A Kafka for the 21st Century


By Roberto Calasso
Translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock
328 pages. Knopf. $25.

Franz Kafka has long been recognized as the icon of 20th-century alienation, whether one sees this in the haunting eyes that stare out of his photographs or in the strange allegories he spun about the odd shapes that dehumanization could take. Jewish-American writers were particularly attracted to Kafka because he seemed to represent their own condition in bold relief. Prague was a long way from Brooklyn, but so too was Manhattan for those immigrant Jewish sons no longer comfortable with the parochialism of their fathers and yet neither welcomed nor comfortable with mainstream American culture.

In much the same way that Hamlet’s tormentors tried (in vain) to “pluck the heart” out of his mystery, Kafka’s effort to burn the fat from the modernist soul has prompted critical investigations of every sort. Biographers point out that the Kafka family, and especially the sickly Franz, was brutalized by Hermann Kafka, a domestic tyrant of the first water. For some, Letter to His Father, with Franz’s insistence that "My writing was all about you…" is all the evidence one needs to read Kafka’s work as an ongoing oedipal struggle. Others insist that psychological readings are too simplistic, given the multiple levels of Kafka’s irony. Still others prefer to talk about Kafka’s prescient critique of bureaucratic life and the way it changes an ordinary man into the dung beetle of “The Metamorphosis.” There is, in short, a Kafka for every critical season, including the cloudy months preferred by Jewish-American critics who love Kafka's ambivalent Jewishness. Consider, for instance, his famous diary entry: “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.”

Enter Roberto Calasso, an Italian writer best known in America for The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a novel that conjures up, and skillfully blends, gods from the East and West. In K., Calasso’s subject is how Kafka’s work can speak to what the reviewer for Spain’s El Pais called the “century of fragmentation.” If it is often true that Calasso sees Kafka through the filters of postmodernist theory, it is also true that his readings are as deeply personal as they are idiosyncratic. Take, for example, his intriguing notion that Kafka’s works are often opposite sides of the same coin:

The Trial and The Castle are stories about attempts to deal with a case, to extricate oneself from prosecution, to have one’s nomination confirmed. The point around which everything resolves is always election, the mystery of election, its impenetrable obscurity. In The Castle, K. desires election—and this thoroughly complicates every act. In The Trial, Josef K. wants to escape election—and this thoroughly complicates every act. To be chosen, to be condemned: two possible outcomes of the same process.

From these epic generalizations it is but a baby step to Calasso’s contention that Kafka’s relationship to Judaism is not finally about monotheism or law or even higher authority; rather, his fiction is about “the theology of the unique.”

Calasso goes on to explain that, thanks to atavism and inclination, Kafka understood that the powers to elect or to punish were virtually the same. “No one else,” Calasso argues, was so aware of their proximity, their overlap. “But [and for Calasso the 'but' is important] this wasn’t only a matter of Jewish heritage. It had to do with everyone, and all times.” Small wonder, given Calasso’s earlier work, that he will throw in, almost gratuitously, sentences such as these:

Kafka’s subject is that mass of power, not yet differentiated, broken down into its elements. It is the shapeless body of Vritra, which contains the waters, before Indra runs it through with a thunderbolt.

Intimations of the East are part of the equipment Calasso uses to probe the psychic life of The Trial and The Castle. Thus, for us to understand how, after the execution of his sentence, Josef K. reappears under the name K. and distances himself from the large city, we need to consult the Tibetan Book of the Dead and discover there what Calasso calls “the world of the bardo,” that intermediate state one must learn to transverse.

I do not always agree with Calasso’s wide-ranging mythic readings of specific Kafka passages (in truth, there are times when I’m not sure that the headache he’s given me is worth it), but it’s refreshing to read a book about Kafka that leaves the history of critical debate for others to chew over and that talks instead about “enclosed spaces” and the ways that they become the site of Kafka’s writing. For Calasso, a world in which one “awaits one’s sentence, endures the delays of a never-ending case… [This may well be] an agonizing place, but the only one where Kafka knows he belongs.”

In our new century, it is entirely possible that a generation of readers not yet familiar with Kafka will find a worthy guide in Calasso’s K., and that those who have been around the block with Kafka for more times than they care to say will once again make their way toward the Castle—but, this time, with new eyes. Or it may be that K. will remain a curiosity, an indispensable part of any first-rate collection of Kafka commentary but not one likely to make its way into footnotes or course syllabi.

Discussion Question

There are a lot of books that aim to illuminate the works of Franz Kafka. In fact, it sometimes seems that the kafkology industry has made it difficult for general readers, if not students, to get anywhere near Kafka's work. Have you ever found a book about Kafka that has truly helped you understand the man Sanford Pinsker terms "the icon of 20th-century alienation"? >>