The Magazine

Franz K. on Trial

The inner meaning of the outsider Kafka.

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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Nothing has been left unsaid about Franz Kafka (1883-1924), the Jewish insurance lawyer from Prague who conducted his work life in Czech, his personal life in German, and his nocturnal writer’s life in a highly condensed metaphoric language whose striking images reveal the absurd core in the human struggle for justice or happiness. 

Reading about a man who wakes up one morning after disquieting dreams to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach, we are puzzled—until we realize that the man’s deep fear about how his parents and sister may see him has suddenly become visible, if only to himself. When the courageous Kurt Wolff was preparing The Metamorphosis for publication in 1915, Kafka wrote to his editor that the horrifying thought had occurred to him that the illustrator might want to draw 

the insect itself. Not that, please, not that! I don’t want to curtail his sovereignty; I am making this request based only on my naturally greater understanding of the story. The insect itself cannot be drawn. It cannot be shown even from afar.

This is one of the rare instances in which Kafka comments on how his metaphors should be read: They are pictures of mental states, but they are also metaphysical jokes. Kafka famously broke out in peals of laughter when he read The Metamorphosis aloud to friends in 1912.

Three years later, in The Trial, Kafka ditched psychological suffering and focused on the absurdity of man’s metaphysical condition. This time, an ordinary man with a high-profile office job wakes up one morning to find himself “arrested” for a crime he cannot remember committing. Thoroughly secular, he has never heard of the court that has sent its messengers (angels) to him with the bad tidings that he is on trial. He spends the rest of his life trying to track down a court whose metaphysical nature he cannot grasp, and whose right to lay any claim on him and call him “guilty” he denies. 

The character, Joseph K., cycles through the entire history of meta-physics, from Abraham’s first covenant to Nietzsche, to find evidence of his right to live—against the judgment of the metaphysical court that he is guilty simply because he exists. Only toward the end of his life does Joseph K. grasp the paradoxical nature of his quest: Obsessed with pursuing his justification, he has not lived in the world and has accomplished nothing. The novel is a comedy of errors that ends tragically when deep shame about his obtuseness, and the futility of his life, kills Joseph K.

Readers who want to figure out how to decode Kafka’s metaphorical riddles of the Country Doctor, the Penal Colony, or the Castle are invariably pulled into the Kafka Vortex, where more or less myopic critics parse and re-parse Kafka’s notebooks, diaries, letters, and drafts, and the memoirs, letters, diaries, and notebooks of his friends. It’s been done thousands of times, and, short of digging up Kafka’s bones to sequence his genome, we will learn nothing new about him. A glint of hope may come from a cache of documents that Kafka had asked his friend Max Brod to destroy, but which Brod instead saved and bequeathed to his secretary, Esther Hoffe, in 1968. Last year, a judge in Tel Aviv ordered these documents to be transferred to a public institution for cataloguing and publication. Perhaps they will reveal a new wrinkle in the last years of Kafka’s life. 

Short of new facts, though, it is all interpretation. Readers themselves must connect the dots. Since the 1990s, a game of academic brinksmanship has been going on to come up with the juiciest configuration that could enhance the interpreter’s reputation as truly transgressive. Excepting the magisterial biographies by the German scholars Reiner Stach and Peter-André Alt, recent works on Kafka tend to be black holes in which all laws of well-reasoned analysis and linguistic precision are abandoned in the desperate search for novelty.  

David Suchoff, in his new study, argues that “Yiddish and modern Hebrew .  .  . were two of the keys that unlocked Kafka’s literary and social imagination.” In order to prove this enormous claim, Suchoff would have to document when and how this unlocking occurred, and just how knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew shaped Kafka’s writing. However, Kafka did not know Yiddish beyond what was accessible to him as a German speaker, and he learned Hebrew late in his creative life.  

Sharply enlightening work about Kafka as a Jewish thinker and writer was done long ago by Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Robert Alter, Richie Robertson, and many others. The problem with Suchoff’s book is that it focuses not on Jewish concepts but on Jewish languages that Kafka barely knew and in which Suchoff’s own proficiency seems a bit shaky, as numerous mistakes suggest (l’ganev for lignov, for example). In addition, Suchoff’s English style is inscrutable throughout. The first sentence of the first chapter reads, “As the cold war came to a close, Kafka began to appear as a figure close to his own historical situation in Prague and central to the emerging critical scene.” I don’t know what it means to be close to one’s own historical situation.  

