Jorge Luis Borges on Franz Kafka (1981)

In 1981 Cardinal published a collection of all the short stories which Kafka published during his lifetime, from the first story in 1904, to the last ones published just after his death in 1924 – a working life of precisely 20 years. They are all here in new translations by J.A. Underwood. The edition is interesting because it gives a brief textual explanation before the major stories, explaining when they were written, and when published.

It also contains a brief three-page essay on Kafka by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, which can be summarised as follows:

Why Kafka wanted his works destroyed

Borges starts with Kafka’s injunction to Max Brod to burn his works. He compares this to Virgil’s request to his friends to destroy the manuscript of the Aeneid. As a practising author Borges gives a nice interpretation of both men’s wishes to destroy their masterworks, namely they didn’t want them actually to be destroyed, but

longed to disburden themselves of the responsibility that a literary work imposes on its creator.

Anyone familiar with The Trial or The Castle can immediately see how this applies to Kafka; they’re great works but they’re nowhere near finished and the effort to review, reorder and restructure them, and then to write all the linking passages and the final chapters required to bring them to a successful conclusion would daunt a lesser man and was clearly beyond Kafka. All he felt was the guilt and shame of failure.

Kafka’s works are like:

a parable or series of parables on the theme of the moral relationship of the individual with his God and with  his God’s incomprehensible universe.

They are less like what we call literature and closer to an ancient religious work like the Book of Job. Borges emphasises Kafka’s religious, and specifically Jewish, motivation. He thinks Kafka saw his work as an act of faith, and he did not want his writings to demotivate others (as they surely must have).

Borges goes further and suspects Kafka could a) only dream nightmares and b) was interested or hypnotised by delay and failure, which is why he produced a body of work solely about nightmares, and about nightmares which never reach a conclusion but are endlessly delayed… Borges thinks Kafka’s own imaginative vision wore him out.

And knowing how it wore him down, is why Kafka wanted the works burned, so as not to discourage others from seeking for happiness. (This is the same sort of terminology Brod uses in his defence of not burning the works in his afterword to The Trial).

When Borges first read Kafka

Borges slips in a memory of his own youth when he first came across Kafka; He was reading an avant-garde magazine full of modish experiments with text and font and layout but which also included a story by Kafka which, to his eternal shame, he thought insipid and so ignored.

Kafka’s Jewishness

He thinks Kafka’s Judaism is central. He thinks Kafka was as much in awe of his father as Israel is of its punishing God. He thinks Kafka’s Jewishness ‘set him apart from humanity’ and was ‘a torment to him’. So far so fairly basic.

Hierarchy and infinity

More interestingly, Borges goes on to speculate that Kafka’s work is underpinned by two big ideas, subordination and infinity. In almost all his stories we find hierarchies and those hierarchies tend to be infinite. Thus:

  • the hero of America roams across the land of the free until he is admitted to the great Nature-Theatre of Oklahoma which is an infinite stage, no less populous than the world
  • the hero of The Trial tries to understand the nature of the hierarchy of the Court and the authorities who have arrested him and are managing his case, but every step of the investigation only reveals how impenetrably vast and never-ending the hierarchy is
  • the hero of The Castle is summoned to work for authorities at a castle who never acknowledge him or his task

Infinity and incompletion

Borges says some critics complain about the fact that all three novels are unfinished and lament the absence of the chapters which would complete them. Borges says this is to misunderstand Kafka, to misunderstand that his subject was precisely the infinity of obstacles his heroes had to overcome. The novels are incomplete because it is ‘essential’ to their artistic purpose that they remain incomplete.

Borges compares the impossibility of completing a Kafka novel to Zeno’s paradox about the impossibility of movement.

Suppose Zeno wishes to walk to the end of a path. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on. Describing the task in this way requires Zeno to perform an infinite number of tasks which is, of course, impossible. (Wikipedia)

Intolerable situations

Moving swiftly on Borges suggests that Kafka’s greatest gift was for inventing intolerable situations. Anyone thinking of The Metamorphosis or In the Penal Colony would agree.

But Borges instances something a little different, which is the tremendous imaginative power of some of his ideas, which engrave themselves on our minds.

Leop­ards break in­to the tem­ple and drink all the sac­ri­fi­cial ves­sels dry; this happens over and over and, in the end, it can be predicted in ad­vance and so becomes in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to the rit­ual. (The Zürau Aphorisms)

These short parables from early in his career describe something different from the longer works: it is something to do with infinity and paradox, but harder to define, and less amenable to the kind of sociological interpretations which the novels are routinely subjected to.

Invention over craft

Borges makes a few controversial claims right at the end of this short essay:

Kafka’s craft is perhaps less admirable than in his invention, certainly in the way that all the stories feature basically the same character, Homo domesticus, ‘so Jewish and so German’, so desperate to keep his place in his bank or office or profession or employment.

He says ‘plot and atmosphere are the essential characteristics of Kafka’s work and not the convolutions of the story or the psychology of the hero.

We can quickly agree that few of the novels or stories have a ‘plot’ in the conventional sense of a beginning, middle and an end. His most famous stories tend to record a steady decline in circumstances and psychology until the protagonist dies.

When Borges writes that Kafka’s work doesn’t bother much with the psychology of the hero, I suppose what he means is that none of his protagonists are changed by events in the way that a classical novel is all about the change and growth in thinking and opinions of its main characters. The protagonists psychologise at very great length indeed, but, in a sense, it is always the same problem they are worrying over, and they are permanently caught in the same predicament or trap which shows no real psychological development or change.

Which is why Borges concludes that the short stories are superior to the novels, because they capture this atmosphere and this plight with greater purity and force.

Personally, I disagree. I think everyone should read The Trial because it gives you the essence of the Kafkaesque – and that the stories, being far more diverse, strange, varied and complex than the novels, tend to confuse and perplex your view of who Kafka is: the more you read of him, the less confident you become about being able to make useful generalisations.


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The I without a self by W.H. Auden

In January 1939 the English poet W.H. Auden sailed to America where he intended to make a new life for himself. He wanted to escape the fame and notoriety he had garnered in England, and the association his work had with left-wing politics, as well as the more basic consideration that there was more work for a freelance poet, dramatist, essayist and commentator in America than in Britain.

He set about the process of shedding his politically committed 1930s persona, and embarked on an earnest attempt to understand himself and the times he lived in. This was eventually to lead him back to the Anglican beliefs of his childhood, but recast in the forms of 1940s and 50s existentialist theologians.

His poetry stopped being about gangs of schoolboys behaving like soldiers or vivid descriptions of England’s derelict depression-era industry or calls for action in civil war Spain, a fabulously thrilling mix of vivid detail and urgent mood, which makes the reader feel part of some insider gang:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

and became more consciously detached and urbane. In the worst of it, his characters carry out long monologues full of knowing references to Character Types and Schools of Thought. In the best of it he invokes or addresses the Greats of European Culture such as Horace or Goethe or Homer and writes poems of tremendous authority such as The Shield of Achilles. As the terrible war dragged on, Auden came to see it as the poet’s role to define and preserve the values of civilisation.

