, and in what surprising contexts, one encounters the adjective “Kafkan” or “Kafkaesque” in the space of a single year-words that entered our language, presumably, only since the Forties, when Kafka’s translated works began to find their public. One always knows immediately what the words mean (as one always knows what Franz Kafka himself “means”) but how to explain to another person? — how to make clear that which is frankly cloudy, mysterious, inexpicable? As Kafka wittily observed in “On Parables”: “All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.”
Though the words “Kafkan” and “Kafkaesque” invariably point to paradox and human frustration, and suggest childhood memories of terrifying disproportion, it is the case nonetheless that Franz Kafka’s stories and parables are not at all difficult to read and to understand. (To explain — that is another matter: but a peripheral one.) In fact, one might claim that alone among the greatest of twentieth-century writers Kafka is immediately accessible. His unique yet powerfully familiar world can be entered by any reader and comprehended feelingly at once, regardless of background or literary training. (In fact, unsophisticated — which is to say unprejudiced-readers respond to Kafka most directly, as he would have wished. Perceptive teenagers love him not because he is “one of the great moderns” but because he speaks their private language by speaking so boldly in his own.) Kafka is no more difficult than any riddle, or fairy tale, or Biblical parable, though of course he can be made to seem so by persons intent on claiming him for their own.
To open to virtually any of Kafka’s stories or parables, however, is to discover a marvelously direct and uncluttered language. The voice is frequently meditative, ruminative, quibbling, comically obsessed with minutiae; it ponders, it broods, it attempts to explain that which can be explained-while in the background the Incomprehensible looms (“and we know that already”). Kafka is a master of opening sentences, frontal attacks that have left their enduring marks upon our general cultural sensibility; for many admirers of Kafka their admirationindeed, their capitulation to his genius — began with a first reading of [the first sentences of his classic stories]….
It is characteristic of Kafka’s nightmare logic that everything follows swiftly and inevitably from these remarkable first premises. The reader, like the Kafka protagonist, is drawn irresistibly along by a subterranean coherence. (Is there “free will” in Kafka’s universe? Must one deserve his fate? As the priest informs Joseph K. in the melancholy penultimate chapter of The Trial: “It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.”)
Kafka’s famous short stories, though they have proven alarmingly fertile for every sort of exegesis, are primarily talesgenuine tales — in which things happen. Dream-like in tone, they are not whimsically haphazard or aleatory in their development: Gregor Samsa really has metamorphosed into a dung-beetle; the officer of the Penal Colony will sacrifice his very life in the service of his “apparatus”; the doomed country doctor will have his adventure tending a wounded boy, after which he will wander forever exposed to “the frost of this most unhappy of ages.” In an early story, “The Judgment,” a willful young man is sentenced to death by his father’s simple pronouncement: “I sentence you now to death by drowning!” And in “A Hunger Artist” the dying “artist” of fasting confesses that he is not superior to other human beings after all-he fasts only because he has never found the food he liked.
In other works of Kafka’s, the parables and certain longer pieces like “The Great Wall of China” and “Investigations of a Dog,” plot is subordinate to what one might call the dialectic or discursive voice. These tales, though less compelling on the superficial level than those cited above, exert by degrees a remarkable inner power. With no introduction one is plunged into an interior obsessive landscape, and carried along by the sheer flow of thought of an alien-but oddly sympathetic-consciousness. (“This is too much for the human mind to grasp,” Einstein is said to have remarked to Thomas Mann, regarding Kafka’s short prose pieces.)
The parables or shorter stories resemble Zen koans in their teasing simplicity, but they are unmistakably Jewish-even lawyerly — in the mock-formal nature of their language. (See “The Animal in the Synagogue,” “Abraham,” “Before the Law,” etc.) These are ingenious arguments or mimicries of argument; anecdotes so undetermined by history and locality that they come to possess the beauty (and the impersonal cruelty) of folk ballads or fairy tales. Their wisdom is childlike yet as old as the race, pruned of all sentiment and illusion. In “Prometheus,” for instance, four legends are briefly considered, with equal emphasis, whereupon “the gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.” But there remained, still, the “inexplicable.” Which is to say — the legend, or the riddle, simply outlives its principal figures.
