One Man's Kafka

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APRIL 25, 2005

One Man's Kafka


By Roberto Calasso

Translated by Geoffrey Brock

(Alfred A. Knopf, 327 pp., $25)

Click here to buy this bookEver since the publication of Kafka's major fiction in the
mid-1920s, beginning a year after his death in 1924, there has been
a certain perplexity about how to discuss this strange body of
work. From the outset, Kafka's writing struck readers as
quintessentially modern--indeed, he was often seen, and with the
passage of time would continue to be seen, as a paradigmatic
instance of literary modernism. Yet the peculiar fact is that there
are no other modern writers who really resemble him. Kafka's
unnerving subversion of the assumptions of literary realism has
often been seized on as a central expression of his modernist
iconoclasm, but nothing akin to it is detectable in the fiction of
Musil, Mann, Joyce, Woolf, or Faulkner. He made himself the prose
master of a world of bafflement--a condition shared equally if
differently by his protagonists and his readers--in which the
uncanny could explode without warning from a junk room, from the
ring of a doorbell, from a portrait hanging in a seedy office. He
created floundering central characters stripped of all but the most
vestigial personal memory; social institutions driven by what
appeared to be an insane illogic; representations of urban and
rural space that were weirdly elastic, resistant to any coherent

Confronted with a new mode of fiction so stubbornly enigmatic and
yet somehow imaginatively authoritative, critics set out at once to
interpret it. The early precedent was set by Kafka's friend and
literary executor Max Brod, who encouraged readers to look for
theological symbolism. Kafka has been interpreted from a variety of
theological angles (Kabbalistic, Gnostic, post- theist, even
Catholic), and he has been discussed in psychoanalytic, Zionist,
Marxist, and other ideological terms. Gershom Scholem, who late in
his life grouped the works of Kafka with the Bible and the Zohar as
the texts to which he had devoted the most unflagging scrutiny, saw
in Kafka what he deemed to be the hallmark of the canonical, which
he defined as endless interpretability.

As early as 1934, however, Scholem's friend Walter Benjamin was
expressing unease with the very idea of such exegesis: "There are
two ways to miss the point of Kafka's works. One is to interpret
them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation." This
tart objection to interpretation still seems just. To interpret
Kafka's fiction is to coerce it into a framework of stable
meaning--sliding down the slippery slope toward allegory--that the
work itself seems devised to unsettle. Still, it remains unclear
what the alternative to interpretation might be. Benjamin's own
gestures toward an alternative in his two essays on Kafka are
immensely suggestive, but they are really no more than the
brilliant, episodic impressions of an imaginative reader.

Roberto Calasso's study, which covers Kafka's three novels, some of
the major short stories, and material from the diaries and the
posthumous fragments, reflects a resolute determination not to
interpret the master. In certain respects, Calasso is ideally
positioned to carry out this sort of project, and his sometimes
engaging book has been quite ably translated by Geoffrey Brock.
Calasso is not an academic, but the head of a distinguished
publishing house in Milan, and as a freewheeling literary
intellectual, he feels no obligation to obey the guild rules, or
recite the buzzwords, or do obeisance to the prestige networks of a
persistently self-regarding and insular academic world. He is a man
of immense learning (as his previous books attest), with a broad
command of historical detail and proficiency in all the modern
Western European languages as well as in Greek, Latin, and
Sanskrit. He established himself as an utterly original voice in
contemporary criticism with The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony,
which appeared in English in 1993. This idiosyncratic book is a
retelling of a good part of the corpus of Greek myth, including many
of the variants of the same stories. (That enterprise has some
bearing on his approach to Kafka.) Stated this baldly, the aim of
the book might sound simplistic, but in fact The Marriage of Cadmus
and Harmony is a subtle and persuasive reconstruction for moderns
of the mental universe of Greek myth, and it is a very rewarding

Calasso's other books exhibit some of the virtues, but also the
defects of the virtues, of this early study. He is always good at
making imaginative connections, and he is incapable of writing
anything without some bright ideas, but he also has a tendency to
speculate wildly, to spin out free associations between eras,
historical figures, writers, theologies, and political trends, with
a frequent invocation of sacred Sanskrit texts that blurs more often
than it illuminates. By the time one finishes The Ruin of Kasch
(1994), one wonders whether one has really learned anything--or
indeed, whether the book that one has just completed had any
identifiable subject. Literature and the Gods (2001), in some sense
the groundwork for K., includes some bracing ideas--such as the
proposition that the modern idea of the good community, which was
vehemently espoused by both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, is
actually "pernicious"--but the book also abounds in assertions such
as this: "Whatever else it might be, the divine is certainly the
thing that imposes with maximum intensity the sensation of being
alive." Like much else in Calasso, this is either profound (a
neo-pagan vitalist such as D.H. Lawrence would certainly have
embraced it) or not quite coherent, a mere gesture toward

