Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

51gOdtnhinLNever read Kafka? my literary friends said. One who has read Proust, Joyce, Mann and Musil may think he has a handle on 20th century literature, but if he hasn’t read Kafka, he’s nowhere. Thus shamed, I acquired Kafka’s “Collected Works” on Kindle. It didn’t show the translator. I wrote to the publisher asking about it; no reply. I consulted two IP practitioners as to the legality of publishing a translation with no identification of the translator; they said it was certainly immoral but might not be illegal.

His most famous work is “The Metamorphosis,” an autobiographical fiction in which the narrator finds himself transformed into a roach. I found it somewhat boring once you adopt the initial conceit, and didn’t make any notes. But I did in the others.

“The Hunger Artist” is the tale of a circus performer who fasts in a cage for 40 days — not more, because —

“The impresario had set the maximum length of time for the fast at forty days-he would never allow the fasting go on beyond that point, not even in the cosmopolitan cities. And, in fact, he had a good reason. Experience had shown that for about forty days one could increasingly whip up a city’s interest by gradually increasing advertising, but that then the people turned away-one could demonstrate a significant decline in popularity. In this respect, there were, of course, small differences among different towns and among different countries, but as a rule it was true that forty days was the maximum length of time.”

The art of fasting is hard for the hunger artist to explain. The best he can do is:

“Try to explain the art of fasting to anyone! If someone doesn’t feel it, then he cannot be made to understand it.”

It’s easier to sympathize with the hunger artist than with the roach-man.

Kafka also submits a “Report for an Academy” about an ape who has become a man, and explains his gradual transformation. He begins with:

“You show me the honour of calling upon me to submit a report to the Academy concerning my previous life as an ape… It was so easy to imitate these people. I could already spit on the first day. We used to spit in each other’s faces. The only difference was that I licked my face clean afterwards. They did not.”

And the ex-ape admits to one rather endearing domestic throwback to his former life:

“When I come home late from banquets, from scientific societies, or from social gatherings in someone’s home, a small half-trained female chimpanzee is waiting for me, and I take my pleasure with her the way apes do.”

Finally there is “The Trial,” in which some minor functionary is arrested and tried for an offense never specified, and all the proceedings are secret:

“Counsel for the defence are not normally allowed to be present while the accused is being questioned, so afterwards, and if possible still at the door of the interview room, he has to learn what he can about it from him and extract whatever he can that might be of use, even though what the accused has to report is often very confused. . . The trial will have entered a stage where no more help can be given, where it’s being processed in courts to which no-one has any access, where the defendant cannot even be contacted by his lawyer.

. . . because he did not know what the charge was or even what consequences it might bring, so that he had to remember every tiny action and event from the whole of his life, looking at them from all sides and checking and reconsidering them.”

Along the way, our hero passes on a few pithy observations such as:

“One of these superstitions, for example, is that you can learn a lot about the outcome of a defendant’s case by looking at his face, especially the shape of his lips. There are lots who believe that, and they said they could see from the shape of your lips that you’d definitely be found guilty very soon.”

But in due course he becomes senile and dies, still not knowing why he was arrested or what he is accused of. And now you have the essence of Kafka, who, I am assured is a vital element in 20th century literature (along with, of course, Proust, Joyce, Mann, and Musil).

Thomas Lemann

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