The famous parables “Before the Law” and “An Imperial Message” seem to have been written in response to an identical motive, but provide an illuminating contrast with each other. In the first (which is incorporated in The Trial), a “man from the country” is denied admittance to the Law despite the fact that he submits himself to its authority. He is faithful, he is indefatigable, he even follows tradition of a sort in attempting to bribe his Doorkeeper — all to no avail. The radiance that streams “inextinguishably” from the gateway of the Law never includes him: he dies unredeemed. The Doorkeeper’s final words are: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.” A typically Kafkan irony: the gateway is the means of salvation, yet it is also inaccessible.
Is the Law an expression of God? — any projected form of the Divine? — of order, coherence, collective or personal salvation? Is the Law merely a private obsession that has shaded into madness? Can one in fact believe the Doorkeeper? — or the parable itself? It might be said that the hapless “man from the country” has been waiting for admittance to his own life, which, as a consequence of his obsession, he has failed to live. Or, conversely, it might be argued that the Law represents his own soul, the “kingdom of God” that lies within. Even in wholly secular terms, the man in his single-minded quest may have failed to realize the fullest flowering of his personality: his relationship to all humanity has been, in fact, only by way of the intrepid Doorkeeper…
While “Before the Law” seems to offer no hope whatsoever, the companion parable “An Imperial Message” offers an unexpected revelation. The Emperor has sent a message to you but the messenger is impeded by the vast multitudes between the two of you — ”if he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly! “— he wears out his strength in his effort-it is soon clear that the entire mission is hopeless — and the Emperor himself has long since died. A familiar Kafkan predicament, except for this puzzling final line: “But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream [the message] to yourself.” So the Emperor’s wisdom, after all, lies within…
Kafka’s mysticism assured him that such salvation was possible, even inevitable, though he was to be excluded: his sense of personal guilt precedes all action. That in his father’s eyes he was contemptible, that his writing counted for very little, that his personal misfortune (his tubercular condition, for instance) was related in some mysterious way to his own will, his own secret wish — all these factors set Franz Kafka apart from what he chose to think of as the happiness of normal life: the effortless salvation of those who live without questioning the basic premises of their lives. The “man from the country” is both hero and victim, saint and fool, but he is certainly isolated, and his petition has come to nothing: the bitterest irony being that, perhaps, the Law lay with him all along; he might have dreamt it to himself.
Kafka reports having been filled with “endless astonishment” at simply seeing a group of people cheerfully assembled together: his intense self-consciousness and self-absorption made such exchanges impossible. The way of the artist is lonely, stubborn, arrogant, pitiable — yet innocent. For one does not choose one’s condition…
Of course Kafka’s humor is deadpan, surrealist, sometimes rather sado-masochistic; a highly sophisticated kind of comedy that might be missed by even an attentive reader. There is a danger in taking Kafka too seriously — too grimly — simply because he has attained the stature of a twentieth-century classic. (It might be argued that Kafka’s wicked sense of humor is ultimately more painful to absorb than his passages, or his pose, of gravity. For it is nearly always humor directed against the victim-self, the very protagonist for whom the reader wishes to feel sympathy.) Consider the emaciated, dying, self-ordained martyr, the Hunger Artist, who not only insists upon his fasting but seems to imagine that the world should honor it. It is not a religious ideal, it is in the service of no Godhead but the Hunger Artist himself. (“Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer… for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for
It is frequently remarked that Kafka’s language is remarkably forceful and direct, stripped clean of self-conscious figures of speech. In fact there are at least two “voices” in Kafka: that of the omniscient narrator (the strategy by which most of the famous stories are told), and that of the obsessed, perhaps mad protagonist who tells his tale in the first person (“The Burrow,” for example — perhaps the most terrifying of Kafka’s fables). Metaphorical language is unnecessary in Kafka’s fiction because each story, each parable, each novel is a complete and of ten outrageous metaphor in itself: smaller units of metaphor would be redundant. Consider the marvelous imaginative leap that gives us such images as “The Great Wall of China” (“So vast is our land that no fable could do justice to its vastness, the heavens can scarcely span it — and Peking is only a dot in it, and the imperial palace less than a dot”), the monstrous machine of “transcendent” pain of “In the Penal Colony” (“Can you follow it? The Harrow is beginning to write; when it finishes the first draft of the inscription on the man’s back, the layer of cotton wool begins to roll and slowly turns the body over, to give the Harrow fresh space for writing. Meanwhile the raw part that has been written on lies on the cotton wool, which is specially prepared to staunch the bleeding and so makes all ready for a new deepening of the script … “), the stricken humanity of the legendary Hunter Gracchus, who can neither live nor die, yet seems blameless (“I am here, more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death”).
