Franz Kafka, photograph, 1906 (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)
The Essence of 'Kafkaesque'
by Ivana Edwards
December 29, 1991
SO just what does this adjective "Kafkaesque" mean? And why does Frederick R. Karl, author of an exhaustive critical biography of Franz Kafka, believe that the word is as misused as it is used?
Kafka is the only 20th-century literary figure whose name "has entered the language in a way no other writer's has," Mr. Karl says. But "what I'm against is someone going to catch a bus and finding that all the buses have stopped running and saying that's Kafkaesque. That's not."
"What's Kafkaesque," he said in an interview in his Manhattan apartment, "is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.
"You don't give up, you don't lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don't stand a chance. That's Kafkaesque."
The word has become the "representative adjective of our times," Mr. Karl says in his recently published book, "Franz Kafka: Representative Man" (Ticknor and Fields) and subtitled "Prague, Germans, Jews and the Crisis of Modernism." Mr. Karl devotes the entire epilogue to this elusive subject. 'Tells Us What We Are'
"Kafkaesque," the author says, "defines us. It's the one word that tells us what we are, what we can expect, how the world works. And to find out what that means, you read Kafka. You read 'The Metamorphosis,' which is about a man who wakes up as a big bug, and then you know."
As Mr. Karl showed a visitor around his book-lined study, it was evident that he is a passionist of the meticulously ordered and maintained book shelf, the straight spine -- nothing is crammed or stuck horizontally in the available space.
He recalled when he first unearthed Kafka's most famous short story ("The Metamorphosis") and how "absolutely stupefied" he was.
"I found it in the stacks of the Columbia University Library as an undergraduate, never having heard of it before," he said. "It was dark, and I sat down to read it under almost perfect conditions -- dark, deserted, spooky."
Today, Kafka is in the mainstream of student reading, and of the reading public, which is largely made up of former students, Mr. Karl said. He believes that "The Metamorphosis," "A Hunger Artist," "In the Penal Colony" and "The Judgment" are among the most widely read Kafka stories. He also says that "The Trial," Kafka's best-known long fiction, with its "trappings based on misinformation," has achieved the mythic symbolism of a world gone berserk.
"The Trial" is about Joseph K., who, although in hot pursuit of the truth, is executed for an unnamed crime. Time and space are rearranged so they "can work either for or against the protagonist; the horror of that world is that he never knows what is happening, or when," Mr. Karl writes. "Thus the Kafkaesqueness of the Kafkan world: that insistence to uncover what is always uncoverable, or to recover what cannot be recovered."
Mr. Karl, who wrote the book in East Hampton, which he calls home, is the only Kafka biographer thus far to have succeeded in gaining permission to see any of the closely held Kafka manuscripts.
Although warned by experts and colleagues that his request would be categorically denied, Mr. Karl opted not to beg, but wrote what he described as a "very funny letter, a really off-the-wall letter about all kinds of things" to Kafka's niece in England. She unexpectedly acquiesced. Research at Oxford
Mr. Karl spent several awestruck hours in the grand Bodleian Library at Oxford University examining the fragile schoolboy notebooks that Kafka used to write the "Diaries" and "The Castle," among other works.
In another stroke of research luck, Mr. Karl discovered that 32 previously unseen letters from Kafka to his parents, written when he was dying, had recently surfaced in a bookshop in Prague.
"They don't change our view of him," Mr. Karl said. "Kafka was already Kafka, and nothing was going to change that -- but it was still a real find. Not one of those dry research trips I'm accustomed to."
Mr. Karl, a professor of literature at New York University and the author of biographies of Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner and several works of literary criticism, said that Kafka's multifarious complexities presented the ultimate biographical challege. Only when he turned 62 three and a half years ago, he said, did he think he was ready to take up a subject that he had been thinking about for at least a quarter-century.
"What I really waited for was to be much more mature," Mr. Karl said. 'I felt I had to be tremendously mature and to know an awful lot -- the whole cultural context of Middle Europe, which I did push into the book very heavily.
