"Even if no salvation should come": Franz Kafka at 130


Franz Kafka as a boy, c. 1888

by Giorgio Fontana

The man who was born one hundred and thirty years ago today in Prague didn’t have a simple fate: he lived a restless life, trying to dominate the “immense world in his head”. The son of the surly merchant Hermann Kafka, young Franz was a model employee but also a nocturnal writer; tormented and unresolved, he sabotaged with maniacal precision his own loves, cultivated vague dreams of escape without ever leaving the Bohemian capital, became ill with tuberculosis, and died at age 40 having written some of the most extraordinary works of all time.

Yet the most important part of his work (including his three novels) was delivered to us through a betrayal: his best friend and first exegete, Max Brod, refused to destroy what was promised to the author in person. There is plenty of Kafka himself in this paradox the infidelity towards the writer’s last request and the gift of a wonderful literary heritage – a contradiction from which you cannot escape, an elemental tragedy that can only be analyzed endlessly, as endlessly as Brod’s decision can be analyzed: did he do good or not? All of Kafka’s writing poses similar dilemmas to the reader, and his most successful parables show the absurd beyond the text itself, unable to come to a certain conclusion.

It is for this reason that Albert Camus said that the work of Kafka invites the reader to re-read. And he was right, even though this suggestion contains a germ of danger: to sacrifice Kafka’s art on the altar of further interpretation. To reduce it to hollowness: to a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Of course this was not Camus’ intention, but it is a temptation from which we must be saved. Unlike other classics, the pure beauty of Kafka’s prose has perhaps been too little perceived and studied. This is noticeable in the first instance considering the preconceived and false image that many have of Kafka himself, a sort of Count Dracula of literature; bleak, terribly gloomy, a nihilist. But it is also noticeable in the variety of readings of his work: the psychoanalytic key (with all the supply of well-known family episodes, in relation to his father), the influence of the Jewish theatre and Hasidic tradition; the bureaucratic obsession; the theological vision and so on. Not to mention the mixture of genres and themes that can be found in his work: fairy tales, myths, fables about animals, long and short narrative forms, both carnival and dark, from opera buffa to terrible tragedy. For instance, America is a Bildungsroman, but it is also an adventure novel, a comic novel, a tragic novel and a grotesque novel.

This plurality is once again the mirror of the Kafkaesque poetic, no less than its actual (non) realization: unfinished novels, scattered notes, abandoned aphorisms. The Czech writer’s text is itself both an invitation and circumvention, and I would almost say a challenge. Kafka poses a difficult question in unambiguous terms, and likes to break it, and dive deep into it from a narrative point of view. His stories are full of interruptions, digressions and small annoyances that disturb the protagonist’s mission. On a larger scale, it’s the same method that governs the fate of the land surveyor K., of the Emperor’s messenger, and of Josef K . No matter how hard they try, their goal is precluded by an infinite number of impediments.

Of course this does not lead to an absolute relativism or any semantic confusion. The Kafkaesque word is indeed sharpest, his style crystal clear: that “minor language” (as suggested by Deleuze and Guattari) protects him from any forced interpretation; it’s he who hands the reader a tangle of infinite complexity. His tone never needs to be muscular, and the grace of the sentences is proportional to their devastating effect on the reader. His voice is unique: it does not create a fashion, and it is unthinkable “to write a novel like Kafka”. Any writing program would reject it: why all these detours? Yet he manages to use it for the most complex purpose: Kafka’s language does nothing but make the endless quest even more evident and disarming. Josef K. and the priest of The Trial could go on forever debating about the Law as if in a Talmudic story.

So here is the process. Enter a fundamental and irreducible event, a ‘dull’ event, so to speak. You are arrested though you are innocent. You are not welcome in a village in which you have been summoned. You are condemned for no reason by your father. You turn into an insect. The Being hits Kafka’s characters like a hammer, but the absurd is dressed as absolute realism: destroying the metaphor, he uses the means of a naturalist writer to represent a tragic and bizarre world. Günther Anders once remarked that Kafka actually shifts the normal way the world is “in order to make visible the madness”. With a method similar to a scientific experiment, he verifies our reality: if the world of Kafka often seems so terrible, it’s because it’s our world, what awaits us every day out of the door. The Trial or The Metamorphosis are its models. Destroying the simile, Kafka pulls the reader into the abyss: you must agree to be an insect, not “be treated as an insect”. The image becomes a reality, with all the consequences.

