How to Read Kafka?


  • Kafka’s Bed

The following exercise is intended for night owls who have a hard time waking up in the morning: Imagine a scenario to get you out of bed. 

That, I suggest, is more or less the Gedankenexperiment, perhaps the creative impulse behind much of Kafka’s work.  I don’t mean it as an interpretation (or the interpretation) of his writings but rather as an obviously speculative though plausible interpretative strategy, with which one may approach the works.  It has, I think, the advantage of not being too serious, and thus allow experiencing the texts as fundamentally humorous. I hope this will avoid the pitfall, where much of the literature on Kafka went astray.  Though scholarly or critical writing on Kafka often mentions his texts as humorous — an anecdote of him laughing out laud while reading out to friends is a favorite  —, it seems that the serious readers somehow miss the joke. The result can be very dark indeed. 

What do Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), Der Process (The Trial) and Das Schloss (The Castle) have in common? Look no further than the opening. These three key works open in bed, where the protagonists — Gregor Samsa, Josef K., K. — are preoccupied with sleep —  going back to sleep, falling asleep — or somehow wishing to wake up.

Die Verwandlung

What is the first thing Gregor would like to do upon learning of his transformation? Go back to sleep.

Here’s the third paragraph:  

Gregors Blick richtete sich dann zum Fenster, und das trübe Wetter – man hörte Regentropfen auf das Fensterblech aufschlagen – machte ihn ganz melancholisch. »Wie wäre es, wenn ich noch ein wenig weiterschliefe und alle Narrheiten vergäße,« dachte er, aber das war gänzlich undurchführbar, denn er war gewöhnt, auf der rechten Seite zu schlafen, konnte sich aber in seinem gegenwärtigen Zustand nicht in diese Lage bringen.  

Let’s see what we can make of it. 

— What is so depressing about the situation? The weather! 

— What is the problem with the recently acquired bodily form?  it is absolutely impossible — gänzlich undurchführbar— to fall back asleep.

— Why can’t Gregor fall back asleep? He is used to sleeping on his right side, which is currently not accessible. 

The reader expects the falling asleep distracting attempt to be rather instinctive, a part of the coming-to-terms process. But Kafka builds on the readers’ expectations only to undermine then a tad by inserting intention.  He elongates the moment into something intentional, deliberate, thoughtful. We have here an example of Kafka’s humor technique — examples can be found throughout his stories and letters. Moreover, the effect is accentuated through a prompt for sobering up, in the previous paragraph — »Was ist mit mir geschehen?« dachte er. Es war kein Traum — which helps creating the overstated, not wholly usual, psychologically unwarranted,  — one may say kafkaesque—feeling of distraction. 

Dissertations aplenty have been dedicated to the typically haughty but finally empty attempts to pin down the all encompassing interpretation of the story: certainly a metaphor for modern Man’s lonely existence in the harsh capitalistic society must underlie the grim mystery! Perhaps. I would like to argue that such expansive interpretations are allowed because they are in the periphery of the writer’s intention. They are made possible because they are marginal to the writer’s vision. If there is an allegory here, it may be the fruit of the imagination of an exhausted person finding it exceedingly difficult to wake up in the morning and conjuring up a a motivational device in the form of one’s boss appearing at the door to cajole him out of bed.  

Der Process

Leave the big metaphysical interpretations aside, and think again about the tired writer who now conjures police officers forcing him out of bed. 

The opening sentence of the Der Process is arguably one of the most famous in literature, but it is worthwhile looking beyond into the first few sentences.  

Jemand mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet. Die Köchin der Frau Grubach, seiner Zimmervermieterin, die ihm jeden Tag gegen acht Uhr früh das Frühstück brachte, kam diesmal nicht. Das war noch niemals geschehen. K. wartete noch ein Weilchen, sah von seinem Kopfkissen aus die alte Frau, die ihm gegenüber wohnte und die ihn mit einer an ihr ganz ungewöhnlichen Neugierde beobachtete, dann aber, gleichzeitig befremdet und hungrig, läutete er. Sofort klopfte es und ein Mann, den er in dieser Wohnung noch niemals gesehen hatte, trat ein. Er war schlank und doch fest gebaut, er trug ein anliegendes schwarzes Kleid, das, ähnlich den Reiseanzügen, mit verschiedenen Falten, Taschen, Schnallen, Knöpfen und einem Gürtel versehen war und infolgedessen, ohne daß man sich darüber klar wurde, wozu es dienen sollte, besonders praktisch erschien. »Wer sind Sie?« fragte K. und saß gleich halb aufrecht im Bett. 

