Friday, December 19, 2008

Franz Kafka’s Short Stories

On and On and On:

The Endless Wealth of Franz Kafka’s Short Stories

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

In his introduction to Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Trial, critic George Steiner wrote, “The thought that anything fresh could be said of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is implausible.” In fact, just the opposite is true: The inexhaustibility of Kafka’s ability to startle anew and to spawn fresh ideas makes Steiner’s statement itself implausible. As with Shakespeare, each individual reader brings new insights to Kafka’s worksworks so strange and so perplexing that no single generation or school of thought could encompass all of their treasures, especially just within one century. As a caveat, however, Klaus Wagenback wrote that the initial reason he collected the photos and documents contained in his excellent book Franz Kafka: Pictures of a Life “came from the dissatisfaction [he] felt with the surfeit of Kafka interpretations whose speculative nature increased in direct proportion to their authors’ ignorance of the historical, personal, and linguistic circumstances in which Kafka’s work came into being.” As with Shakespeare, whose works are also incredibly strange and perplexing, there’s a danger when reading Kafka of being too influenced by confused commentators. As it’s always helpful to know at least some of a work’s context—to help you understand its norms, its intentions, its jokes, and to keep you from being misled by ill-informed interpreters—I recommend approaching Kafka with a little more extra-textual information than usual, at least when trying to extrapolate his works’ meanings into our own world.

That said, it’s still a simple fact that within their specific artistic parameters Kafka’s works stand on their own as some of the most brilliant, astonishing, and mystifying works in all of literature—and that their very mystifying nature is part of their appeal, and even intention. In a letter to his editor, Kafka wrote that his three stories “The Stoker,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “The Judgment” belonged together, “both inwardly and outwardly.” He continued that, “There is an obvious connection between the three and, even more important, a secret one. . . .” It’s always been the “secret” connection that’s been the more intriguing to me, as the connection has remained secret and has continued to fascinate with its endless possibilities. Readers rarely find fixed answers to anything when reading Kafka, and in fact one of the most astute comments I’ve ever heard anyone make about The Trial is when my grandfather said, “Every time I read it I understand it less.” It’s not that Kafka revels in obscurity—his works are in fact some of the most lucid and precisely wrought of the twentieth century; it’s that his polished facades and carapaces are shrouded in the true mystery of human existence and that he provides us with the great pleasure of pursuing that mystery within his work.

A brilliant observer of human nature, but not at all a realistic or traditional observer, it’s through wild caricature and fantastical invention that Kafka presents humanity to us. In his most famous story, “The Metamorphosis,” the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up on the first page to find himself transformed into a giant insect. “Samsa” is of course code for “Kafka”Salman Rushdie toys with this in his novel The Satanic Verses by having a character with the last name Chamcha go through very Samsa-like metamorphosesand two of Kafka’s other most famous characters, Josef K. (from The Trial) and K. (from The Castle), are also stand-ins for the author. This works to increase each of the pieces’ paranoid claustrophobia, and as Gregor Samsa struggles to figure out what in the world to do with the self stuck inside his new body, we as readers struggle along with him, just as Kafka intends us to do.

For anyone interested in delving into what Kafka does best, The Complete Stories & Parables contains the essence of his genius and is probably where you want to start, as well as to return to. His three unfinished novels, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle, are all extraordinary—especially The Trial—and his voluminous diaries and letters and notebooks are also deeply rewarding, but Kafka was a perfectionist, and his shorter works are where he was able to bring his visions to their fullest articulation. Most readers have some familiarity with the shocking strangeness of “The Metamorphosis” and “In the Penal Colony” and “A Hunger Artist,” but the wealth and variety and individuality of Kafka’s other stories often come as a revelation to those who only have a passing notion of the misused adjective “Kafkaesque.” There are a few themes that occasionally recur in his stories and novels, and it’s often these themes taken in isolation that some critics attempt to color the word “Kafkaesque” with, but when encountering unique story after unique story after unique story in his full collection, it’s nearly impossible to pin any kind of label onto Kafka or his work.

In “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor,” a man comes home to his apartment to find two balls bouncing with no impetus and no end to their movement. In “A Report to an Academy,” a humanized ape gives an account of his progress from wild animal to civilized citizen. In “The Burrow,” some sort of creature describes the endless—and endlessly forking—efforts that he’s made to secure his subterranean labyrinth from the ever-impending threats that exist outside. His every story is as unique in its form and approach as it is in its subject matter or theme. Kafka invents the entire genre anew with each new story, and what’s as amazing as the tales he tells is that his experiments with form never come across as mere experiments, but rather as full artistic realizations. Taken one after another, these works are truly dizzying, and when read with an open mind, each story offers nearly endless possibilities for interpretation and enjoyment.

Anthony Perkins playing Josef K., from
Orson Welles’ film version of The Trial
The Complete Stories & Parables begins with two introductory parables, “Before the Law” and “An Imperial Message,” and these two parables are often considered to be Kafka at his most essential. “Before the Law” is especially potent, as it’s the mysterious central fable told in The Trial. Although Kafka was never able to complete the novel in full, he chose to publish its parable, in which ultimate truth is unreachable and even the initial doorway toward truth is impenetrable. This parable alone has spawned many closed critical readings of Kafka’s central thrust (or central impotence). But unlike the door at the end of “Before the Law,” Kafka’s books are endlessly open and can lead to nearly unimaginable rewards. Don’t let any doorkeepers hold you back. Step into these stories and read on and an and on.

—David Wiley