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The Metamorphoses of Franz Kafka

The Metamorphoses of Franz Kafka

Centenary reflections on a posthumous nonpareil.

John G. Rodden

When Franz Kafka (1883-1924) died in a sanitarium near Vienna a century ago, he was largely unknown. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, he agonized in page after page of diary entries about the literary paralysis that had overtaken his late thirties. One wag has even dubbed Kafka as “the Prose Laureate of Writer’s Block.” All three of Kafka’s now-immortal novels—Der Prozess (The Trial), Der Schloss (The Castle), and Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared, or later, Amerika)—were left incomplete at his death. These were published in quick succession through the enterprise of Kafka’s friend, editor, erstwhile university classmate, and literary executor, Max Brod. It is only due to Brod that these masterpieces have seen the light of day in the form in which we know them. 

A prolific, well-established yet ultimately journeyman writer himself, Brod recognized his friend’s genius as an “earthly miracle” (“ein Diesseitswunder”). Not only did Brod preserve all of Kafka’s unpublished fiction (along with his diaries, sketch books, notebooks, and letters), he also fled with them to Palestine in 1939—stuffing them all in a suitcase and “disappearing” to his salvific promised land on the very night that the Nazis occupied Prague. (Kafka’s own family would not be so fortunate: his three sisters, his uncle Siegfried, and six other relatives all died in the Holocaust.)

And yet, however much Kafka’s worldwide audience remain forever in Brod’s debt, Brod’s actions represented a certain betrayal of his friend. Kafka burned 90 percent of his manuscripts before succumbing to his illness; his deathbed wish was for Brod to destroy the rest of his surviving manuscripts “without exception.” Brod, who earlier had warned Kafka that he disagreed with his friend’s low estimate of his unpublished work, subsequently decided to ignore his friend’s plea. (Brod later said that if Kafka had really been determined to have the rest of his oeuvre burned, he "should have named a different executor.”) But if we owe Brod thanks for the survival of nearly all the Kafka work extant today—excepting the small handful of short stories preserved by Kafka himself, such as “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”), “Ein Hungerkünstler” (“A Hunger Artist”), and “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”)—then we also owe thanks to Brod for editing Kafka’s works, despite those edits departing considerably from the original drafts. 

Brod arguably made Kafka famous in large part by his deeply substantive revisions of Kafka’s work, from altering titles, to rearranging chapter and paragraph ordering, to even the “filling in” of details, among other elements. Ultimately, whatever our own judgment about Brod’s actions regarding his friend, it’s “Brod’s Kafka” whom posterity has come to know.

Can your best friend’s betrayal represent the greatest favor you ever received? It’s an appropriately Kafkaesque question, to be sure. It’s also just one among many that Kafka readers have been pondering during this year’s centenary of Kafka’s tragic death, and amid the international commemorations, such as the Das Kafka-Jahr celebrated throughout Central Europe, occasioned by his phenomenal global afterlife. 

The Man Behind the Page

Born in 1883 in the Czech Republic (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Kafka earned a law degree yet never practiced. Rather, he took a job as an insurance agent for the Workman’s Accident Insurance Institute. He devoted his spare time to writing.

The sickly insurance agent was an unexpected six- feet tall, a nature lover and outdoorsman who hiked the countryside frequently and who practiced a variety of sports from swimming and rowing to cycling. He was a lifelong vegetarian and advocate of animal rights, an accomplished pianist, and a devoted operagoer. Jewish readers are often surprised to learn that Kafka was keenly interested in Yiddish culture, learned Hebrew, seriously explored committing to Zionism, and even considered—two decades before Brod did so—emigrating to Mandate Palestine.  

Less surprising is the other Kafka: the darker, introverted, intensely private and ambivalent side. When he wasn’t enjoying the outdoors or writing, Kafka frequented Prague nightclubs and brothels, often with Brod (Brod edited out from Kafka’s published diary entries any homoerotic suggestiveness or mentions of prostitutes.) Kafka’s inner life was, however, undeniably tortured—and those struggles mark the Kafka whom his readers have come to know and cherish. Perhaps more than any other writer, Kafka embodies the myth of the Outsider: martyred by his soul-killing doppelgänger existence as an insurance agent by day and would-be artist at night, caught between his passionate longing for a woman’s love and his resolute commitment to his inner daimon

Terrified of public speaking, Kafka avoided all opportunities to do public readings of his work (though Brod reports that his private readings before friends were animated). In his mid-thirties, Kafka’s wrote a 103-page “Letter to My Father.” He gave it to his mother to deliver. (She never did so.) In this letter, Kafka laid all his anxieties, frustrations, and obsessions at the feet of his tyrannical father, Hermann Kafka, and its later publication quickly resulted in an explosion of Freudian and psychoanalytic interpretations of Kafka. He became known and bemoaned as the wracked soul drenched in shame and guilt, whose work represented a vengeful “symbolic parricide.” (“The Judgment” recounts a hospital visit by a son to his ailing yet “enormous” father, who condemns him to “death by drowning.” The story ends with the son leaping from a bridge.)

