A Kafka Personal Anthology

Editor’s note: Toby’s 12 stories are gathered as a single entry in the Personal Anthology archive so as not to skew the author statistics. Only German publication details are given. The stories are available in English in many different translations and publications.

I am going to try and write about Kafka subjectively, without making generalizations that aren’t personal. It would be a generalization to say, ‘There have been too many generalizations about Kafka’, so I will just say, ‘I’ve read a lot of generalizations about Kafka.’

It wasn’t until I was twenty, and living in Prague, that I read Kafka. I’d finished a whole English literature degree without doing more than read essays (generalizations) about him. Before Prague, Kafka had been – for me – someone cool people read, i.e., the boy who sat beside me in third form maths, both of us bottom of the class, who had a hardback copy of The Castle. He told me it was ‘very funny’, before putting it away. His father subscribed to The Morning Star and smoked roll-ups. Theirs was the kind of house which had Kafka in it. Our house had Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.

‘Before the Law’ (First published as ‘Vor dem Gesetz’ in Selbstwehr in 1915. Collected in Ein Landartz, Wolff, 1919)

‘An Imperial Message’ (First published as ‘Eine kaiserliche Botschaft’ in Selbstwehr in 1919. Collected in Ein Landartz.)

I’m going to take these two sort-of stories together. I know they’ve been ripped out of longer pieces, and aren’t necessarily standalone. But I met them as stories. The pale blue Penguin Collected Stories of Franz Kafka was the first edition of him I ever owned. The translations are the early ones, by Willa and Edwin Muir, Tania and James Stern, and Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. I still like these best. Kafka, in German, may be scratchier, or more bureaucratic; these translations seem to me to have a fitting chunkiness. They are immersive, and they ache.

‘Before the Law’ is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever read. It does something Kafka often does – distort time. A man arrives at a gate, and waits there, hoping for justice, talking to the gatekeeper. A lifetime passes, or the duration of the universe. The story ends without consolation. “‘No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.’”

To balance this comes ‘An Imperial Message’, which begins in terror and ends in sentiment. ‘Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.’ This is unlike the Kafka I know from elsewhere. He’s almost turned into Wordsworth. There is no certain knowledge, in this dream – I suppose that’s an anxiety. The dream could be merely a dream of consolation, of communication. It is less sure than the fact that the gate in ‘Before the Law’ was made only for the man who never entered it. But, deluded or not, ‘An Imperial Message’ reaches a lyric calm. That’s not a state the remainder of Kafka puts me in. I don’t bite my fingernails, yet reading him makes me feel like gnawing. I constantly feel ‘I don’t get it’ – even whilst I’m aware, particularly with the parables, that they are constructed to be ungettable.

I’m not going to be perverse, so the next two choices are automatic.

‘The Metamorphosis’ (first published as Die Verwandlung, Wolff, 1915)

When I first read ‘The Metamorphosis’, I was concentrating on Gregor. The greatest change was his: man to bug. When I reread it just now, it seemed to be much more about the Samsa family. For a story that is fantasy, it’s notable that – given a bit of historical triangulation (wages, rents) – you could very accurately reconstruct the Samsa’s accounts book. Their descent from the bourgeoisie to the working class takes place in lurches but Kafka itemizes the details of each new, lower level. It is Grete, Gregor’s sister, who is the suffering romantic individual.

‘In the Penal Colony’ (First published as In der Strafkolonie, Wolff, 1919)

This story changes each time I read it. At one point, I thought it was the greatest of the twentieth century – with ‘The Metamorphosis’ at number 2. Now, I find it harder and harder to get through. (And ‘The Metamorphosis’ is back on top.) Kafka’s relation to the reader here seems to be a sadistic. In other stories, he is suffering with us. If there is an unjust divine order, Franz is going to fall victim to it just as inevitably as we are. ‘In the Penal Colony’, with its stylistic assurance, seems to gloat. The prose wears a uniform that, if it isn’t neat any more, was manufactured by a state capable of making neat uniforms. In order to render his similar world bearable, Graham Greene scruffed up the writing in The Power and the Glory. Kafka seems to show himself as up to recording or inventing the unbearable – and that, at least the last time I read it, makes the story seem bizarrely chipper about the general calamity of it all. Kafka is on the side of Yawheh; matey with Him. But I’m getting close to generalizing. And next time I read the story, Kafka will probably seem as abject as Gregor Samsa with the apple in his back.

