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.