Books have always fascinated me, even from the very earliest days of my childhood. As the child of Jewish intellectuals I imbibed with my mother’s milk the concept that literature is nourishment for the soul; no other activity merits greater respect or in fact deserves more affectionate devotion from us.
I lived in Hungary for the first decade of my life, back when the country was held in the steely grip of the Communist Party and the truths of the authorities could never be brought into question. The media were controlled by the state, and journalists were accomplished liars about everything except the scores of soccer matches, which were impossible to falsify. Seekers after truth had to resort to works of literature, even though the official censors kept a close watch on such publications.
In search of the few available crumbs of truth, my parents bought copies of all new novels and poetry collections published in the country. Our home was like a library, piled high with books. Perhaps that’s why I’m always astounded when I encounter people who haven’t the slightest interest in literature.
My first vivid experiences of the world of books were purely sensual delights: the smell of paper and printer’s ink, the nuanced colors of the book jackets. Later, once I’d learned to read, I traveled, powered by the fuel of the alphabet, to inner and outer worlds, down into the depths of history, sometimes into the future, toward the vast riches of life that extended farther than any eye could see. I spent time with people who had lived long before me in places I would never be able to visit; perhaps those places had never existed at all. I often curled up under the covers to read, living in a boundless world of dreams, full of adventures.
For a long time my favorite book was A Thousand and One Nights, that perpetually enchanting cocktail filled to the brim with the most delicious ingredients of the Middle Eastern storyteller’s art, spiced with liberal doses of invention and humor, sensuality and cruelty. Sometimes I would skip school, preferring the company of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad the sailor. One time I was caught and as my mother seized me by the ear, I couldn’t help exclaiming, “I wish I was grown up already and could spend all my time just reading, reading and reading!” Perhaps that episode was influential in my decision ten years later to dedicate myself fulltime to a life in the world of books.
My next tumultuous literary experience came in my late teens when I read The Trial. It was earth-shaking for me. With just the first few pages I realized that I adored Kafka, especially the tension between dazzling light and absolute depths of darkness that characterized his prose. More than anything else I was impressed by his conversational style, recognizable for its simplicity and crystal clear transparency. And I took his motto for my own: “Correctly comprehending a thing is no guarantee that one hasn’t failed to understand it at the same time.”
Kafka the strict moralist became my guide, one who pointed out the right path but never disclosed the goal. That great prophet of ambiguities taught me to look at the world with fresh eyes and without illusions. Reading Kafka gave me insight into myself; I discovered that I’m a complicated, eclectic and urban Jew, one who believes in no God but still has spiritual needs, and, I hope, has a moral dimension: a man who accepts uncertainty as the only constant and change as the only certainty.
Others who have enriched my world are the great writers of Latin America. Gabriel García Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa have taught me that within a work of the imagination everything can exist simultaneously and on the same level, outside our familiar sense of chronology, with no distinctions drawn between the realistic and the fantastic or between reality and myth. Their approach allows one to create a world complete in itself, a landscape in which everything leaps into view as if lit by a flash of lightning.
I’ve lived my whole life surrounded by novels, works of the imagination and invented stories. The question therefore presents itself: Why, exactly, do I read and I write?
As far as I’m concerned, reading and writing serve the same purpose. They help me to come to grips with myself and with the world around me. I read and write so as to see more clearly, so as to fully develop and exactly express my feelings and thoughts. I do this above all in order to explore and to encounter—not things that I already know, but instead those that still remain obscure to me, half intuited and virtually unknown. For I aim to push my way into that hidden reality and perceive things in new ways. In such an endeavor, not even cutting-edge psychological research can come close to what poetry can achieve.
I am never alone when I read or write, even though a casual observer would see these activities as a profession practiced entirely solo. In a different sense, however, they provide one with an ample and rewarding circle of acquaintances. When I read, I enter a world conceived by another person, and when I write, I am reaching out to my fellow human beings. These tasks sustain and uplift my spirit by extending its worlds of fantasy, feeling and play. In literature nothing is sacred. Its works are the products of dreams, thoughts, feelings and fantasies that never petrify into dogma. Literature is the eternal conversation of the human race.
