Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Book Reviews

The Comedian as the Letter K

Franz Kafka’s search for the right words.

Jay Tolson

Portrait of Franz Kafka and a page from his diaries; © NPL–DeA Picture Library/Bridgeman Images.

Though only five years apart in age, Franz Kafka and T.S. Eliot were two giants of modern literature who apparently had no knowledge of each other’s work, at least, in Eliot’s case, while Kafka was alive. And, sadly, from what we now know about Eliot’s repugnant anti-Semitism, he might well have recoiled from an encounter with Kafka’s work. That said, an essay Eliot wrote in 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” sheds helpful light not only on the process behind his own disruptively original poetry (sprung upon a startled reading public only four years earlier in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) but also on the one behind those disturbingly enigmatic parables produced by the incomparable magus of Prague.

“The progress of an artist,” Eliot observed in the essay, “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” By that, he did not mean that the artist’s personality was unimportant; he knew it was indispensable to genius itself. But he believed that the raw material of selfhood needed to be reined in, disciplined through a kind of submission to the demands of form as established, over time, within an artistic or literary tradition. Such a process of “depersonalization,” he argued, enabled the individual talent not only to learn from and converse with that tradition but also to ever so crucially modify it through his or her own distinctive contributions to it. And it was just such a process of hard-won submission that made it possible for Kafka, despite a sadly abbreviated life (1883–1924), to produce a body of work that W.H. Auden would later praise as being as representative of the twentieth century as Dante’s was of the fourteenth.

Kafka certainly had a complicated personality to reckon with. On the surface, at least, it would seem to have been shaped by conditions and complexes drawn straight from one of Sigmund Freud’s case studies: an overbearing, insensitive, and entirely unsympathetic brute of a father; a loving but somewhat distant and distracted mother; a bundle of resulting neuroses bound up with feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy, compounded by a frail, often sickly constitution. In his correspondence and journals, Kafka himself partly confirmed the broad outlines of that profile. Among his litany of self-declared failings was the certainty that his performance, both in his school years and in his job as an attorney for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, had always fallen far short of acceptable standards, and that only the kindness of teachers and employers had made it possible for him to advance in life. As he wrote in his diary in 1913, “At bottom I am an incapable ignorant person who, if he hadn’t been compelled…to go to school, would have just barely been fit to sit in a dog house, to leap out when he is given food and to leap back when he has devoured it.” Kafka’s estimation of most of his literary output was equally severe, to the point that he ordered his best friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to destroy every scrap of his unpublished work upon his death. (To Brod’s inestimable credit, he ignored the order, thus preserving for posterity a trove of works that included Kafka’s three unfinished novels, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.)

Yet a profile of the neurotic would hardly distinguish Kafka from many another sensitive soul reared in the sometimes-stifling bosom of a Jewish bourgeois family in one of the metropolitan centers of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of the many rewards of Ross Benjamin’s painstakingly annotated and faithfully translated edition of Kafka’s Diaries is its revelation of a far more interesting and complicated character than any stock figure out of Freud, one whose neuroses were offset by a curious, quite gregarious, and witty character. In these wide-ranging entries, we encounter a diffidently charming man with three devoted sisters (his two younger brothers had died in infancy) and a remarkably active social and professional life filled with affectionate and admiring friends and colleagues and not a few devoted lovers. Between the office and the solitary labors of the late-night writing desk, Kafka, hardly a shut-in, could often be found at cafés or lectures or plays, particularly the productions of a touring Yiddish theater group whose actors Kafka befriended and with one of whom, a married woman named Mania Tschisik, he became quite besotted, though apparently in a chaste way.

Not that Kafka was a sexual innocent. Brod tried to clean up his friend’s image by excising most of Kafka’s erotic life from his two-volume edition of the diaries, published in the late 1940s, but Benjamin has restored the missing parts, including the diarist’s account of his occasional visits to brothels both in Prague and abroad. Kafka’s relationships with women were not merely furtive or instrumental, and among many affairs, he came to the brink of marriage with two women (twice with one of them, Felice Bauer). Yet something always seemed to hold him back, including a tortuously romantic conception of womanhood, as he confessed to Brod near the end of his life: “I’d be tempted by the body of one girl out of two, but not at all by that of the girl in whom I (therefore?) placed my hopes.… I can only love what I can place so high above me that it’s out of reach.” Yet he truly pined for the married life, believing that it alone could make him a full person and release him from his father’s psychological tyranny. “I don’t envy the particular married couple, I envy only all married couples,” he wrote in his diary in the autumn of 1921, at the peak of another brief romantic liaison, this one with Milena Jesenská-Pollak, a married woman who was translating his stories from German to Czech. Jesenská-Pollak, who resolved to stay with her husband, bore no resentment toward Kafka at the end of their affair. She understood that for Kafka marriage in all its demanding reality was a state for which he was unfit—or more accurately, for which he was unwilling to sacrifice the attention and energy he knew he needed in order to contribute something of worth to the edifice of literature.

