How to Read Kafka?

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

Perhaps something of the kind was attempted by Kafka in several of his best known works.

I bring it up not because I mean it as a textual interpretation.  Rather, think of it as a speculation on Kafka’s creative impulse, an interpretive strategy to facilitate  the “right” mindset toward the texts, that is, reading with humor.

This interpretive strategy is an attempt to solve a problem: Kafka’s corpus is read and interpreted as dark and menacing.  Can we read it and laugh?

Biographical, scholarly and critical writing on Kafka often mentions the importance of humor in the texts. An anecdote of him laughing out loud while reading out to friends is especially popular.

Even the critics who bring up this anecdote, it seems, are not fully convinced about the centrality of humor (though some are).  The often-told anecdote has played a repetitive rhetorical role: given the underlying expectation about Kafka’s darkness and seriousness, we are given a surprising piece of information that in the end only serves to reinforce the usual expectations.  We learn that there is humor, but the humor is not simply available to us; that it is, in a sense, private, and not easily comprehended by the public meaning available to later generations.

I argue that the “dark” reading of Kafka which does not take humor seriously is where much of the literature on Kafka went astray.  The serious readers, it seems, somehow miss the joke. The result can be very dark indeed.

My interpretive strategy has the advantage of not being too serious. It allows to take humor seriously. The result is  far from belittling the value and gravitas of the writings and writer.  On the contrary.

And not just Kafka.

Great “dark” works are written in humor.  It is not hard to imagine a laughing Shakespeare penning the end notes for Hamlet, ridding of the characters one by one, Tarantino-like, and then at one fell swoop.

In Kafka’s Bed 

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 readers’ expectations only to undermine them a tad, e.g., by inserting intention.  He elongates the moment into something intentional, deliberate, thoughtful. We have here an example of Kafka’s humor technique — other examples can be found throughout his stories and letters. The effect is accentuated by 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 vision. That’s what makes them possible — and unimportant.

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 that instead conjures up a motivational device in the form of the boss appearing at the door to cajole him out of bed.

Or just wishing for a metamorphosis as an excuse to stay in 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 Der Process is arguably one of the most famous across the world of literature, but it is worthwhile to glance beyond and consider 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 bed and agency 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, its power. 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. Note the dynamics: the Castle bothers K. who just wants to sleep. The Castle is reaching out to K., and not vice versa.

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.

Humor does not mean funny

It makes sense to distinguish between humor in writing and humor of the writing (the author vs text).  Often (think Monty Python) the comic effect is achieved by keeping a straight face. With Kafka it is a little subtler.

I will demonstrate my point with an example from another writer, incidentally or not, a Kafka fan who translated Kafka to Italian. Consider the opening sentence of Primo Levi’s memoir of his time in Auschwitz (Se questo è un uomo):

Per mi fortuna,  sono stato deportato ad Auschwitz solo nel 1944, …

The opening “fortunately” is both textually appropriate and, editorially speaking, unnecessary.  I don’t know whether there was any special intention behind the choice of words here, but the effect seems to me strikingly humorous, almost comic. It sets the right tone for this exceptionally powerful and insightful masterpiece.

Kafka and Proust

Another famous novel from 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 under an economy of description, intention implies its execution, and sometimes execution implies intention.

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.”

Execution implies intention: an action movie will show the detailed, choreographed following-through and we immediately understand that a plan is implied.  If we are privy to the planning, we would expect the execution not to go according to plan.

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

Here’s an example from the fourth paragraph of the Metamorphosis that illustrates the intention-action disconnect.  A pedestrian action is communicated not by telling us about the consequence but through intentionality.

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.

One is reminded of Zeno’s paradoxes.

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 (both exhibit the highest quality writing and artistic sophistication)— 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.  (In The Office (U.S.): In time, we discover accountant Oscar to be gay. The discovery that gay Oscar is an accountant would hardly amount to the same effect.)

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.

Another important exception: Detective fiction.

Kafka, Hebrew letters, Children

I just read a collection of the short stories of the Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua —written in his early career from the 1950s to 70s.  The influence of Kafka is palpable throughout the earlier stories. Yehoshua’s characters go to sleep, fall asleep, spend time in bed—all clearly Kafka-like but never quite Kafkaesque.

Overall, the texts are encumbered with over-intention and over-articulation, and not in a good way.  Some clever ideas here and there but the quality of execution is generally good, rarely great.

I think it is safe to say that Kafka is relatively well known and well read among Israeli literati but I would argue that his influence is limited. One indication or reason is that Israeli literature, perhaps culture broadly, is obsessed with children, which are marginal in Kafka (I am sure one could find academic papers on the theme).

Israeli fiction is obsessed with children, children obsessed about their parents, parents obsessed about their children.

  1. Some of the best known and critically acclaimed “recent” Israeli texts are written from a child point of view: Amos Oz (Tale of Love and Darkness), David Grossman, Edgar Keret. It is part of the Israeli non-realism or unrealism — until I find a better name to describe it.  This is not quite surrealism, though you would find fantastic elements occasionally, like in the wonderful Keret. I interpret this unrealism as a manifestation of a deep confusion about reality, to the effect that it makes more sense to describe it from some distance as achieved by adopting a child’s point of view.
  2. That’s different from, say, contemporary English language texts, where there are children, there are parents, but there is a distance between them (e.g., Coetzee’s Disgrace). And there is no confusion about reality.
  3. I think it is also very different from Agnon, who could sometimes be nostalgic but never infantile.
  4. One could take Kafka’s Judgement to be closer to the Israeli model, but I think the connection would be too ironic to make sense.