Kafkaesque

The Arts

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.

9 comments on “Kafkaesque”

  1. Roger says:

    Alasdair Gray’s short stories were influenced by Kafka and Rex Warner’s novels of the 1930s .- especially The Aerodrome – were strongly influenced by him. Some of the poetry of his translator, Edwin Muir, reflects him, but from a much more humane/sentimental standpoint.

  2. snowy says:

    I’ve always held reservations about the way Kafka’s work is portrayed. But to go back one step, what we have is not as Kafka wrote it, it fell into the hands of another writer who reshaped it for publication. Who knows how much of what we have is the result of it being hacked about to suit the personal tastes of this second pair of hands or to fit the prevailing literary market, [1937 was not a good year for sales of Yiddish humour in general*].

    If we take the plot of The Trial – ‘A moderately prosperous and slightly pompous man is accused of a crime but no-one will tell him what he is accused of, he runs about trying to find out what he is accused of, every attempt to find out leads him suffering further indignity and frustration.

    It is the plot of a farce, [ignore the fact that every version you have ever seen is full-on Soviet Miserablist, usually featuring a lantern-jawed WASP as Joseph K.]

    Run the story in your head but with decent comic actors, the change is quite startling.

    [ * Middle European humour, doesn’t always readily translate as anybody that has seen ‘The Death of Mr. Lazarescu’ will attest. It’s not that it is absent, but it is hughly underplayed in comparison to the broader styles that people are more used to.]

  3. admin says:

    I’d like to have seen the Brian Rix version of The Trial. I love the fact that Middle European humour is underplayed. You should not always have to have humour signposted. Check out the very dark film ‘An Inconvenient Man’.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    I always liked ‘Metamorphosis’, as it is strange, frightening, and curiously blunt in tone. I find Kafka’s work a bit too claustrophobic for my taste, generally. It’s the sort of thing I’d read, and then immediately have to read some of Gogol’s ‘Lost Souls’ to lighten the mood a bit. The only other thing I like about Kafka, is that he provided the name of a Scottish band I’m very fond of: Josef K, who is a character who appears in the Kafka stories ‘The Trial’ and ‘The Castle’. The band Josef K were an early 1980’s independent band who released records on the tiny, quirky, and now hideously collectable ‘Postcard’ label.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Just thinking about Metamorphosis sends cold shudders down my back and The Trial is terrifying in a very different way. If it were produced as a black comedy. . . well, I wonder.

  6. snowy says:

    I’d have to re-read ‘The Trial’ again to be completely sure, but there are scenes that make no sense if it is horror, but do if it is comedy.

    ?How to demonstrate?

    Here is a chunk, try reading as Wodehouse, [Bertie Wooster complaining to Jevees about the fix his friend K. is in.]

    As a result, the accused and his defence don’t have access even to the court records, and especially not to the indictment, and that means we generally don’t know – or at least not precisely – what the first documents need to be about, which means that if they do contain anything of relevance to the case it’s only by a lucky coincidence. If anything about the individual charges and the reasons for them comes out clearly or can be guessed at while the accused is being questioned, then it’s possible to work out and submit documents that really direct the issue and present proof, but not before.

    Conditions like this, of course, place the defence in a very unfavourable and difficult position. But that is what they intend. In fact, defence is not really allowed under the law, it’s only tolerated, and there is even some dispute about whether the relevant parts of the law imply even that. So strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a counsel acknowledged by the court, and anyone who comes before this court as counsel is basically no more than a barrack room lawyer.

    The effect of all this, of course, is to remove the dignity of the whole procedure, the next time K. is in the court offices he might like to have a look in at the lawyers’ room, just so that he’s seen it. He might well be quite shocked by the people he sees assembled there. The room they’ve been allocated, with its narrow space and low ceiling, will be enough to show what contempt the court has for these people. The only light in the room comes through a little window that is so high up that, if you want to look out of it, you first have to get one of your colleagues to support you on his back, and even then the smoke from the chimney just in front of it will go up your nose and make your face black.

    In the floor of this room – to give yet another example of the conditions there – there is a hole that’s been there for more than a year, it’s not so big that a man could fall through, but it is big enough for your foot to disappear through it. The lawyers’ room is on the second floor of the attic; if your foot does go through it will hang down into the first floor of the attic underneath it, and right in the corridor where the litigants are waiting. It’s no exaggeration when lawyers say that conditions like that are a disgrace.

    Complaints to the management don’t have the slightest effect, but the lawyers are strictly forbidden to alter anything in the room at their own expense. But even treating the lawyers in this way has its reasons. They want, as far as possible, to prevent any kind of defence, everything should be made the responsibility of the accused. No a bad point of view, basically, but nothing could be more mistaken than to think from that that lawyers are not necessary for the accused in this court. On the contrary, there is no court where they are less needed than here. This is because proceedings are generally kept secret not only from the public but also from the accused.

    [‘An Inconvenient Man’ I thought I’d seen it, but search engines produced nothing. But a quick visit to the shelves did produce a copy of ‘The Bothersome Man’ [Den brysomme mannen], same thing?]

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Having worked for a while in the Tax office (don’t judge me – I hated every second of it), I’m sure that most of their rules and regulations were written by Kafka. No hows or whys, just a sense of: “You’ll know how to do it once you’ve done it.”

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I can see how it would work as comedy, but very black, yes, and not in a Berty Wooster voice because the narration is a continuous stream and Berty has to break off in weird ways every couple of phrases, but in a rather dry, depressed sort of voice, dull and hopeless.

  9. Doug Irvine says:

    Wait does this mean that Jeeves and Wooster were considered black tragedy in Stalinist Russia. That makes one pause and reflect for a bit.

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