Meanwhile, to earn a living, he needed to deliver lectures and write reviews. He was always a highly cerebral person, from early youth given to sorting and ordering friends, poems and experiences into categories. Thus his essays and lectures have a kind of brisk, no-nonsense clarity about them, much given to invoking types and archetypes and categories, and to then explaining how they apply to this or that writer.

Thus, when he came to write about Kafka, Auden takes as his premise the notion that Kafka was the century’s greatest writer of parables and then goes on to work through the consequences of that idea. It is characteristic of Auden that his explanation requires reference to Dickens, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and an explanation of the archetype of The Quest and the Princess and the Hero, as well as references to Gnostics and manicheism. It is characteristic that Auden uses quite a lot of Christian theological language, while making no reference to Kafka’s well-known Jewish context.

The essay is already available online in its entirety and since it is so lucid I can’t see any point in garbling it through my own interpretation but quote it in full.

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

Kafka is a great, maybe the greatest, master of the pure parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by characters, situations, actions which, though they may be analogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a pure parable in this way.

Though the hero of a parable may be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be called ‘a certain man’ or ‘K’) and a definite historical and geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read. The ‘meaning’ of a parable, in fact, is different for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic can do to ‘explain’ it to others. Thanks to his superior knowledge of artistic and social history, of language, of human nature even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he does not and cannot have any idea.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, ‘This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens’, but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. ‘Where are you going?’ said the guard. ‘I’m trying to get out,’ I replied. ‘You are out,’ he said. For the moment I felt I was K.

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowledge of his personal life and character contributes almost nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by preventing one from making false readings. (The ‘true’ readings are always many.)

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The Duchess who owns the castle is kind and good but she is often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she tells the truth, and all ends happily.

What is illuminating about this information is that the castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, which suggests that those critics who have thought of the inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially correct.

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those interpreters who see in the castle the residence of ‘divine law and divine grace’. Its officers are totally indifferent to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detachment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion.

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again.

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle are, Kafka’s finest work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great Wall of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. The wall it portrays is still the world of his earlier books and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like The Penal Colony almost unbearable, has gone. Existence may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters are more humorously resigned to it.

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the traditional Quest, the goal – a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. – is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who know both and give him accurate directions and warnings.

Moreover the goal is publicly recognizable as desirable. Everybody would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he
will succeed.

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are obstructive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: ‘There is a goal but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering’. Far from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under a special curse.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what he ought to do and his one problem is ‘Can I do it?’ Odysseus knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detective knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. But for K the problem is ‘What ought I to do?’ He is neither tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; it may well be proof of his own.

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquiring the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to say I. But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt.

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to become a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to acquire.

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for which he was created, and freedom would destroy him.

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will go – not the rending or the block from its foundation, which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and with that the gay and empty journey.

The narrator hero of The Burrow for example, is a beast of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself without a mate and never encounters any other member of his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he be pursued and attacked by other animals – ‘My enemies are countless,’ he says – but we never learn what they may be like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: ‘Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable burrow?’ This is a torment because he can never be certain that there is not some further precaution of which he has not thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as he would defend himself.

One of my favourite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thickness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free space of about the same width all around the Castle Keep … I had always pictured this free space, and not without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull oneself up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe between one’s claws . . .

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but decides against it.

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in itself, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be exquisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him … I simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we must both descend at the same time, in which case the advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust can I really put in him? … It is comparatively easy to trust any one if you are supervising him or at least supervise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story breaks off without a solution.

Edwin Muir has suggested that the story would have ended with the appearance of the invisible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubtful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears have any objective justification.

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: ‘To be worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy of me.’

But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explanation. It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedicated to a particular function, whose personal existence is accidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of whom it could be said that he ‘hungered and thirsted after righteousness’, it was Kafka.

Perhaps he came to regard what he had written as a personal device he had employed in his search for God. ‘Writing,’ he once wrote, ‘is a form of prayer,’ and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his aim in writing thus:

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: ‘Hammering a table together is nothing to him,’ but rather ‘Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,’ whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and if you will, still more senseless.

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work published should at least make a reader wary of the way in which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean notion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of Kafka’s sayings come perilously close to accepting it.

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the physical world.

Kafka’s own life and his writings as a whole are proof that he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can alwaysbe recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judgment cannot be applied to its actions.

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think of the higher life they search for as existing in some otherworld sphere: the distinction they draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.


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Max Brod’s book on Kafka and some of my own reflections by Walter Benjamin (1938)

Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, published a biography of Kafka in 1937. The German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin gave his thoughts on the book in a letter to his friend, the Jewish scholar Gerhard Scholem, in June 1938. His comments were then extracted from the letter and published as one of the essays collected in a selection of Benjamin’s essays titled Illuminations and published in English translation in 1970.

Benjamin criticises Brod

Benjamin takes strong issue with Brod’s claim that Kafka was a deeply religious man who was well on the road to holiness. And objects to the offensively cheery bonhomie of Brod’s tone, his affable claim to be on the best possible terms with a man set apart from common humanity. It is ‘the most irreverent attitude imaginable’.

Brod thinks Kafka’s works only make sense under the category of religion and holiness, but Benjamin objects that ‘holiness’ is a category used to describe a life not works, and that ‘holiness’ anyway only makes sense within the framework of an established religion, whereas Kafka practiced no faith.

Benjamin is cross at Brod’s use of journalistic clichés, his ‘inability to do justice to his subject’, his inability to do any soul searching about his decision not to burn Kafka’s manuscripts, his inability ‘to gauge the tensions which permeated Kafka’s life’. In discussing Kafka’s work Brod doesn’t get beyond ‘diletanttish rudiments’. When he says Kafka’s thought is in line with the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, Benjamin thinks that Kafka is by far the bigger figure.

He ridicules Brod’s exploration of Kafka’s world of symbols via Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Tin Soldier. And he deprecates Brod’s implication that his and his alone is the correct interpretation of Kafka while all others (of which there already thousands) were unnecessary.

Brod’s book combines immoderate claims for Kafka’s holiness, with immoderate claims for the uniqueness of his (Brod’s) knowledge of his friend. Benjamin says it is typical of Brod’s obtuseness that he laments the way critics have criticised the way he (Brod) used extensive passages from a novel he wrote about his friendship with Kafka (Magic Realm of Love, 1928) in this biography. Brod cannot see why anyone would object to this questionable tactic.

There are, in summary, lapses of taste and judgement everywhere.

Benjamin’s own reflections

Having got that off his chest, Benjamin spends the last three pages of this short text giving his own view.

Benjamin posits that there are two poles to Kafka’s works, which contain sub-sets. At one extreme is ‘mystical experience (in particular, the experience of tradition)’; at the other ‘the experience of the modern big-city dweller’, which encompasses a variety of things, including:

the modern citizen who knows that he is at the mercy of a vast machinery of officialdom whose functioning is directed by authorities that remain nebulous to the executive organs, let alone to the people they deal with.