‘Investigations of a Dog’ (First published as ‘Forschungen eines Hundes’, posthumously, in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer, Gustav Kiepenheuer, 1931)

This is the Kafka story I love most. A few years ago, I did a report for Radio 3’s The Verb – hosted by Ian McMillan – on novels and stories with dog-narrators. I knew in advance, before looking into the various dog detective novels, that ‘Investigations of a Dog’ would be the best. The narrator, like most of Kafka’s narrators, is in decline. “Also my researches have fallen into desuetude, I relax, I grow weary, I trot mechanically where once I raced into the question: ‘Whence does the earth procure this food?’” The erasure of humankind from the doggy world is comic and a good lesson in decentring. Deleuze and Guattari’s book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature is brilliant on Kafka’s writing about animals. It’s the kind of angle J.M. Coetzee constantly rips off.

‘Description of a Struggle’ (First published in fragmentary form in Hyperion, 1908 and 1909, and in Betrachtung, Rowohlt Verlag, 1912. Published in full, posthumously, as ‘Beschreibung eines Kampfes in the collection of that name, 1936.)

This was one of the last stories by Kafka I read. I think I’d heard someone saying it wasn’t very good. It’s early, and not typical. But here is a paragraph that stunned me: 

It’s the beauty of girls altogether. Often when I see dresses with manifold pleats, frills, and flounces smoothly clinging to beautiful bodies, it occurs to me that they will not remain like this for long, that they will get creases that cannot be ironed out, dust will gather in the trimmings too thick to be removed, and that no one will make herself so miserable and ridiculous as every day to put on the same precious dress in the morning and take it off at night. And yet I see girls who are beautiful enough, displaying all kinds of attractive muscles and little bones and smooth skin and masses of fine hair, and who appear every day in the same natural fancy dress, always laying the same face in the same palm, on returning late from a party, this face stares out at them from the mirror, worn out, swollen, already seen by too many people, hardly worth wearing any more.

The whole story reminds me of the sequence of Amadeus where Mozart’s Don Giovanni is being travestied in the Theater An der Wiesen, and everything is going weirdly wonderful. Entrances are made through the walls and the ceiling.

I also see Kafka through the films of The Quay Brothers – their dusty, magical stop-motion animations. If you haven’t encountered any of them, watch one right now. If the Quays were to adapt anything of Kafka’s, I think this story might be possible; the better known ones might be too image-trampled. I know, from DVD extras videos, that what they obsess over most are Kafka’s letters and diaries.

‘A Hunger Artist’ (first published as ‘Ein Hungerkünstler’ in Die neue Rundschau, 1922. Collected in Ein Hungerkünstler, published posthumously by Verlag Die Schmiede, 1924)

I can imagine this being many people’s favourite Kafka story, particularly writers. I’ve admired it more than I’ve loved it, because I am wary of the delight in suffering it exhibits.

‘A Hunger Artist’ seems to be one of a group of what I’d call riff stories. Not quite what the NME (borrowing from the band Alberto y lost trios Paranoias, who had a hit with a song of this title) used to call ‘Heads Down, No-Nonsense, Mindless Boogie’, but definitely connected – in my mind – to the 4/4 motorik of the band Neu! The story chooses a direction and goes in it; there isn’t a huge amount of dynamics or modulation. Degeneration reaches a kind of steady stage, even though we know degeneration’s what it is. Until the end. Which feels optional. Here, in the Hunger Artist’s words, “I always wanted you to admire my fasting”, I detect a little self-pity. Or an appeal to the reader’s own self-pity. At the very least, it’s not a merciless story, like ‘In the Penal Colony’. And I feel I can come to the end of it – it doesn’t fade out into something ineffably recursive, like a lock groove slowly turning into William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops.

