Essay: Looking for Kafka

The Introduction to the anthology "Kafkaesque: Stories After Kafka"

WFR Editors’ Note: As readers may have noticed, this week at WFR we are very much emphasizing the more Kafkaesque strands of the weird, whether with direct descendents of Kafka like Michal Ajvaz and Leena Krohn or through direct antecedents/ contemporaries like the brilliant Alfred Kubin, who was for a time connected to Kafka’s circle of friends. Inevitably, this brings us to Kafka himself, and we’re very pleased to offer readers “Looking for Kafka,” the introduction to the new Tachyon anthology Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly. It’s a loving, respectful, and thorough look at the writer’s life, work, and influence, and includes the rationale behind the inclusion of the stories in the anthology. Kafkaesque includes a new translation of a Kafka story along with fiction by Carol Emshwiller, Jeffrey Ford, J.G. Ballard, and many others (full table of contents here).

For our part, we included Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” in our The Weird compendium to showcase a certain type of weird writer that includes not just Kubin, Ajvaz, and Krohn, but also Bruno Schulz, William Sansom, and Kathe Koja, among others. These are writers whose stories seem to start within “the weird,” with the effect on the reader of being embedded in a vivid nightmare or unsettling dream of perplexing clarity. As we note in our introduction, Kafka stands alongside Lovecraft as the most influential weird writer of the twentieth century, even though his fiction did not find wide English-language readership until after World War II.

The account in Kessel and Kelly’s essay below of Kafka and his friends laughing during a reading from The Trial reminds us as well of the writer bestiary entries created by Frank Blei, another member of Kafka’s writing circle. His description of Kafka is rather wonderful and mischievous: “The Kafka is a magnificent and very rarely seen moon-blue mouse, which eats no flesh, but feeds on bitter herbs. It is a bewitching sight, for it has human eyes.”

We hope you enjoy this bewitching essay on “the moon-blue mouse” and consider acquiring the anthology Kafkaesque. - Ann & Jeff 


DB: You said, “When one reads Whitman, one is Whitman,” and I was wondering, when you translated Kafka did you feel at any time that you were Kafka in any sense? Borges: Well, I felt that I owed so much to Kafka that I really didn’t need to exist. —Jorge Luis Borges, interview with Daniel Bourne of Artful Dodge, April 25, 1980

The Adjective

In the tourist shops of Prague, along with t‑shirts announcing “Prague Drinking Squad,” you may buy other shirts bearing the image of Franz Kafka. There are many varieties. Wearing your Kafka shirt you may visit the Kafka museum and at least two of the several apartments where Kafka lived. Afterward, in the Café Kafka, you may enjoy a latte, add sugar to it from a packet that has Kafka’s face on it, and light your cigarette from a box of Kafka matches.

Stratford-on-Avon and Hannibal, Missouri, have promoted writers as their native sons, but we suspect that no writer who ended his life as obscurely as Kafka has had his reputation expand so far, so quickly into the popular consciousness. It is a remarkable metamorphosis. Imagery from Kafka’s fiction is everywhere in our culture, from popular movies to editorial cartoons, and people who have never read a word of his fiction will describe their tribulations with the Department of Motor Vehicles as “Kafkaesque.”

What does it mean when a writer’s name becomes an adjective? From a certain perspective, this would seem to be any artist’s ultimate symbol of success.  After all, the number of writers who have been elevated to adjectival status in common parlance is vanishingly small.  Shakespeare is one.  Who else?  Twainian sounds ridiculous.  Hemingwayesque?  No.  English majors have coined Chekovian and Shavian and Joycean but the circulation of these specialized terms is limited.   Kafkaesque, on the other hand, has an entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality <Kafkaesque bureaucratic delays>

Kafka’s influence happened, in literary time, very quickly. Before World War II his work was known in German, and the translations of The Castle and The Trial by Willa and Edwin Muir in the 1930s had received some attention, but not enough to establish a broad reputation. After the war, no writer seemed more relevant than Kafka. As Michael Hoffman has suggested: “It is as though Holocaust, Communism, Existentialism and Cold War all had to happen to validate a handful of texts written in the first quarter of the twentieth century.” (1)

Franz Kafka died in 1924, in obscurity to the large world, having published a handful of odd stories in central European literary venues. It is true that in bohemian literary circles of Prague, and perhaps to some readers in Berlin, Munich, and Vienna, Kafka had established a small reputation. Yet even so astute a reader as Jorge Luis Borges, living in Switzerland at the time, was unimpressed by a Kafka story he read in one of these magazines:

I shall never forget the first time I read Kafka in a certain self-consciously “modern” publication around 1917. The editors, who were not wholly devoid of talent, had dedicated themselves to inventing texts that were notable for their lack of punctuation, capital letters, and rhyme as well as for their alarming simulation of metaphor, abuse of portmanteau words, and other experiments perhaps typical of all young people. Amidst all this boisterous print, a short text signed by Franz Kafka seemed to me — in spite of my youthful docility as a reader — extraordinarily insipid. Now, in my old age, I dare at last to own up to a case of unforgivable literary insensitivity; I was offered a revelation, and I passed it by. (2)

Yet while the wide acceptance and understanding of the adjective Kafkaesque is evidence of Franz Kafka’s enduring influence on our culture, it is also a kind of a prison in which the writer and his work are confined.  It is, in essence, Kafkaesque.

The person on the street, if she knows Kafka at all, will immediately associate him with the bizarre and impersonal bureaucracies of the novels The Trial and The Castle and perhaps with one touchstone story “The Metamorphosis.”  Of course, Kafka famously asked that the manuscripts of those unfinished novels be destroyed at his death.  Of his best known story he wrote in his diary: “Great antipathy to ‘The Metamorphosis.’ Unreadable ending.  Imperfect almost to its marrow.”(3)  Would he then regret the work he is known for?

This question fits into the simplistic narrative into which some have wedged Kafka the man.  Our hypothetical person in the street, if she knows anything of Kafka’s biography, may well be under the impression that Kafka did not wish to become one of the best known authors of all time.  Even as he rebukes his friend and editor Max Brod from the grave for publishing the unfinished masterpieces — despite the specific instructions in his will — certain readers can feel superior to the reclusive wretch, since his judgment of his own work was so obviously wrong.

If you accept the myth that has grown up around the man, then this book would seem to be a crime against Kafka’s memory.  What would he have made of the stories that follow?  Other writers trampling across his tortured mindscapes, playing with his nightmare metaphors?  Evoking laughter from the writings of this most solemn of pessimists?

We are in mind of an anecdote that Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend, tells of a reading Kafka gave.  “We friends of his laughed quite immoderately when he first let us hear the first chapter of The Trial. And he himself laughed so much that there were moments when he couldn’t read any further. Astonishing enough, when you think of the fearful earnestness of this chapter. But that is how it is.”(3) We treasure the image of the allegedly somber author laughing helplessly along with the rest of his pals at the existential fix into which he had thrust his hapless protagonist.  We like to think that, whatever he might have thought of the stories that follow, Franz Kafka would enjoy the joke literary history has played on him.  And us.

The Man

And the personal mark of each writer consists in his having his own special way of concealing his flaws.” —letter to his publisher, Ernst Rowohlt, August 14, 1912 (5)

While it’s possible to cast a straightforward Kafka chronology, understanding what the events of his short life meant to him has ever been elusive.  He was a man who struggled with his many contradictions.  Kafka was born in 1883 into an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the third largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He had five siblings, two younger brothers who died in infancy and three sisters who survived him, only to perish in Hitler’s camps during the Second World War.  He was a member of the dominant German-speaking minority, just three percent of the population of Prague at the time, but he was also fluent in Czech.  As a young man, he was athletic, taller than average, fond of swimming, rowing, and bicycling. Yet for much of his life he was also a hypochondriac: it was not until 1917 that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him at the age of forty.  He trained in university as a lawyer and eventually found a comfortable position in the state-run Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute investigating claims.  Although he chafed at the work, he also excelled at it.  The great advantage of his public sector job was that he put in just a six-hour day, leaving time for writing, his lifelong passion.  “My job is unbearable to me because it conflicts with my only desire and my only calling, which is literature.  Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me, it may however shatter me completely.”(6)

Since he lived with his parents for much of his life, he was able to maintain an affluent lifestyle on his bureaucrat’s salary until World War I.   He dressed well, frequented cafes, and had an active social life.  His literary friends were members of the avant-garde.  Max Brod, the closest of this circle, was a well-published and highly regarded writer who tirelessly promoted his friend.  In fact, before Kafka had published a word, Brod was mentioning him as one of the contemporary masters of German literature.

While Kafka was unable to finish the novels that helped make his posthumous reputation — these being edited by Brod, his literary executor — he did enjoy success as a writer of stories.   He published seven short books in his lifetime, which included such masterpieces as “The Judgment,” “The Stoker,” “In the Penal Colony,” “The Metamorphosis,” “The Great Wall of China,” “A Report to an Academy,” “A Country Doctor,” “A Message from the Emperor,” “A Hunger Artist,” and “First Sorrow.” As he was dying he was working on the galleys for a collection called The Hunger Artist which included a new story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” He was by no means an unknown; indeed, editors wrote to him soliciting submissions and at the start of his career he shared a prestigious writing award with the well-known playwright Carl Sternheim.

