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Feeling Alienated and Crushed by Blind Authority

Not me, I hasten to say. I’m talking about the works of the renowned Franz Kafka, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. To have your name be turned into an adjective – now that’s something of an achievement! (Of course, if you’re a bad dude, it can also work the opposite way.)

I’ve been re-reading a book I purchased several years back, Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. The stories were translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Kafka’s first translators (from German into English) and well worthy of their own Wikipedia citations.

The Modern Library, Random House, New York, 1952

I’m no Kafka scholar, but like many people I know of him. And I certainly know the term Kafkaesque, a word which, according to Merriam-Webster means the following:

surreal fiction vividly [expressing] the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century. Kafka’s work is characterized by nightmarish settings in which characters are crushed by nonsensical, blind authority. Thus, the word ‘Kafkaesque’ is often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening.”

All true, of course, but what strikes me about Kafka’s short stories, more than anything else, is the degree of empathy he has for his protagonists. What is empathy? Let me again quote Merriam-Webster:

“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Whether Kafka writes about a man who’s turned into an insect (The Metamorphosis), a Chinese stone mason during the 200’s BC (The Great Wall of China), a man who entertains others by starving himself (The Hunger Artist) or a dog (Investigations of a Dog), the one common trait Kafka demonstrates in each story is a sympathy for the individual and sense of the inner emotions/conflicts of the lead character. Each of these stories were written largely in the 1910’s and early 1920’s, The Metamorphosis (1912) being amongst his most famous. The others, being his longer works, The Trial and The Castle came later.

Kafka (1883-1924) grew up in a middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish family, in Prague prior to 1918, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, afterwards the new (and ill-fated) democracy of Czechoslovakia. Given everything, it seems fitting that he worked in the insurance industry – the Bohemian Workers Accident Insurance Institute, to be specific. His real passion, though, was writing (his only hope, he wrote in his letters, “for happiness and fulfillment”).

To our great loss, his life was cut short. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, and died of it only seven years later, at the age of 40. Sadly, his three sisters all died during the Holocaust.

The first English translation of The Castle appeared in 1930, well after his death.

Philip Rahv provides the introduction to The Modern Library edition. He writes that Kafka was a “master of narrative tone, of a subtle, judicious and ironically conservative style”. He “combines within one framework the recognizable and mysterious, extreme subjectivity of content with forms rigorously objective, a lovingly exact portrayal of the factual world with a dreamlike and magical dissolution of it.” (p viii) He also labels him a neurotic with an obsession being driven by a sense of inadequacy, failure and sinfulness (a sense that corresponded to nothing he’d ever done or left undone). (p. x)

My point here is not to analyze Kafka (I’d probably need a psychoanalyst for that task) or his writing. To do so would take an entire book (several volumes, in fact). It’s merely to note his incredible ability to get inside his lead character, to feel what it is like, for example,  to wake up one morning in bed as a “gigantic insect”, with its segmented brown belly, “pitifully thin legs… waving helplessly”, while lying on its hard, armor-plated back. (The Metamorphosis, p.19) The story is about how the protagonist and his family cope in the days to come with this dreadful turn of events. If any reader doesn’t know how this saga turns out, just remember we’re talking about Kafka – it doesn’t end well.

But I do want to mention The Great Wall of China, a much less famous piece. The story (like many others) was not published during Kafka’s life. Rahv declares that the last pages of this and several others “are either missing or never written.” (p. xxii) Rahv sees the Great Wall as a symbol “of human solidarity, of earthly fulfillment and of mankind’s effort to obtain supernatural guidance.” But why, then, was the wall built in such a piecemeal fashion, thus “permitting the nomads of the North to slip through the gaps?” The reply given is that it’s in man’s inability to comprehend the Whole and his nature to achieve only limited ends. (p. xii) And, of course, imperial decrees, however flawed, can never be questioned.

Rahv goes on from there, to explain and explore (as Kafka does) the relationship between the Emperor and imperial court in Peking (Beijing) and the peasant living in the furthest reaches of the empire, which is as the relationship between God and 20th century man – “ill-defined, nebulous and, above all, archaic.” (p. xiii)

What strikes me most of all is Kafka’s ability to grasp the complexity of that Emperor/peasant relationship, especially when one considers he is writing in Prague in the early part of the 20th century, in an era without recourse to the vast information sources of today. I’m guessing Prague had a population of about 500,000 towards the end of World War 1, having progressed to becoming a regional center within the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the war to being the capital of Czechoslovakia afterwards. It may have been cosmopolitan and wealthy enough, but where did Kafka manage to acquire such a deep understanding of the Chinese psyche? Or was it simply a matter of an extraordinary imagination (something he had in spades, as we know).

There is much more to say about and delve into regarding Kafka, his writings, his legacy and what happened to his many notes and papers after his death. Many scholars have done exactly that. If one wants to explore Kafka’s legacy, I’d suggest starting with Max Brod, his best friend and literary executor. Brod has written a well-regarded biography).

But the most comprehensive and definitive study may be Reiner Stach’s three volumes. These books were originally published in German, and then in English by Princeton University Press (translated by Shelley Frisch), subtitled in English – The Early Years (2017), The Decisive Years (2013) and The Years of Insight (2013). It’s a monumental enterprise (we’re talking of 1800 pages in all and even more in the original German), twenty years in the research and the writing. The result is highly regarded by scholars. See the excellent review of these books by Jan Mieszkowski in Public Books.

For those interested in knowing more about or immersing oneself in the author, there’s only one place to go – the capital of the Czech Republic. Prague has a Kafka Museum, a Kafka Society, a Kafka bookshop, a Kafka hostel, several ongoing exhibitions and at least two statues of the writer. With its well-preserved heritage, the city’s been a place I’ve always been keen to visit. But I guess that trip will have to wait until we’re well and truly post-pandemic.

Cover Photo by William Zhang on Unsplash