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The Best Franz Kafka Books

recommended by Stanley Corngold

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (ed. and translated by Stanley Corngold)

The Metamorphosis
by Franz Kafka (ed. and translated by Stanley Corngold)

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“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”—Kafka, The Metamorphosis. This is one of the most famous opening lines in all of world literature, but how ‘Kafkaesque’ was Franz Kafka? What are our misconceptions about his life and work? Professor Stanley Corngold, one of the most influential Kafka scholars, introduces us to an “athlete of anguish”.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (ed. and translated by Stanley Corngold)

The Metamorphosis
by Franz Kafka (ed. and translated by Stanley Corngold)

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Before we get to the books, who was Franz Kafka?

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was born in Prague, the second-largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1883, to a Jewish, German-speaking family. He lived and died a bachelor, to his great personal grief, having believed that founding a family was the most important thing one could do on earth. Often suffering from nervous exhaustion, on the verge of an imagined sickness, he realized his worst imaginings in 1917, when he suffered a blood gush from his lungs. Seven years later he died a terrible death from tuberculosis of the larynx. But he is a man of many contrarieties. For many years he visited brothels, swam robustly, climbed steep hills, and rode around the countryside on a motorcycle.

He spent his mature days as a competent, highly valued in-house lawyer at a partly state-run institute for workmen’s compensation. There, he innovated safety devices for Bohemian factories and advocated the founding of a hospital for shell-shocked war veterans, which was a novelty. He had many interests, including gardening and reading Platonic dialogues with friends, but also social work, especially on behalf of war refugees from Eastern Europe. He was engaged to be married twice to one woman and once to another; but for the rest was consumed by a passion for writing. It would be, he hoped, his salvation.

In his lifetime he published only a few stories, but they were highly regarded by connoisseurs. He was, again and again, asked for more of his work by leading publishers. But he was extremely scrupulous about the quality of the work he was prepared to publish, even writing in his Diaries (splendid texts!) this extraordinary entry:

“I can still have temporary satisfaction from works like A Country Doctor… But happiness only if I can raise the world into purity, truth, and immutability.”

To judge from present history, he did not acquire this happiness. But if, as it is said, history is a just judge of last resort, then the famebetter, genius—of Kafka’s writings does, indeed, constitute his justification.

Kafka’s work has inspired the now-famous adjective: ‘Kafkaesque’. But, like ‘Orwellian’, there’s a danger that these terms drift away from their inspiration. How ‘Kafkaesque’ is Kafka?

With few exceptions, there is zero correlation between persons who employ the trope ‘Kafkaesque’ and those who have actually read Kafka. But here, immediately, is another exception of sorts: In Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall, a character named Pam says to the Woody-figure, “Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience.” Then, on seeing that her lover Alvy is upset by this remark, she hastens to add: “I mean that as a compliment.” Woody Allen is an accomplished reader of Kafka, as proved by his anthology The Insanity Defense and the certainly Kafkaesque movie Zelig, which has attracted a good deal of scholarly furor.

‘Kafkaesque’ has a certain validity as a descriptor of the case that, arising from a commonly conceived normality, does not quite belong, or is—in another word—uncanny. It has features of normality, but in other respects constitutes a departure. But it may not be entirely surreal.

“In his lifetime he published only a few stories”

‘Kafkaesque’ tends to be reserved for horrible, unintelligible interactions with the law and other similar (often faceless) bureaucracies. This is largely because The Trial has exercised such a hold on the common imagination, and Joseph K.’s predicament is one at law. It is brought about by an unexpected, improper application of the law,  namely, withholding the name of the crime imputed to the accused. In a similar instance, my own case, it is a matter of being locked into an annual contract with insect fumigators with no way out. Which brings us to the figure of Gregor Samsa, the man-insect. Certainly, metamorphosis into a giant vermin goes well past an almost-plausible—but nonetheless uncanny—violation of personal identity and so is something more (or worse) than a Kafkaesque phenomenon. But, on the other hand, Gregor Samsa’s responses are all too true to the Kafkaesque norm—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and so, the tenuous and therefore all-too-troubling link to reality is maintained.