"I had to be very familiar with the psychological and psychoanalytic doctrines so that I could apply them. Kafka without a psychological approach is not Kafka. And I had to be mature enough not to get completely entangled in Kafka, who can seduce you and suck you in, and you're trapped. In other words, not to see everything only through Kafka's eyes."
Equally crucial to the project, Mr. Karl said, was retrieving his German language skills, which had atrophied since doctoral studies 30 years ago.
"I took an enormously concentrated refresher to bring it all back and had to face sitting with a bunch of graduate students at Deutsches Haus at N.Y.U.," he said.
This was not to read Kafka himself, who wrote in a German prose style noted for its lucidity, but to read the scholarship on Kafka, the most important part of which is in German.
"That was the nightmarish part, reading Professor X . . . ghastly," Mr. Karl said. "One of the odd things about my book is that biographies and studies of Kafka have almost never come from someone who's in American or English literature. They've always come out of German departments of universities." Overlapping Backgrounds
His initial attraction to Kafka, he said, came partly from overlapping backgrounds.
"Mine is Polish-Russian-Lithuanian Jewish," Mr. Karl explained, "and therefore someone who can get into that Kafka family life. I know how it works. I don't have his hang-ups, but I do have the understanding of somebody who decided to devote himself completely to one thing, which was to be a writer.
"And I do understand a family where it becomes oppressive to the point where you feel that if you don't escape, you're going to be crushed. Kafka never left his family, of course, he stuck.
"He needed it as something to struggle against and that he could hate, and define himself by way of his hatred. That's how he felt toward his father. His father was not that unusual a man; he was a typical Middle European father.
"What the son needed was a monster. I didn't have a father like that, but this is what I grew up observing. This was Jewish life among immigrants in this country. Given one generation, I could have been caught back there on the border between Poland and Russia." Immense Obstacles Cited
Despite these areas of identification, the obstacles to understanding the life and work, particularly the life style, of the Prague-born Kafka were immense, Mr. Karl said.
"At certain points," he explained, "I simply didn't know what to make of certain things. His sexuality, for example. Clearly, his primary drive seemed to be heterosexual, although for a man who died at 40 he had very little actual sexual experience, except at the sanitariums and occasionally with shop girls.
"And as you read his notebooks or diaries, you find a huge number of homoerotic images. I mention these again and again -- the desire to be penetrated, which for a male would obviously be a homosexual experience, the desire to have a knife twisted around so he's in agony.
"And there was really no way of putting that together. Consciously, all of Kafka's drives were directed toward women. When he traveled, he would always remark on pretty women. On the other hand, he was impotent most of the time; he did not consummate any kinds of relationships with women he knew well. I felt it was impossible to resolve that he was both things."
To further his understanding, Mr. Karl even held long psychoanalytic sessions with a friend, a woman who is an analyst, in which Mr. Karl played Kafka and discussed dreams and other pieces of Kafka's life.
"I wanted to see how she could deal with it," he said, "and some of the ideas are outgrowths of these sessions."
Not that Kafka himself would ever have darkened the doorstep of a therapist's office.
"A psychotherapist could not get to first base with Kafka," Mr. Karl said. "They would have been talking at crosspurposes. Kafka is not an analysand of any kind, simply because he had that one unbreakable thing, which was to get these stories and longer works down on paper. There would be no way in which anyone could intrude on that world."
Mr. Karl also conceded that, despite the plethora of published material about his subject, unexplored territory still exists, like Kafka's ultra finicky vegetarian, fletcherizing habit of chewing his food slowly and grinding it before swallowing.
"Nobody's done as much with food as I have," Mr. Karl said. "Food is connected to sex -- that's standard psychoanalytic procedure. It became something Kafka had to fight against.
"Food in a Jewish culture can be a difficult thing. It's something I experienced very closely myself -- not that I was ever anorexic or anything -- but I could never get enough to eat, and I always wanted more than enough to eat. It's part of the immigrant European experience, especially with Jews.