This may sound odd, but there is nothing in K. quite so good as the
second paragraph of the book. After evoking in four swift lines the
stark beginning of The Castle, in which K. stands on the wooden
bridge staring up into the "seeming emptiness" in which there may
be a castle, Calasso observes:

Kafka sensed that by then only the minimum number of elements of the
surrounding world ought to be named. He plunged the sharpest
Ockham's razor into the substance of the novel. To name the bare
minimum, and in its pure literality. And why so? Because the world
was turning back into a primeval forest, too fraught with strange
noises and apparitions. Everything had too much power. Thus it
became necessary to limit oneself to what lay closest at hand, to
circumscribe the zone of the nameable. Then all that power,
otherwise diffuse, would be channeled there, and whatever was
named--an inn, a file, an office, a room--would fill with
unprecedented energy.

This may be as good an account of the strangeness of Kafka's world
and the reason for its bizarre coherence as anyone has offered, and
the comment about Kafka's plunging "the sharpest Ockham's razor
into the substance of the novel" is itself almost worth the price
of the book. One sees in a flash why Kafka differs so radically
from his master Flaubert.

The notion that there is something archaic about Kafka's fictional
world goes back to Benjamin, who actually spoke of a "prehistoric
world" in Kafka, but it must be said that Calasso makes excellent
imaginative use of the idea. A few pages on, he argues that in The
Castle the social order has been superimposed on the cosmic order:
"the majesty and the articulations of the old order are retained
even as the memory of it is erased." The result, he wittily
concludes, is that "the mythic landscape has lost its pigmentation."
Later he explains the seeming paradox that this purportedly archaic
imagination is repeatedly engaged with the circumstances and
institutions of modernity by proposing that "an archaic element ...
commingles with a contemporary element that hadn't yet any way of
manifesting itself. The result is a potent chemical compound no one
knows how to handle."

These are insights well worth pondering, but the problem is that a
local insight does not necessarily provide the grounds for a
sustained reading of a great writer. (The same problem besets
Benjamin, who is--in his Kafka essays but also more generally--a
master of the dazzling aperu rather than of sustained argument.)
Calasso, having registered in this fashion the pervasive
ontological strangeness of Kafka's fictional world, proceeds to
evoke that quality by tirelessly, and tiresomely, retelling Kafka.
This strategy is essentially the one he adopted for Greek myth in
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, but it does not succeed in the
same way here, as I shall try to explain.

A large part of Calasso's book is taken up with statements such as
the following. On The Castle:

K. quickly adopts the tone of one victimized by an abuse of power.
If, however, he were really incontrovertibly within his rights, he
ought at least to have in hand an official letter of appointment to
the post of land surveyor. But it seems that he never received such
a letter. A haze of mystification hovers around K., as around
everything done or said by Castle officials.

And on the infernal machine of pedagogic capital punishment of "In
the Penal Colony": "In order to reach a level of unquestionable
truth, knowledge must be inscribed--in the sense of incised--on the
body. Only in this way could one make sure that the word passed
instantly into the blood." Calasso offers a rationale at one point
for this procedure of close paraphrase and synopsis, in the form of
a quotation from Elias Canetti, who is virtually the only critic of
Kafka besides Benjamin who is cited in the book: "There are certain
writers-- very few, in fact--who are so utterly themselves that any
statement one might presume to make about them might seem
barbarous. One such writer was Franz Kafka; accordingly, one must,
even at the risk of seeming slavish, adhere as closely as possible
to his own statements."

Calasso throughout the book is perfectly willing to seem slavish. As
a result, very little that he says violates Kafka, and everything
is steeped in the spirit of Kafka, but not much illuminates Kafka.
To take the two examples I have just quoted, is there any reader of
The Castle who does not recognize that K.'s tone is that of a man
victimized by power, or that he lacks the authenticating letter
that would clarify his status? Is there any reader of "In the Penal
Colony" who could fail to see that the purpose of the Commandant's
machine is to incise the judicial truth into the body of the
condemned man?

The difference between retelling Greek myth and retelling Kafka
becomes apparent. Greek myth, after all, conjures up a series of
scenes and images that are bound to seem strange to most people at
the beginning of the third Christian millennium: a god raining down
in a shower of gold on the object of his lust, a taurine monster
coupling with a maiden, a loving wife pulled back to Hades when her
devoted husband casts a backward glance at her as they flee the
underworld. What all these stories were meant to suggest would
presumably have been accessible to an ancient Greek because he was
directly in touch with the living culture and the popular religion
out of which the stories issued. To moderns, such materials may
well be fascinating, but they are also likely to be a little
opaque, or simply alien. Calasso's retelling of the Greek myths
boldly helps us to see, from the immense distance of our own
cultural location, something of their imaginative coherence,
something of the way they constitute an account of the nature of
reality. But a restatement of Kafka's fiction, of what happens on
the surface of the novels and stories, however alert to nuance and
detail, is not especially helpful, because what is on the surface,
through Kafka's explicit design, is perfectly accessible to us.

