On His 130th Birthday — A Little Touch of Kafka in the Night
By Stuart Mitchner
While today, July 3, is Franz Kafka’s 130th birthday, the shadow of his name continues to spread, stretching on either side of his birth and death dates, 1883 and 1924. As Frederick Karl, one of his numerous biographers, once observed, the word “Kafkaesque” has “entered the language in a way no other writer’s has.” Joycean, Proustian, Hitchcockian, even Chaplinesque — nothing else approaches the sheer adaptibility of the ominously nuanced dynamite packed into the K-word. The definitions are all over the place. Wiktionary suggests “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity,” or “marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger.” Wikipedia’s Kafka entry mentions “surreal situations like those in his writing.” Merriam-Webster comes at the word as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” Ask someone on the street to free associate and you’ll find them running roughly the same changes, as in bizarre, weird, paranoid, existential, far out, sick, perverse, dreamlike, nightmarish, phantasmagoric, absurd, funny, grotesque, scary, dark, ad infinitum.
According to Jack Greenberg’s piece “From Kafka to Kafkaesque” in Franz Kafka: The Office Writings (Princeton University Press 2009), edited by Princeton professor emeritus Stanley Corngold, with Greenberg and Benno Wagner, a Lexis search of state and federal courts found 245 opinions in which “Kafkaesque” was used, five of them in the Supreme Court. Between 2002 and 2006, Westlaw’s All News reported between 455 and 669 uses of the word outside the courtroom in “encounters of everyday life with the law, and the bureaucracies of state and society.”
Kafka Reads the Times
Consume a steady diet of Kafka for the better part of a week and you can’t get through the Sunday New York Times without the feeling that he’s reading over your shoulder. Take the story about the last words of Death Row inmates in Texas that concludes by quoting a killer with the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction name of James Lee Beathard, who begins his final “rambling statement” by pointing out that “this is one of the few times people will listen to what I have to say.”
Kafka might also do a double take at the wording of another quote in the same article (“From America’s Busiest Death Chamber, a Catalogue of Last Rants, Pleas, and Apologies”). As Stanley Corngold observes in an email message, a Human Rights spokesman’s statement that “The death penalty is a process, not an act” might have been taken verbatim from The Trial (Der Process), which “describes just that, a trial as a process, where ‘the verdict is not suddenly arrived at, the proceedings only gradually merge into the verdict.’”
Still reading the Times, I come to an update on the factory collapse that killed 1,129 people in Bangladesh in April (“Justice Still Elusive in Factory Disasters in Bangladesh”) and Kafka’s at my back again, and no wonder, since between 1908 and 1922 he was writing reports on accidents in the workplace as Senior Legal Secretary at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. But what a feast of Kafkology is online. Like the story headlined “Kafkaesque reality and Bangladesh” in Dhaka’s Financial Express, where the K-word is used four times and the “absurd reality” of the country’s “metaphorical change” is compared to the metamorphosis of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa into a giant beetle.
In July of last year, the Secretary-General of Amnesty International Canada spoke of the “Kafkaesque” injustice of the U.S. “war on terror.” The Irish Times leads with “Kafkaesque scenes” in a story about the 9/11 court hearings; the word is also used to describe Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, budget cuts to courts in California, the arrest of an innocent Canadian, the banning of a life-saving drug, a customer’s bill dispute with AT&T, and not least the ten safety-deposit boxes of Kafka’s unpublished writings being “trapped in courts and bureaucracy” in Tel Aviv. No less Kafkaesque is a situation taking shape around the unpublished work J.D. Salinger left behind when he died in January 2010. At the top of Salinger’s list of favorite writers, Kafka shares with Kierkegaard the honor of prefacing Seymour an Introduction, the skeleton key to the Glass family saga 50-years-in-the-making that remains unreleased and unaccounted for by Salinger’s heirs. For the millions of readers waiting for the book or books, the K-word hovers over the disheartening possibility that Salinger may have decided to follow the example set by Kafka when he instructed his executor Max Brod to destroy all his unpublished work, including The Trial and The Castle.
By now, thanks in part to Max Brod’s refusal to follow his dear friend’s instructions, there is ample evidence to make a case for Franz Kafka as the most representative writer of his time and our time, the 20th and early 21st century. And if that’s even a little bit true, consider what it suggests about naysayers like Joseph Epstein in his piece in the July-August Atlantic (“Is Franz Kafka Overrated?”) on naysayer Saul Friedländer’s Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt. The review is an embarrassment right from the outset when Epstein chattily informs us that he has a difficult time reading Kafka with his “morning tea and toast” (all that disorientation and those nasty rodents and beetles). The reviewer subsequently outdoes himself by observing that “In the unending critical Easter-egg hunt for the secret meaning in Franz Kafka’s fiction, Friedländer has retrieved the gay egg.” At the end, after claiming that none of Kafka’s greatest proponents can say why he is “truly a major writer,” meaning of course that he must not be one, Epstein concludes with just the sort of patronize-your-betters stuff that gives litchat a bad name: “Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.”