The “biographical” and “psychoanalytic” Kafkas, however, were just two of the many interpretations soon to be affixed to him and his work. Numerous “metamorphoses” of Franz Kafka have vied for attention. There’s been the existential Kafka of the Absurd and the Abyss in a godless world, as promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. There’s been the religious Kafka of enigmatic parables (“writing is a form of prayer”), as celebrated by C.S. Lewis. There’s the “Jewish” and half-Zionist Kafka as upheld by the leader of Reform Judaism, the German rabbi Leo Baeck; the anti-totalitarian Kafka banned by the Nazis and the Stalinists and honored by Hannah Arendt and Arthur Koestler (who denounced Stalin’s show trials as “Kafkaesque”). There’s the “modernist” Kafka—interwar Prague’s Holden Caufield—the rebel hero of alienated youth, as acknowledged by modernist master Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And then there’s the Marxist Kafka who slaved away in helpless dissent against the behemoth of bureaucratic capitalism, contrasted with the “pro-capitalist” Kafka who dutifully and diligently composed his insurance reports and hankered for a bourgeois life of wife and family. 

Beyond literary circles, Kafka-worship has developed among musicians (Pink Floyd’s album The Wall, with its haunting track “The Trial”; Philip Glass’s opera of the same title), as well as filmmakers, including David Lynch (“the one artist who I feel could be my brother is Kafka”) and Stanley Kubrik (film critics have identified “the Kafkaesque in the Kubrikesque”).  Kubrick himself pronounced Kafka “the greatest writer of the century and the most misread.”

Along with this cacophony of modern age Kafkas come a plethora of postmodern Kafkas—among them the critic of racism, Jewish assimilation, migrant injustice, vivisection, and “species-ism” (invoked in relation to “A Report to the Academy,” the misanthropic speech of a scholarly ape at a scientific conference reporting how he has come to “pass” for a human). There’s also Kafka the crusader for disability rights and transgender equality (“What would it be like to live with six legs?” asked one speaker at a recent panel on “The Metamorphosis”); additionally, there’s Kafka, the proponent of unrestricted genetic research (“CRISPR Gene Editing and ‘The Metamorphosis’” ran the title of a June panel on Kafka at Oxford University).  

The largest literary sperm bank for breeding prophetic new Kafkas is “The Metamorphosis,” whose hero Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning from a “disturbing dream” to find himself “ein ungeheueres Ungeziefer.” The latter word has been variously rendered in translation as cockroach, insect, dung beetle, pest, and vermin. The German phrase literally means “monstrous monstrosity”: Kafka seems to have deliberately intended the ambiguity as part of the waking dream unfolding in Samsa’s story.

Whereas the 1960s witnessed the enshrinement of the psycho-biographical Kafka in the European and American academy due to the pathbreaking scholarship of my Doktorvater and eminent friend, Viennese émigré Walter Sokel, (Franz Kafka: Tragik und Ironie, 1964) the 21st century has seen the emergence of a heretofore overlooked “humorous” Kafka. This is the Kafka championed by Reiner Stach, the German scholar-biographer who has authored a magisterial three-volume life of Kafka. Stach notes that Kafka’s little-known Guide to Prague and its Environs, a travel guide co-written with Brod as a money-making scheme, contains numerous insider jokes about the local haunts of their native Prague. Stories such as “Blumfled, An Elderly Bachelor” feature absurdist touches of magical realism, with a pair of bouncing balls stalking the spooked bachelor; likewise, it is surely comic relief that Josef K. in The Trial seeks grandly to fend off arrest by the robotic police interrogators and to prove his identity by presenting his Radfahrlegitimation—a bike license.

All these “metamorphoses” have been possible, or even probable—even inevitable—because of the unique style and texture of Kafka’s writing. Kubrick rightly noted that Kafka’s “stories are fantastic and allegorical, but his writing is simple and straightforward, almost journalistic." Kafka wrote in a pristine, elemental, unadorned Prager Deutsch denuded of all embroidery; a German so pure—partly because he was isolated from the linguistic and literary mainstreams of Germany and Austria—that it is bereft of virtually all specifics. The immaculately plain style dispenses with descriptive detail pertaining to characters and locales; it even dispenses with surnames. “Obscure lucidity,” Eric Heller memorably termed it in his Kafka (1974). This lucidity renders Kafka’s work easily accessible. 

While it is easy to read Kafka, it is near impossible to “read” him, too. As if by conscious design, Kafka’s obscurity is so rigorous and painstaking that his stories elude each lunge to grasp a shard of meaning. This might be better renamed “lucid obscurity,” for the distinguishing, endlessly intriguing feature is surely the nominal, not the modifier. Sensation and sensibility, yes, but no sense can be extracted and held in any sure and stable way. And hence the multiplicity of “Kafkas”—there’s a Kafka for every critical movement, school, and season. 