I was trying to figure out how to get people to buy My First Kafka from me directly instead of, say, Amazon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy when anyone buys my book from anywhere, but it’s a nice feeling when you actually sell the copy yourself. (Also, you make slightly more than the 43 cents per copy or whatever that you get from your publisher, but that’s a different story.)
So I wrote this tiny mini-book. It’s a short story, and it’s called “The Last Golem in Prague.” It was an eleventh-hour creation in every sense. The books had just arrived in the mail, people were actually buying them, which I couldn’t (and still mostly can’t) believe, and I had to send out something. For months I’d sat in front of my notebook, page blank, wondering what sort of story I should write for whatever people might buy my weird children’s book.
And then, at 11:59 or so, everything clicked together. Continue reading
One of the influences of Kafka over later writers is not so much in the content of his work as in its form. The conventional Aristotelian plot proceeds by means of a protagonist, an antagonist, and a series of events comprising a rising action, climax and denouement. It involves identification of the reader with the protagonist and vicarious engagement with his or her predicament (even when, as in say, Macbeth, the protagonist is the villain). One event causes the next event, and so on, like a row of falling dominoes. This structure has stood storytellers in good stead for a few thousand years.
But Kafka’s stories do not fall easily into this pattern—The Trial at least seems to begin in this way, though it never fulfills it. Perhaps that is one reason why Kafka had so much difficulty finishing his novels—a novel demands some structure of this type, and Kafka was not able to produce such a structure. In Kafka’s universe, cause and effect are not so sure as other forces.
Rather, what Kafka gives us— and if he is not the originator of it, he brings it to a remarkable perfection— is the story that begins with a premise, often a bald assertion of a fact in contradiction to reality (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”). The story then progresses not as a series of cause-and-effect links, but as elaboration/qualification/evolution from that assertion. We can see this in “The Great Wall of China,” in “A Hunger Artist,” in the long description of the execution machine that comprises most of “In the Penal Colony,” in “The Burrow.” These stories are not so much narratives as explanations of the world, a world that is fundamentally inexplicable.
Jorge Luis Borges said that Kafka’s stories “presuppose a religious conscience, specifically a Jewish conscience; formal imitation of Kafka in another context would be unintelligible.” But in another time and place, Borges also said that, “I felt that I owed so much to Kafka that I really didn’t need to exist.” Whether or not formal imitation of Kafka was his intent, in fact we can see precisely the Kafkaesque structure put to use in many of Borges’ greatest stories, such as “The Library of Babel,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” or “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”
Through Borges, Kafka’s influence has spread to several generations of later writers. And it does seem to me that many late modernist and postmodernist stories owe their structure, if not their very existence, to this tradition.
- John Kessel
“For years I could not read Kafka. I would get to the bottom of the first page of The Castle and my brain would seize. Then something clicked inside me and I became obsessed with him. I believe reading Kafka to be a deeply personal experience. You can accept what others tell you Kafka means or you can interpret him for yourself. His enigmatic work lends itself to almost infinite interpretation.”
So too does Yellin’s marvelous story. In the opening paragraph, her narrator announces her intention to throw her past – including her Jewishness – onto the heap of forgotten things so she can start anew. She moves to the English countryside where the Bronte sisters lived — and where she tell us there are no other Jews. She hires a builder to renovate an ancient cottage and encounters, but never speaks to, a mysterious old man the villagers in her new home call Mr. Kafka. Meanwhile she becomes obsessed with the real Kafka, and especially with his relationship to Judaism. The narrator reads from her Introduction to Kafka:
“More than any other writer, Kafka describes the predicament of the secular alienated Jew. Yet his work, so personal on one level, remains anonymously universal. He has no Jewish axe to grind. Nowhere in any of his fictions does Kafka mention the words Jewish, or Jew.”
She finds this remarkable and resolves to determine whether it is true. But when she goes to the village library to begin her search, she gets a surprise. Its copy of The Trial has “a forest of date-stamps, repeated and regular, going back years.” The Castle has also been in heavy circulation. This suggests to her that there is a “profound need for Kafka in Bronteland.” Or is it just one borrower, obsessively checking the books out? Perhaps the local “Mr. Kafka?”