In fact, it was Salinger’s aversion to this sort of pernicious blather that helped dissuade him from publishing Hapworth 16, 1924 in 1997 when Orchises Press was ready to rescue it from the pages of the June 19, 1965 New Yorker.
Kafka doesn’t just travel back and forth over the border between funny ha-ha and funny-peculiar, he has it both ways, as do, to name a few, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, Beethoven and Berlioz, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon, Alfred Hitchcock and F.W. Murnau, Rimbaud and Gogol, Chagall and Picasso, Pound and Eliot, Shakespeare and Marlowe, and the Marx Brothers. Spend enough time on Planet Kafka and you begin to think he was peering over DaVinci’s shoulder as Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (“how about a little more mystery in that smile”) or whispering in Shakespeare’s ear as he wrote the cliff scene in King Lear (“Make old Gloucester think he’s fallen off and then bring in Lear with a mouse and a piece of toasted cheese”) or on the set of The Gold Rush with Chaplin (“Try turning the Tramp into a giant chicken”).
As observed by W.G. Sebald in Campo Santo (Modern Library paper 2011) and Hanns Zischler in Kafka Goes to the Movies, (Univ. of Chicago Press 2002), Kafka was infatuated with cinema. One diary entry from 1913 read simply: “Went to the movies. Cried.” Another: “Boundless entertainment.” Since I haven’t had time to find a copy of Zischler’s book (except for the online sample), I have no way of knowing whether or not any Chaplin shorts were among the films that Kafka saw at Prague’s Landestheater. Given Charlie Chaplin’s immense popularity in Europe, however, it’s possible Kafka could have seen his 1916 two-reeler One A.M., where a grandfather clock’s giant swinging pendulum keeps knocking Chaplin’s cosmically drunken man-about-town assover-backwards down either wing of a double flight of stairs. Or maybe Kafka found the man’s struggles with the big clock and the malignant beast of a wall-bed terrifying, or at least uncomfortably on the funny-peculiar side. Zischler has researched the exact bill at the Landestheater that Kafka would have seen on Sept. 23-24 1912, when, according to the diary, “I tore myself away from writing” (he was at work on the novel published posthumously as Amerika.) The first thing on the program was Strange Insects, a documentary short; perhaps it’s only a Kafkaesque coincidence, but Kafka was also writing his most famous work at the time, in which an office worker wakes up one morning to find he’s been transformed into, according to Kafka admirer Vladimir Nabokov’s reading, “a monstrous insect.”
Going through Kafka in less than a week is far worse than seeing Rome in a day. I was able to at least read in the various commentaries, diaries, letters, The Metamorphosis and “In the Penal Colony,” but the highlight was reading Description of a Struggle for the first time. One of Kafka’s first efforts, written when he was 20, the novella is included in The Complete Stories, but with a disclaimer from John Updike (another example of patronizing one’s betters) to the effect that it’s “not merely opaque but repellent.” How then was it that this particular piece of work convinced Max Brod that Kafka was a genius? All I can say is that reading it felt like being a child again falling under the spell of pure invention, moving through the invented woods and over the invented hills that are being sketched into view even as you are getting high reading a writer drunk with his own imaginings, evoking with every sentence a delirium of associations, Gogol, Rimbaud, deNerval, Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., Groucho Marx, Alice in Wonderland (“… my arms were as huge as the clouds … my head no larger than an ant’s egg, my legs lay over the wooded mountains”), Chagall (“the ladies and gentlemen who should be walking on the pavement are floating … when the wind rises again they are helpless, and all their feet leave the ground at the same time”). According to Updike, Kafka read Description of a Struggle “aloud to friends, sometimes laughing so hard he could not continue reading.”
It’s good to keep that in mind, poor Kafka, “crushed by the mysteries of life,” reading his work to friends, and not just his early work, and laughing out loud.
Princeton’s resident authority on all things Kafka, translator of the million-selling Bantam edition of The Metamorphosis, author and editor of numerous ventures into Kafkology, Stanley Corngold provided various email guides for this too-brief journey. I should also mention that another longtime Princeton resident, the Southern Way’s own Charles Neider, was there before almost anyone in America with his 1947 study, The Frozen Sea.