It’s interesting that in all of the Brexit arguments no-one has brought up the word ‘Kafkaesque’.
‘Byzantine’, ‘paradoxical’, ‘labyrinthine’, yes. But Brexit is Kafkaesque in every way – populated by perverse people, based on impossibilities, an insoluble knot filled with barely glimpsed mysteries. The poor little Prague clerk-turned-writer Franz Kafka, in death as in life, has been poorly served. Yet his reputation spread so far from so little because of what he came to represent. We think of bureaucracy (The Trial, The Castle), man crushed by system (In The Penal Colony), perverse transformations (a beetle in Metamorphosis, a leopard in The Hunger Artist) but he once he became a 20th century icon Kafka was turned into something more – a profitable industry.
We also think of him dying in obscurity, hating the imperfection of his work, determined to see it destroyed. And then there’s the paradox of a man who felt he had failed becoming so widely imitated that his very name became an adjective. Yet every time we try to define Kafka fully he slips away from us. It’s part of his appeal.
In theory, taking Kafka’s core ideas it should be possible to further them, but most modern attempts defy execution. John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly’s admirable plan to commission writers inspired by Kafka in the collection ‘Kafkaesque’ both hits and misses the mark, although it’s an enjoyable read. There are stories about Kafka himself and sidelong glances at his themes, but none of the tales truly capture them.
Editorial choice can be perverse, so here they’ve chosen Ballard’s ‘The Drowned Giant’ over his more Kafkaesque tales like ‘The Watch-Towers’ or ‘End-Game’. It feels as if Kafka has been elevated more by American academics than anyone else, with the result that the anthology treads too carefully upon the master’s heels. You can crush an idea by respecting it too much.
Probably the best stab at Kafka’s style came from Alan Bennett, himself obsessed with the subject in two plays, ‘The Insurance Man’ (beautifully filmed), and ‘Kafka’s Dick’. As Bennett points out, ‘There are many perils in writing about Kafka. His work has been garrisoned by armies of critics with some 15,000 books about him at the last count’, so he draws out the bleak comedy that others are often afraid to touch.
Likewise, Steven Soderberg’s ‘Kafka’, a delightful biographical fiction filled with Kafka’s themes, is a demented homage filled with his tropes – but that’s the problem. Homages are not originals, in the same way that the TV series ‘Dickensian’ was a wonderful homage without being much to do with Dickens.
My personal favourite from the school of Kafka is the criminally underrated Dino Buzzati (see columns passim and also The Book of Forgotten Authors), who shares Kafka’s mindset but approaches it differently. Perhaps Magnus Mills in ‘The restraint of Beasts’ also nails the obsessive nature of this difficult, unhappy man.