Elsewhere Suchoff writes that, in Yiddish, “Kafka found a canonical language in formation .  .  . where the national boundary construction modeled on a standard author was still very much in process.” When, and for whom, was Yiddish ever a canonical language? In 1911, when Kafka encountered it, Yiddish was still struggling for recognition after centuries of contempt and mockery heaped on it by German writers, including Goethe—whose autobiography Kafka was just then obsessively reading. 

Anyone familiar with the evolution of Yiddish literature, with the efforts made at the time by Sholem Abramovitsh (aka Mendele Moykher Sforim) and Sholem Aleichem to transform an oral medium into a complex tool for high literary art, knows that national boundary construction was the opposite of what they were aiming for. They wanted Yiddish to become an expansive, playful mode of artistic expression in which the contemporary reality of late-19th-century Ukraine meshed with the concepts of second-century Palestinian intellectuals. In order to enter into Mendele’s or Sholem Aleichem’s literary universe, it helped to have a command of traditional Jewish learning, but whether one was a Yiddish speaker in Paris, Prague, or Mogilev made very little difference.  

Kafka grasped clearly that he was as shut out from the world of Yiddish literature as he was from Jewish learning, and he made an effort to move toward the core of Jewish thought by learning Hebrew three years before he died. Here, then, is Suchoff’s chance to explain how Kafka’s study of Hebrew shaped the writing of The Castle, an exercise Evelyn T. Beck undertook in 1971. But Suchoff’s reading devolves into a series of disjointed observations that leave the reader as befuddled as Kafka’s enigmatic Castle itself.

One turns with relief to the immensely readable Saul Fried-länder, whose short biographical essay on Kafka appears in the excellent Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press. Friedländer, a Holocaust historian, was born in Prague in 1932 but grew up in France: “My father studied at the German Law School of Charles University, which Kafka had attended 15 years before .  .  . and like those of Kafka’s three sisters, my parents’ lives ended in German camps.” One realizes with a jolt just how close in temporal terms the iconic Kafka remains to our own time, and Friedländer writes out of his cultural closeness to Kafka’s world. 

Friedländer’s style is elegant and lucid, his knowledge of Kafka’s oeuvre and social world superb, his command of the critical literature impeccable. In seven chapters that progress chronologically, he examines Kafka’s relationship to his father, to his Jewishness, to love and sex, to European literature, to his friends, and to experiences of mystic uplift. Friedländer’s observations about “A Country Doctor” are fresh and astute, and his pointing to Flaubert as a potential literary source is eye-opening. 

Friedländer’s essay could very well serve as the new classic short introduction to modernism’s most elusive writer. Except that Friedländer, too, has a particular point to make that evolves out of his intimacy with Kafka’s culture and his attentive parsing of the letters and diaries. “Kafka’s sense of shame and guilt,” Friedländer writes, “have elicted mainly very general and abstract interpretations that do not sufficiently point to the personal anguish from which they stemmed.”

Of course, we’ve already been treated to cartloads of books and articles about Kafka’s dealings with prostitutes, sadomasochistic fantasies, and homoerotic feelings—all of which are well-supported by passages in Kafka’s letters and diaries that would make the author of Death in Venice blush and cringe. But to Friedländer, this seems still too general and abstract. So he pursues his hunch that “perhaps [Kafka] opaquely refers to his sexual attraction to adolescents, even children?” Friedländer makes clear, though, that Kafka’s “feelings of guilt were related not to some concrete initiatives on his part but to fantasies, to imagined sexual possibilities.” 

Friedländer’s speculations raised eyebrows in Germany, where the book appeared last year. Critics asked whether we really needed to know about such possibilities. But Friedländer is revered in Germany, and has been awarded its top prize for intellectual achievement. Moreover, his readings are convincing, and his speculations fit smoothly into the array of sexual fantasies that the new critical editions of Kafka’s diaries have laid bare. Friedländer also has the added virtue of not pursuing his novelty point obsessively. He presents a complex and endearing Kafka, a young man of high sensitivity entangled in a labyrinth of the complex feelings that were required to generate his work.  

What is missing, perhaps, is a sense of how wickedly funny Kafka was, and how capable he was of seeing the comedy in his situation. Kafka’s rock-hard, cryptic work stands unassailed, and, thus far, has survived all attempts made by critical penal colonists to torture it to death.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.