2017/10/17 - 19:05

Has Kafka Been Overrated?: A Heresy

by Gustavo Artiles

What is it that has made of Kafka that giant of modern literature that so many of us revere? It is not the style, which is perfectly ordinary, although in the best sense of the term. It is not the plots themselves, which are of limited scope and not real plots as found in full novels but more a series of episodes in the life of a character. And it is not the characters either, who again are presented as perfectly ordinary individuals. What quality is it then that is responsible for the Kafka effect? If we could place on a balance all of Kafka’s works and started taking them away one by one, we could so measure their relative weight. Then we would see that the world is basically still being moved by the two works that are by far the heaviest: The Process and Metamorphosis. The rest, everybody reads, almost with the same interest, for the information they can provide about Kafka. Why these two stories? Allow me to become personal and tell about my own discovery of Kafka.

I became a conscious reader at a very early age, in the forties, in a Latin American country, far away from the hell then burning in Europe. Words like holocaust, anti-Semitism, concentration camps and such did not mean much to me, since I was only a child. But even then, I was interested almost exclusively in music and letters -- still my passions -- and already convinced that a better world could only exist among people capable of feeling these passions. Surely, education was the only path to a higher spiritual level for everybody. A little later, after I had learned a little more about the world, I started to acquire a basic notion of politics. Then I saw newsreels of the war, and soon after, the arrival in my own country of thousands of displaced persons, refugees, the same people I had seen on the cinema screen, with numbers tattooed on their arms. I was shocked by this confrontation with the unconceivable. I remember feeling very proud that my country was welcoming them. And I had by then realised that contradictions are a raw material of history, as indeed of everyday life. Soon I was to discover a writer who dealt with precisely the subject of contradiction and of the absurd: Franz Kafka.

I do not remember exactly how I came to discover Kafka. It may have been through a conversation with a close school friend that happened to be Jewish. But I do particularly remember my delight at seeing the name Franz Kafka on the cover of several books edited by Edna and Edwin Muir in a local book shop. I can still see those covers, of a particular shade of green. These were the early fifties and I believe these books may have been the first edition of Kafka complete works in English. I knew I was lucky, I could by then read in this fascinating foreign language.

As soon as I started reading Kafka I realised this was the writer for me. He voiced all my frustrations, my depressions, my sense of impotence against what I considered – and still consider – the absurd condition of the world: the contradictions, the injustices, the banality of violence and whatever can be shown to arrest, rather than foster the elevation of the human intellect and spirit. I also knew that this man was not attracted to fashions of thought, to any –isms: philosophical, political, artistic, religious and what have you, and that he was exploring and exposing his own soul, although in enigmatic ways. I also loved the fact that he expressed his thoughts in a quiet manner, always in a minor mode, self-effacing, as if he did not want to be noticed, not as a person: only the ideas he was communicating should be perceived by the initiated. I hated loudness and vulgarity, so discretion, together with very momentous statements, was something that appealed to me immensely. And that was how Kafka wrote.

In the two decades that followed, I witness with pleasure the popularisation of Kafka, but I also noticed certain trends that I could not quite approve of. One was the appropriation of his name by groups that were actually distorting the pure intellectual quality of his work and its artistic purpose to their own ends. One of those groups were the Jews themselves, who were, and many still are, claiming him as a visionary who they were convinced foresaw the coming of the Holocaust. In my view, there is nothing of the sort in Kafka. He was not religious and neither was he a “Jew” in the political sense applied nowadays, we know this from his writings and from the comments of those who knew him. Yet, he did accept that Palestine was a good solution. And true, he did express curiosity for the Yiddish theatre of Prague, but this was mostly an artistic interest in what, after all, was also his cultural heritage. But this fact should not be exaggerated if we are interested in knowing the real Kafka. We just do not know what he and Dora, his last lover, would have done had he not died in 1924, when they were thinking of opening up a restaurant or a café one day in Israel.

The other group to adopt Kafka as their icon were the existentialists and some others discontented with the status quo in the West during the fifties and sixties. They contributed to the distortion of Kafka by exploiting the heavy atmosphere of his stories as pointers to the need for a more liberal society, with less state intervention and more freedom and justice for the individual. Laudable enough aspirations, but they were abusing the truth and helped picturing a psychotic Kafka victim of the same Angst they were experiencing in modern society: the Angst in Kafka is not in the man or even in the stories but in the reaction of the reader to them. The humour and the mischief so dear to the surrealists that he loved (that is, his own flavour of surrealism) were lost with that existentialist wrapping. Only now, some sixty years later, are we beginning to drift away from this thwarted perception of the writer.

So, now to the objective Kafka. As I see it, he simply adored intellectual games, and writing literature is basically one serious game. But his kind of story-telling is one that never lets us capture the entire picture: concealing is partly the name of his game. He achieves this by placing many trees in front of us, so we will not see the wood. Here lies the essence of all his writings, done with lots and lots of close-ups rather than with long or even medium shots. And detail, lots of detail, precisely to get that effect. And he wins his game, for we keep going back, year after year to those stories hoping to find new meanings and new clues to his mind, and perhaps have a glimpse of the wood. This, by the way, is a sure sign of a masterpiece, that you will always discover new things in it, as is well known. But the two masterpieces are The Process and Metamorphosis. America, to a lesser degree. So I maintain that the enthusiasm about Kafka would be rather subdued, had we not received those two masterpieces of intellectual mystery through Brod. Yet it is a fact that the hijacking of Kafka by various interested parties has inflated his value. I do not say this in order to diminish his achievement, but to try to put him in a realistic perspective. His value will always lie in the inexplicable that it contains. I believe that, were everything to be explained one day, interest in him would diminish somehow. I mean, he would no longer be such a “popular” writer but find himself placed, lovingly but surely, next to many other writers who are still read, but by minorities only. Not that I think that will happen. Neither do I know of any artist whose work has gained in popularity because of somebody´s posthumous psychoanalysis, such new “knowledge” seems to be mostly irrelevant, both to the person and to the work. Final understanding will probably remain an impossibility with Kafka for ever. And this makes me glad.

So, is it a heresy to say that Kafka has been inflated thanks to various circumstances? Not at all, because he has: by facts like the Holocaust and the fate of almost all of his relatives in it, and then by the diverse mid-century social movements who adopted him as their hero, hardly because of his artistic merits. So many have praised him to the limit for the wrong reasons -- I myself was once guilty of that -- that it is now high time to give him his due credit for his originality of thought, his capacity to create and maintain interest by his very skilful literary abilities, for his integrity as an individual (this is beyond question) and his generally humane attitude to the human condition. And for nothing else, for that is more than enough.

Gustavo Artiles

His main interests have always been language, letters and music, without forgetting the sciences. Thus, his occupations have always related to either or both creative fields, utilising through almost all the media: broadcasting and the press.
In his country, he studied journalism and he was for years a commentator of literature and music for the National Radio while contributing to various literary magazines. Later on, he was named founder chief of production of an FM channel devoted to the arts.
He was also music lecturer in two local music schools and translated into Spanish, for a local publisher, Arthur Jacob´s A Brief History of Western Music.
He followed courses on English literature and linguistics in London University.
Still later, he became part of the staff of the BBC Latin American Service, in London, where he now lives and works as a free-lance translator and interpreter. He also has written a book on Shakespeare´s identity to be published in 2003.

Revision: 2011/01/08 - 00:18 - © Mauro Nervi

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