‘A Hunger Artist’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

‘A Hunger Artist’ was the only short story that Kafka deemed worthy of preservation, though history proved him wrong. The opening plunges the reader deep into the Kafka’s world: “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.” The narrator’s observations are factually true, for public displays of starvation by Giovanni Succi and others were popular sideshows in the 19th Century. One of the great ironists of literature, Kafka turns the caged performer fasting in a freakshow into an artist. The spectators, children among them, initially marvel at his skill, while butchers stand guard to make sure he doesn’t break the rules. However, the public, being fickle, eventually loses interest and the artist joins a traveling circus, where his cage is soon ignored in favor of the animal attractions. The artist nevertheless continues with his craft, breaking all known fasting records while lying in the corner of his cage. He explains, in his defense, that he only fasted because he couldn’t find the food he liked. His corpse is at last discarded and replaced by a well-fed panther which attracts far more attention.
 
This story is a parable of the artist turning his struggle for spiritual sustenance into a spectacle that feeds the public’s savage hunger for entertainment. Even if he is lucky enough to be noticed for a while, the artist will be misunderstood, and in any case, it is only a matter of time. Walking in Kafka’s footsteps in Prague a few years ago, with exhibits of relentless brutality and renewed authoritarianism only a finger-tap away, I found it nevertheless reassuring to imagine him stepping beside me with his long, loping gait, a gentle ascetic racked by prophetic visions. 

First published in 1922. Included in a translation by Willa and Edwin Muir in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, Schocken Books, 1988. Available online here

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.

‘The Burrow’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

The audacity of writing a story from the point of view of an unidentified rodent struck me as a young reader. The madness of the narrative voice and its utter relatability as it spirals into insanity and paranoia and then blooms with a kind of transcendent joy, seems to me an ideal structure for any piece of art. This story has shaped my understanding of reading and writing and I continue to appreciate it. I read it in Metamorphosis and other stories as a teenager and the volume also included ‘In the Penal Colony’, which I made the mistake of reading before bed. It continues to haunt me. 

First published in German in 1931. Widely available, including in The Complete Short Stories, Vintage 2005. Available online here

‘A Country Doctor’ by Franz Kafka

I was introduced to Kafka’s diaries around the same time I first read Pale Fire. I only discovered ‘A Country Doctor’ a couple of years ago, however, as the first story in Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories (1958, republished by NYRB in 2002). In his introduction Jarrell writes:

One of the things that make Kafka so marvellous a writer is his discovery of – or, rather, discovery by – a kind of narrative in which logical analysis and humour, the greatest enemies of narrative movement, have become themselves part of the movement. In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative … in fiction, to understand everything is to get nowhere.

In other words, a story can carry us to its conclusion but one of us will have to walk home again.

Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories is often astounding and the stories in it, alongside that introductory essay, challenged my preconceptions of what a short story is for and what it can be; nothing in that statement is an exaggeration. Get hold of a copy before it slips out of print again.

First published in A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt), Kurt Wolff, 1919; translated by Edwin and Willa Muir, first published in The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Stories, Schocken Books, 1948. Now available in various translations, including online in Ian Johnston’s translation here

‘A Country Doctor’ by Franz Kafka

I sometimes think ‘A Country Doctor’ is my favourite piece of short fiction. I will never get to the bottom of it. Walter Benjamin had it that every line in Kafka is allegory. Which is to say that every phrase, every image, withstands thousands of readings. And the closer I look at this story, the more its meanings split, double, triple, squirm in the mind like cells in mitosis. It begins with the stunning sentence (one I’ll admit I cribbed for a story of my own) “I was in great perplexity”, and goes on from there, rattling forward with the force of a cold and gnawing nightmare, filled with frustration, sickness, riddles, and hellish visions. There is a groom who bites a servant girl on the face. There is a worm-filled fatal wound that is simultaneously a precious flower. Indeed, many things described are other, often opposite things. The doctor becomes a patient. In a moment charged with mystic import, he is ritually stripped and laid down beside the florid wound of the boy whose life he fails to save. Meanwhile the villagers sing, “Only a doctor, only a doctor”. The story is flanked by two metaphysical creatures, two horses named “Brother” and “Sister” who teleport the doctor through time and space from one act of the story to the other. In both, he is rendered impotent by time. He is present at just the wrong moment. Those two horses grow in my mind the more I read this story that I will never figure out. Inscrutable dark creatures of great power, they are terrifyingly free of the binds of reality, of space, of time.