And Kafka ‘himself’? Kafka is Kafkaesque—in his view—in his inability to maintain any intrinsic or extrinsic sense of his personal identity (“I have hardly anything in common with myself”) while all the time he walks in relative safety through the streets and corridors of Prague.

As you say, Kafka’s work often involves introducing the uncanny or the surreal into a narrative world that is, in all other respects, normal and recognisable. What else would you identify as prominent themes in Kafka’s books? Where is best to start with him?

I would read his stories consecutively, beginning with ‘The Judgment’—the earlier work is more elusive—and read his diaries and letters at the same time. Then one encounters themes such as the struggle for authority, often interestingly fought with the tactic of finding one’s antagonist’s language laughable.

Think of Georg’s riposte when his father, who seems to share the running of a business with Georg, declares that he has all of Georg’s clientele ‘in his pocket’. Georg replies, staring humorously at his father’s nightshirt, “He’s got pockets even in his nightshirt.” This remark could seem feebly playful enough, but not when one recalls (as do Kafka, his readers, and Georg and his father) the proverbial description of a shroud: “The last shirt has no pockets.” On Georg’s lips his father’s nightshirt has become a shroud: he wishes to see his father dead! The awareness of this infamy rises to a crescendo: it is Georg’s father’s turn to traffic in death, and he condemns his ‘devilish’ son to death by drowning. In Georg’s unresisting embrace of this verdict, he appears to have accepted a dire punishment for his parricidal fantasy and even to be grateful for it.

This struggle in Kafka’s later work begins to take the form of the war between the outcast, the figure on the margins of ‘normal’ society, and the usual authoritarians. When his father remonstrated with Kafka, wondering why his son could not be less meshugge (Yiddish for ‘crazy’), more ‘normal’, Kafka replied, evenly, “Normal is world war.”

Just before we look at your Kafka book choices, I want to ask: what were his most significant literary or philosophical influences?

Kafka was not one to be easily influenced. He marched to his own drum—an extraordinary power of imaginative recombination. But, certainly, materials for transformation had to come in from the outside—particularly from life in Prague and books by Goethe, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, the less well known German Storm-and-Stress writer, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, and the stately Austrian playwright Franz Seraphicus Grillparzer, among many others. His reading also included a variety of contemporary ‘philosophical psychologists’, such as Herbart, Wundt, Brentano, Marty, Husserl, and Meinong, among others, whom Kafka heard about from friends and as a keen lecture-goer.

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We know that for the rest he was a voracious and fast reader, competent (to various degrees) in nine languages: Greek, Latin, German, Czech, French, English, Italian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. One example of his art of recombination, of his power to metamorphose the remains of the day: in Prague he lived alongside a river, the Vltava—or Moldau—and he would have seen or read of persons who drowned, by accident or otherwise. “In the course of the 1870s,” explains the Kafka-scholar Benno Wagner, statistics, accumulated with increasing precision, identified the Habsburg Monarchy as a “breeding ground of suicide.” Especially in Bohemia, this trend to an abnormal increase in suicides persisted into the 1880s as well, where Prague once again emerges as the statistical capital. But few would have been able to transform such a statistic into the aphorism, as Kafka does:

“The man in ecstasy and the man drowning—both throw up their arms. The first does it to signify harmony, the second to signify strife with the elements.”

Let’s look at the Kafka books you’ve chosen. We’ve already alluded to it but first on your list is Kafka’s most famous work: The Metamorphosis. Tell me about this one.

The Metamorphosis tells the story of a turn-of-the-century, Central European textile salesman who wakes up one rainy morning to find himself changed, according to a not entirely reliable narrator, into a verminous insect—A HUGE ONE! This short novel, which the Nobel-Prize-winner Elias Canetti called ‘one of the few great, perfect poetic works of the century’ recounts the struggles of Gregor Samsa and his family to come to terms with this monstrous, unheard-of metamorphosis.

It remains moot whether we are to regard this event within the story-world as a fact or a delusion inflicted by the family on this hapless son and brother. Though often disliked by Kafka, The Metamorphosis is his best-known and most commented-upon story. I have always loved this perplexing story, ever since my older brother Noel brought it home from Columbia University to augment my high school reading list. And an edited paperback translation of The Metamorphosis, still in print, is the first book I ever published—one which I cannot but like, since it has sold over 2 million copies!