‘The Bucket Rider’ (first published as ‘Der Kübelreiter’ in Prager Presse, 1921. Collected in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer)

This is Kafka at his most folky. He seems to shake hands with Marc Chagall, mid-air. And together they agree that fantastical weightlessness, though surely one of humankind’s commonest desires, is still a weirdness worth enacting. Both do flying in a beautifully matter-of-fact way.

A completely separate thought about Kafka, but one that’s come to obsess me, is also simple: I don’t believe he would have written any of his stories the way he did had he lived in a centrally heated, double-glazed house. His works seem to me those of a man who woke up, most mornings, in a very cold room. To venture out of bed was to be stripped of heat. The world meets man with coldness. But Kafka, I think, appreciated this. In his writings, chill is usually clarity; fug is sordid and obfuscatory. (I think Dickens, who Kafka sometimes felt he was only copying, agreed with this.) Maybe there are exceptions; maybe I’m just wrong. Kafka’s characters seem to come closest to a state of rightness when they are alone beneath icy stars.

‘The Wish to be a Red Indian’ (first published as ‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’ in Betrachtung)

I can include this in full, so I will: 

If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would already be gone.

Every time, this story does pulls a vanishing act on me; every time, I’m amazed. I re-read the shorter short stories most often: ‘The Truth about Sancho Panza’ and ‘The Silence of the Sirens’. This one, I read almost every time I pick up the book.

In the last novel I published, Patience, the main character – who is called Elliott and who is almost completely paralysed – imagines himself galloping towards the horizon like Kafka’s ‘Red Indian’. I’m pretty sure this story is Elliott’s start point.

‘Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk’ (first published as ‘Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse’ in Ein Hungerkünstler)

Being of that generation, I can’t read the title of this story without thinking of the children’s TV show Bagpuss (1974) and the ‘Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ’ that appeared in one episode.

‘Josephine’ is a story that I know I don’t understand, and probably will never understand, but– partly for that reason – it feels as if it still lies ahead of me. There’s something folky about it that a great deal of reading around the subject might clarify. But I can’t understand why, at this point in his life and in the decline of his body, Kafka wanted to write this story. Is it a return to the maternal? Is it about a distorted childhood myth? No idea.

‘The Great Wall of China’ (First published, posthumously, as ‘Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer’ in Der Morgen and collected in the eponymous collection)

In 2003, I went to China, and visited the Great Wall. I was travelling with the British Council. Our guide, and minder, taught us a phrase in Mandarin: “He who has not gone to the Great Wall is not a true man.” In the original, when I pronounced it, it sounded much gruffer than this; a bit like a coughing fit. (Bù dào cháng chéng fēi hǎo hàn.) I was thinking about Kafka all through the time I was there. Rather than read guidebooks about China, in advance of going, I had decided to learn as much of the language as I could, from a Teach Yourself book, and to read Kafka’s Chinese writings. I took a copy of his stories to the Wall, and snatched time to read a few paragraphs in tribute. We were on a guided tour up the most touristy bit of the Wall. But Kafka still seemed as good as any Western guide to China is likely to be. Of course, Kafka never went anywhere near China.

‘The Burrow’ (first published, posthumously, as ‘Der Bau’, in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer)

Of all Kafka’s stories, this is the one that has had the biggest influence on my writing. I re-read it whilst writing Patience. I came up with a whole theory of writing, most of which I’ve forgotten. It was about some stories not narrating experiences but being them. Part of the experience, with ‘The Burrow’, is extreme frustration and claustrophobia. Like Tarkovsky, you wish for some parts of it to be over – enough! This has gone on long enough! Then you break through into a new appreciation of time, and you wish the whole thing could extend to the eternal horizon. Something like that. Something like Patience.

In this way, Kafka’s later writing is zazen – the Soto Zen practice of just sitting. Just sitting with infernal leg pains, sexual fantasies, financial anxieties, imaginary and real enemies chorusing away. Just sitting with the weight of the body. This isn’t positively pleasurable, until just the repeated doing of it becomes so.

Few readers will enjoy ‘The Burrow’ – enjoy enjoy. But I see it as a way forward for literary writing – one that a number of writers have undertaken: Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Clarice Lispector, Claire-Louise Bennett. Not coincidentally, these are all favourite writers of mine.