What It Really Means to Be 'Kafkaesque'

Author Ben Marcus says the beautiful but sorrowful strangeness of Kafka's "A Message from the Emperor" make it a perfect piece of writing.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III and more.

Doug McLean

Writers, when they affect us deeply, become adjectives. Some authors’ visions are so recognizable they can serve as a kind of shorthand: the “Proustian” reminiscence, the “Dickensian” slum, the “Orwellian” surveillance program. This is useful, maybe, but not especially precise. Great literature tends to be complex and up for debate, and maybe that’s why these words—eponymous adjectives, they’re technically called—lend themselves so easily to abuse.

See, for example, the ubiquitous “Kafkaesque.” Kafka’s name has “entered the language in a way no other writer’s has,” said Frederick Karl, one of Kafka’s major biographers, in 1991. (The word is even the title of an episode of Breaking Bad.) Karl called the word “the representative adjective of our times,” but also complained about its misuse: “What I'm against,” he said, “is someone going to catch a bus and finding that all the buses have stopped running and saying that's Kafkaesque. That's not."

My conversation with Ben Marcus, then, was refreshing. He wanted to discuss “A Message from the Emperor,” a short parable first published in 1919, that’s been a crucial literary model for him; his discussion of the piece ultimately included a concise and brilliant argument for what constitutes the Kafkaesque, though he never used that word. For Marcus, Kafka’s quintessential qualities are affecting use of language, a setting that straddles fantasy and reality, and a sense of striving even in the face of bleakness—hopelessly and full of hope.

Ben Marcus’s new collection, Leaving the Sea, contains 15 varied stories in a range of modes. Marcus has been classified as an “experimental” writer—in part due to a widely-read Harper’s essay that knocked Jonathan Franzen and praised “difficult” work—but this book highlights Marcus at his most accessible. Here, straightforward (if unsettling) narratives find a place alongside dense verbal textures, each piece its own brand of starkly lyric prose. Marcus teaches fiction at Columbia University's MFA program in Creative Writing. He spoke to me by phone.

A Message from the Emperor

The emperor—it is said—sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger’s words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death—all obstructing walls have been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways—before all these he dispatched the messenger. The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path though the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door. But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate—but it can never, never happen—before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead. You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.

Excerpted from The Annotated Kafka, edited and translated by Mark Harman, forthcoming from Harvard University Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved. This translation, copyright © 2011 by Mark Harman, first appeared in The New York Review of Books blog, NYRblog (blogs.nybooks.com).

Ben Marcus: I think I first read Kafka’s parables in a philosophy course in college. It was probably my first exposure to Kafka. Parables are a powerful point of entry to that world of anxiety, fear, and paranoia, but also the yearning, beauty, and strangeness that I connect to Kafka’s work. The first parable I read is “Leopards in the Temple”—it’s very a brief piece, beautiful and strange and eerily logical. Later on I found “A Message from the Emperor,” which became my very favorite.

It starts with a compelling proposition. The emperor, the greatest figure of civilization, is sending a message to you. That opening configuration is captivating: An extremely important person has something to tell you, and you alone.

But the piece focuses on the impossibility of that message ever arriving. It turns out that the palace has ring upon ring upon ring of walls, successive outer palaces, and the messenger has to get through one and then the other, and then the other. If he could ever do that—which he never could, the narrator tells us the palace is too vast and impossible—then he’d only be at the center of the city, which is filled with people and garbage, all kinds of difficult obstacles. He will never get through.

The ending is haunting: You will never hear this message that’s intended for you alone. This breaks my heart. Something important has been communicated to you, but you’ll never hear it. And yet you’ll sit at your window and dream it to yourself—and so there’s immense yearning and hope coupled with the sense of impossibility and futility. These incompatible sensations all assail you at the same time. This is just perfection to me.

It’s hard to miss that, on some level, “A Message from the Emperor” is a parable about reading. On the one hand, I’m resistant to say “this is all about what it means to tell a story!”—but it does seem to really be there. I like thinking of it as a reminder of how desperately we want to be spoken to. We want to be addressed. We want there to be some important message out there for us. And yet: how futile it might be to hope for that. The story goes beyond a mere illustration of the literary paradox: It hints at the supreme difficulty of ever truly connecting to anybody. With Kafka, you always have this kind of bleak futility—but the futility never feels flat and pessimistic. Despite the impossibility, we still have that messenger heroically striving to break through. The parable is a great form for capturing that paradoxical feeling.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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