And which also includes knowledge of the new and weird world which has been opened up by the discoveries of contemporary physics (Einstein, relativity, Bohr and quantum physics).

Benjamin goes on to say (I think) that the paradoxical thing about Kafka is the way his conceptualisation of the ultra-modern individual is the result of, stems from, draws its power from, an engagement with the mystical tradition which delves right back into human prehistory.

(This immediately reminds me of the way the works of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce yoked together the absolutely up to date with ancient myths and legends, that the panoramic portrait of contemporary anarchy depicted in The Waste Land is underpinned by tribal myths of the Fisher King, or the way Joyce used Bronze Age legend [of Odysseus] to give structure to his astonishing portrait of contemporary Dublin in Ulysses.)

Kafka listened hard to ‘the tradition’ and somehow this made him more up to date than his modish contemporaries, than the novelists in his Prague literary circle who were much more ‘successful’ in their day and now are completely forgotten.

At which pint Benjamin says something I don’t quite understand, in fact I hover on the edge of not really ‘getting’ quite a bit in this short text. He writes:

Kafka’s work presents a sickness of tradition.

I expected him to say something like Kafka’s work presents a kind of distilling of tradition which is so timeless that it goes way deeper than the world Kafka actually lived in, and which explains why it has lasted, seems, in fact, to be timeless. But that’s not what he says, and I don’t really understand the sense of this sentence.

He goes on in the same vein to explain that the tradition can be defined as the truth which has been handed down, which has been transmitted. According to Brod, Kafka’s genius was that he abandoned truth and focused on the element of transmissibility.

Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its haggadic element. Kafka’s writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables. They do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Haggadah lies at the feet of the Halakah. Though apparently reduced to submission, they unexpectedly raise a mighty paw against it.

I think this passage would be challenging to construe even if you knew what the Haggadah and the Halakah are but, not knowing what they are, it becomes all but impenetrable. On the other hand, immediately following this obscure premise, are two much more accessible conclusions.

This is why, in regard to Kafka, we can no longer speak of wisdom. Only the products of its decay remain. There are two: one is the rumour about the true things (a sort of theological whispered intelligence dealing with matters discredited and obsolete); the other product of this diathesis is folly – which, to be sure, has utterly squandered the substance of wisdom, but preserves its attractiveness and assurance, which rumor invariably lacks.

A thought which leads Benjamin up to his conclusion which is a) compressed b) highly mystical.

Some Benjamin you can understand straight away, but some is complicatedly mixed up with the learnèd references and allusions he makes, and you have to have read the works or authors he’s referring to in order to really understand his point. And then there are some thoughts which are just too mystical and abstruse to grasp; at moments he moves a few inches out of reach, and then is on the other side of the road or half way up a hill, and you wonder how he got there.

Folly lies at the heart of Kafka’s favorites from Don Quixote via the assistants [in The Castle] to the animals… This much Kafka was absolutely sure of: first, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second, that only a fool’s help is real help. The only uncertain thing is whether such help can still do a human being any good. It is more likely to help the angels… who could do without help. Thus, as Kafka puts it, there is an infinite amount of hope, but not for us. This statement really contains Kafka’s hope; it is the source of his radiant serenity.

You could confidently say that as soon as a critic starts invoking angels and their likes and capacities in a critical essay, you know they have passed over from dispassionate analysis into a realm which is more subjective and itself artistically minded.

Part of Benjamin’s appeal is the way he hovers either side of that borderline – wavering between objective analysis and something which is closer to artistic invocation – meaning that when you can grasp hold of his insights, they are often very, very powerful indeed.

(You can make your own mind up by clicking the Illuminations Online link below, then scrolling down to search for the essay.)


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The Burrow by Franz Kafka (1924)

Fear is the central theme of this grim, terror-stricken, but very wordy, story.

In The Burrow some kind of mole-like animal spends thirty-seven pages in long-winded agonising whether the elaborate maze of tunnels it has devoted its life to building underground is anywhere near enough to protect it from the hordes of enemies and predators of which it lives in permanent, heart-stopping fear.

What does this protection which I am looking at here from the outside amount to after all? Dare I estimate the danger which I run inside the burrow from observations which I make when outside? Can my enemies, to begin with, have any proper awareness of me if I am not in my burrow? A certain awareness of me they certainly have, but not full awareness. And is not that full awareness the real definition of a state of danger? So the experiments I attempt here are only half-experiments or even less, calculated merely to reassure my fears and by giving me false reassurance to lay me open to great perils. No, I do not watch over my own sleep, as I imagined; rather it is I who sleep, while the destroyer watches.

Deep (literally, deep underground) terror pervades every second of the narrator’s life and thoughts, and the story, such as it is, amounts to a characteristically long-winded, tortuous, self-lacerating exercise in paranoia and terror. The narrator tells us at very great length how he has elaborated his burrow into a maze of fake and deceptive passages to lose enemies, how he built a fake and obvious entrance to divert enemies, how he has created dumps of food scattered round the maze, so he can have rations if forced to retreat under attack from the enemy.

Then about half way through, he begins to hear a low whistling sound (‘ A faint whistling, audible only at long intervals’) and becomes convinced it is emanating from his enemies and attackers.

But whether the sound (and the enemies) are coming from up above – overground – or from somewhere underground but near enough for him to hear, whether it is the sound made by a horde of enemies or by one giant enemy burrowing nearby, whether that enemy knows about his burrow and is planning to break in at some place along the maze of tunnels, or knows about his burrow but is deliberately taunting him by digging close by, or is ignorant of his burrow but might break through into one of his tunnels by mistake – are just some of the scores of scenarios and permutations the narrator runs through in an increasing sweat of fear and paranoia.

The theme of fear

Reading Ernst Pawel’s biography of Kafka I came across this passage in one of his letters to his girlfriend, Czech journalist and writer, Milena Jesenská.

‘I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as of the smallest, fear, paralysing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing from something greater than all that is fearful.’ (quoted page 96)

‘Fear spread to everything’ – that’s a good summary of the experience of reading this stifling text.

Unfinished

Apparently, The Burrow is unfinished, though I cannot pretend I was anything other than mightily relieved when it ended, almost in mid-sentence.

Allegedly, Kafka did write an ending to the story, detailing a struggle with the encroaching beast, but this completed version was among the works destroyed by Kafka’s lover Dora Diamant, following his death. It’s a little surprising that it was meant to end this way, since violent and explicit action is rare in Kafka’s fiction. More often his characters just waste away or the narratives themselves are abandoned as, in the only version we have, this one is.

Officialese

In Ernst Pawel’s biography of Kafka I came across the following quote from one of Franz’s early colleagues in Prague’s literary scene, Oskar Baum, which struck me as being very relevant to this story.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

‘Utmost objectivity’. Because as I read this stiflingly claustrophobic story, I began to realise that although its subject is animal fear, its form is surprisingly restrained and detached.

In fact, I began to realise that the story is cast in a style almost like an academic presentation or a report by some government official. I began to annotate the many phrases the narrator uses which could come from an official report.