The term Kafka used for what Gregor Samsa is turned into is ‘Ungeziefer’. Am I right in thinking that this is more ambiguous than just ‘insect’? 

The problem of translating the ‘Ungeziefer’indeed, the ‘ungeheures Ungeziefer’, normally, ‘the monstrous vermin’into which Gregor Samsa has been changed is that in ordinary English ‘vermin ’is plural. But we do want some form of the word ‘vermin’and not ‘insect’because their modes of being are radically different. Insects are what they are through biological or, more precisely, entomological determinism. Vermin are what they are through social—that is to say, linguistic and hence etymological determinism.

For the Nazis, the Jews are vermin; for sheep ranchers in the American Far West, pumas are vermin; for citizens of Berlin meaning to enjoy peacefully their white beer while wild hogs rampage past their cafe tables, these porkers are vermin. There is a hint.

One possible way of understanding Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis is in the social determination of vermin: his metamorphosis is not a real event but a delusion inspired by what one astute scholar—Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, a professor of Gnostic theology at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distanciacalls ‘the victimary circle’. You are caught, perhaps unawares, by others’ low opinion of you; you agree to find it reasonable and begin to conform to it, which in turn ‘proves’ the charge of the others that you are vermin indeed.

“We do want some form of the word ‘vermin’—and not ‘insect’—because their modes of being are radically different”

This point is supported by a second etymological factor: the German word ‘Ungeziefer’ in Middle High German connotes a being unsuitable as sacrifice, i.e., unacceptable to divinity. Such a being has no place in the cosmos. Moreover, as an ‘ungeheures Ungeziefer’—listen to the negative force of that repeated ‘un’ (and earlier in the sentence we have Gregor’s ‘unruhige Träume’)—he or it is quite literally without a place at the family hearth—a family outcast. The Latin for ‘ungeheuer’ is infamiliaris.

When the “gigantic, bony charwoman” at the close of The Metamorphosis calls to Gregor, “Come here, you old dung beetle,” the narrator informs us, quite properly, that “To forms of address like these Gregor would not respond … .” He is not a dung beetle; he is “a monstrous vermin”.

You mentioned that Kafka disliked this book. Can you tell me why?

The answer is quite simple. From time to time, writing to his fiancée Felice Bauer, he found the story “a little horrible”, indeed, a day later, “exceptionally disgusting”, though, on another occasion, it was not without its “sweet passages”. The crux was the ending, which he claimed to have botched: the sign of it might very well be the “metamorphosis” of the narrative stance.

Until the end, everything—the entire diegesiswas registered by a narrator whose perspective is almost entirely congruent with that of Gregor. A problem arises, which Kafka presumably did not solve well; Gregor is dead. The narrator must take leave of him, and now, indeed, ‘father’ and ‘mother’ have become Mr. and Mrs. Samsa! The book ends, “in many passages of the story, … states of exhaustion and other interruptions and extraneous worries are clearly inscribed; it could certainly have been done more cleanly.”

Why was Kafka so distracted throughout this writing? The narrative flow was severely disrupted: Kafka had to take a business trip—to Chrastava (Kratzau), a couple of hours to the north—with an unfinished story on his mind and, in its own right, something of a vexatious interruption to his chief predilection, to get on with the writing of Amerika. The entire constellation must have caused him considerable anguish. But Kafka, an athlete of anguish, was not so fazed as to relax his grip on his task as a pursuer of deadbeat factory owners disinclined to pay premiums for the accident insurance of their workmen. In fact, that weekend, he won a substantial payment for his Institute; but that ‘’restitution’ was ‘disproportionate’ to the grief he suffered at having ruined the ending of The Metamorphosis.

Now, this is not the only metamorphosis that we find in Kafka. We also find one in his short story ‘The New Advocate’. Why do you think Kafka was so fascinated with the idea of transformation? 