Kafka held the institution of literature in highest reverence, believing that it alone could justify not only his own life but also the complex mystery of life itself. Art, he was convinced, was uniquely capable of breaching the boundary between the world of the senses and that of endlessly recurring eternity. “It is very easily conceivable that the glory of life lies ready around everyone,” he wrote in his diary, again in the autumn of 1921, “and always in its complete fullness, but veiled, deep down, invisible, very distant. But it lies there, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If one calls it with the right word, by the right name, then it comes. That is the essence of magic, which does not create but calls.”

It is that magic to which Kafka devoted his life, even though he tragically believed himself incapable of performing it except on those rare occasions when the fire of inspiration for which he so long and faithfully waited burned through him in one majestic rush. The diaries, most entries of which come from the years 1911–13 and some of which are rough drafts of works in progress, record one of those rare triumphant moments when Kafka thought the waiting had finally and fully paid off, in this instance in the form of a story he titled “The Judgment.” An amalgam of symbolic autobiography (a son’s tortured relationship with a despotic father and a marriage that will not happen), scrambled biblical motifs, and a dreamlike or hallucinatory atmosphere in which things seem not quite to add up, but in a deeper, archetypal way do, the story was drafted in a single night. “Only in this way,” Kafka wrote the following evening, “can writing be done, only with such cohesion, with such complete opening of body and soul.” Two nights later, he read the story aloud at a friend’s house among other comrades and two of his three sisters, Ottla and Valli (the former having earlier remarked that the apartment in the story was “very similar to ours”). “Toward the end,” Kafka wrote in his diary, “my hands moved around uncontrollably and genuinely before my face. I had tears in my eyes. The indubitableness of the story was confirmed.”

They were tears of pleasure at his accomplishment, no doubt, but also tears of mirth—because, implausible as it seems to most later readers, not only Kafka but also his most closely attuned auditors would laugh uproariously when he read his works aloud, even those that seemed like scenarios drafted from nightmares of absurd and inexplicable cruelty and suffering. Those who got Kafka’s fiction—many of whom, as Jews, shared a deep sense of the ironic plight of God’s “Chosen People”—felt the “indubitableness” of the deeper comedy within the absurdity. They fully grasped this dark humor in the case of a story that followed soon after “The Judgment”: “The Metamorphosis,” a tale about a man who upon waking discovers that he has turned into a giant insect, and quickly become the bane and shame of his family. For all its monstrous horror, even this, Kafka’s circle understood, was a hysterical domestic comedy about a hapless, dutiful, and overworked son, a flighty mother, an uncomprehending and menacing father, and a devoted sister who, at the end of the story, herself undergoes a metamorphosis into a beautiful woman ready for the marriage that her parents believe is imminent.

“The Metamorphosis” was indubitably a comedy, achieved only through what Eliot in the 1919 essay called “a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” In this, as in other stories, the artist both exploited and overcame his mere personality through submission to tradition, finding for his own private feelings of unworthiness a set of powerful symbolic “objective correlatives” (which Eliot defined in another essay as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion”). Even though Kafka’s protagonists are all self-projections, they, and the situations into which they are thrown, are transformed into—objectified as—haunting parables of the plight of Everyman in an absurd world, one that we have learned to call Kafkaesque. The tradition to which Kafka submitted in bringing about this alchemy was not merely literary but capaciously cultural, even civilizational. It was a tradition blending, to name but a few of its elements and contributors, Schiller and Goethe, Shakespeare and Flaubert, Schopenhauer and Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard and Freud, Yiddish literature and the Bible. As the penetratingly acute literary scholar Paul North has shown, Kafka’s work reckoned and quarreled with the deepest sources and expressions of the Western tradition, beginning with Genesis, which he read with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar. And that quarrel amounted, more than Kafka ever imagined, to a significant contribution to, and commentary on, that tradition.

