HOW STRANGE to return to Kafka. It takes just a few pages for all our preconceptions about literature to become unmoored. The old tools — character, plot, style — are useless to us; those solemn tomes of theory might as well be returned to their exile on the lower shelves; the recourse to undergraduate Freudianism had better be checked. None of it will guide us here. Erich Heller once wrote of the “pathetic plight of critics in the face of Kafka’s novels.” How one sympathizes! Kafka’s entire oeuvre is an assault on interpretation, on meaning; it is the most formidable rebuttal in the history of literature to the undying but misguided question: “What does this text mean?”

And yet, ironically, few authors are so burdened with the cargo of meaning as Kafka. In the century or so since his work was first introduced to a reading public, he has been hustled in under a plethora of interpretive awnings: Judaism, Christianity, Psychoanalysis, the Holocaust, Communism, Symbolism, Existentialism — you name it. He is the prophet of 20th-century atrocity; a slapstick vaudevillian in the Buster Keaton mold; the grim reaper of post-religious modernity. He either founded a new genre or dissolved all of them. Kafka himself seemed to intuit this: “I am the end or the beginning,” he wrote.

Erich Heller, who, like Kafka, became a doctor of law at the German University in Prague, makes a strong case for the central paradox of Kafka’s writing in his canonical essay on The Castle (collected in 1952’s The Disinherited Mind). He gives us the basic outline of the novel’s plot: a stranger known only as K. arrives in a village believing he has been appointed land-surveyor by the authorities (the village is ruled by a castle). What little contact K. has with these authorities — the two assistants appointed to him, the letters he receives, the phone call he overhears — appears to confirm his appointment. But K. is never quite convinced, and least of all when he is informed by the mayor, “You’ve been taken on as a land-surveyor, as you say, but, unfortunately, we have no need for a land-surveyor.” And so K. spends much of the novel doggedly trying to receive confirmation of his appointment from the elusive castle authorities themselves. Heller elaborates:

K.’s belief appears, from the very outset, to be based on truth and illusion. It is Kafka’s all but unbelievable achievement to force, indeed to frighten, the reader into unquestioning acceptance of this paradox, presented with ruthless realism and irresistible logic. Truth and illusion are mingled in K.’s central belief in such a way that he is deprived of all order of reality. Truth is permanently on the point of taking off its mask and revealing itself as illusion, illusion in constant danger of being verified as truth. It is the predicament of a man who, endowed, with an insatiable appetite for transcendental certainty, finds himself in a world robbed of all spiritual possessions. Thus he is caught in a vicious circle. He cannot accept the world — the village — without first attaining to absolute certainty, and he cannot be certain without first accepting the world. Yet every contact with the world makes a mockery of his search, and the continuance of his search turns into a mere encumbrance.

Is our predicament as readers of Kafka not analogous to K.’s? Are we not frightened into unquestioning acceptance of a paradox presented to us with ruthless realism and irresistible logic? Consider “A Message from the Emperor.” A dying emperor dispatches from his deathbed a message intended for you and you alone — you, “his miserable subject.” But this message will never reach you. The messenger carrying it must penetrate the countless chambers and anterooms of the inner palace, not to mention stairs and courtyards and even a second and a third palace. Finally, there is the capital city, with its teeming masses, where no one ever breaks through. “You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.”

The remote and absent figure of authority, the endless bureaucratic encumbrances, the futility of hope — “A Message from the Emperor,” like its sister-parable “Before the Law,” compresses into a few pages the most familiar hallmarks of that dreaded and diluted term, the Kafkaesque — promiscuously used these days to describe even the most trivial inconveniences, like dealing with Verizon. Happily, the term has recently been given a new lease on life by Reiner Stach (whose third and final volume of Kafka’s biography was just released by Princeton University Press); he usefully identifies it as a “peculiar form of rhetoric, which obscures the situation with analytical precision.”