If transformation of this type is an event in space—from one frame to the next the victim assumes a different shape—consider its analogue: a transformation in—better, of—time. The sense of the time occupied by some event is radically transformed in the next moment. More plainly, the new event occurs abruptly, breaking the ordinary flow. The two might occur togethera different, an overpowering sense of self suddenly arises. If Kafka could liken himself to a creature without footing, he could also suddenly think of himself as a great leader of men—another Alexander the Great.

But here is the more common experience: Kafka is overmastered by a sudden fugue of images and ideas, not self-centered: a brainstorm, a fullness—‘the tremendous (ungeheure) world’ in his headand now, how to express them without shattering? But, foremost, is their different temporal character. They come suddenly, but they also leave suddenly.

Kafka is subject to this ceaseless alternation of the temporalities of coming and going. The earliest extant piece of his writing, as I have noted in Lambent Traces, are runes he wrote in 1897, at the age of fourteen, in a poetry album belonging to his friend Hugo Bergmann (whom we will meet): “There is a coming and a going/A parting and often—no meeting again.”

The vision of an immense coming into being and of an equally potent vanishing accompanied Kafka throughout his life—a vision of world assertion and world extinction—which he adapts in his aesthetic as a logic of recursiveness, of chiastic return.

Next on your list of Kafka books is The Trial. Again, this is a work that is deeply absorbed in the public imagination. 

The Trial tells of the struggle of a high-ranking bank official (a status not unlike that of Kafka at his insurance institute) who is charged by a mysterious court with having committed a crime (forever unspecified) and is murdered by warders of the court in a particularly brutal and sexually charged manner. What is extraordinary is the degree of penetration the ‘novel’ has made into the legal mind as well. If you take a glance at Westlaw (the online resource for case law), it registers various trials that might have leapt from the pages of The Trial and are even acknowledged as such by erudite judges. An article by Amanda Torres quotes one Judge Edenfield on such a case where a victim had his parole revoked without an explanation:

“…that not even the most skilled of counsel, finding himself in the Kafkaesque situation of being deprived of his liberty by a tribunal which will adduce no reasons for its decision, can complain concisely and clearly of his objections to such a decision… [Such a situation] leaves the prisoner no recourse but to approach the court with an attempted rebuttal of all real, feared, or imagined justifications for his confinement.”

It is important to note that no final determination has ever been made or can be made as to the ‘correct’ sequence of chapters/fascicles making up The Trial. Kafka left them pell-mell, with the well-known injunction to his friend and booster Max Brod to burn them, something that, as Kafka knew, Brod would never do. Readers can enjoy the additional pleasure of constructing their own sequence in light of the hermeneutic allure projected by these texts.

But this haunting work hardly needs my commendation. Since its posthumous publication in 1925, it has long exercised its fascination over the popular mind and has often reappeared as a play (by Jean-Louis Barrault and André Gide in 1947, among others) and, more than once, as an opera (by Boris Blacher and Heinz von Cramer in 1953; Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton in 2014).

We don’t know why Joseph K. has been arrested, or what he has been charged with, and neither does he. Kafka excels at creating an overwhelming sense of disorientation. How would you characterise his tone, though? Is it always ominous or does he play with comic elements?

You’re hitting me an easy ground ball. Kafka’s comic turns have been the staple of many a desperate doctoral dissertation over the last century. I remember growing up as a nascent Kafka-scholar—but also grimly deconstructionist—with Michel Dentan’s Humour et creation littéraire dans l’oeuvre de Kafka perched on my shoulder and giving me significant taps. I’ve especially loved an observation on The Metamorphosis made by Carsten Schlingmann, a scholar I’ve never met. Kafka writes:

“When Gregor’s body already projected halfway out of bed— the new method was more of a game than a struggle, he only had to keep on rocking and jerking himself along—he thought how simple everything would be if he could get some help. Two strong persons—he thought of his father and the maid—would have been completely sufficient; they would only have had to shove their arms under his arched back, in this way scoop him off the bed, bend down with their burden, and then just be careful and patient while he managed to swing himself down onto the floor, where his little legs would hopefully acquire some purpose. Well, leaving out the fact that the doors were locked, should he really call for help? In spite of all his miseries, he could not repress a smile at this thought.” (Emphasis added)

Schlingmann comments: “…the strangest smile in the history of literature.”

