It’s a Kafkaesque World

Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka
By Franz Kafka
381 pp. Archipelago Books. $18.

Franz Kafka. Most everyone has read at least something by him (and if you haven’t, what the hell have you been doing?) and that something is most likely his famous 1912 short story, “The Metamorphosis” (here retranslated as “Transformed”).

But even those who haven’t read him know something of him, are familiar with the term “Kafkaesque,” even if, perhaps, they don’t really know what it means.

“What’s Kafkaesque,” Frederick R. Karl, author of a biography on Kafka, says, “is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.”

Sound familiar? Indeed, when I look around, when I scan the news — and “scan” is really all I have it in me to do these days — “Kafkaesque” feels like the perfect word to describe our own times.

As such, have the stories of Franz Kafka ever been more relevant? Not for my money (not that I’ve got much).

If I’m asked, during the day, to name my favorite author, I’ll often say Stefan Zweig. But if that person were to come back and ask me at night, once it’s dark and I’m more conscious of my thoughts, of the sounds of the world around me, it is Kafka, Zweig’s fellow Austro-Hungarian, I would name.

What makes Kafka so great?

It is his sensitivity, his keen ability to perceive the world around him. His emotional intelligence, his almost prophetic ability to see into the future, to see the darkness of the second great European war of the 20th century looming on the horizon, fueled his writing with symbolism and darkness.

He was a depressive, to be sure, but that’s putting a man-made label on a genius.

At times though I do wonder what, if he hadn’t died of tuberculosis, Kafka would have died of — because it seems so unlikely that a man such as Kafka would have lived a full life. Such fragile conduits of genius rarely do.

Maybe the Nazis would have gotten him, maybe Stalin. But something tells me he wouldn’t have even lasted that long.

His work has influenced countless artists after him. Murakami, who titled one of his most popular books Kafka on the Shore, isn’t so shy about admitting this, and one needs only to watch a few minutes of “Twin Peaks” or “Mulholland Drive” to see the clear sway Kafka holds over the mind of David Lynch (Lynch, interestingly, is one of the only other auteurs to see his name transformed into an adjective, because when I watch something surreal, something outside of the way I perceive the world, it might be Kafkaesque, but it’s also Lynchian).

Kafka famously ordered his friend Max Brod to burn all his writings upon his death. Brod didn’t, of course, and woe if he had!

How many authors today write in a totally unoriginal way? How many, upon a reading a page of their work, could you identify?

Kafka is perhaps one of the most original writers ever to live. He’s as melancholic as Céline, but not as cold, as dark as Dostoevsky, but more tortured.

This collection of stories, translated by Peter Wortsman, is superb. I don’t speak German, the language Kafka wrote in — something that over time has likely not endeared him to his fellow Czechs — so I’m not capable of judging any translation of Kafka up against the original, but Wortsman’s translations of Kafka’s stories here are the best versions I’ve read in English.

While “Transformed” is the centerpiece of any Kafka collection, my two other favorite Kafka short stories are here too.

“In the Penal Colony” is chilling, equal parts medieval and hauntingly dystopian. The story tells of a traveler who visits an island nation where he is given a demonstration of a torture device by its operator.

The device inscribes the sentence, as in, the actual words of the sentence, onto the body of the condemned. That Kafka, who often writes of his being tortured by his writing, invents a medieval device that literally tortures its victim by writing on their skin is both wickedly funny and painfully bleak.

“The Hunger Artist,” too, is one of the gems of this collection, taking as its subject a man whose “art” is fasting obscenely long lengths of time. Once a fixture at crowded city squares throughout Europe, his art has now fallen out of fashion. But he fasts regardless, spending ever more days without eating, to an audience of none.

Is it still art if nobody any longer recognizes it as such?

There are other stories here that didn’t click with me. I wasn’t a fan of “Investigations of a Dog” or “Josephine, Our Meistersinger, or the Music of Mice.” Likewise, “From The Burrow” I all too quickly forgot. Even Kafka wasn’t great all the time. Or perhaps I just wasn’t ready for those stories yet. But the majority of this collection — and I certainly won’t be reciting it all here — is deliriously good.

This isn’t a collection of only short stories, several of Kafka’s letters and essays are also here, including the sublime “A Writer’s Quandary.”

“Perhaps there are also different ways of writing, but I only know this one; at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping.”

Nighttime was important to Kafka, and he is one of the only writers to recognize the night for what it was, not as a curtain pulled over the world, cloaking it in darkness, but as the world revealed, of that which lies behind thought and consciousness when the light of day has been extinguished to divulge what really lurks in the world, in the human mind.

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