The Castle may abound in uncanny and perplexing events and figures,
but we moderns (and postmoderns too) share the novelist's living
culture, and so we can follow K.'s predicament of attempting to
cope with a remote and seemingly perverse bureaucracy, and of
trying to establish a place for himself in a community that may not
even be a community, and that regards him as an incorrigible
outsider. Much the same could be said of Joseph K. in The Trial. Of
course he is an inveterate loner, a man extravagantly open to the
assumption of unspecified guilt, and someone whose human instincts
have been replaced by the habits of bureaucratic procedure; but it
is Kafka's genius to convert the pathological into the exemplary,
making his selfsubverting isolate a modern European Everyman who is
bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

The fantastic apparatus of "In the Penal Colony" is a little
different, obviously: it is a nightmarish extrapolation from the
world we know rather than an evocation of predicaments that we are
likely to share more directly. The preoccupation with guilt and
with imposing figures of authority is the very idiolect of Kafka's
own inner realm, but in an era in which authoritarianism would
assume the most devastating political forms, and in which, against
a background of corrosive skepticism and relativism, atavistic
longings for an absolute truth would variously assert themselves,
readers have little difficulty entering into the terrifying world
of Kafka's story. We may puzzle about what it means, but it draws
us in powerfully as experience. Understanding what "happens" in the
fiction is not a problem, and so the retelling of the tale does not
take us anywhere that an unaided reading would not.

K. does employ, episodically, a method of critical commentary that
supplements the predominant strategy of narrative paraphrase, and it
is to link what goes on in Kafka's fiction with other bodies of
literature and thought, and with other cultural artifacts and
historical events. Some of the references, predictably, are to
Vedic religion. Thus Calasso, having proposed, rather gnomically,
but in keeping with his perception of an archaic world in this
fiction, that Kafka's subject is a "mass of power, not yet
differentiated," goes on to say, "It is the shapeless body of
Vitra, which contains the waters, before Indra runs it through with
a thunderbolt." I am not sure that a mass of undifferentiated
powers explains much about The Castle; and when we move on from
that to this image from Vedic mythology, we find ourselves sunk in
an association that no doubt speaks personally to Calasso but is
not likely to be helpful to many readers.

The freedom of associative thinking in Calasso is palpable even when
the associations are less exotic. Though Herren could indeed mean
"rulers" as well as "gentlemen" or "lords," are the Herren who come
down from the Castle readily identified ("if only we give the word
enough room to resonate," Calasso says), with the archon of Gnostic
theology? There is much in The Castle that is patently farcical,
but is there any scene in the novel that resembles a Busby Berkeley
musical, as is claimed here? How plausible is it to describe the
representation of the chambermaids' room in The Castle as "something
out of an Elizabethan play"? And if there is some limited
justification for saying that the landlady at the Bridge Inn
identifies K. immediately as an enemy, "just as the high-level
agents of the Ochrana could spot a young terrorist in a shapeless
mass of students," is not the injection of czarist political
imagery into The Castle a distortion of the distinctive world of
this novel that, after all, has little to do with the ambience of
the Romanov empire?

The one respect in which the otherwise unexegetical Calasso begins
to slide toward allegory is in identifying the purportedly Jewish
references in Kafka. The Jewishness of Kafka's fiction has long
been a source of contention among critics. His correspondence and
diaries, and also the testimonies of his friends, provide abundant
evidence of his preoccupation with Jewish culture and tradition,
and the ambiguities of being a Jew in modern Europe--and yet he
scrupulously excluded all references to Jews from his fiction (with
the exception of one strange story involving an animal in the
women's gallery of a synagogue). Many readers have detected a
Jewish matrix beneath the universalizing surface of his fiction,
but there has been no consensus as to what it might be. Yet
Calasso, elsewhere circumspect in making statements about Kafka
that might be "barbarous," casts aside these restraints with regard
to Jewishness, not hesitating to sketch direct translations between
the fiction and the social and historical circumstances of modern
European Jews.

