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.


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.

In his Kafka biography, The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head, Louis Begley, one of the best interpreters of Kafka’s life, especially of his relationships with women, claims that Kafka “wrote about the human condition.” Erich Heller held that Kafka’s writing transcended “most realities of the age.” Neither man, though, tells quite how Kafka did these things.

Benjamin, Begley, Heller, Friedländer, and other critics who take Kafka’s greatness as self-evident agree that Kafka cannot be either explained or judged in the same way as other literary artists. Benjamin believed that “Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings.”

Kafka felt that his talent was “for portraying my dream-like inner life.” But dreams, however gripping, are aesthetically unsatisfying.

“In Kafka’s fiction,” Friedländer writes, “the Truth remains inaccessible and is possibly nonexistent.” Begley, remarking on an object referred to as “Odradek” in a five-paragraph exercise of Kafka’s called “The Cares of a Family Man,” writes: “Some things cannot be explained.” Of “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka’s most famous story, Heller writes: “It defies any established intellectual order and familiar form of understanding, and thus arouses the kind of intellectual anxiety that greedily and compulsively reaches out for interpretations.” In his Times Literary Supplement review, Josipovici, noting that 100 years have passed since Kafka wrote his story “The Judgment,” adds: “We are probably no nearer to understanding that or any other of his works today than his first readers were, nor should we expect to be.”

Kafka, in other words, is given a pass on criticism. The argument is that he cannot finally be explained, but merely read, appreciated, and reread until his meaning, somehow, washes over you. But what if this meaning seems oddly skewed and in our day even outmoded, in the way great literature never is?

As Friedländer underscores, Kafka came into his maturity as a German-speaking Jew in anti-Semitic Prague—that is, a minority twice over—and the anti-Semitism was to worsen after World War I. Kafka began writing in the closing years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a time when Sigmund Freud emphasized the centrality of the sexual life in human development. Touching on the hothouse intellectual atmosphere of this time, Begley quotes the German critic Willy Haas: “I cannot imagine how any man can understand him at all who was not born in Prague in the period 1880 to 1890.”

And much, it is true, isn’t easily understood. For a man who claimed to be under the lash of a tyrannical father, Kafka nevertheless lived at home until he was 31. He insisted that his job stifled him, yet he never left it until compelled to by illness. He strung women along—poor Felice Bauer, twice his fiancée over the course of several years—holding out promises of marriage on which he did not deliver.

Kafka felt that his talent was “for portraying my dream-like inner life.” But dreams, however gripping they can be, are aesthetically unsatisfying, especially in their endings. Kafka himself did not find the ending of “The Metamorphosis,” his greatest story, satisfying, and it isn’t. Perhaps for the same reason, he was unable to complete his novels: dreams, especially nightmares, want for artistic endings. Another character in Singer’s “A Friend of Kafka” says of Kafka’s novel The Castle, “It’s too long for a dream. Allegories should be short.”

Dour and doleful though Kafka’s fiction is, it is not entirely bereft of humor or comic touches in dark situations. Horses stare through windows into human habitations, an elderly bachelor is followed around his apartment by two bouncing balls—absurdity reigns amid terror. When he once read the first chapter of The Trial aloud for an audience, Kafka laughed at the situation in which he had placed his main character. But the comedy is not what one remembers in that novel or in any other of Kafka’s writings.

Kafka is credited with prophetic powers, because he predicted, through his novels The Trial and The Castle, the totalitarian regimes that arose after his death, especially that of the Soviet Union, with its arbitrary, insane, crushing—yes, Kafkaesque—bureaucratic apparatus for killing. But today the stories of fatherly tyranny carry too strong an odor of the moribund doctrine of Sigmund Freud—the Oedipus complex and all that. Kafka claimed to have been thinking about Freud’s doctrines when he wrote his breakthrough story, “The Judgment,” about a father who sentences his son to death by drowning, causing the young man to jump off a bridge. The centrality of dreams in his stories also reflects Freud’s certainty about the significance of the dream life. The spread of Freudianism and the rise of Kafka’s reputation ran, not without good reason, in parallel. Kafka reads like Freud fictionalized. Freud’s reputation is now quite properly in radical decline; Kafka’s, somehow, lives on. Without belief in Freud, Kafka’s stories lose their weight and authority.

All of which brings up the question of whether Franz Kafka is truly a major writer. His greatest proponents, insisting that he is, cannot say why, and ask for a permanent moratorium on conventional criticism of his writing. His detractors, a distinct minority, feel that what he left us is the sad story of a lost soul destroyed by modern life. In the end, Henry James wrote in an essay on Turgenev, what we want to know about a writer is, “How does he feel about life?” Kafka found it unbearably complicated, altogether daunting, and for the most part joyless, and so described it in his fiction. This is not, let us agree, the best outlook for a great writer. Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.

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