  • It seemed to me advisable…
  • please note, however…
  • It will be objected that I….
  • Prudence demands that I…
  • Indeed in all probability…
  • That is naturally a great advantage…
  • That consideration need not delay me…
  • One cannot but incline to the hypothesis that…

The sense of an old-fashioned and rather pedantic academic is reinforced by the narrators’s repeated use of little barrages of rhetorical questions.

What does this protection which I am looking at here from the outside amount to after all? Dare I estimate the danger which I run inside the burrow from observations which I make when outside? Can my enemies, to begin with, have any proper awareness of me if I am not in my burrow? A certain awareness of me they certainly have, but not full awareness. And is not that full awareness the real definition of a state of danger?

Or:

By what chance can everything have flowed on so quietly and happily for such a long time? Who can have diverted my enemies from their path, and forced them to make a wide detour around my property? Why have I been spared for so long, only to be delivered to such terrors now?

In other words, although the content of the story is the creature’s unremitting fear, its form or style is so pompously cerebral and academic as possibly to be a satire on academic or philosophical writers, on the dry dull lecturers at Kafka’s university, or even of some of his friends and acquaintances in Prague’s literary circles who became high falutin’ philosophers much given to rhetorical questions and orotund phraseology.

Not convinced? Well, here is the animal raising possible theories about the origin of the whistling sound, considering them, dismissing them and moving onto further theorising. Is it not the laboured and endlessly ramifying style of a certain kind of old-fashioned philosophical or aesthetic enquiry? (The Castle Keep he refers to is the big cavern at the centre of the maze of tunnels he has constructed for himself. The ‘small fry’ are the unnamed smaller animals which sometimes scuttle around his tunnels but are too small to present any threat.)

I listen now at the walls of the Castle Keep, and wherever I listen, high or low, at the roof or the floor, at the entrance or in the corners, everywhere, everywhere, I hear the same noise. And how much time, how much care must be wasted in listening to that noise, with its regular pauses. One can, if one wishes, find a tiny deceitful comfort in the fact that here in the Castle Keep, because of its vastness, one hears nothing at all, as distinguished from the passages, when one stands back from the walls. Simply as a rest and a means to regain my composure I often make this experiment, listen intently and am overjoyed when I hear nothing. But the question still remains, what can have happened? Confronted with this phenomenon my original explanation completely falls to the ground. But I must also reject other explanations which present themselves to me. One could assume, for instance, that the noise I hear is simply that of the small fry themselves at their work. But all my experience contradicts this; I cannot suddenly begin to hear now a thing that I have never heard before though it was always there. My sensitiveness to disturbances in the burrow has perhaps become greater with the years, yet my hearing has by no means grown keener. It is of the very nature of small fry not to be heard. Would I have tolerated them otherwise? Even at the risk of starvation I would have exterminated them. But perhaps — this idea now insinuates itself — I am concerned here with some animal unknown to me. That is possible. True, I have observed the life down here long and carefully enough, but the world is full of diversity and is never wanting in painful surprises. Yet it cannot be a single animal, it must be a whole swarm that has suddenly fallen upon my domain, a huge swarm of little creatures, which, as they are audible, must certainly be bigger than the small fry, but yet cannot be very much bigger, for the sound of their labors is itself very faint. It may be, then, a swarm of unknown creatures on their wanderings, who happen to be passing by my way, who disturb me, but will presently cease to do so. So I could really wait for them to pass, and need not put myself to the trouble of work that will be needless in the end. Yet if these creatures are strangers, why is it that I never see any of them?

And so, wordily, verbosely, and tortuously, on.

So is it a prolonged exercise in the description of gnawing anxiety, projected onto an unnamed animal? Or a lengthy satire on the high-phrased and wandering divagations of a boring old philosophy lecturer? Or is it both, combined, to make something new and very strange?


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A Hunger Artist and other stories by Franz Kafka

A Hunger Artist is a collection of four short stories by Franz Kafka published in Germany in 1924, the last collection that Kafka himself prepared for publication. Kafka corrected the proofs during his final illness but the book was only published several months after his death. The first English translations of the stories, by Willa and Edwin Muir, were published in 1948, in the larger collection titled The Penal Colony.

They are all relatively short stories (compared to the 60 or so pages of The Metamorphosis). They are all odd, peculiar, non-naturalistic stories, having the feel of dreams or fables. They all seem to point to a truth or meaning beyond themselves, just out of reach. And it’s noticeable that three of the four have a circus setting, or involve animals, as did some of the stories in A Country Doctor.

First Sorrow (3 pages)

An account of a trapeze artist, married to and obsessed by his trade. It is typical of Kafka that the man lives in his trapeze, that food has to be hoisted up to him in special containers, merely retiring to one side when other performers perform, that he loves the height, the sense of freedom, specially when the windows round the top are opened.

But he hates travelling of any kind, in the city will only submit to being taken anywhere if it’s in the manager’s sports car, and from city to city, when travelling by train, has such sensitive nerves that he and the manager take a whole compartment to themselves and the trapeze artist sleeps in the luggage rack.

On one train journey the trapeze artist surprises the manager by asking for two trapezes to be set up for him to use. The manager, who clearly pampers the trapeze artist, immediately agrees. Nevertheless the trapeze artist is sad, and for the first time the manager sees worry lines and tears trickling down his face as he sleeps.

So that’s what the title, First Sorrow, turns out to mean. It is an elusive, elliptical story.

A Little Woman (8 pages)

This is very reminiscent of the fabric and feel of Kafka’s longer fiction, The Castle in particular, in the way it consists of a long, convoluted and tortuous meditation on a relationship between the narrator and one other character.

It simply starts off by describing a thin woman known to the narrator, and then explains that, for some unknown reason, she is permanently vexed and irritated by him, and from there passes into ever-more complex over-thinking of why that might be, and what it might mean, and the many possible reasons for her vexation, and whether it’s a performance solely for public consumption, and so on and so on and so on.

It is all done in Kafka’s characteristic block paragraphs which I find challenging to read.