First published as ‘Der Landarzt’ in Der Landartz, 1919. First published in English in In the Penal Colony, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Schocken, 1948. Now collected widely, including in The Complete Short Stories, Vintage, 1999

‘In the Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

A traveller visits an island prison camp where he witnesses the enthusiastic demonstration of some elaborate instrument of punishment and re-education. I was on the Foundation course at the then West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, and I had a cleaning job at the college. I enjoyed getting up early and sweeping the sculpture studio floors for a couple of hours before college started. One morning someone happened to have left a copy of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback of Metamorphosis and Other Stories on a workbench. I picked the book up and started reading. I did the same again the next day. The day after that I got fired. I was riveted and dumbfounded by these stories, which were like nothing else I’d yet read. ‘In the Penal Colony’ (which in that particular edition may be called ‘In the Penal Settlement’) seemed to exemplify something about the stories and how they worked that I found really fascinating, but couldn’t quite yet put my finger on. But it was something I recognised a couple of years later when reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, in a line on the opening page: ‘No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knitting into.’

First published as In der Strafkolonie, Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1919. Collected in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 1967

‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka, trans. Malcolm Pasley

Malcolm Pasley, unlike the nevertheless brilliant Willa and Edwin Muir, based his translations on the manuscripts before they had appeared in Max Brod’s idiosyncratic German editions, so I’ve always taken Pasley as my baseline Kafka translator. Often described as a short novel, I include The Metamorphosis as it can and should be digested in a single gulp. In these times of severe attention deficit I place my favourite short fiction first on this list. If you have neither time nor inclination to read further, please accept my urging to read, if you haven’t yet got to it, this unspeakably sad story. Read as horror story or allegory – and entire books have been written exploring the symbolism of this story – it will, for the right reader, live up to its promise and leave you altered in a subtle yet radical manner.

‘Die Verwandlung’ was first published in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915. Included in The Transformation (Metamorphosis) and Other Stories, Penguin, 1995 and widely available.

‘Being Unhappy’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann

I like stories that seem to have something missing, in which something of the meaning is located outside the story. ‘Being Unhappy’ is both restless and pointless, and slightly disturbing, as well as slightly distasteful. I don’t even know if I like this story any more. I just know it did something for me and for my work at some point. If I went with one of Kafka’s longer, better known stories, it wouldn’t be ‘Metamorphosis’, but ‘Josephine the Mouse Singer’; it wouldn’t be ‘The Hunger Artist’, but ‘Investigations of a Dog’.

First published in German in Bretrachtung, 1913. Widely translated, including in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 2007Read it online, in a different translation, here

‘In the Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka

As ‘Symbols and Signs’ helped me understand the paradoxes of mental illness, ‘In the Penal Colony’ clarified for me the hypocritical nature of the law. I first read it in a college German Literature class, and because I had quite ropy German, I was sure that I’d misunderstood most of the vocabulary and plot. I bought an English translation and was completely shocked to have my reading of the story affirmed. This story actually made me change my academic track and I dropped German to focus on criminology and penology, eventually going on to work in prisons and forensic hospitals. I learnt from this story that identity seems to be forged more strongly through differentiation rather than association. That discipline is spoken and written before it is acted upon. That we are complicit in our spectator role in society, especially how we desire that lawbreakers be physically removed from our daily life. We value the opinion of an acceptable person over an unacceptable one, and this perpetuates our obsession with categorising human beings and their behaviour.

First published in 1919. First translation, by Eugene Jolas, published Partisan Review, 1941. Collected in The Complete Short Stories and elsewhere in various translations. Can be read online here

‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Susan Bernofsky

This is perhaps stretching the bounds of what counts as a short story, but I have such a clear memory of reading ‘The Metamorphosis’ as a teen. How, I asked myself, did this hundred-year-old salesman know so much about how it felt to be a fourteen-year-old girl? I reread it at least once a year, and have a quiet obsession with Gregor’s sister Grete, who is at the heart of a new book I’ve just started to write. My favourite translation is one of the newest, by Susan Bernofsky, recent winner of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

‘Die Verwandlung’ was first published in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915.

‘The Men Running Past’ by Franz Kafka

For a long time, I didn’t read Kafka’s work, perhaps – I don’t know – because I felt it would be too old for me, or that since everyone else will (of course) already have read it, there was no point in my reading it. All silly non-arguments, because once I started to read Kafka (and other ‘classic’ authors), I found that, as long as I read openly, the years and outside interpretations melt away. There’s just me, engaging with the work, here and now.

I started with some of Kafka’s short fiction (I haven’t even got to Metamorphosis yet). ‘The Men Running Past’piece is only three paragraphs long, but still dizzying to me in how it reveals the uncertainty beneath a seemingly ordinary moment. In the first paragraph, the narrator is out walking one night and sees a man running in the opposite direction, being chased by another, but chooses not to intervene. The second paragraph is a mesmerising swirl of possibility, as the narrator imagines – sometimes quite fancifully – who these men might be. The third paragraph closes off these possibilities in short order (“have we not had a lot of wine to drink?”). There will be no resolution here; a story has been averted.

First published in the collection Betrachtung (Contemplation, 1913). Available widely, including online here. I read Michael Hofmann’s translation in the Penguin Modern Classics collection Metamorphosis and Other Stories, 2007)