The translator Peter Wortsman’s excellent and bracing new selection of Kafka’s stories, Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka (published by Archipelago Books), brings the author’s peculiar rhetoric to glorious life. It reminds us that delight is a central element in our response to his work — to its mingling of truth and illusion, to the relationship between an extraordinary situation and the “analytical precision” with which it is described. As with other modern translations of Kafka, in particular Michael Hofmann’s, here we are afforded a Kafka less somber than the religious and existential allegorist of yore. Included in Konundrum, for instance, is Kafka’s uproarious account, from a letter to Felice Bauer, of his attempt to keep from bursting out laughing during a “solemn meeting” with the director of the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, where Kafka was employed for a decade. Standing with a colleague before the emperor-like director’s desk, Kafka fights desperately to keep it together. Nothing is as funny as laughter in a situation that doesn’t call for it:

when he launched into his reply, again in that customary, all too familiar, imperially schematic, perfectly meaningless manner, accompanied by heavy chest reverberating moans, while my colleague cast sidelong looks, the object of which was to warn me to control myself, though I had already strained to do so, the effect of which was rather to vividly bring back to mind the delight of that earlier laughter, I could not control myself any longer and lost all hope of ever being able to do so.

One is also reminded here that Kafka is anything but an obscure and impenetrable writer. He is a modernist, I suppose, but you could know nothing of Joyce and Pound and Eliot and still revel in the perfectly formed and invitingly strange world of his fiction. When I first read “The Metamorphosis” at 15, not knowing anything about Kafka or modernism or literature in general (you couldn’t pay me, then, to read a book), I felt that I had either just read the most unsettling story ever written, or had been the butt of a massive joke. Probably that is exactly the reaction a Kafka story should induce in its reader.

Kafka, indeed, is sometimes best read unawares. Too often, interpreting his work is like ruining a good joke by explaining the punch line. We should remember that when he first read The Trial aloud to his friends, they were convulsed with laughter; that in the same novel Josef K. thinks to himself: “if this was a comedy he would insist on playing it to the end”; and that Kafka told his friend Max Brod that “there is hope, but not for us” with a mischievous smile on his face.

His fiction is a comedy of proportions and incongruities. In “The Metamorphosis” (which unwisely metamorphoses in Wortsman’s translation into “Transformed”), Gregor Samsa’s first concern upon waking and finding himself transformed into a giant beetle is not his inexplicable bodily change but the much more trivial matter of his employment: “‘Dear God,’ he thought to himself, ‘what an exhausting profession I’ve picked! Day in, day out, always traveling.” There he lies on his shell-like back, his many new legs kicking before him, and his most pressing concern is the train connections and bad meals that characterize his job.

Or take “The Hunger Artist.” Since no one can actually sit out the many days and nights of the adored hunger artist’s performances, the only one able to truly comprehend his greatness is the artist himself: “he alone could simultaneously act as an infallible spectator completely satisfied with the flawlessness of the performance.” But the hunger artist thinks hungering is easy (an arrogance for which he is sometimes suspected of being a swindler) and wants to be allowed to continue hungering beyond the 40-day limit prescribed by the impresario. He breaks his contract and joins a circus, where he is allowed to hunger to his heart’s content. Inevitably, however, people lose interest. With no one — not even the hunger artist himself — to keep tally of the days, he eventually starves to death, neglected and forgotten. Just before dying, the hunger artist’s supervisor asks him why he felt compelled to go on hungering. His preposterous reply? “Because I could not find a dish I liked.” Pure vaudeville.

Kafka makes the inexplicable and the absurd darkly funny. Sudden transformations, arbitrary arrests, messages stuck forever in transit — we laugh at them, but our laughter is hardly frivolous; it is the laughter of exhaustion, of incredulity, a last-ditch attempt to wrest something from a silent and inscrutable cosmos. “You’ve been taken on as a land-surveyor,” K. is informed in The Castle, “but, unfortunately, we have no need for a land-surveyor.” No other explanation is offered; indeed, K.’s stubborn pursuit of an explanation is his undoing. It’s like Monty Python’s John Cleese asking the purveyor of a cheese shop if he really has any cheese. Having asked for every possible type of cheese only to be told they’ve run out of them all, he finally asks: “You do have some cheese, don’t you?” To which the smiling purveyor incontrovertibly responds: “Certainly, sir. This is a cheese shop, sir.”