Perhaps she hopes that once public attention is fixed on me a general public rancour against me will rise up and use all its great powers to condemn me definitively much more effectively and quickly than her relatively feeble private rancour could do; she would then retire into the background, draw a breath of relief, and turn her back on me. Well, if that is what her hopes are really set on, she is deluding herself. Public opinion will not take over her role; public opinion would never find me so infinitely objectionable, even under its most powerful magnifying glass. I am not so altogether useless a creature as she thinks; I don’t want to boast and especially not in this connection; but if I am not conspicuous for specially useful qualities, I am certainly not conspicuous for the lack of them; only to her, only to her almost bleached eyes, do I appear so, she won’t be able to convince anyone else. So in this respect I can feel quite reassured, can I? No, not at all; for if it becomes generally known that my behavior is making her positively ill, which some observers, those who most industriously bring me information about her, for instance, are not far from perceiving, or at least look as if they perceived it, and the world should put questions to me, why am I tormenting the poor little woman with my incorrigibility, and do I mean to drive her to her death, and when am I going to show some sense and have enough decent human feeling to stop such goings-on — if the world were to ask me that, it would be difficult to find an answer. Should I admit frankly that I don’t much believe in these symptoms of illness, and thus produce the unfavourable impression of being a man who blames others to avoid being blamed himself, and in such an ungallant manner? And how could I say quite openly that even if I did believe that she were really ill, I should not feel the slightest sympathy for her, since she is a complete stranger to me and any connection between us is her own invention and entirely one-sided. I don’t say that people wouldn’t believe me; they wouldn’t be interested enough to get so far as belief; they would simply note the answer I gave concerning such a frail, sick woman, and that would be little in my favour. Any answer I made would inevitably come up against the world’s incapacity to keep down the suspicion that there must be a love affair behind such a case as this, although it is as clear as daylight that such a relationship does not exist, and that if it did it would come from my side rather than hers, since I should be really capable of admiring the little woman for the decisive quickness of her judgment and her persistent vitality in leaping to conclusions, if these very qualities were not always turned as weapons against me.

It amounts to a brief specimen of the kind of endlessly self-questioning, over-ratiocination which makes the novels so very long and, often, such hard going, a fine example of the way Kafka can spin an inordinate amount of verbiage out of the simplest relationship.

In a sense this short excerpt demonstrates the technique by which Kafka assembles the longer texts to create the structure of the novels: the technique being to line up a series of encounters with officials from the Court, and then subject each one to a mind-bogglingly over-elaborated, hyper-sensitive, and rather menacing over-thinking of every possible nuance and conceivable double, triple and quadruple interpretation of all possible permutations of thinking and worrying about it.

Until you end up with entire paragraphs which appear to be saying something but which are, on closer examination, almost empty, as the narrator himself at one point acknowledges.

And on closer reflection it appears that the developments which the affair seems to have undergone in the course of time are not developments in the affair itself, but only in my attitude to it, insofar as that has become more composed on the one hand, more manly, penetrating nearer the heart of the matter, while on the other hand, under the influence of the continued nervous strain which I cannot overcome, however slight, it has increased in irritability.

A Hunger Artist (11 pages)

As I’ve noted in my reviews of the novels, a key element of the Kafka style is entropy, meaning that everything, large and small, literal or symbolic, falls away, declines, decays and dies.

The protagonists of The Trial and The Castle and The Metamorphosis die in the end, the Officer of In The Penal Colony dies, the man waiting at the door of the Law dies. And thus it is that, following the general pattern, the Hunger Artist as well wastes away and dies.

And, just like in The Trial or the Penal Colony or the Door of the Law, his last words contain a message pregnant with meaning and poignancy.

The text is told by a narrator looking back wistfully at an earlier time, a tone which immediately reminds us of The Great Wall of China. Back in those days, back in the good old days, fasting was an art which was widely appreciated and the Hunger Artist was the leader in his field. He was paraded around in a barred cage, wearing a black swimsuit, his ribs sticking out, setting up in a new town or city every forty days, and charging admission to admiring crowds who came to point and ooh and mock or admire his heroic efforts to survive on no food for forty days.

Why forty days? Well, on an interpretative level this is obviously a number fraught with religious meaning, since Jesus went into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights, and this story itself was possibly invented to mirror the forty days and nights of the Biblical flood told in the book of Genesis.

But in the story it is simply because the artist’s commercially minded manager has discovered that forty days is about as long as you can milk an audience in any given own or city before they start to get bored and he has to move on.

The middle part of the text describes the Hunger Artist’s unhappiness and disgust at the way people don’t believe he’s really fasting, the way the guards set to watch over him don’t really believe him, and so on.

But then the narrator describes how a great change comes over society, fashions change, pastimes change, and people lost interest in fasting as a spectator sport. The manager tries a last whistle-stop tour of cities to rouse audiences, but people just weren’t interested any more. Should the Hunger Artist take up a new profession? He’s too old to learn new tricks. And anyway, it is his life’s work.

So he signs up to join a circus, although he finds his cage being set up in the narrow walkways the crowds walk along to get to the far more exciting animal cages. He has become a back number. People hurry past his cage or stop to mock.

Strictly speaking, he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie.

Children ask their parents what it means and what he does. But the parents struggle to explain:

You try explaining fasting to someone! Unless a person feels it he can never be made to understand it.

His keeper initially marks a record of the days fasted on a wooden plaque stuck on the bars of his cage, but eventually forgets to do this, then forgets about the artist altogether. See what I mean by entropy.

One day a new supervisor demands to know the purpose of this empty cage and no-one can remember what it’s for. Mixed in with the straw is a stick. When they poke it the stick it talks. It is the Hunger Artist. The rough proley nature of the workers is well conveyed in the J.A. Underwood translation, as the workers listen to the Hunger Artist’s last confession. He only fasted, he explains in a weak whisper, because he never found anything he wanted to eat.

And with this poignant confession he expires, the circus labourers clear out his cage and instal a virile young panther in it which draws the crowds with its awesome power.

The Hunger Artist feels like a fable or parable or allegory of awesome importance, with Biblical resonances and some deep meaning for all of us. But what is that meaning exactly, is it historical or psychological or political or sociological… Kafka has left a century of critics and commentators to discuss.

Coming with a deep interest in history I note that the final years of the Great War saw widespread starvation in Germany and Austro-Hungary due to the Allied blockade on all shipping which prevented the importation of foodstuffs. And one of the Axis powers’ grievances was that the blockade continued for seven months after the armistice of November 1918, up until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

Thus real hunger, the actual starvation of men women and children was a spectacle Kafka and all Germans would have been bitterly familiar with.

Then again, those who prefer biographical explanations will point to the fact Kafka himself throughout his adult life subjected himself to an increasingly strict diet, which began with vegetarianism and became progressively more strict and self denying until he in fact died of untreatable laryngeal tuberculosis, which closed up his throat until he could neither eat nor drink and literally starved to death.

But you don’t need to know either of these background facts to respond to the power of the story. It is the way the subject has been turned into not just fiction, but into a story with the roundedness and finish and fairy tale perfection of a fable or allegory or parable, which counts.

Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (19 pages)

The narrator writes like a person drafting a long critical essay examining a contemporary artist from a variety of sociological angles, except that, as the story progresses, the reader realises that the narrator is a mouse and that he is talking about the ‘famous’ mouse singer Josephine.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned the way things in Kafka’s stories decline and fall away, and the way this even happens within individual sentences, in the way a sentence sets off to make a statement and finds itself contradicting its opening, qualifying and balancing and introducing doubts and numerous clauses which successively weaken the opening until it is often abolished and erased.

Even Kafka’s sentences display a death wish.

That pattern is very visible in this, Kafka’s final story. The narrator opens by telling us that Josephine is the mouse people’s greatest and most popular singer and makes a few supporting statements about how important she is to her people.