The great conceit of The Castle is — simply, and horribly — that one cannot get to the castle, no matter his ingenuity; the conceit of The Trial, that one is on trial for his life whether he consents to the authority of the court or not, and whether, in fact, he is guilty of any crime (when hapless Joseph K. protests his innocence he is informed that that is what “guilty men” always say). In the curious and altogether uncharacteristic playlet “The Warden of the Tomb,” the fabulist setting is, as the Prince says, the frontier between the Human and the Otherwhere naturally he wishes to post a guard; in the brief yet suspenseful story “The Refusal” it is a small anonymous town presided over by a colonel who is really a tax-collector. “The Burrow,” not one of Kafka’s more popular tales, is nonetheless a harrowing and brilliant investigation of anxiety-anxiety as it shades into madness-made unforgettable by way of its conceit of the Burrow itself: the defensive strategies that doom a man (one assumes that the narrator is a man — of sorts) to paranoia and dissolution, even as he believes himself protected from his enemies. The “I” seems to be addressing the reader but is in fact only talking to himself, rationalizing, debating, sifting through possibilities, trying to resist breakdown, trying — with what mad heroic calm!-to forestall disaster. His voice is hypnotic, seductive as any siren of the night, for it is our own voice, diminished, secretive, hardly raised to a whisper…
In these artful cadences we hear the mimicry of reason, the parodied echoes of sanity. Human logic has become burrow logic. Human consciousness has become burrow consciousness. The image is a classic metaphor for one facet of the human condition, limned in prose so compelling it is an unnerving experience to read. And how perfect the terse concluding statement — ”All remained unchanged” — after the long, long sentences in their obdurate paragraphs, as difficult to transverse as the burrower’s labyrinthine hiding-place. That it is also a grave — that his claustrophobic maneuvers assure his eventual death — is a realization he cannot make: we alone can make it for him.
Kafka noted in a diary entry for 25 September 1917 that happiness for him consisted in raising the world “into the pure, the true, and the immutable.” His dark prophetic art — Aesopian fables, religious allegories, inverted romances — limned a future in which bureaucratic hells and “final solutions” are not improbable: an increasingly dehumanized future of a sort Joseph K. has already endured when, after his struggle to acquit himself of guilt, he is executed and dies “like a dog.” This is a literature, admittedly, of symbolist extremes, in which the part must serve for the whole, the dream — or nightmare — image must suggest the totality of experience. In Kafka we never encounter persons, or personalities: we are always in the presence of souls — humanity peeled to its essence and denuded of the camouflage of external circumstance. We see no faces or features — we experience no bodies — we become mere figures, abbreviations, ciphers — participants in a vast, timeless, and, indeed, indecipherable drama. This is an art in which the social sphere matters not at all, and even the “human” sphere becomes by degrees irrelevant. Kafka is a realist of mystical perspective, resolutely unsentimental, even rather pitiless in his tracking of our numerous delusions. But he is primarily a superb storyteller.”
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For further reading: Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories edited by Nahum Glatzer with a forward by John Updike