If we think of The Trial, we will assign many of its features to a new genre: the political grotesque—a grotesquerie that is ‘abysmally’ comic. We have this rather cheerful account in Joseph Vogl’s essay on Kafka’s “political comedy”:

From the terror of secret scenes of torture to childish officials, from the filth of the bureaucratic order to atavistic rituals of power runs a track of comedy that forever indicates the absence of reason, the element of the arbitrary in the execution of power and rule. However, this element of the grotesque does not merely unmask and denounce. It refers—as Foucault once pointed out—to the inevitability, the inescapability of precisely the grotesque, ridiculous, loony, or abject sides of power. Kafka’s “political grotesque” displays an unsystematic arbitrariness, which belongs to the functions of the apparatus itself. There is really no real reason why [in The Trial] an exhausted court official at the end of the working day should occupy himself for an hour with tossing lawyers down the stairs …

Such “instances” can be easily multiplied all throughout The Castle —par excellence the slapstick of K.’s discombobulated “helpers.”

You mentioned that Joseph K’s occupation resembles that of the author. Kafka worked at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. This leads us neatly to the third of the books you’ve chosen which is Kafka’s Office Writings.

Most readers know Franz Kafka as the reclusive author of stories and novels that have since become monumental works of modern literature. Some readers also know him as a bureaucrat who, unhappy in his office, castigated the ‘hell of office life’. But few know that he rose at the end of his life to the position of Senior Legal Secretary at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Royal Imperial Kingdom of Austria-Hungary Prague (called, after 1918, the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Czech Lands).

Kafka was no Bartleby the Scrivener, no harmless office drudge. Rather, he was a brilliant innovator of social and legal reform in ‘the Manchester of the Empire’, which at the time of Kafka’s tenure, between 1908 and 1922, was one of the most highly developed industrial areas of Europe. Now, consider that Kafka’s stories allude to his culture with a fullness that is astonishing when one considers their economy of form. This work of allusion proceeds via several logics.

“Kafka…was a brilliant innovator of social and legal reform”

One such logic—the logic of risk insurance–comes from Kafka’s daytime preoccupation with accident insurance. Though ensconced in a semi-opaque bureaucracy, Kafka struggled to enforce compulsory universal accident insurance in the areas of construction, toy and textile manufacture, farms, and automobiles. Images from his work world, such as mutilation by machine, the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk, and the disappearance of the personal accident, penetrate such stories as The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and In the Penal Colony.

Are these legal writings fascinating in terms of how they supplement Kafka’s fictional work or can one take enjoyment from them in their own right? I can’t imagine many people’s idea of a weekend read being dense bureaucratic writing.

True, it wouldn’t be many readers’ Moby Dick. But these writings are the outcome of an editorial selection of the juiciest of the lot. (You should see the ones that got away!) And, believe it or not, one advanced student at the University of Utah—under the pedagogic spell, perhaps, of the charismatic Professor Anne Jamison—wrote on the Web that it was her favorite book of all time.

Several of the papers here reflect the traumas of the War: the insurance institute previously devoted to restituting for the trauma of workmen occasionally mutilated in factories must now deal with ‘factories’, so to speak—i.e., entire armies—whose whole remit is the manufacture of mutilated bodies. Kafka’s imaginative immersion in trench warfare would have conditioned his representation of ‘The Burrow’ and could excite a more intense and detailed reading of its architecture and psychic weather.

But the more fundamental analogy between the fiction and the insurance world, as shown in these papers, ponders what ‘accidents’ of the human condition can be insured against and what cannot. Kafka’s stories are all about uninsurable accidents—such as dying, as in ‘The Hunter Gracchus’, but not finding one’s way to the regions of Death, let alone being charged with an unnamed crime, which brings about a distressful metamorphosis of sensibility.

Kafka advocated vigorously for the establishment of a hospital devoted entirely to the treatment of shell-shocked veterans: he understood PTSD better than most bureaucrats.

From a legal-ethical point of view, Kafka had a deep-seated suspicion or cynicism towards ideas of justice. The punishments people receive in Kafka’s fiction rarely seem proportionate. Why do you think this is?