But this breezy opening is then subjected to eighteen pages of criticism and undermining. It comes out that her ‘singing’ might in fact not be strictly speaking ‘singing’ after all. In fact it might very much be like the sound every other mouse makes, which is a common or garden squeak. In fact Josephine’s squeaking might, in fact, even be weaker and less impressive than the average mouse’s. If this is so, what on earth gives her the extraordinary power and influence she holds over mousekind?

And it is to the investigation of this apparent mystery, with long, multi-claused sentences, hedging his own conclusions, balancing interpretations and weighing possible theories, that the narrator turns to ponder with all the weighty orotundity of a learned German professor.

How to explain that at some public concerts, other mice have gotten excited and let out squeaks, and those squeaks were every bit as good as Josephine’s if not better? Is her popularity something to do with the history and struggle of her people, his people?

A thought which gives rise to a long series of reflections on the life of mice, how they are born into struggle, into a life of anxiety, small and weak and surrounded by enemies, by ‘the enemy’.

It was impossible, for me at any rate, not to think about Kafka’s Jewishness and wonder to what extent these repeated and heartfelt descriptions of a scattered, weak race oppressed by stronger neighbours, is a not very coded reference to his Jewish peers.

Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult…

This mass of our people who are almost always on the run and scurrying hither and thither for reasons that are often not very clear…

Laughter for its own sake is never far away from us; in spite of all the misery of our lives quiet laughter is always, so to speak, at our elbows…

One might think that our people are not fitted to exercise such paternal duties, but in reality they discharge them, at least in this case, admirably; no single individual could do what in this respect the people as a whole are capable of doing. To be sure, the difference in strength between the people and the individual is so enormous that it is enough for the nursling to be drawn into the warmth of their nearness and he is sufficiently protected.

But for all the occasions that the reader can impose onto sentences like these a meaning to do with the Jewish community of Prague or Berlin or Central Europe, there are plenty of other sections which are patently just descriptions of mice, with their impatience, tendency to gossip and to squeak at the slightest provocation.

In other words, the narrative sometimes approaches what you could call a real-world interpretation but then veers away, into fiction, subsumed into the vividness of the allegory or fable.

Whenever we get bad news – and on many days bad news comes thick and fast at once, lies and half-truths included – she rises up at once, whereas usually she sits listlessly on the ground, she rises up and stretches her neck and tries to see over the heads of her flock like a shepherd before a thunderstorm…

The more you read on, the more you realise the text is as much or more an analysis of The Mouse Folk as of Josephine herself, and hence its sub-title. And, while you read on, the figure of Josephine becomes less and less of a singer and more and more of a unifying symbol of hope for an embattled people.

Josephine’s thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people’s precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.

But by half-way through you have come to realise that the story is more like a parable about art and the artist and the artist or storyteller’s ability to give comfort and solace to his ‘people’ no matter how inadequate and ordinary his voice.

It is more the symbolism and the staging of the artist’s performances and what they mean for his or her listeners or readers which matters, it is the psychological unifying and healing it offers, than the actual ‘quality’.

Squeaking is our people’s daily speech, only many a one squeaks his whole life long and does not know it, where here [in Josephine’s performances] squeaking is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while…

And where he writes squeaking, he means speaking, and in fact means writing.


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A Country Doctor and other stories by Franz Kafka (1917)

A Country Doctor is a collection of short stories written mostly in 1917 by Franz Kafka, and containing the story of the same name. It was published in 1919, the second collection of short stories published by the German publisher Kurt Wolff, following Contemplation of 1912.

The Contemplation pieces were very short, some of them less than a page long, and the stories here are of the same style, also very short and punchy and dazzling. Some have touches of humour but what characterises most of them is how weird, visionary or dreamlike they are.

1. The New Advocate

One page long. The new advocate is Alexander the Great’s old horse Bucephalus. With Alexander long dead and his great goal of reaching the gates of India now remote and impossible, yes, it probably makes sense for his favourite horse to take up a career in the law. After all, it’s a steady profession.

2. A Country Doctor

This really is a dream-like narrative: told in the first person the doctor is called to an emergency on a snowy night but can’t find a horse but then his groom finds two horses in the pigsty and attaches them to the cart and the horses race off before the doctor can warn or protect his housekeeper who he knows the groom wants to rape and watches run for the house and lock herself in but as the cart gallops off he hears the groom smashing the door down with an axe, the doctor arrives instantly (as in a dream) at the house of the sick man with his relatives gathered round and pronounces him perfectly fit, maybe overfull of coffee which his solicitous mother has given him, all the time worrying about the fate of Rosy the maid, the two horses push open the windows of the room and watch the doctor and a choir of local children gathers outside and sings a song about stripping the doctor and next thing he knows he is being stripped, held up then carried over to the sick man’s bed and thrown into it where he discovers the man has an enormous gaping bloody wound in his side which is infested with finger-sized worms and seems to attribute this to standing still in the woods and having been chopped at by men with axes as if he were a tree, then the doctor escapes from the bed, flees the house, throws his things onto the carriage and whips the horses to flee although they in fact plod off at the walking pace of an old man.

I’ll never come home at this rate. My flourishing practice is lost. A successor is robbing me, but to no avail, for he cannot replace me. In my house the disgusting groom is wreaking havoc. Rosa is his victim. I will not think it through. Naked, abandoned to the frost of this unhappy age, with an earthly carriage and unearthly horses, I drive around by myself, an old man. My fur coat hangs behind the wagon, but I cannot reach it, and no one from the nimble rabble of patients lifts a finger. Betrayed! Betrayed! Once one responds to a false alarm on the night bell, there’s no making it good again – not ever.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a literal transcription of an actual anxiety dream Kafka had had.

3. Up in the Gallery

A one-page description of attending the circus to see a lady in white and red come through the curtain and be lifted by the ringmaster onto a dappled grey horse and ride round the ring to tumultuous applause. But Kafka uses a technique he’s used in other stories, which is to open the entire description with a conditional phrase, making the whole thing seem provisional and dreamlike.

If some frail tubercular lady circus rider were to be driven in circles around and around the arena for months and months without interruption in front of a tireless public on a swaying horse by a merciless whip-wielding master of ceremonies, spinning on the horse, throwing kisses and swaying at the waist, and if this performance, amid the incessant roar of the orchestra and the ventilators, were to continue into the ever-expanding, gray future, accompanied by applause, which died down and then swelled up again, from hands which were really steam hammers, perhaps then a young visitor to the gallery might rush down the long stair case through all the levels, burst into the ring, and cry ‘Stop!’ through the fanfares of the constantly adjusting orchestra.

So it’s the gallery of a circus.

4. An Old Manuscript / A leaf from the past

Two and a bit pages. The narrator owns a shoemaker’s shop in some distant city from fable, from the same kind of fairy tale world as Kafka’s China. The nomads from the north have invaded and now control the city, which is a mystery since the frontier is so very far away (as in The Great Wall of China). They make free with the shoemaker’s stock, but they really infest the shop of the butcher opposite, and go mad when he brings to the shop a live bullock, which they promptly set about dismembering and eating live, with their bare hands and teeth. Occasionally you see the emperor at the windows of his palace but then, that can’t be right, he never leaves the inner gardens of the palace.