Of the many contradictions in Kafka’s life, three stand out for the modern readers.

Although Kafka had many relationships with women, almost all of them were troubled.  He was engaged to be married three times, twice to Felice Bauer (the first engagement was broken off in part because he made advances to her best friend, Grete Bloch) and once to Julie Whoryzek.  He fell in love with his Czech translator Milena Jesenská, who was unhappily married, but, for reasons that remain unclear, could not bring himself to commit to her.  He lived in the last year of his life with Dora Dymant, a young teacher and seamstress fifteen years his junior. He had other relationships and brief liaisons in his younger days. We know that he frequented brothels; his papers include pornography. “Sex keeps gnawing at me, hounds me day and night, I should have to conquer fear and shame and probably sorrow too to satisfy it; yet on the other hand I am certain that I should take advantage with no feeling of fear or sorrow or shame, of the first opportunity to present itself quickly, close at hand and willingly.”(7) Because sex was always a fraught matter for him, he was never able to reconcile his sexual desires with the impulse to marry — or at least to settle down.  “I regarded marriage and children as one of the desirable things on earth in a certain sense, but I could not possibly marry.”(8)

Kafka was a student of Yiddish literature, and in his youth championed Yiddish theatre, much to the puzzlement of some of his literary friends. He was sympathetic to Zionism and yet there are no overt allusions to Jews or Jewishness in his fiction. “What have I in common with the Jews?” he wrote. “I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”(9)  But there are many things “missing” in Kafka’s fiction — often a sense of place, or of time or of historicity — because these did nothing to advance his artistic goals.  Kafka was not a realist and we ought not look to the work to understand his problematic relationship to Judaism. Of course, contemporary questions about Kafka’s Jewishness are informed by tragedies that occurred after his death. Not only did his sisters perish in concentration camps, but Milena did as well. The Gestapo seized twenty notebooks and thirty-five letters that Kafka had left to Dora Dymant. Max Brod was forced to flee to Jerusalem with an even larger collection of Kafka’s papers. Do the terrible realities of the Holocaust affect how we read the work? Undoubtedly, but this is a problem for us, and not for Kafka. Similarly, there are those who interpret The Trial and The Castle as predictions of the rise of totalitarian states like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Russia. Kafka, however, was not trying to prophesy some future world order but rather was attempting to engage imaginatively with a society he knew all too well.

Last there is the puzzle of Kafka’s instructions to Max Brod to destroy his unpublished work.  Brod claims that he told his friend plainly that he would do no such thing. After Kafka’s death, Brod found two notes which explicitly stated that all his papers were to be burned unread. How was Brod then to have executed these requests if he was to burn them unread? And why didn’t Kafka burn the papers himself, especially since he knew Brod was unlikely to do the deed? Even after his death, Kafka’s contradictions remained unresolved. While we have no way to know his thinking in this matter, we do know that this was the request of a sick man whose financial fortunes had taken a radical turn for the worse. His modest pension from the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute was nearly worthless in the hyperinflation that plagued the defeated and disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of World War I. It is clear that Kafka was a depressed and often anxious man, especially after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Never a risk taker, he suffered from feelings of inferiority that arose from the high standards to which he held himself as a writer. Frustrated that his reach continued to exceed his grasp, at the end of his life he struggled with despair.

There is an odd and, yes, Kafkaesque postscript to Brod’s denial of Kafka’s request.  Brod brought many of Kafka’s papers with him to Jerusalem in 1939. No one knows exactly what this cache contained, although reputedly there were letters, diaries, and manuscripts. On his death in 1968, Brod left these papers to his secretary and presumed mistress, Esther Hoffe. But was she intended to be the executor or the beneficiary? Brod’s will is ambiguous, since it also provides that his literary estate be given to a “public archive in Israel or abroad.” In any event, Hoffe retained possession of the Kafka papers until her death in 2007, at which time they passed to her daughters in accordance with her will. Possession of these papers is the subject of a lawsuit in Israel, unresolved as we write this. It is likely, however, that in the near future, Kafka readers and scholars will have access to a trove of Kafka’s previously unseen writing.  Meanwhile, the Kafka Project at San Diego State University continues the search for the missing collection confiscated by the Gestapo from Dora Dymant.