The scene takes place in bed, but the author does not even bother to name the location, until after the strangers have entered the space, and even then, he does so only in passing. 

Das Schloss

The Castle is probably the most bed-centered of all Kafka’s works. It has been noted that K. shows more agency than Josef K. of Der Process.  But K. is also more tired than Josef K., and the two characteristics may well be intimately connected. Being tired, looking for a bed, wishing to get some rest— K. has found a purpose, a focusing axis on which his actions are directed. 

A naive description of the novel that has crept also into more discerning opinions is of a protagonist attempting in vain to reach the unattainable Castle.  It is remarkable, however, the extent to which K. does not attempt to reach the Castle. From the very start he is resigned to the impossibility, and at most curious about the Castle, and its impact on himself. He is too tired to try anything more ambitious. 

The First chapter already sets the tone: K. is looking for a place to sleep in the winter-struck village.  Unfortunately, he’s not been allowed his sleep, and is bothered by several people at the behest of the Castle. Over and over again, chapters open or end in bed.  And some chapters take place in bed. The only moments when K. is described as “free” is when he has finally fallen asleep. 

Kafka’s works are in diagonal opposition to the Bildungsroman tradition. There is neither past nor future, only the present time.  Perhaps there is some Bildung but it is not of the character but of the writer, who throughout the writing process discovers the inner power of the narrative.  

Kafka and Proust

Another famous novel of the same period also begins in bed. “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure” begins  À la recherche du temps perdu.

One can plausibly draw solid personal comparisons between Kafka and Proust.  And if we read too much into the opening, Proust may have been as tired as Kafka was. But Proust is at peace, while Kafka of course never is. 

Du Côté de Chez Swann continues:

Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: «Je m’endors.» Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu’il était temps de chercher le sommeil m’éveillait; je voulais poser le volume que je croyais avoir encore dans les mains et souffler ma lumière; je n’avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour un peu particulier; il me semblait que j’étais moi-même ce dont parlait l’ouvrage: une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François Ier et de Charles Quint. Cette croyance survivait pendant quelques secondes à mon réveil; elle ne choquait pas ma raison mais pesait comme des écailles sur mes yeux et les empêchait de se rendre compte que le bougeoir n’était plus allumé. Puis elle commençait à me devenir inintelligible, …

  • Intention vs Action

The connection between intention and outcome is a staple of storytelling, from the Bible (God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.) to Netflix.  So intimate is the connection that with economy of description, intention implies its execution.  A version of the same principle often helps distinguish the more sophisticated, less sensual, direction of films or television shows: we are privy to the question, but the answer is implied — or is revealed only when it falters our expectations.  “Will you marry me?” or  “Did you commit the murder?” The delicate director will save us the cheap and uninformative excitement of the confirmation, but will have to explicate, should the reply be a resounding “no.”

In Kafka, if fiat lux implies anything it is total darkness.  

Here’s an example from the fourth paragraph of the Metamorphosis: 

Er fühlte ein leichtes Jucken oben auf dem Bauch; schob sich auf dem Rücken langsam näher zum Bettpfosten, um den Kopf besser heben zu können; fand die juckende Stelle, die mit lauter kleinen weißen Pünktchen besetzt war, die er nicht zu beurteilen verstand; und wollte mit einem Bein die Stelle betasten, zog es aber gleich zurück, denn bei der Berührung umwehten ihn Kälteschauer.

  • Kafka and Professionalism 

Television shows aplenty focus on the professional life. Some of the best quality comic shows are centered on explicitly professional settings — e.g., The Office, Veep — where the characters are almost always on the clock.  There is a personal life too, and it is important, but always secondary, and relatively private — part of the comic effect is achieved with studied revelation of aspects of the private life.  

That is not the same in literature, where important works may be too personal to be fully engaged with professional life.  An important exception is the wonderful writer Kazuo Ishiguro— who takes the concept of professionalism to an artistic extreme.  In The Remains of the Day we have a professionally obsessed butler; in Never Let Me Go, the clones have a purpose; in Klara and the Sun, the AI-powered Klara is here to serve. 

Kafka was there first. “Kafka is another writer who is very important to me,” Ishiguro acknowledged Kafka’s influence in an interview he gave to the Nobel Foundation upon the reception of the award  in Stockholm in 2017.  In Kafka, the characters are often defined by their professional lives.