You can see how Kafka has reimagined China into his own image, a vast land which messengers can never cross, which has been inexplicably conquered by people no-one understands, whose leader has retreated to the innermost sanctums of his inaccessible palace…

5. At the door of the Law

This is a terrifying fable, barely two pages long, in which a man from the country arrives at the door of the law and asks the doorkeeper if he may enter. The doorkeeper says no, and the man spends the rest of his life camped out there, asking the doorkeeper repeatedly for permission to enter, until, in fact, he grows old and weak and, as he is on the verge of dying, the doorkeeper explains that this door was for the man alone, for him only, and now, as he expires, the doorkeeper will close it. He will never gain admission.

In its portrayal of the hopeless prostration of a victim-protagonist before implacable and unknowable higher powers , it is a two-page summary of the plots, or aims, of The Trial and especially The Castle.

6. Jackals and Arabs

Four pages. The narrator is a European camped in an oasis in the desert with some Arabs. they refer to him as master. It is a colonial situation. Austro-Hungary, despite being called an Empire, had no colonial territories so this is as much a fantasy projection as his stories about remote China or cowboys and Indians.

The story, such as it is, is that the jackals nosey up to the narrator and explain how much they want the Arabs to be cleared out of their land so it will be purified. Incongruously, they offer the narrator a pair of scissors (hanging from one of the jackals’ teeth). But at that moment an Arab appears and whips them back and recognises the scissors and says, ‘Oh yes, the jackals are always offering these to Europeans in the hope the European will use them to drive out or annihilate the Arabs (!)’

He drags over the corpse of a camel which has died in the night and the jackals start tearing it to bits, until the Arab starts whipping them. Both sides are trapped in a horrible hate-hate relationship.

7. A Visit to the Mine

The narrator is a miner. Some engineers have come to inspect his mine. That sounds like it ought to make sense, but it really doesn’t. Instead of giving any kind of account of what they do, the text simply lists each of the ten engineers, emphasising the way each one looks and behaves differently and is engaged on a different activity (exactly the format of the story titled Eleven Sons) then a concluding paragraph describes how they are all followed by an Attendant, formally dressed, inscrutable and superior.

8. The Next Village

This is a brilliant slice of…. of what? Fantasy? Dream prose? A sense of entropy and futility? Here’s the ‘story’ in its entirety.

My grandfather used to say: ‘Life is astoundingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that – not to mention accidents – even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey.’

9. A Message from the Emperor

This is the one-page-long parable which is embedded in the longer story, The Great Wall of China about the emperor consigning a message to a messenger to bring to ‘you’ but how the vast and multitudinous challenges of even getting through the first courtyard of the imperial palace, let alone the second courtyard, let alone through the thronged streets of the capital means that the messenger will never arrive.

Placing the Next Village and the Message next to each other brings out their similarity, in fact the fundamental identity of the insight they deal with. It’s difficult to put into words what they’re saying – maybe you just have to ‘get’ it, but it feels like both of them are saying something very profound about human experience.

10. The Cares of a Family Man

Odradek is a weird creature which looks like a star-shaped spool of thread.

At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colours. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.

The narrator tries to communicate with this creature and is troubled by him, most of all by the knowledge that Odradek will outlive him.

Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.

11. Eleven Sons

The narrator lists his eleven sons and gives paragraph-long descriptions of all of them which start out positive and all end with the ways they disappoint him and fall short.

12. A Fratricide

This feels like the most ‘German Expressionist’ of the stories, because it describes the Expressionist subject par excellence which is a brutal murder. Schmar waits at a street corner on a moonlit night. Wese emerges from his work and walks down the street towards the fateful corner. What makes it so Expressionist is the way it is stagey, it could be played out on a stage with a crazy angular Expressionist set, for Mrs Wese stands at the door of her house further down the road waiting for her husband, while the private investigator Pallas, leans out of his window to get a better view of the scene.

Wese walks round the corner and right into Schmar who stabs him three times, twice in the throat and once in the belly, screaming at him, screaming about the joy of murder.

‘Done,’ says Schmar and pitches the knife, now superfluous blood-stained ballast, against the nearest house front. ‘The bliss of murder! The relief, the soaring ecstasy from the shedding of another’s blood!’

This irrational glee reminds me of any number of Expressionist painters (and writers and composers) with their mad murder lust; reminds me of the widespread topic in early Weimar Germany of the murder of women, and the utterly irrational way this was titled, by many artists, Murder, The Hope of Women.

13. A Dream

Two and a half pages in which Joseph K. (the protagonist of The Trial) has a dream. In it he arrives in a cemetery before a big mound of earth, two big men plonk a headstone down at the end of it and then another man, a roughly dressed ‘artist’ pops up, and, leaning uncomfortably over the mound, takes a pencil and begins writing words which become instantly deeply incised into the stone and burnished with gold, he writes HERE LIES but then becomes blocked, stuck, stymied and looks at Joseph K. in embarrassment, both of them unsure what to do next, until it comes to Joseph in a flash and he leans down and begins clawing through the earth which opens up to reveal a vault and he descends down into it as if by magic, turning till he is lying on his back and, looking up, watches the artist complete the inscription by writing his name and then –

He wakes up.

14. A Report to an Academy

The longest story at about ten pages, this is a spoof or parody of a presentation to a learnèd academy given by an ape who has transformed himself into a man. He describes how he was caught in the jungle by a hunting expedition, thrown into a cage on a ship and brought back across the sea and how he learned to be human from observing and copying the sailors. But that makes it sound too sensible. It is full of uncanny or strange details, for instance the thing which motivates him to transform is the layout of the cage which has iron bars on three sides but is bounded on the fourth by a crate. Something about this really upsets him and he repeats it again and again as if this was his prime motivation. Also he begins by imitating the lumbering walks of the rough sailors but there is satire in the fact that the decisive moment in his steps towards becoming a ‘man’ are when he learns to drink deep from a bottle of whiskey they give him.

Short and weird

Initially I based my definition of the ‘Kafkaesque’ on a deep immersion in the two novels The Trial and The Castle, which are long, long-winded, and focus on the nightmareishly impossible efforts of the young professional protagonists to understand the convoluted legal and bureaucratic processes administered by a vast hierarchy of officials, which they seem to have become embroiled in through no fault of their own.

Reading these stories makes me realise there is another entirely separate strand to Kafka’s output, which is the fantastical. If the characteristic quality of the novels is how long-winded they are, and how filled with immense, tortuous speeches about the inaccessibility of the Law and the Court then, on the whole, the leading feature of the stories is how short they are, how they manage to convey a whole hallucinatory scene, event or view of the world in a handful of, or even one, page.

Animals

Another striking element is the prominence of animals. The country doctor’s horses poke their heads through the windows to watch their master at work (that’s the detail from that story which really spoke to me, like the horse’s head in the paintings of Fuseli). More strikingly, Bucephalus the horse becomes a lawyer. Jackals talk to the narrator. And an ape addresses a learnèd academy. (And among his last short stories would be one about a giant mole and about an investigating dog.)