Franz Kafka, the Zelig of prose writers  

Given how Kafka’s aerial-like sentences glide along at a stratospheric altitude of inscrutably, the reader is placed in the same position as the classic, forlorn Kafka hero: one deceives oneself that he “knows” Kafka’s meaning, yet one really knows no more “what is going on” than does Josef K. or Gregor Samsa. It all seems so clear—and yet? Is it a dream? A nightmare? It is surreal; uncanny; indecipherable. In one of the earliest critical assessments of Kafka, written by Walter Benjamin on the tenth anniversary of his death, Benjamin discerned that Kafka wrote “parables” whose meanings

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… [Kafka’s] every day on earth brought him up against insoluble behavior problems and undecipherable communications….  

The irony here is that Kafka’s supposed care to take “all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings” has generated interpretations ad infinitum. The cosmos could scarcely have created an author more tailor-made to exemplify the unfixed, foundation-less interpretive abyss associated with the hermeneutical method of French deconstruction. If Kafka did not exist, the post-structuralists would have had to invent him.

Nonetheless: It seems somehow also inevitable that the 21st century would also witness the arrival of the “Kafka AI Project.” Its aim? To implement GPT-4 to “complete” Kafka’s unfinished works as well as to “fill in the gaps” of his narratives to reduce or eliminate their obscurities. Researchers are reportedly far advanced on a new GPT-4-authored version of The Trial. 

Generation K?   

The Kafka of 2024 is not only a global presence but also a burningly contemporary one. It is not so much that Kafka continues to speak to 21st-century life, but rather that the world is becoming ever more “Kafkaesque.” No figure captures better the distinctive preoccupations and peculiarities of our time. Or, as W.H. Auden expressed it: “He is the artist who comes nearest to the kind of relation to our age that Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe bore to their own.”  

For example, on the eve of the June 3rd Kafka centenary, as the Manhattan jury at the Donald Trump trial reached a verdict, the first thought of some readers of The Trial was that Josef K. was none other than former president and now-convicted felon, Donald Trump. One German blogger, Jürgen Spranger, spoke for millions of Trump supporters in the United States when he wrote:          

Der Prozess has been on my mind freshly every day with the Trump trial in Manhattan. Just yesterday after the verdict, Trump posted on his social media site [Truth Social]: “What is the crime? What am I specifically charged with?” No doubt Trump has never read Kafka’s The Trial but the main character asks the court who has convicted him those very same questions. It is the most terrifying novel I've ever read for anyone who cherishes their freedom.

Meanwhile, occasioning allusions to The Trial, “Kafkaesque” was the descriptor applied to a recent disciplinary hearing at a Scottish rape crisis center after a woman disputed the policy permitting “trans counselors” to work with female survivors. It was also headline news in Europe this June that a copy of Kafka’s The Trial was prominently placed at the shrine of Alexei Navalny, former Russian opposition leader and Vladimir Putin’s outspoken foe, who died earlier this year under mysterious, nefarious circumstances at the age of forty-seven. The Trial was adapted for the stage this year at Kafka commemorations in England and in India. The setting?  House arrest under Covid lockdown mandates, all prescribed mysteriously according to “Follow the science!” regulations issued by faceless “scientific experts.”

This spring, a Kafka “alienation app” has gone viral. A Czech girl, “Milena,” has gained fame as the spokesperson for “Generation K,” confessing her identification with Gregor (“Franz”), for she too has “often seen [her]self as a bug.” She identifies with Gregor’s plight: “His first and hardest test was to get out of bed. People who are my age can relate to that. I’ve been there.” Thanks to Milena and like-minded fans, Gregor/ Franz has “metamorphosed” into the heartthrob of millions of TikTok fans.  

Kafka aphorisms and quotations are also currently being cited with rapture by teen girls on Tiktok, where the hashtag #kafka has more than 1.4 billion views. He is treasured as a poet of love, a very Cyrano de Bergerac of romantic letters, with his lines contrasted with the hopelessly boring text messages of countless near-illiterate men on dating websites. Writes one female admirer: “Kafka is my bare minimum. I won't date a man until he meets my Kafka standard.” Another says: “I always want to cry when I see his photograph. I'm just sad when I see his face.” In Czech the name “Kafka” means “jackdaw” (a smallish raven)—giving rise to protective “Nevermore” yearnings from some fan-lovers, via associations between Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.

Not all women are enamored of Kafka, however, or necessarily fascinated or sympathetic with his history. Das Kafka-Jahr has also witnessed Kafka become the most recent candidate for cancellation, after an anti-porn advocate posted a statement in February announcing that Kafka was never married, frequented brothels, and was a porn addict. The latter claim is dubious, but the post—originally in Brazilian Portuguese (testifying to the global interest in Kafka)—went viral on English and German Internet sites as well as Portuguese ones, prompting waves of “Cancel Kafka” demands.  

The “Cancel Kafka” clamor, however, proved ephemeral. Long before the June commemorations, the hubbub had died down. Rather, it seems that Kafka is becoming ever more valued as the protean polymorph of a thousand faces, a man who was in the world yet not entirely of it: a tragicomic writer who, in the words of his biographer Reiner Stach, “shows readers that it is possible not to go mad in today's world.”

John Rodden has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin.He has written four books on German history, among them The Walls That Remain: Eastern and Western Germans Since Reunification (Routledge).

Image: Franz Kafka by Adolf Hoffmeister, Stále ohrožená Praha, 1968 (Wikimedia Commons)

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