No modern reader needs persuasion that Franz Kafka is one of the “sacred untouchables” of contemporary literature, that along with Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner he ranks among the greatest prose masters of the century. His conversions of his private fantasies of guilt, shame, solitude, and dread into the materials of universally applicable art have succeeded both admirably and appallingly. The world has behaved as mindlessly and madly, cruelly and bafflingly as any image dramatized in his nightmarish fiction. Our time provides a continual exegesis of his work, which in turn has become an inner echo in our lives.
Kafka’s posthumous reputation has been both enhanced and confused by a labyrinthine interpretive literature comprising more than fifteen thousand titles. Some of the critical studies have been incisive, even profound: Walter Sokel’s (1964), Heinz Politzer’s (1966), Wilhelm Emrich’s (1968), Walter Benjamin’s (1968), Ronald Gray’s (1973), and Erich Heller’s (1974) come prominently to mind. Others, best unnamed, distort Kafka’s work in pursuit of special pleas. The list of biographies is comparatively modest, headed by Max Brod’s critical biographical text of 1937. Brod deserves acclaim for his honorable disloyalty to Kafka’s last will, which instructed him to destroy all of Kafka’s unpublished writings. Brod’s interpretation of his best friend’s work, however, as religious prophecy and a proto- Zionist affirmation of life reveals much about Brod’s temperament but very little about Kafka’s art. More recently two German researchers have published scholarly, detailed monographs on Kafka’s life: Klaus Wagenbach (1958, 1964) and Hartmut Binder (1976, 1979); these have not yet been translated into English. In 1981 the British biographer Ronald Hayman published a detailed but sometimes softly defined life. In 1984 Ernst Pawel issued a study, The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, which became the best-contoured account of Kafka’s life available in English, while limiting critical reading of Kafka’s texts to an occasional paragraph or two.
Frederick Karl seeks to present Kafka as the Everyman of the twentieth century’s first half, epitomizing modernism, reflecting the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, depicting Central Europe’s huge and rigid bureaucracy, exemplifying Sigmund Freud’s leading theories, and prophesying, in such fables as The Metamorphosis (1915) and “The Penal Colony,” the unendurable worlds of Auschwitz and the gulags. In 1924, dying, literally speechless (his vocal organs, his lungs gone), Kafka was known only to a small circle of Prague and later Vienna intimates. He had published but a handful of tales, parables, and aphorisms; his novels were in fragments. Yet some forty years later, W. H. Auden could declare that Kafka’s relationship to our age matched that of Dante and Shakespeare to theirs.
In an erudite, eight-hundred-page tome, Karl tries to explain the uncanny tidal waves that bore Kafka’s idiosyncratic, localized, numbing vision across the planet, making it the accent and motto of our epoch, so that the term Kafkaesque has become what Karl calls “the representative adjective of our times.” He sees Kafka as the classic outsider or victim, suffering from multiple alienations as a German-speaking Jew in a Czech-dominated milieu within a feudal and rotting Habsburg Dual Monarchy filled with anti-Semitic sentiments. Karl defines Kafkaesque, in its primary sense, as a perception of life in which the individual is overpowered or trapped by “the forces that wait malevolently for human endeavor to falter.” Less persuasively, Karl also applies the adjective to Kafka’s Sisyphean labors to do his writing, to struggle in lonely bachelorhood to fulfill himself through literature.
Unique to Karl’s study is his focus on Kafka as a leading exemplar of high modernism, involving a deliberate and radical break with many of the traditional norms of Western culture and literary forms. He worked as an insurance company lawyer for an arm of the Habsburg Empire when that unwieldy government had lost all sense and meaning. He became saturated with Freud’s concepts of the Oedipus complex and the role of the unconscious, even though he never declared himself a Freudian. In such early works as “Description of a Struggle,” Kafka used the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s notion of an intuitive stream of consciousness as more vital than conscious reasoning. Karl interprets Kafka’s literary career as an effort to achieve a flow of associative memory, spirit, and intuition. Kafka envisioned his art as peeling back layers of existence, hoping to make the unconscious at least partly manifest, relying more on random reverie than objective reality, dramatizing a disordered, discontinuous, ultimately anarchic world in narratives that distort common experience.
Central to an understanding of Kafka as man and artist is an understanding of his relationship to his overbearing father, Hermann. The father, himself a butcher’s son, had made his way from the Czech proletariat to respectable middle-class status as a wholesale merchant in Prague. In his hard struggle he had developed a cluster of qualities to which he probably owed his material success: self-confidence, selfishness, single- mindedness, ruthlessness, intolerance of opposition, bourgeois conformity, mistrust of most people, narrowness of interests. These were, understandably, the very qualities his son found not only alienating but awesome, not only dislikable but inaccessible. Moreover, this powerful but insensitive father expected his frail, dreamy, artistic son to succeed him in his business, since Franz’s two older brothers had died in infancy, and the other three children were younger girls. Hence Franz Kafka, his...
(The entire section is 2394 words.)