Kafka’s work-life was a pure immersion in disproportionate punishment. His day job was to remunerate workmen whose limbs—let us say—had been torn off by industrial machines. And what remuneration—a matter of kronen—would be truly proportionate to the disorientation and anguish of the victim?

But this is an empirical confirmation of a perspective deeply implanted in childhood. In his ‘Letter to His Father’, the boy Franz locates the abiding sense of intrinsic disproportionality in a punishment inflicted on him by his father in the notorious ‘pavlatche’ incident. A pavlatche is ‘a balcony running along the edge of a house on the first floor or above, inside the exterior wall.’ Kafka remembers:

I was whining persistently for water one night, certainly not because I was thirsty, but in all probability partly to be annoying, partly to amuse myself. After a number of fierce threats had failed, you lifted me out of my bed, carried me out onto the pavlatche, and left me awhile all alone, standing outside the locked door in my nightshirt. … This incident almost certainly made me obedient for a time, but it damaged me on the inside. I was by nature unable to reconcile the simple act (as it seemed to me) of casually asking for water with the utter horror of being carried outside. Years later it still tormented me that this giant man, my father, the ultimate authority, could enter my room at any time and, almost unprovoked, carry me from my bed onto the pavlatche, and that I meant so little to him.

There we have it, from the victim’s mouth.

But the idea of proportionate justice implies finding an equivalent—the punishment—for something unlike it, the crime. Kafka had a horror of the injustice of asserted equivalents in many spheres, especially when the things alleged to be equivalent—or radically different—are subject at all times to internal metamorphosis.

Your next book is Kafka’s Selected Stories, but I know that you want to discuss two short stories in particular: ‘The Judgement’ and ‘In the Penal Colony’. These are very much in keeping with the legal theme. 

Why read these two stories above all others? It is rather that they ought to be read along with all of Kafka’s stories, but they must not be missed. They are great stories individually. The first—‘The Judgment ’(1912)—tells of a sudden reversal in the power relations between father and son. The son, confident of his future, which includes the prosperous management of the family business and his imminent marriage to the daughter of a well-to-do- family, reports the news to his enfeebled father that he has informed his friend in St. Petersburg of his engagement. In the course of their conversation, his father rises up from his bed, suddenly a giant, and condemns his son to death by drowning, a judgment that the son cannot resist and executes, crying out, “Dear parents, I always really loved you”.

Kafka composed the story in a fit of literary ecstasy in a single breath one night till dawn and constitutes, by common consent, his breakthrough as a writer, his conviction of being destined henceforth to live as the ‘being of the writer’ (Schriftstellersein, in his word).

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The second, ‘In the Penal Colony’ (1914-19), written to dispel a writer’s block while Kafka was working on The Trial, describes another atrocious punishment. The torturer in a penal colony chooses, in despair at failing to obtain a confirmation of his ‘machinery’ from a visiting explorer, to have himself tortured to death in the hope of realizing, through a fatal inscription on his own body, the nature of a crime of which he considers himself guilty. The ‘machinery’ breaks down. In one intriguing way, the second story literally alludes to the first—the victim, it is said “does not know his own judgment”; the allusion proceeds via an uncanny process of communication over which, according to Kafka, thirsty ghosts preside.

As far as we know, Kafka only ever gave two public readings of his work. The stories he picked for these two occasions were exactly the two you’ve picked here. Do you think they were distinctively important to him?

The first was decisively important for him, as we have noted; it constituted his literary ‘breakthrough’. He loved reading it aloud to his family and friends. The reading, he said, confirmed for him the rightness of the story. The second is a puzzle, since, as with The Metamorphosis, he was once again acutely dissatisfied with the ending. In this instance, he wrote various drafts of the ending: they are altogether mad. Here is one. We are hearing about the explorer, who has been sent for by the island commandant: “He jumped up as if refreshed, when they spoke to him. With his hand on his heart, he said: ‘I would be a cur [Hundsfott] if I let that happen.’ But then he took it literally and began to walk on all fours.”