What does all of this mean? Is the mysterious old man really Franz Kafka, somehow miraculously transported from Prague to Yorkshire? And where does this obsession with Kafka’s problematic relationship to Judaism come from, if the narrator is really intent on leaving her past behind? Yellin presents the reader with puzzle pieces but does not insist on a final arrangement. What is clear, however is that the past refuses to stay forgotten. It is everywhere in this story, suffusing the present. It has settled in a dark corner of the local pub and pokes through the plaster ceiling of the narrator’s cottage. Even as she tries to begin her new life, the narrator “rattles the cans of the past behind me willy-nilly.”
- James Patrick Kelly
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
Franz Kafka was a man who struggled with his many contradictions. Although his writing has come to be intensively studied, as a man he is hard to know, even given all the scrutiny of recent years. He was born in 1883 into an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the third largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had five siblings, two younger brothers who died in infancy and three sisters who survived him, only to perish in Hitler’s camps during the Second World War. He was a member of the dominant German-speaking minority, just three percent of the population of Prague at the time, but he was also fluent in Czech. As a young man, he was athletic, taller than average, fond of swimming, rowing, and bicycling. Yet for much of his life he was also a hypochondriac: it was not until 1917 that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him seven years later at the age of forty.
Of all the contradictions in Kafka’s life, two stand out for the modern readers. Kafka was a student of Yiddish literature, and in his youth championed Yiddish theatre, much to the puzzlement of some of his literary friends. He was sympathetic to Zionism and yet there are no overt allusions to Jews or Jewishness in his fiction. “What have I in common with the Jews?” he wrote. “I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
But there are many things “missing” in Kafka’s fiction—often a sense of place, or of time or of historicity—because these did nothing to advance his artistic goals. Kafka was not a realist and we ought not look to the work to understand his problematic relationship to Judaism. Of course, contemporary questions about Kafka’s Jewishness are informed by tragedies that occurred after his death. Not only did his sisters perish in concentration camps, but his translator and mistress Milena Jesenská did as well. The approach of the Nazis forced his friend and literary executor Max Brod to flee Prague for Jerusalem with a huge collection of Kafka’s papers. Do the terrible realities of the Holocaust affect how we read the work?
Undoubtedly, but this is a problem for us, and not for Kafka. Similarly, there are those who interpret The Trial and The Castle as predictions of the rise of totalitarian states like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Russia. Kafka, however, was not trying to prophesy some future world order but rather was attempting to engage imaginatively with a society he knew all too well.
Then there is the puzzle of Kafka’s instructions to Max Brod, which was to destroy his unpublished work. Brod claims that he told his friend plainly that he would do no such thing. After Kafka’s death, Brod found two notes which explicitly stated that all his papers were to be burned unread. How was Brod then to have executed these requests if he was to burn them unread? And why didn’t Kafka burn the papers himself, especially since he knew Brod was unlikely to do the deed? While we have no way to know his thinking in this matter, we do know that this was the request of a sick man whose financial fortunes had taken a radical turn for the worse.
His modest pension, taken when he retired after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, was nearly worthless in the hyperinflation that plagued the defeated and disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of World War I. It is clear that Kafka was a depressed and often anxious man. Never a risk taker, he suffered from feelings of inferiority that arose from the high standards to which he held himself as a writer. Frustrated that his reach continued to exceed his grasp, at the end of his life he struggled with despair.
There is an odd and, yes, Kafkaesque postscript to Brod’s denial of Kafka’s request. Brod brought many of Kafka’s papers with him to Jerusalem in 1939. No one knows exactly what this cache contained, although reputedly there were letters, diaries, and manuscripts. On his death in 1968, Brod left these papers to his secretary and presumed mistress, Esther Hoffe.
But was she intended to be the executor or the beneficiary? Brod’s will is ambiguous, since it also provides that his literary estate be given to a “public archive in Israel or abroad.” In any event, Hoffe retained possession of the Kafka papers until her death in 2007, at which time they passed to her daughters in accordance with her will. Possession of these papers is the subject of a lawsuit in Israel, unresolved as we write this. It is likely, however, that in the near future, Kafka readers and scholars will have access to a trove of Kafka’s previously unseen writing.
Perhaps they will help us unravel some of the contradictions that still puzzle readers of
this literary genius.
- James Patrick Kelly