The Work

The tremendous world I have inside my head. But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces.  And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than to retain it in me or to bury it.  That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.”  —Franz Kafka, diary entry, June 21, 1913 (10)

A strength of Kafka’s work is that it stands in marked contrast to the prevailing standards of value in the literary world of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Kafka was an unapologetic allegorist in a time when allegory was shunned as old-fashioned and embarrassing. Though he wrote among and associated with writers who were to a greater or lesser degree consciously identified as Expressionists, though he was alive and working at the same time that Tristan Tzara and Marcel Duchamp created Dadaism, and though he was claimed by the Surrealists, Kafka was not an Expressionist, Dadaist, or Surrealist.

A Hunger Artist” starts with a bald assertion in contradiction to reality: “In the last decades interest in hunger artists has declined a great deal.” What is a hunger artist? The narrator takes the stance that we are at least passingly familiar with the theatrical tradition of hunger artists, and he proceeds to elaborate, letting us in on the details of that old practice since we are unlikely to have witnessed such a performance ourselves.

The rest of the story is the elaboration of that premise, examining all of its implications, making it real, turning it over, using it to allegorize our world and human behavior. Though a realist writer might acknowledge that his story set in the mundane world might have allegorical readings, the trend in the first half of the twentieth century was to flee allegory for either the documentation of the external world, or documentation of individual psychology — usually both. Even experimentalists like Joyce and Woolf, despite streams of consciousness or wild flights of imagery, assume that fiction is about what is, the surface of events and things and people. Hemingway and Faulkner, despite their rhetorical flights, likewise insist upon the reality of their worlds.

Kafka is not interested in documenting the manners and mores of any particular place; he is not interested in probing the psyche of individual characters. Joyce spent his life after leaving Ireland creating Dublin and its inhabitants in their specificity and individuality, their language, places, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. For the most part Kafka’s characters don’t even have names, and the worlds they inhabit are iconic rather than documentary. Though he spent most of his life in Prague, there is little sense of Prague, or any other specific place, in his work.

We are not interested in the hunger artist’s biography. To even ask this question is to reveal its absurdity. Neither do we ask the biography of Melville’s Bartleby or Jesus’s Good Samaritan or the butcher in Chuang Tsu’s poem about “Prince Wen Hui’s Cook.” We don’t wonder about the hunger artist’s childhood, his ethnic background, the place where he lives, the names of the towns and cities where he performs, the political climate, his interpersonal relationships, his sex life, what year it is, and what language is being spoken. Kafka spends little time evoking persons or places, does not give us individual gestures or idiosyncrasies, does not appeal to our senses, does not make us feel and live in the worlds he creates. Though he may give us objects and actions that appear in the real world, he is not documenting reality. A cage, an impresario, some straw, a circus. Or an apartment, a traveling salesman, a sister Grete, an unnamed mother and father, a narrow bed, the photo of a woman wearing a muff, an apple. Or a penal colony, an explorer, a prisoner, an officer, a bizarre execution machine.

Yet the stories are not divorced from the world — in fact they are cogently relevant, even political, as radically political in their universality as Jesus’s parables. There is a power of intellect behind every sentence. A doubleness. Reading Kafka, one is challenged to interpret every image, every action. One reads through the surface of a Kafka story to the meanings behind. There are layers upon layers, prismatic reflections of abstract meanings.

However, it would be a mistake to say that the meanings of Kafka’s parables are clear.  As the critic Walter Benjamin wrote: “Kafka had a rare ability for creating parables for himself.  Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously and warily.”(11)


Stories After Kafka

It was not difficult for us to come up with a table of contents.  Our happy dilemma was in choosing just eighteen stories from the abundance of those inspired by Kafka. We selected three kinds of stories for this collection:

1)      Stories that derive from specific works of Kafka. Carol Emshwiller’s “Report to the Men’s Club” puts the form of Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” to feminist purposes. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “The Big Garage” takes The Trial to an automotive service center. “The Cockroach Hat” revisits the conceit of “The Metamorphosis.”  R. Crumb’s offers a graphic adaptation of “A Hunger Artist.”

2)      Stories that use Franz Kafka as a character. Some of these take the form of alternative histories, in which Kafka survived his illness and lived to come to America and establish a new career as in Paul Di Filippo’s “The Jackdaw’s Last Case,” Philip Roth’s “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting,.” and “Receding Horizon” by Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz.  Others, such as Scholz’s “The Amount to Carry,” present a scenario that might have happened to the real Kafka, while Rudy Rucker presents a bizarre fantasia of multiple Kafkas in “The 57th Franz Kafka.”  And while there is but the merest hint the mysterious stranger in Tamar Yellin’s “Kafka in Brontëland” may be Kafka reincarnated, he symbolizes Kafka to the narrator.