Kafka read the story in Munich. We all ‘know’ that owing to its terribiltà, a woman in the audience fainted and had to be carried out. But that’s, begging your pardon, “fake news,” concocted by a rogue reporter writing on the event for a local newspaper.

One speculative argument (of many) for his wanting to publish ‘In the Penal Colony’ by reading it aloud—a rare enough event—is the way it reproduces at its core the structure and conclusion of ‘The Judgment’, which he so valued. The two works belong together as works of punishment: Kafka always contemplated publishing several stories together under this rubric—Strafen. Both stories are built on a logomachy of sorts between two persons. At the outset, in ‘The Judgment’, the son assumes authority—but Georg will be crushed and condemned to death by his father, at first the weaker. In ‘In the Penal Colony’, traveler and officer debate; the officer attempts to assert his authority as executioner but his doubts are reinforced by the resistance of the traveler. The officer condemns himself to death. Both victims accede to their sentence.

Would we be right in detecting an autobiographical element to the difficult father-son dynamic depicted in ‘The Judgement’?

It would be hard not to, knowing what we do of the parlous relation between Kafka and his father, who at one moment, when Franz was quite young, seemed to cover the map of the world. The boy’s sense of his father was that of a giant—the giant into which Mr. Bendemann, in ‘The Judgment’, is metamorphosed.

What is indisputable is that Franz would have greatly appreciated his father’s blessing of him as a writer. I do think that this wish-drama is played out in the latter half of ‘The Judgment’. In a sense, the story is all about writing and reading what writers write in their letters. The ‘devilish’ son Georg is at work writing yet another letter to his ‘friend’ in St. Petersburg. But his friend, if we are to believe Mr. Bendemann, pays no heed to them; he, Georg’s father, has been writing letters to this friend. It is this impoverished bachelor who enjoys unimpeded, transparent communication with Georg’s father—might this not constitute a blessing? But who, then, is this St. Petersburg bachelor?

“ Kafka understood PTSD better than most bureaucrats”

It is not a far interpretive cry to see that Kafka has split himself into two filial figures: the prosperous businessman Georg, who is about to embark on an advantageous marriage (how Hermann Kafka in life would have blessed this figure!); and an ailing, solitary outcast, “yellow enough to be thrown away”. But these are hardly words that one applies to people but rather to paper. This bachelor is at least for one moment entirely paper; recall that at other moments Kafka described his own being as entirelyLiteratur’— as “Schriftstellersein,” the being of the writer.

Kafka finished writing ‘The Judgment’ in an ecstatic trance. What he had accomplished was to destroy the bourgeois modality of the self whose conatus would have earned his father’s blessing—but not his—and envisioned, in a wish-dream, a flow of paternal love to himself as an ascetic and writer.

Since we’re discussing Kafka’s life, let’s move on to the last of the books you’ve chosen. You’ve picked Kafka: The Early Years. This is the first installment of Reiner Stach’s distinguished three-volume Kafka biography.

In selecting this volume of Reiner Stach’s richly detailed 3-volume biography of Franz Kafka, elegantly translated by Shelley Frisch (volume 2 is Kafka: The Decisive Years and volume 3, Kafka: The Years of Insight), I am chiefly engaged by its newness. Contrary to appearances, this is the last book of the three to appear, owing to the author’s wish to consult materials to which he has had exclusive access. These notebooks and letters are now held by the Israeli National Library, after taking possession of Kafka’s papers stored in vaults in Zurich and Tel Aviv and an ill-assorted heap allegedly scattered about the house of the aged, cat-loving daughter of Max Brod’s secretary—Max Brod being Kafka’s great friend and booster, who rescued Kafka’s papers from destruction at the hands of the Nazi SS. 

The Early Years casts new light on Kafka’s friendship with Brod, stressing the mutual intimacy and intensity of their bond—one generally understated or thought improbable by Kafka’s biographers, but strengthened by their many travels together to Switzerland, to Northern Italy, to Paris and by their joint writing and publishing projects. They planned a modestly priced travel guide for middle-class tourists to the cities they had visited, thoughtfully including suggestions as to where sexual entertainment could be had at a fair price.

