Roberto Calasso burst onto the American literary scene with Le nozze di Cado e Armonia (1993; The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 1998), a brilliant retelling of Greek and Roman myths which recalls Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567). With The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, the Italian editor and publisher established a writing pattern which would remain his own: a wide intellectual sweep made in a series of episodes and punctuated by frequent breaks and asides, a detached scholarly voice enlivened by quotations and paraphrases from many sources, and a sense of complete familiarity with the whole of Indo-European literature in the original languages. He also announced an overarching concern with myth and its main subject, the gods.
Calasso expanded his reach into modern European culture with La rovina di Kasch (1983; The Ruin of Kasch, 1994), on the Napoleonic age and its Romantic aftermath. Then he turned to Hindu mythology with Ka (1996; Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India, 1998), which did for the Indian subcontinent what The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony had done for the Mediterranean region.
Subsequently, he published two surveys of literary modernism, concentrating on Europe in the late nineteenth century: I Quarantanove gradini (1991; The Forty-nine Steps, 2001) and La lettertura e gli dei, (2001; Literature and the Gods, 2002), where he found the “absolute” verse of the Hindu Vedas culminating in the Symbolist poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé. K., however, is the real successor to the earlier trilogy of studies in myth.
That Calasso has devoted a book to Franz Kafka suggests he has found a whole world of mythology in the Bohemian author’s works. The book is as ambitious within the study of Kafka as the earlier books were in the worlds of ancient Greece and India. However, it seems less successful in re-creating a world for readers not already familiar with it. To reinforce one’s familiarity with the facts of Kafka’s life and world, one is far better off with an illustrated biography such as Jeremy Adler’s Franz Kafka (2001). Calasso writes for insiders who know their Kafka, or think they do. He has gone deep inside the Kafka lode. He has consulted the surviving manuscripts as well as the standard German editions, from which he translates passages into Italian and to which he often refers in twenty-one pages of endnotes. He writes with an assurance that seems well earned.
K. begins with five chapters on The Trial and The Castle, Kafka’s fragmentary novels of 1914 and 1922, respectively. Two chapters offer insights into the roles that women play in those works. Calasso continues with five chapters on Kafka’s major short stories“The Hunter Gracchus,” “The Judgment,” “The Burrow,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “Amerika,” the last of which Calasso discusses in his chapter “The Missing Person.” These chapters move into the story of Kafka’s life as a writer. He concludes with four more chapters on The Trial and The Castle, which turn out to be fragments of a still larger story which Kafka did not live to complete, and a final chapter on the aphorisms Kafka wrote on a holiday in 1921, three years before he died of tuberculosis. Only then, in a temporary reprieve from his demons, did Kafka perceive that paradise is “a perennial hidden presence” (Calasso’s words). Then Kafka did glimpse, “on the garden path, the goddess of happiness” (Kafka’s words).
Given Calasso’s fascination with myth, one might expect K. to be all about mythical patterns in the fiction, but that is not so: Calasso takes pains to show that Kafka’s unique style of storytelling grew out of nineteenth century realism, as Kafka found it in the works of Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevski. The Castle’s “newness” comes, says Calasso, from...
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