"The sense of catastrophe was just around the corner, and therefore meals can become tense. Kafka played food off against this big, heavy chunk of a father who filled his face, and as the father got bigger and heavier, Kafka himself got thinner and thinner. At close to 6 feet tall, he weighed about 115 pounds."
Kafka's incessant role-playing within role-playing presented Mr. Karl with particular problems.
"It's impossible to pin Kafka down," he said. "The only way to approach him is by surrounding him with everything he was surrounded with in his lifetime. He played one role to his family, another to his friends, another role in his insurance office. We forget he had a steady job for his entire adult life until he became too sick to work.
"He had another role in his relationship with Felice, to whom he was engaged on and off for five years, and then the final role was when everything quieted down in Prague and he sat down and wrote. So you have five or six different Kafkas, a person who had broken himself into all these little pieces.
"I tried to make his writing the very center of his life so that all these different shapes he took on were secondary to the fact that he had to write, that he was going to die writing.
"And I made the story he wrote near the end of his life, 'A Hunger Artist,' a kind of central story, but it's the story of his life. The man who fasts and fasts until he wastes away and dies, and holds the world's record for fasting. This is Kafka."
Mr. Karl believes that Kafka needed his "non-normalities," like the sheer madness evinced in the species of epistolary novel that the "Letters to Felice" represent:
"His maneuverings were just marvelous. I loved that chapter," said Mr. Karl of the lengthy section of his biography that he calls "Franz, Felice, and the Great War."
He writes, "Kafka is literally moving from one defense position to another to hold Felice off, while at the same time he's offering himself up to her as a sacrifice."
Mr. Karl further believes that literary giants like Faulkner, Proust, Conrad, Joyce and Kafka all needed their extreme eccentricities to create.
"Kafka had to suffer in all the ways he chose to suffer," he said. "With most of us, you can change certain things without doing a great deal of damage. You can make a person happier, but this is not something you would want to pursue with a Conrad or a Faulkner. Get rid of Faulkner's suicidal drinking and you get rid of Faulkner." 'Product of Juncture'
When asked if Kafka could have become Kafka in any other city but Prague, Mr. Karl hesitated.
"Every major writer is a product of a particular juncture, a meeting of the place, the time, the history, so that the answer is no," he said. "Prague wasn't only Prague, it was also a moment in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Prague was for Kafka a great love/hate relationship. He hated the place, yet he could never get away from it."
Mr. Karl recalled his own visit to Prague in 1989, before the fall of the Communist regime, to research his book and lecture on contemporary American literature at Charles University.
"When I got there," he said, "I could speak to people I knew, and they would say, 'Yes, it's a beautiful city, but it's killing us. We're dying here.' And I'd say, 'Prague is so magnificent,' and they'd say, 'That's all we have.' And Kafka felt that. He called it 'an old crone with claws.' "
Mr. Karl's book is dedicated to "the six million Europeans murdered by Europeans," a curious reference to the Holocaust, which came after Kafka died in 1924.
"Remember, I said 'Europeans,' not 'Jews,' " Mr. Karl explained. "I make it very clear that Kafka was not a prophet, but that what he saw coming was a historical development of the most disastrous kind. He was the historian, the genius, of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Front wrapper of the first edition of Kafks’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), 1915 (Whitmore Rare Books)
"All those bizarre, surreal works can be seen against that background. The First World War that resulted was the real war. That was the war that determined the course of the 20th century. I see it as a kind of trajectory. All of that was being shaped in the world that Kafka was still a witness to."
Didn't Kafka become a kind of blotting pad for a lot of different theories?
"He absorbed into himself everything that was happening," Mr. Karl said. "Not directly, for he makes very few comments on politics, for example. The entire European world was changed, and indirectly the American world.
"Kafka seems to me to have understood this better than anybody else alive, and in that sense he becomes the person who absorbed the whole historical lesson before most people realized it was a historical lesson. A great writer does this.
"What he also saw was something else -- that history was going to roll over everybody, that everybody was going to become a victim of history. That's Kafkaesque. You struggle against history and history destroys you."