If K. gains entry into the home of the one family considered
outcasts in the village, Calasso feels free to state that "in
Olga's house, K. senses and recognizes that feeling of familiarity
that the assimilated Jew feels in the home of other assimilated
Jews." The reason for the family's ostracism was the rejection by
Olga's sister Amalia of a crude sexual overture in a letter from
one of the Castle officials: "Between Amalia's gesture of shredding
Sortini's letter and her father's grueling attempts to make his
petitions heard sprawls the gamut of situations that accompanied
the persecution of central Europe's Jews." And, not content to push
The Castle toward social allegory, Calasso goes on to make it
prophetic--surely a cardinal sin in the reading of Kafka--by
claiming that "what happened later, in the Hitler years, was first
and foremost a literalization of this process."

One expression of Kafka's commitment to giving his fiction a
universalizing cast is his rigorous avoidance of Jewish personal
names. The single, perhaps marginal, exception is the merchant
Block in The Trial. Block would in all likelihood have been
identified as a Jewish name by most German speakers of this period,
though a little less confidently than Cohen or Segal or Schechter.
But the rather modest hint conveyed by the name triggers a kind of
Jewish phantasmagoria in Calasso's reading of The Trial. Joseph
K.'s ambivalence toward Block, a fellow defendant, is explained as
his subjecting "the merchant to those violent oscillations between
attraction and aversion that assimilated Jews endured in the period
between the first emancipations and Hitler." Block in a kneeling
posture before the lawyer Huld has as his "model ... Moses before
Yahweh." Block scrutinizing a sheaf of documents bearing on his case
"appears to us as a Hasid immersed in the Torah."

When it comes to Jewish meanings, it seems, all interpretations are
permissible. With these invocations of the horizon of the Hitler
years, of Moses prostrate before the God of Israel, and of the
Hasid conning his text (an especially awkward identification--why a
Hasid?--that suggests a very limited acquaintance with these
materials), Calasso introduces into his interpretation of Kafka a
misplaced concreteness, which amounts to a kind of vulgarity--an
intellectual fault one would scarcely have expected of him.

As the identification of purportedly Jewish concerns in K.
illustrates, one way not to read Kafka is to draw equations between
figures and situations in the fiction and social or historical--not
to speak of theological or political-- phenomena that happen to be
of interest to the interpreter. This is interpretation with a
vengeance, the very activity against which Benjamin inveighed. The
more common procedure of Calasso's book, the retelling of Kafka's
texts, does not violate them in this fashion, though, as we have
seen, it also does not much advance the understanding of them.

What is a critic to do, then, with Kafka's fiction? Perhaps it might
be best to think of Kafka not as a visionary or a theologian or an
oblique social historian or some sort of radical heresiarch but,
before all else, as a writer of fiction. Whatever his spiritual or
philosophical or psychological concerns, he was a writer who had
studiously read many of the masters of European fiction (Kleist,
Flaubert, Dickens, and many others) and who aspired to be their
worthy heir and hence lavished great care in cultivating the art of
fiction. One reason that he asked Brod to burn his unpublished
writings was surely his sense that he had not sufficiently
perfected that art.

The novels and the stories of Kafka may well be dense with meanings,
some of them obscure, but they are first of all strongly imagined
fictional worlds, constituted through the use of a certain
narrative point of view, the deployment of a particular style, the
management of character and dialogue, the recourse to often quite
surprising metaphors, and the representation of concrete
entities--city streets, interiors, village houses, mechanical
contraptions, details of attire, and much more. In stubborn
opposition to all the critics who seek symbols in Kafka's world
(Calasso is not one of them, except perhaps in regard to the Jews),
I would argue that it is Kafka's fecund invention of concrete
details--sometimes startling, sometimes grotesque or uncanny,
sometimes compellingly mimetic--that generates much of the peculiar
magic of his fiction.

The nameless city of The Trial is built out of bits and pieces of
early twentieth-century Prague but serves quite arrestingly as a
European Everycity. It exists in a kind of space warp: it is never
quite clear how you get from one point to another, but somehow you
usually end up in claustrophobically narrow streets and alleys
crowded with urchins and stinking from open sewers, and every
building seems to turn into a warren of dark stairwells, airless
corridors, and dirty attics devoid of windows. As many interpreters
have variously proposed, all this can be seen as a projection of
Joseph K.'s oxygen- deprived sordid inner life, but is also the
artfully fashioned manifestation of an integrated fictional world,
faithfully drawn from certain observable realities of actual
European cities. Kafka was not a realist, but he had studied the
masterworks of European realism and adopted some of their
procedures for his own, different ends.

We will do more justice to Kafka if we ask fewer questions about
what he means, and direct less attention to the eons or the era
that he purportedly reflects or to the mythology that he supposedly
manifests, and instead look at the finely wrought and endlessly
inventive fashioning of the fictional world that he invites us to
enter in the traditional way: through the story told, the images
conjured up, the language used, the sense of character and place
indelibly evoked.

By Robert Alter

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