Franz Kafka, insurance agent and literary genius, died from tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of forty. While alive he had published very little and then, near the end, had told a friend to burn what remained of his unpublished manuscripts. That friend, Max Brod, told Kafka that he could never do such a thing—and he didn’t.
For readers who are new to Kafka, the best place to start is his novella, The Metamorphosis. The protagonist, Gregor Samsa, a dutiful son and loving brother, wakes one morning to discover that he has become a gigantic insect. No explanation is given. We are immersed here in a fantasy- or dream-realm, but every detail is conveyed so effectively that the story seems almost believable. At some level it is believable, even realistic. Gregor’s plight concerns the inevitable isolation of us all: by way of aging, sickness, disability, mental illness and the like. Physically, Gregor has become an insect; but internally his human nature is fully intact. The predicament is both comical and excruciating, and the death of Gregor is one of the saddest descriptions I have ever read.
In addition to numerous short stories, Kafka wrote three novels. I have never been a fan of The Castle and have never made it all the way through Amerika, but The Trial has been a favorite of mine from way back. Like The Metamorphosis, its protagonist, Joseph K., wakes one morning to find himself in a bizarre difficulty from which he will never be able to extricate himself. In this instance the difficulty is an arrest for an unnamed crime. Joseph K. spends the remainder of his life in pursuit of answers or avenues of escape, only to meet with one outlandish frustration after another. The dream-atmosphere that is present throughout the narrative attains an especially vivid intensity during the penultimate chapter called “In the Cathedral”.
Among the short works, I highly recommend “In the Penal Colony,” “A Country Doctor” and “The Hunter Gracchus”. All of these surreal stories advance toward indefinite or non-arrival resolutions, similar to dreams. “The Judgment” should also be mentioned since it was the favorite of Kafka himself.
Herman Hesse said that Kafka was “a devout man, a religious man, albeit one of the problematic ones who belong to the type of Kierkegaard”. Other commentators believe that he was schizophrenic. Perhaps both these opinions have some truth in them. Josef Pieper, in his brilliant book called “Divine Madness,” ascribes Kafka’s artistic gifts to a type of divine “mania”—that is, a temporary or partial state of mystic madness.
But for me it is not the theology or the pathology of Kafka that matters most. What I enjoy is the prowess of his prose, his eccentric imagination and his humor. The latter trait has been generally overlooked and is conspicuously absent from his literary progeny—Camus, Sartre and Orwell, to name a few examples. Valid comparisons between The Trial and 1984 might be proposed, but the actual reading experience of these two books is totally dissimilar. Orwell’s novel is certainly thought-provoking, but only a masochist or a sadist could find it enjoyable. The Trial, on the other hand, is enjoyable, above and beyond its political relevance or its philosophical meaning.