What does this biography reveal to us about who Kafka really was? Does it undermine Kafka’s own attempts to mythologise himself?

We get to see a ‘regular’ young man, full of curiosity about the world and full of tricks, no lover of school, and a great friend, especially of Max Brod, at that time the far more accomplished young man of letters. As I have written elsewhere, Stach’s account hollows out the validity of Walter Benjamin’s surmise that one of the great riddles about Kafka is that he should ever have had Brod as a friend. No doubt Benjamin could imagine himself in Brod’s place as the better friend. Nonetheless, you come to feel, at least through Brod’s perspective, the affection and enthusiasm flowing in from Kafka’s side, for reasons not hard to conceive.

Franz once astonished his friend Hugo Bergmann. As they approached the window of a huge bookstore, Kafka closed his eyes and had Bergmann recite the titles of all the books he could see, whereupon Kafka responded with the names of the author—correctly in every case. What Bergmann didn’t know was that Kafka was a passionate reader of publishers’ lists and already knew, long before this exercise, the names of the authors.

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As to Kafka’s school traumas: Kafka’s Greek grammar classes threw him for a loop. He could not integrate a grasp of grammatical forms with a knowledge of content, which his teacher withheld from students anyway, as being beyond their range. Stach concludes that this tension may have cast a lasting shadow over Kafka’s literary imagination. Joseph K., for example, in The Trial, is instructed in the formalities of the Court of Law but is told he will never understand the law. The same holds true for the village dwellers under the sway of the Castle: neither the intruder K. nor the villagers themselves will ever understand its logic and its law.

Connected with this school years’ mini-trauma is the crueler imagination of the teacher with raised pen about to mark Franz’s tests with a decisive “Fail!” Stach notes that the ordeal faced by his protagonists isn’t always one of being confronted by a judicial bureaucracy. Rather: “practically all of them are put into existential testing situations, for which they are unprepared and bound to fail” (I/204).

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This is young Kafka’s perpetual worry at school and university—closer to his experience than being translated into a vermin or stabbed in the heart as punishment for an unspecified crime.

Finally, I want to ask: given the truly immense amount of scholarship out there on Kafka, do you think there are still areas of his life and work that remain untapped? 

The other day, the German Literature Archive at Marbach held a brilliant zoom conference exhibiting and commenting on an 8-page letter that Kafka wrote to Max Brod in 1922. Marbach had bought it from a collector. In a sort of Kafkaesque story, Kafka describes being of two minds about whether to winter by himself in Planá. On the one hand, the woman who ran his lodging house promised to cook vegetarian meals for him all winter. He would be blessedly alone and have the solitude he craved. On the other hand, the landlady who could seem so cooperative could also turn angry and mischievous—anticipating absolutely the landlady in the frightening story ‘Eine kleine Frau’ Kafka was to write two years later in Berlin. Then there were the other villagers—peasants, mainly—in his vicinity. And the feeling of solitude could become acute and distressing among others with whom one had nothing in common—Kafka’s specialty. Recall: “Only the limited circle is pure.”

This letter-text fits in with the range of Kafka’s work that at one point (2011), when I was actively engaged with him, felt hitherto insufficiently attended to—namely, ‘Kafka’s Late Style’—The Castle and Kafka’s last stories. But I believe that lacuna has since been well addressed by the intervening scholarship. Still, the letter above suggests that as more ancillary material emerges—think of the heap of early papers the Israeli National Library is said to be at work digitizing and preparing to publish—there will once again be gaps that Kafka scholarship stands ready to fill.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

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Stanley Corngold

Stanley Corngold

Stanley Corngold is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of eight books and more than 100 articles; he has also translated or edited a further eight volumes, including highly acclaimed translations of The Metamorphosis and Kafka's Selected Stories. He founded and directed the Princeton Kafka Network with Oxford and Humboldt Universities between 2009-2012.

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Stanley Corngold

Stanley Corngold

Stanley Corngold is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of eight books and more than 100 articles; he has also translated or edited a further eight volumes, including highly acclaimed translations of The Metamorphosis and Kafka's Selected Stories. He founded and directed the Princeton Kafka Network with Oxford and Humboldt Universities between 2009-2012.