Here’s part one of my it-turns-out-not-that-long essay about my relationship with Franz Kafka.
Here’s the rest:
As you can imagine, my feelings about Kafka have changed over the years, as my rabid teenage fandom eventually turned into scholarly expertise, which came with its own share of battles, both with the author himself and with the realization that he is by far the most-analyzed German-language writer in the world, and thus my scholarship was but a tiny speck of coal in a vast mine that was already mostly mined-out by the time I got there. There was a time early in graduate school when anyone else talking about Kafka would make me break out in a cold sweat and shake with what I now realize is jealousy: nobody knows him like I do, I thought. How dare they have their brain-paws all over him?
Then, as my dissertation began to take shape, my feelings toward Kafka turned simultaneously distant and resentful. I became responsible for reading many times over not only most of his corpus (fiction, plus his voluminous diaries and correspondence, and even his work briefs), but also hundreds of books and articles in the secondary canon. The result was both desensitization and hyper-focused professional intensity. Mid-dissertation, if anyone made the understandable and well-meaning error of asking me, “What do you love about Kafka so much?” I would answer with, no kidding, “That’s my work. If you were a gynecologist, how would you like it if someone asked you what you loved so much about pussy?” I was a delight at cocktail parties for sure, and this era lasted through my dissertation and for most of the scholarly book that became of it. It is actually only fairly recently that I have been able to approach both Kafka’s writing and my connection to it with compassion.
Now, as our relationship enters its most peaceful era, I would have to say that my strongest connection with Kafka’s work is because it is so darkly hilarious about things I believe deserve ridicule, and so unapologetically expressive about failure, something to which both I and many in my generation—left largely on the shelf because of a cratered economy—unfortunately relate. It was none other than the famous critical philosopher Walter Benjamin who said that Kafka’s chief talent was in expressing the “beauty and purity of failure,” and although my definition of failure is different than Benjamin’s was (as, I’m sure, is yours), this description resonates quite strongly today. That is, I think Kafka is so relatable to so many because he takes the crushing banality of the failures of adulthood and turns it into piercing, grotesque humor that is simultaneously surreal and extremely real, that is both ephemeral and highly physical, and that finds boundless, unconventional joy in creating images that at first seem so disturbing.
Take, for example, the novel The Castle, which is itself a “failure” in the technical sense: the book is so unfinished that it drops off abruptly mid-sentence. A man only named K. (very subtle, Franz) arrives late at night in a remote village claiming to be the “Land-Surveyor” commissioned by the Count Westwest (whom, this being Kafka, we obviously never meet—indeed, who may not actually exist). This claim is roundly disputed by various inscrutable—but somehow also powerful—village bureaucrats (we soon learn that “there is no difference between the Village and the Castle”), and after many months of K.’s increasingly failed attempts to ingratiate himself, his status as Land-Surveyor is “affirmed,” but not the way he expects. The village mayor explains:
“You are hired as Land-Surveyor, as you say, but unfortunately we don’t need one. There wouldn’t be the least bit of work for one here. The borders of our little businesses are well defined, everything has been recorded in an orderly manner, changes in possession happen almost never, and we regulate all small border disputes ourselves. What good would a Land-Surveyor be for us?”
That is, the letter that allegedly “summoned” a Land-Surveyor (some critics believe K. is just a con man who lucks in to an extraordinarily weird situation), originated from one department, and the village’s refusal of those services accidentally went back to another one. For anyone who has ever dealt with (or failed to deal with) a wide-ranging bureaucracy, I would hope that this scene reads as hilarious. I was certainly reminded of it when I spent a year in Austria during graduate school—and this would also be a good time to mention that one thing that Austrians pride themselves upon is that they are not as obsessed with rules (Regeln) as Germans are. They dismiss Germans as regellustig (“lusting for rules,” literally!) and herald themselves as gemütlich, an untranslatable word that sort of means both “relaxed” and “homey.”
This Austrian Gemütlichkeit was readily apparent when I tangled briefly (and unsuccessfully) with the admissions office at the University of Vienna—in order to be eligible for a range of benefits, all Fulbright grantees had to be matriculated officially at an Austrian university, no matter if we attended courses or not (as an “ABD,” or All But Dissertation, I sat in on a few, but did not intend to register). We all filled out applications on our first day in Austria, and were told that an official sticker granting us student status would arrive soon in the mail.
Mine never did, and I was told to go investigate this anomaly at the cavernous, labyrinthine, Main Building (Hauptgebäude) of the University itself. Much unlike K., who walks all night in the snow before he arrives in the Village, my work space was actually in a beautiful building directly across the street, so I didn’t have to journey far to behold the sight that greeted me when I got to the admissions area: a corridor with a queue of students so vast and so crowded that I could not see where it ended or began, not unlike the first “courtroom” scene in another Kafka novel, The Trial, in which Josef K. (again, Franz, very subtle) is greeted with a peanut gallery so packed that some gawkers have brought cushions to place between their heads and the ceiling. I was told to take a number—136; the number being served: 45. Gemütlich it was, as Students all around me had literally made themselves at home, camped out in this wide hall like K. is in the school gymnasium where he and his bartender girlfriend Frieda shack up together as he “assimilates” (unsuccessfully) into Village life.
I turned on my heel and skedaddled—the Fulbright office could have me deported if it wanted; I was an American and I had better things to do, like drink white wine spritzers. But the friend I was with stuck it out, and a mere five hours later, her number came up, and the university official looked her up and said: “Oh, well, your name wasn’t on the Admitted list.” “Why not?” my friend asked. The official answered that it was just a clerical error; the Admissions workers had not bothered to take her name (or mine) and manually move it from one column to the column directly next to it, even though that was their job. I shared this tale with my Austrian friends and they shrugged. This was, apparently, an utterly normal and efficient way of doing things in 2008. So I can only imagine the absurd levels of ineffectuality that permeated the Austrian bureaucracy when it was four times its present size, and nobody had an iPhone.
But it’s not just the official failures of adult life, such as K.’s inability to secure his job in the Village, that Kafka skewers so hilariously and tragically at once. In 1915, Kafka published what would become his most famous story: The Metamorphosis. At this time, he was a thirty-three year-old bachelor who had lived with his parents for the vast majority of his life. Granted, in Europe it is still common, as it was in Kafka’s day, for young adults to live with their parents until they marry. What wasn’t common was not to marry at all—which Kafka, despite three engagements to two different women, never did. Too bad Kafka didn’t live as a millennial—he could have parlayed his crippling matrimonial trepidations into an app, and gotten rich.
But alas, Franz lived at a time in which bachelorhood (and spinsterhood!) were viewed as terminal diseases. Thus, aside from a few brief exceptions, he lived with his parents for all of his 41 years, and this served as a marker of his ultimate failure. I don’t want to project emotions onto dear Franz—but I’d have to think that his writing had to have been colored at least somewhat by his weariness at his failure to secure an autonomous existence, and the crushing loneliness that can befall an individual even, and especially, if he is surrounded by relatives but has no independent life of his own.