Because tragedy is always withheld or even denied in Kafka’s writing (it is always too late, as Michael Hofmann said about “Kafka-time,” but the worst has not yet happened), there is something perpetual about Kafka’s comedy. We seem to oscillate between laughter and despair — and even, on occasion, to confuse them. This is a comedy that, as David Foster Wallace once pointed out, has little in common with the contemporary idea of laughter as entertainment and reassurance, precisely because it resists closure and comfort. Kafka here occasionally sounds like Kierkegaard, of whom he spoke in his diaries as being “on the same side of the world” as he was — in particular the Kierkegaard who asked: “What if everything in the world were a misunderstanding, what if laughter were really tears?”

“My laughter is a concrete wall,” Kafka told his young admirer Gustav Janouch. “Against whom?” Janouch inquired. “Naturally, against myself,” Kafka responded:

A blow at the world is always a blow at oneself. For that reason, every concrete wall is only an illusion, which sooner or later crumbles away. For Inner and Outer belong to each other. Divided, they become two bewildering aspects of a mystery we endure but can never solve.

Kafka’s stories are “atemporal and take place everywhere and nowhere,” Wortsman tells us, yet their author, needless to say, lived not “everywhere and nowhere” but rather at a specific place and time. And the world he inhabited — the insurance office, the crowded family apartment, the multilingual city in the dwindling empire — shaped and molded him. Recent books by Reiner Stach and the historian Saul Friedländer have endeavored to humanize Kafka, to pull him out from behind that illusory concrete wall. The “incredible world” Kafka had inside his head was matched by a no-less-fascinating world around him — a fact both he and his many critics occasionally forget.

Yet, if, like me, you are wary of delving into a three-volume account of the life of an ascetic and self-tormenting insurance lawyer, Stach has by some inexplicable thunderbolt of inspiration supplemented his enormous undertaking with a separate volume of biographical detritus, which he suggestively calls “counter-images,” titled Is that Kafka? 99 Finds. First published in German in 2012 and translated by Kurt Beals in 2016, it is a collection of minor discoveries, ranging from photographs and original writings to postcards and random anecdotes. This sidelong way of looking at Kafka is uniquely rewarding, eschewing the organizing and narrative principles of biography just as Kafka himself so often eschewed the organizing and narrative principles of fiction.

In his preface, Stach tells us that in spite of almost a century’s worth of research and scholarship and biographical excavation, the popular image of Kafka as an unworldly neurotic — “an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things” — has proved stubbornly inflexible. He therefore frames Is That Kafka? as an attempt to “destabilize” this view: “Here Kafka’s sense for the comic plays a preeminent and paradigmatic role,” he writes. “His humor is by no means always cryptic, as one might expect from his inscrutable texts: it can be naïve and slapstick, revealing his pleasure in wordplay and punch lines, in an adept juggling of motifs, perspective shifts, and inspired scenarios.”

Almost every counter-image of Kafka manages to be surprising or strange or both. Here he subjects himself to the fitness regime of the Danish guru Jørgen Müller, there he prattles on about his favorite beers; here he is on a business trip to Northern Bohemia, being converted to the crackpot “natural medicine” theories of Moriz Schnitzler, and there he is, reading at a bookstore in Munich and causing a woman to faint.

Best of all, perhaps, is the letter sent to Kafka by a Dr. Siegfried Wolff, which opens: “Dear Sir, You have made me unhappy.” Dr. Wolff goes on to explain that he bought “The Metamorphosis” for his cousin, only to hear her complain that she could not make sense of it. This cousin’s mother, too, was confused by it, and passed it on to yet another cousin, who, alas, could not understand it either. All three women finally conspired and wrote to Dr. Wolff, demanding an explanation. Dr. Wolff is at his wit’s end:

Sir! I spent months in the trenches slugging it out with the Russians and didn’t bat an eyelash. But if my reputation with my cousins went to the devil, I couldn’t bear it.