3)      Stories that use the methods or materials of Kafka. We acknowledge that this category is subjective. In some of the stories Kafka’s guiding hand is evident, while in others the writer may not have had Kafka directly in mind at all.  J. G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” presents like a Kafka story: its nameless narrator, who comes from the unnamed city to the unlocated seashore to see the corpse of the huge man who has washed ashore there, can readily be seen as a brother to Kafka’s protagonists. Eileen Gunn’s “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” may have more to do with American bureaucratic culture, yet it operates in the shadow of “The Metamorphosis.” Damon Knight’s deadpan exposition of the fantastic in “The Handler” owes a debt to Kafka’s signature effects.  Jeffrey Ford’s metafictional “Bright Morning” exorcises Kafka’s ghost.  Michael Blumlein’s claustrophobic “Hymenoptera” recalls the economy of characterization in the short fiction. “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow” by Theodora Goss deftly showcases the modern uses of allegory.  “The Lottery in Babylon” is but one of many stories in which Jorge Luis Borges acknowledges the master’s influence.

In practice, these categories blend together, as “Jackdaw” crosses Amerika with American Sunday comics of the 1920s and ’30s, and “Receding Horizon” fuses elements of Kafka’s “The Judgment” with the plot of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

In their afterwords and excerpts from their public commentary, these authors have addressed the degree to which their work was directly or indirectly influenced by Kafka, giving us some insight into their intentions. But the burden of their comments, and the history of Kafka’s influence on writers who came after him, is that influence is not something that may be simply circumscribed.

Borges in “Kafka and his Precursors” asserts that every writer creates his ancestors, inventing a tradition from works that previously might not have seemed to have any connection at all. We suggest that this process works forward in time as well as backward: that sufficiently vital work creates descendants out of works that otherwise might not seem related. These stories are, some of them, direct descendants of The Trial or “The Metamorphosis,” or were created in a literary culture and atmosphere that Kafka’s work helped to create, or in a world that regardless of the existence of Kafka, grew to have a space within it into which fiction resembling Kafka’s might fit. Consider this anthology a case study in the ways in which a writer of sufficiently original sensibility, in the context of a world that changed, can fashion, if not a genre, a way of seeing things.

The reach of the concept of the Kafkaesque is a testimony to the power of a single mind to create a territory that, after the fact, can draw in the minds of others whether they are aware of him or not. That the work of a man who died as Kafka did, convinced that he had never fulfilled his promise, should produce ultimately so many works, and more than that a vision of the world that compels us to see his influence even where it may not exist, is as powerful a mystery as any of the startlements Franz Kafka wrote in Prague almost one hundred years ago.


(1) Michael Hoffman, “Introduction” to Metamorphosis and Other Stories (New York: Penguin, 2007), vii.

(2) Jorge Luis Borges, “Foreword” to Kafka: Stories 1904 – 1924, trans by J. A. Underwood, (New York: Little Brown & Co, 2001).

(3) Kafka, Franz,  Diaries 1910 – 1923, ed. Max Brod, trans by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 253.

(4) Max Brod, The Biography of Franz Kafka, trans by G. Humphreys Roberts (London: Secker and Warburg, 1947), 139.

(5) Franz Kafka, quoted in Franz Kafka: A Writer’s Life, Joachim Unseld, trans by Paul F. Dvorak (Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1994), 67.

(6) Franz Kafka, Diaries 1910 – 1923, ed. Max Brod, trans by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg, (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 230.

(7) Franz Kafka, Diaries 1910 – 1923, ed. Max Brod, trans by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg, (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 400.

(8) Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, ed. Max Brod, trans by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Schocken Books), 216.

(9) Franz Kafka, Diaries 1910 – 1923, ed. Max Brod, trans by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 252.

(10) Franz Kafka, Diaries 1910 – 1923, ed. Max Brod, trans by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), 288.

(11) Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans by Henry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 187

John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly have been best friends for thirty years. They have collaborated on a novel, several stories, and six anthologies, including FEELING VERY STRANGE: The Slipstream Anthology, REWIRED: The Post Cyberpunk Anthology, THE SECRET HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION, KAFKAESQUE: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka and the forthcoming THE NEBULA AWARDS SHOWCASE 2012 and DIGITAL RAPTURE: the Singularity Anthology. They know more about each other than they are telling.