Two types

Broadly the stories can be divided in two types, the fables – which the reader understands straight away, which feel as immediate and accessible as Aesop’s fables – and the others, which are more troubling and perplexing.

Easy fables include Bucephalus becoming a lawyer, the message from the emperor, the nomads having conquered the city, and at the door of the law – these have the depth and resonance of ancient myths. The dream of Joseph K. falling into his grave is easily comprehensible as a dream-vision. These ones have a meaning and a point.

But what are we to make of the convoluted account of the country doctor? This also is a dream, I suppose but it is completely pointless, it amounts to a series of anxieties. Just as the account of the ape who became a man ought to resonate like an Edwardian science fiction story, but doesn’t: it’s more eccentric and odd than that, all the details seem off-kilter and troubling.

And then what to make of the two numeration stories, the list of eleven sons and ten engineers? These are not fables or dreams, they are something else again, something weirdly compelling. The page and a half about Odradek – is that a weird distorted comment on the relationship between fathers and sons? And the fratricide? That’s a rich slice of German murder Expressionism.

So there are more than two types. What a dazzling collection. What immense trouble and unease they convey.


Related links

These are links to the modern translations of these stories, some made by Ian Johnston and generously posted online for anyone to use, some from other sources.

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The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka (1917)

my investigation is purely historical

I remember this story giving me a funny feeling when I read it as a teenager because of the heady, sweeping vision of history it gives you. I was too young to realise that any ‘history’ it contains is used for purely aesthetic reasons, to feed the purposes of the parable and of Kafka’s distinctive take on human existence.

The Great Wall of China imagines what it was like to be one of the builders of the Great Wall. It is told from the point of view of an articulate member of the generation who were raised to build it, trained to build it, and indoctrinated to build it, a man from a southeast Chinese province ‘almost on the borders of the Tibetan Highlands’.

The first half of the text describes the excited and patriotic ‘spirit of the times’, the narrator being lucky enough to have turned twenty and graduated from school just as the mammoth project was commencing.

And goes on to describe the wall less as a engineering and logistical challenge but more, as you might imagine from a creative writer, as a psychological challenge. Thus, according to the narrator, the main challenge to be overcome was exhaustion and despair. It would take a gang of workers and supervisors about five years to build five miles of wall by which time

the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the wall, and in the world.

And so after five years they were moved to a new region hundreds of miles away, the sole purpose being to show them other sections of the completed wall and parade them past cheering fellow citizens to bolster their morale.

The wistful tone

But rereading it now I think what appealed to me was the tone of the narrator. Most of Kafka’s other stories are told in real time – this happens then this happens then this. But the narrator of the Great Wall is looking back, wistfully and nostalgically to the early days of the wall which coincided with his flush of youth. He wants to ‘convey the ideas and experiences of that time and make them intelligible’ and the story is littered with phrases which hark back to that hopeful and optimistic era:

  • In those days the book was in everyone’s hands…
  • At that time for many people, even the best, there was a secret principle…

The whole text is bathed in an unusually warm and humane tone of voice.

The mysterious high command

The legendary vastness of China gives Kafka a new location to situate what you could call the core essence of the Kafkaesque, the notion of an endlessly ramifying hierarchy of unknowable authorities:

It is possible that even these considerations, which argued against building the wall in the first place, were not ignored by the leadership when they decided on piecemeal construction. We—and here I’m really speaking on behalf of many – actually first found out about it by spelling out the orders from the highest levels of management and learned for ourselves that without the leadership neither our school learning nor our human understanding would have been adequate for the small position we had within the enormous totality.

In the office of the leadership—where it was and who sat there no one I asked knows or knew—in this office I imagine that all human thoughts and wishes revolve in a circle, and all human aims and fulfilments in a circle going in the opposite direction.

Note the litotes in the first line – ‘It is possible that even these considerations… were not ignored by the leadership – which he uses to create a characteristic sense of uncertainty and speculation…

Slowly we realise that the story is in fact cast as an essay, a historical enquiry, into one odd fact, the fact that the wall was built in standalone sections which were often not linked up for decades or ever. Pondering the wisdom of the high command, the author talks himself into believing that the wall was in fact never a practical defence against invaders from the north: it was more a categorical imperative to unite Chinese society. More than that, it had an almost supernatural source.

I imagine that the high command has existed from all eternity, and the decision to construct the wall likewise. Unwitting northern people believed they were the cause; unwitting emperor who imagined he had given orders for it. We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent.

This I found a breath-taking and vast and mysterious vision.

The remoteness of the emperor

In the second half of the short text the author goes on to expand it by subjecting the figure of the Emperor to a thorough Kafka-isation i.e. turning him into a figure so remote and mysterious, that no one knows or can know about him. The same idea he’s applied to the notional ‘Court’ in The Trial. 

We would think about the present emperor if we knew who he was or anything definite about him. We were naturally always trying… to find out something or other about him, but, no matter how strange this sounds, it was almost impossible to learn anything, either from pilgrims, even though they wandered through much of our land, or from near or remote villages, or from boatmen, although they have travelled not merely on our little waterways but also on the sacred rivers. One hears a great many things, true, but can gather nothing definite.

The idea is developed to visionary or phantasmagorical lengths, with the author stating that the empire is so vast that it is impossible ever to hear anything about the emperor, malicious court conspiracies may overthrow him, but the author’s people, far in the distant south, will never hear about this. Nobody knows the name of the current emperor resulting in ‘universal uncertainty’.

In fact the text contains a one-page-long parable of haunting beauty.

The parable of the emperor’s message

The Emperor has sent a message to you, his humble subject, a tiny shadow cowering in the furthest distance from the imperial sun; the emperor on his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He ordered the messenger to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear. He thought it so important that he had the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death – for all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs – in front of all of them he dispatches his messenger.

The messenger sets off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he encounters resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else.

But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years.

And if he finally did burst through the outermost door – but that can never, never happen – the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, crammed to bursting with its own refuse. Nobody could pushes his way through here, even with a message from a dead man.

It is Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, redone in a mystical fictional form. If this had been in The Trial both teller and auditor of the fable would have reflected (at length) on how impossible it is to ever establish any truth or knowledge, to ever receive the message, to ever find out what is going on.

But The Great Wall of China is different. It has, as I mentioned, an unusually warm and mellow tone about it. And thus this page-long parable ends not on a note of hopelessness, but with an image of acceptance.

But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream that message to yourself.

Kafka is rarely this forgiving to himself or his readers. It is this twilight, nostalgic and forgiving tone which makes The Great Wall of China stand out among all his other works.

And it also makes you realise that his fundamental tropes of distant rulers and unknowable hierarchies and universal uncertainty need not necessarily be negative. Precisely the metaphors and tropes which make Kafka a patron saint of existentialist angst can give just as much support to a mellow, almost Zen-like air of detachment and mellowness.


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