The Diaries of Franz Kafka, it must be allowed, is a bit of an overwhelming hodgepodge, combining, in sometimes numbing fashion, sketches, rough drafts, random observations, notes on readings, accounts of dreams, and the occasional startlingly certain pronouncement—“I, only I am the observer of the ground floor”—which might have been his declaration of superiority over the psychoanalytical claims emanating from Vienna. Yet for their occasional longueurs, these sundry items provide invaluable glimpses into the writer’s “foul rag and bone shop of the heart”—for Kafka as for Yeats, the place where all “ladders start” in the ascent toward a realized work of art.

To engage with more refined formulations of the artist’s beliefs about life and its meaning, one may turn to The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, a recent translation, by Shelley Frisch, of what are often called the “Zürau Aphorisms,” after the Bohemian village where Kafka spent parts of 1917 and 1918 with his sister Ottla after receiving the definitive diagnosis of the tuberculosis that, in 1924, would finally end his life. These cryptic and always haunting metaphysical reflections—“A cage went in search of a bird”—are accompanied by the richly informed commentary of Reiner Stach, author of a three-volume biography of the writer (also translated by Frisch), which opens up, rather than explains away, the paradoxes and metaphorical allusiveness of what North calls Kafka’s “atheological” metaphysics.

Brod’s sanitizing editorial efforts were partly aimed at making his friend into a more orthodox, and perhaps safer, Jewish thinker—a kind of Jewish Kierkegaard—but though Kafka read the Danish philosopher at Brod’s urging, he could not reconcile himself to the kind of submission to God that Kierkegaard saw as the purpose of his life. Orthodox, Kafka was not. Indeed, if he believed that the true and the real were beyond “the world of the senses,” he could not go so far, as even that renegade Jewish thinker Spinoza did, as to identify the ordering principle of that reality as God or even to suggest that the order of reality, its lawful nature, was necessarily, or at least always, good. If Einstein, a devout Spinozan, believed that the orderliness of the cosmos was proof that God was no trickster, Kafka was not certain. The Law was necessary, even if often absurd or seemingly arbitrary to the point of cruelty. (“Whatever commandment the prisoner has disobeyed is written upon his body by the Harrow,” an officer explains to the explorer in Kafka’s gruesome story “In the Penal Colony.”) But the Law was only, at best, an imperfect guardrail to constrain or redirect a forever-stumbling humanity.

And why must humankind always go astray? The first part of aphorism 54 hints at a possible answer: “There is something other than the world of the spirit; what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual realm, and what we call Evil is only a momentary necessity in our eternal development.” Largely because of its impatience, humankind is fated to go astray, to fall—though not just because we ate of the Tree of Knowledge, Kafka says in another aphorism, but because we also failed to eat of the Tree of Life.

Yet being the comedian as the letter K (the name “K” is given to the protagonists of both The Trial and The Castle), Kafka did not accept death or entropy or total collapse as the sum of human fate. To the contrary, as he writes in aphorism 64, “The expulsion from Paradise is in its principal aspect eternal: and so, although the expulsion from Paradise is definitive, and life in the world inescapable, the very eternity of the process nevertheless makes it possible not only that we could remain in Paradise forever but that we are indeed there forever, whether we know it here or not.” And could there be any stronger affirmation than what Kafka declares in the last part of the final aphorism, number 106, an affirmation that seems to respond to one of Pascal’s more famous pensées about the challenge of remaining alone and content in one’s room?: “It is not necessary for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen; just wait. Don’t even wait; be utterly still and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it cannot do otherwise; it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

For Kafka, waiting in stillness and solitude for the right words to call forth “the glory of life” was compensation for—indeed, something close to nullification of—the expulsion from the Garden. It was to nibble at, if not to eat from, the Tree of Life. It made even the absurdly cruel and arbitrary contingencies and injustices of life seem bearable, even comic, if seen and understood under the aspect of eternity. More mundanely, literature might even dispel the illusory power of the modern cage and all its dreary bureaucratic functionaries, who, like Klamm of The Castle (whose name echoes the Czech word klam, meaning deceit or delusion), claim to carry out the orders of an invisible, capricious, and possibly malevolent authority. There is still reason to laugh, Kafka taught the modern world, though it would become much harder to do so after the horror that came not long after his death—a horror that would claim more than six million souls, including those of Kafka’s three dearly loved sisters.