George Steiner said that Kafka works on the edge of silence but without falling into it. He courts the abyss, knows the temptation and the piety of silence, yet he still wants to dare: he wants to testify, he wants his word to survive injustice. And here the paradoxical gesture of Max Brod comes back, the “testaments betrayed” about which Milan Kundera wrote: we read what we should not read, muddying and at the same time honoring the memory of this great writer. The very choice to open The Castle is already an ethical one: we’re going against the wishes of a dead man. From the beginning, Kafka expected the best from us not only as readers, but as human beings his thirst for integrity is relentless.

One hundred and thirty years have passed since his birth and about a century from the first appearance of his early writings. Yet to read Kafka today is still to dive into the same enchanting experience that his friends and early readers experienced: time has not had any effect on his art. According to Félix Guattari, “his way of approaching the social unconscious could place him in the 21st century”. The value of a work should not be measured in terms of being topical, and yet it is undeniable that Kafka’s ability to peer into the depths of contemporary humanity has not aged a single moment. What is more, his desperate search for a true, accurate, saving word, never a slave to compromise or wishful thinking, sounds even more urgent now.

For this reason, thinking of Kafka as a nihilist writer is a huge mistake: just as thinking of him as dark and vampiresque is nonsense. Franz Kafka was equipped with the greatest sensitivity. It was in many ways excessive: but always matched with grace and irony, smiles and kindness: there is no memory of him that is not filled with affection. But even more despite his perverse search of guilt to expiate he did not surrender. In front of the omnipresence of evil and falsity he took refuge in words as an antidote to despair. And though perfectly conscious of its failure an ontological failure, so to speak, and which is reflected in the precariousness of all his texts he never stopped trying to use it.

His whole life, in some way, can be seen as a tragedy to escape that condition. And so many of his characters are continuously grieving to understand, penetrate, get: they are stubborn and resolute, to the limit of ingenuity or perversion. Of course, the world is condemned: but neither did Josef K. struggling with his trial, nor the land surveyor K. of The Castle, nor America‘s Karl Rossman nor Gregor Samsa who turned into insect one morning, surrender to the terrifying order to which they were subjected, and from which they were, in different forms, hit. The Law of Fathers devours them with the indifference of a natural disaster, but it’s them (wounded sons) that we remember.

Here is the key to Kafka’s great tragedy: the rationalism and will of these characters is exactly what condemns them: we know that the Court can easily provide a “temporary acquittal”, that would infinitely delay the execution, but for Josef K. This is not enough. He is innocent and he pretends to be recognized innocent in full, a condition that too many human beings have tried.

Kafka’s Diaries are full of references of this kind. Among the many I could choose from is this: “I will write in spite of everything, absolutely: it is my struggle for existence”. Yes: to write is certainly not a simple habit, but nor is pure research of beauty, or an expression of thought: it is a war to establish himself, to witness his own, irreducible existence. Look at me. I’m here. I do not give up.

In this Kafka took to the extreme the lesson of his favorite writer, Gustav Flaubert: not only must the word always be the correct one, but it must also have a further, ethical virtue. It must aim desperately for the truth. “His art is not only, as it may seem, an outrageous distortion of reality”, Ladislao Mittner wrote, “it is also, in its highest moments and, in theory, should always be, the destruction of that filthy lie that is reality.”

The terrible fate of Kafka’s characters often innocent victims does not waste their resistance: indeed, if possible, it makes it even more rich and poignant. The purity of Kafka, his integrity, lies here. As he wrote in his Diaries: “Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment”. The salvation wouldn’t come, for him or for his characters. But this is how we should remember him, one hundred and thirty years after his birth.

About the Author:

Giorgio Fontana is an Italian writer who lives in Milan. He has written three novels, the most recent of which, Per legge superiore won the Racalmare-Sciascia, lo Straniero and Chianti literary awards, and has been translated into French, German and Dutch.

He has written articles and papers for various Italian and international publications, including OpenDemocracy, Cyborgology and “lo Straniero” minima&moralia. In 2012 he was the recipient of a Writers Omi fellowship.