|Kafka postcard, available at zazzle.co.uk|
If Franz Kafka were living today do you suppose he could get a start in the writing game, recessive type that he was? You’d hope so; but then it is a self-promoting business, not ideal for one who reviewed his life’s work and concluded that the bulk of it ought to be consumed by fire. On the one hand it’s hard to imagine Kafka on Twitter; yet undeniably the man had a gift for aphorisms. 'In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world' – that’s 65 characters right there.
Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) turned 100 this year. At least, 1915 is when it was published, which is to say finished; and Kafka, of course, didn’t finish all that much. He did the main work on the story in the autumn of 1912 and completed a version of it on December 7 of that year. However, negotiations with publishers were complicated, and circumstances – inter alia The Great War, during which one prospective publisher (Robert Musil!) was called up, and another stopped printing – got in the way. But in 1915 it finally appeared, and has since come to be considered among the most famous, and greatest, short stories in the history of literary fiction.
On this centenary occasion I’ve had the pleasure of writing a long preface to the reissue of a rare translation of The Metamorphosis by A.L. (Albert Lancaster) Lloyd (known as ‘Bert’), which was, as of 1937, the first complete single-volume English version. (Lloyd, a folk musicologist, singer, arranger and author, was a key figure in the reflorescence of English folk music after the Second World War.) You can buy this edition as a Faber Find priced £4.99.
Meanwhile BBC Radios 3 & 4 are about to launch a major commemorative celebration of Kafka's work, for which playwright Mark Ravenhill has written a new adaptation of The Trial. Mark and I were on Radio 4's Open Book last week talking to Mariella Frostrup about Kafka's imaginative genius, his women troubles, and his great and strangely neglected sense of humour. It starts at 13:16 if you follow this link.
Myths have accumulated around Kafka, largely because they are compelling myths, and this is one of the greatest of writers – as George Steiner has argued, perhaps the only author one can be thought to own a letter of the alphabet. Kafka made his own world on the page – recognizable but not quite real, precisely detailed and yet dreamlike – and it still feels original and hugely influential. Once you know that world, you do tend to see it around you.
Though his great fame was posthumous Kafka did have a reputation to speak of during his lifetime. Something else that happened in 1915 was that the winner of the prestigious German-language Theodor Fontane Prize, dramatist Carl Sternheim, bestowed his prize money upon Kafka as a mark of writer-to-writer respect. (Imagine a Booker Prize winner today declaring from the dais that he wanted to hand his £50,000 to another more deserving scribbler.)
One danger with great writers, though, is that you can stop reading them, and so lose sight – or retain only a stale notion – of what constituted their greatness. The trappings of the ‘Kafkaesque’ are easily recalled, especially the sense of an individual at the mercy of a big impersonal bureaucracy, feeling after a while that he can’t but take it personally, and haunted by the sense that perhaps, after all, he deserves it. And anyone who has glanced at Kafka’s biography knows about The Father: Hermann Kafka, strapping son of a butcher, ex-serviceman and purveyor of fancy goods, against whom Franz (Hermann’s only son) felt inadequate in every way
Certainly Kafka suffered neurotic misery, but then that is the making of many a writer. In his case he seemed to feel it could be no other way and probably ought to be so: writing, he decided, was to be in ‘the service of the Devil’, a pact that never turns out in one’s favour. (As he wrote in a letter of July 1922, two years before his death from tuberculosis: ‘I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now I will really die. My life was sweeter than other people’s and my death will be all the more terrible.’)
But Kafka, though a wounded man, wished nonetheless to make an exhibition of his stigmata. And there’s something almost chilling in how he could step aside from himself, perceive his own plight, and twist it with such finesse into supple fictional shapes that had the force of parable.
That’s only the bare scratch of a start, though, in all one might say about Kafka. Revisiting him in order to write about him I was struck anew by how many stories he composed from the perspective of creatures: Investigations of a Dog, A Report to an Academy, Josephine the Singer, The Burrow. Simply put, it’s as if Kafka were saying, ‘You’re in the body you’re in, it makes the problems it makes, and the soul protests its fate whatever.’
Josephine and The Metamorphosis were recently re-imagined for children in My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs, written by Matthue Roth and illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason. I find this a pleasing and fresh turn in the more tired anthropomorphic bent of books aimed at kids. But that’s not to say the original wouldn’t work for them. For instance, I began composing my Metamorphosis preface beside a swimming pool during a family holiday last summer, and at one point a nine-year-old friend of my elder daughter picked up my old Penguin edition of Kafka’s original and started to question me about it, closely and with mounting curiosity. I like to think she had sensed something wise - sacred, even - in those pages. Kafka will tend to make you feel that way about books - such was his presence, now, then and, one somehow imagines, always.