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.

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