Only you can help me. You must; because you’re the one who got me into this mess. So please tell me what my cousin is supposed to think when she reads the Metamorphosis.

Most sincerely and respectfully yours,
Dr. Siegfried Wolff

The same letter appears as an epigraph to Saul Friedländer’s short book Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, which has recently appeared in paperback. Like Stach, Friedländer is greatly interested in Kafka’s relationship to the world around him, and he is particularly illuminating on the question of Kafka’s identity, to use a word much in fashion today. A renowned historian of the Holocaust, he devotes an entire chapter to the “The Dark Complexity of Judaism.” Friedländer sensibly argues that “the search for Jewish themes in Kafka’s major fiction is problematic,” and shows us that Kafka was the consummate modern citizen: a quarrel of identities. In the words of Günther Anders:

As a German-speaking Czech, [Kafka is] not quite among the Czechs; and as a German-speaking Jew, not quite among the Bohemian Germans. As a Bohemian, not quite to Austria. As an official of a workers’ insurance company, not quite to the middle class. Yet as a son of a middle-class family, not quite to the working class.

Kafka, Friedländer shows, was interested in Jewish topics, but his own relationship to the Zionism of his close friend Max Brod, for example, remained ambivalent at best. Indeed, Friedländer writes, “the overall impression one gets from diaries and letters is that of indifference to world affairs and internal politics.”

Kafka’s stories are not, of course, explained by his biography — but they are illuminated by it. If Kafka is often read as a prophet of atrocities to come, it is because he lived at a time when the storm clouds on the horizon had already begun to converge. For all his apparent indifference to politics, he was hardly oblivious to the growing menace of European anti-Semitism. As Friedländer shows, Kafka reacted with horror to the anti-Jewish riots in Prague in 1920, writing to Milena:

The other day I heard someone call Jews a ‘mangy race.’ Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated? (Zionism or national feeling isn’t needed for this at all.) The heroism of staying on is nonetheless merely the heroism of cockroaches which cannot be exterminated even from the bathroom. I just looked out of the window: Mounted police, gendarmes with fixed bayonets, a screaming mob dispersing, and up here in the window the unsavory shame of living under constant protection.

So the retrospective link to the Holocaust and World War II is not a tenuous one. If he had not succumbed to consumption in 1924, Kafka was more than likely to endure a fate similar to the one suffered by his sisters, his classmates, his friends — the entire world he knew and grew up in.

The final pages — the “Biographical Notes” — of Is That Kafka? are some of the most devastating I have ever read. They summarize, in brief, the fate of Kafka’s surviving family and closest friends. The short story writer Oskar Baum died in a hospital in Prague in 1941, but his wife was deported to Theresienstadt and died there; their son, Leo, died on July 22, 1946, “in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by a Jewish resistance group.” Max Brod’s brother Otto, “an outstanding pianist,” was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Kafka’s translator Milena Jesenská was arrested by the Gestapo in 1939; she died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944. Elli and Valli, two of Kafka’s sisters, both died in the Chelmno extermination camp in 1942. Ottla, his youngest sister, was deported to Theresienstadt in 1940. In 1943, she volunteered to “accompany a transport of Polish Jewish children to Auschwitz as a helper,” and died there shortly after. The novelist Ernst Weiss committed suicide when the German troops occupied Paris. Finally, there is Kafka’s second fiancée, Julie Wohryzek, who was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in 1944. Elsewhere in the book we are told that as many as five of Kafka’s 22 classmates “appear to have been murdered in concentration camps.”

In his final years Kafka had flirted occasionally with the idea of emigrating to Palestine to open a restaurant with his lover, Dora Diamant. But knowing what eventually happened to the world he had lived in, and to all those he knew who still inhabited it, one feels vicariously grateful that Kafka, at least, was spared those nightmares not of his own making. He is the ghost who survived.


Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen, forthcoming in the fall of 2017 from Yale University Press.