Some academics have observed that young Jewish writers do not mine their personal lives for material in the same way that Jewish writers did a generation ago. In my own case, this is and isn’t true. My first novel, The Jump Artist, was based on someone else’s life and took place in lands and days disparate from my own. My second novel, In the Land of the Living, which is being released by Little Brown this week, draws on my own personal experiences and on events in the history of my own family. It’s first and foremost about loss at a tender age, and finding your way out from under the pall of grief, back to the land of the living, and to all that makes life worth living. (Why am I not on Oprah’s book list?)
If a book gets its license to exist from a fresh or unique subject, then my book’s claim would lie in its manner of depicting early childhood. Most novels do not incorporate early childhood into their storylines or into their characters at all, except in metaphorical ways. Mary Shelley and Toni Morrison are two writers who invented rather ingenious novelistic contraptions to represent early childhood: Shelley did it by writing of a human man made from scratch and educated (and abused) like a child, Morrison by turning a dead child into an adult ghost in Beloved. In his autobiographical novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Tolstoy wrote about his mother’s death, which happened when he was two, but he revised his age to something like eight to make the scenes more artistically manageable. James Joyce writes directly of early childhood in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but he does so impressionistically and does not draw any firm connections between those opening early childhood scenes and later ones. I have taken a different approach by depicting early childhood experiences directly and carrying through their implications in every other scene of the book.
Having said that, there is something suspicious to me in the notion that a novel needs “uniqueness” in order to be valuable. “Uniqueness” sounds a lot like “competitive advantage”—a phrase from the world of commerce, not literature. A writer sets out to portray what is true to him or her, and also, usually, what is beautiful. New styles, new philosophies, new insights into character, forays into unknown subject matter—these things come about automatically when new voices do a good job examining the same old world on a cutting edge that is provided to them by time itself: another day.
Since my first encounter with Kafka‘s writing, I’ve been interested in a quality that, while he was alive, stood in the way of his achieving a large reputation: his allegory. Kafka’s inevitable tropism for the allegorical puts him in marked opposition to the realism that dominated the literary world of the first half of the twentieth century.
Though a realist writer might acknowledge that his story set in the mundane world might have allegorical readings, the trend in the first half of the twentieth century was to flee allegory for either the documentation of the external world, or of individual psychology. Even experimentalists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, despite streams of consciousness or wild flights of imagery, assume that fiction is about what is, the surface of events and things and people. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, de Maupassant and Flaubert, Hardy and Dickens before him, Anton Chekhov and Joseph Conrad while he was alive and writing, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner after him, no matter how elaborate their rhetoric or symbolisms, insist upon the reality of their worlds.
Kafka is not interested in documenting the manners and mores of any particular place; he is not interested in probing the psyche of individual characters. Joyce spent his life after leaving Ireland creating Dublin and its inhabitants in their specificity and individuality, their language, places, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. A person may precisely follow the path that Leopold Bloom walked in the course of a day in Ulysses, and every June 16th, numerous people do.
In contrast, Kafka’s people and settings are generic. For the most part Kafka’s characters don’t even have names, and the worlds they inhabit are iconic rather than documentary. Though he spent most of his life in Prague, there is for instance little sense of Prague, or any other specific place, in his work.
We are not interested in the hunger artist’s biography. To ask this question is to reveal its absurdity. Neither do we ask the biography of Melville’s Bartleby or Jesus’s Good Samaritan or the characters in the numerous parables of the Talmud and Midrash. We don’t wonder about the hunger artist’s childhood, his ethnic background, the place where he lives, the names of the towns and cities where he performs, the political climate, his interpersonal relationships, his sex life, what year it is, and what language is being spoken. Kafka spends little time evoking persons or places, does not give us individual gestures or idiosyncrasies, does not appeal to our senses, does not make us feel and live in the worlds he creates. Though he may give us objects and actions that appear in the real world, he is not documenting reality. A cage, an impresario, some straw, a circus. Or an apartment, a traveling salesman, a sister Grete, an unnamed mother and father, a narrow bed, the picture of a woman wearing a muff, an apple. Or a penal colony, an explorer, a prisoner, an officer, a bizarre execution machine.
This is not a criticism. The stories are not divorced from the world—in fact they are cogently relevant, even political, as radically political in their universality as Jesus’s parables. A powerful intellect works behind every sentence. One is challenged to interpret every image, every action, to read through the surface of a Kafka story to the meanings behind. There are layers upon layers, prismatic reflections of abstract meanings.
However, it would be a mistake to say that the meanings of Kafka’s parables are clear. As the critic Walter Benjamin wrote: “Kafka had a rare ability for creating parables for himself. Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously and warily.”
– John Kessel