Is Franz Kafka Overrated?

Critics have long tended to see him as a modernist master on par with Joyce, Proust, and Picasso. Let's reconsider that.
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Edmund Wilson claimed that the only book he could not read while eating his breakfast was by the Marquis de Sade. I, for different reasons, have been having a difficult time reading Franz Kafka with my morning tea and toast. So much torture, description of wounds, disorientation, sadomasochism, unexplained cruelty, appearance of rodents, beetles, vultures, and other grotesque creatures—all set out against a background of utter hopelessness. Distinctly not a jolly way to start the day. Kafka doesn’t make for very comforting reading at bedtime, either.

Hypochondriac, insomniac, food faddist, cripplingly indecisive, terrified by life, obsessed with death, Franz Kafka turned, as best he was able, his neuroses into art. As a character in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “A Friend of Kafka” says, Kafka was “Homo sapiens in his highest degree of self-torture.” Still, the consensus remains that Franz Kafka is a modern master—a master, more specifically, in the modernist tradition, housed in the same pantheon as Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, Mallarmé, and other artists who have radically altered contemporary understanding of the world.

Kafka created “obscure lucidity,” Erich Heller wrote in his book on Kafka. “His is an art more poignantly and disturbingly obscure,” he added, “than literature has ever known.” One thinks one grasps Kafka’s meaning, but does one, really? All seems so clear, yet is it, truly? A famous aphorism of Kafka’s reads: “Hiding places there are innumerable, escape is only one, but possibilities of escape, again, are as many as hiding places.” Another runs: “A cage went in search of a bird.”

As with Kafka’s aphorisms, so with his brief parables. The parables, Walter Benjamin wrote, are “never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.” Whatever these precautions may have been, they were inadequate, for the works of Franz Kafka—apart perhaps only from the Bible and the works of Shakespeare—may be the most relentlessly interpreted, if not overinterpreted, in the modern world.

The September 7, 2012, issue of The Times Literary Supplement ran a review by Gabriel Josipovici of several recent books on Kafka. Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, by Saul Friedländer, is another strong entry in the derby. Friedländer is by trade not a literary critic but a historian. His affinity for Kafka is historical and personal. Like Kafka’s, his family, German-speaking and Jewish, originated in Prague. His father went to the same university Kafka did, though some 15 years later. As Kafka lost his three sisters, so did Friedländer lose his parents in Nazi camps.

Friedländer is well aware of the competing theories about the meaning of Kafka’s small body of work, which includes three uncompleted novels, some two dozen substantial short stories, an assemblage of parables and fragment-like shorter works, diaries, collections of letters (many to lovers whom he never married), and the famous Letter to His Father, which he never sent. Friedländer’s method in this short book is to weave back and forth between the life and the work in an attempt to explain Kafka’s significance. He does not doubt Kafka’s greatness, though he resists explaining in what, exactly, it resides.

His own view is that Kafka was “the poet of his own disorder.” Friedländer writes, “The issues torturing Kafka most of his life were of a sexual nature.” Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, he appears to believe that Kafka was a repressed homosexual—that the shame and guilt Friedländer mentions in his subtitle were chiefly over Kafka’s hidden sexuality. He offers no clinching proof, and at one point goes so far as to say, “It is highly improbable that Kafka ever considered the possibility of homosexual relations.”

Kafka reads like Freud fictionalized. Freud’s reputation is now quite properly in radical decline; Kafka’s, somehow, lives on.

Yet in Kafka’s stories, Friedländer finds, “there is a secret to be uncovered, something that the protagonist attempts to hide. Doesn’t this … bring us back to Kafka’s constant efforts to hide his sexual leanings?” In the unending critical Easter-egg hunt for the secret meaning in Franz Kafka’s fiction, Friedländer has retrieved the gay egg.

At one point Friedländer remarks on Kafka’s interest in young boys. (Death not in Venice but in Prague?) At another he notes, “Kafka’s representation of women is grimacing at best.” At still another he mentions a youthful “homoerotic” interest in friends. In “A Country Doctor,” a wound in the side of a boy suppurating worms is, Friedländer agrees with another critic, symbolic of the vagina. Ah, we sleep tonight; criticism stands guard.

Kafka, the critic Jeremy Adler holds, is “less dazzling than Proust, less innovative than Joyce, [but his] vision is more stark, more painful, more obviously universal than that of his peers.” Kafka’s universality derives from his high level of generality. Places are not named; most characters go undescribed; landscapes, sere and menacing, appear as they might in nightmares. Joyce and Proust work from detail to generality; Kafka works from generality to detail, giving his fiction the feeling that something deeply significant is going on, if only we could grasp what precisely it is.

“The vicinity of literature and autobiography could hardly be closer than it is with Kafka,” Erich Heller wrote. “Indeed, it almost amounts to identity.” The broader lineaments of Kafka’s autobiography are well known. Taken together, they constitute a life of nearly unrelieved doubt and mental suffering.

From Kafka’s Letter to His Father, we know that Hermann Kafka was strong and oppressive, a man who left his son with a permanent feeling of inadequacy. We know of the drudgery of Kafka’s job as a lawyer at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague and the firsthand acquaintance it gave him with the hideous entanglements of bureaucracy, entanglements that now go by the name Kafkaesque. Perhaps most pertinent are his misfired love affairs. Kafka was engaged to two women, one of them twice, and never married. He died in 1924, at 40, of tuberculosis, without having quite lived except during those solitary nights that, in trancelike exaltation, he devoted to his writing. Before his death he instructed his stalwart friend Max Brod to destroy much of his work, but, against Kafka’s wishes, Brod chose not to do so, thereby becoming a minor hero of literature.

The crushing father figure comes in for a good workout in such Kafka stories as “The Metamorphosis” and “The Judgment.” Other stories present pure, unexplained angst. These are the stories whose characters are being severely punished for petty crimes (“In the Penal Colony”), or even for crimes they are unaware of having committed (The Trial). Conveying nightmares in sharp detail, these stories chronicle the unraveling of lives in which illogic becomes plausible, guilt goes unexplained, and brutal punishment is doled out for no known offense. Such is the art of Franz Kafka.

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Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, with Frederic Raphael, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.

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