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Metamorphoses by Karolina Watroba; A Cage Went in Search of a Bird; Diaries review – Franz Kafka as more than just a prophet of malaise

Metamorphoses by Karolina Watroba; A Cage Went in Search of a Bird; Diaries review – Franz Kafka as more than just a prophet of malaise

There is a scene in the American version of the sitcom The Office, one that achieves the buttock-clenching awkwardness of the original series, in which the protagonist, Michael Scott, breaks up in public with his girlfriend, who is also the mother of an employee. She is, he explains, just too worldly and cultured for him, filling their conversation with references that he cannot follow: “Who is Kafkaesque?” he asks. “I’ve never … I don’t know him.”

This year marks the centenary of Franz Kafka’s death, and the appearance of his name in a mainstream sitcom is a reminder that he is part of that tiny group of writers – along with Shakespeare and Dickens, certainly – whose overall style and manner is so identifiable that it has become an adjective. Just as a sooty-cheeked urchin or an exaggeratedly hearty paterfamilias is destined to be described as Dickensian, any situation characterised by over-elaborate and baffling bureaucracy that might induce manic despair when faced with its inhumane workings will summon up Kafka’s adjectival spectre, to the smug nodding of the initiated and the bafflement of the Michael Scotts of the world.

In very different ways, these three books simultaneously illuminate and complicate what we mean – or think we mean – if we are tempted to describe some phenomenon as Kafkaesque. They showcase the variousness and complexity that characterised the author and his writings, and that tend to get sidetracked or ignored when he is reduced to an all-purpose prophet of modern bureaucratised malaise. Karolina Watroba’s Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka is not – or not only – a biography; it economically combines a great deal of information about Kafka’s life and writings with a rich account of what modern readers have made of him.

Kafka, Watroba shows, was not straightforwardly Czech, or German, or Austrian, “or any other similar one-word label. His world cannot be neatly plotted on to the present map of German-speaking Europe.” “Even calling Kafka a German-speaking Jew,” she writes, “is more of an approximation than the full story.” He was not a practising Jew, but fascinated by other forms of Jewish life, especially the Yiddish theatre troupe that visited Prague; and he wrote in German but also spoke Czech and studied Hebrew intensively. Watroba acutely shows the difference that these multiple affiliations made to the tiniest details of Kafka’s writings: one of his eeriest and most captivating creations, a capering figure comprised of scraps and rags who appears in the short story The Cares of a Family Man, is called Odradek, a name whose resonances are “suspended between Slavonic and German etymologies … both are necessary, but neither is sufficient on its own”.

These compounds of language and nation have, Watroba compellingly argues, facilitated the making and remaking of countless posthumous Kafkas. This deft and generous book finds room not only for the many sides of him but for a whole smörgåsbord of legacies and afterlives that explode the cliche of the Kafkaesque: the Oxford don who collected the manuscripts of Kafka’s works – – from a bank in Zurich and drove them back to the Bodleian library in his Fiat; the use of Kafka’s name and legacy to understand virtual reality and AI; the engagement of all kinds of readers, from other novelists to Goodreads reading groups. Watroba is a good-humoured writer, and one feature of Kafka’s writing that she laudably accentuates is his sense of humour: not just a lonely, tortured genius – he often moved from yet another “display of obsessive self-pity into gentle comedy”. At times the capaciousness of the book feels like a limitation: its good cheer could have benefited from taking on intermittently a little more of Kafka’s spikiness and strangeness.

Franz Kafka with his fiancee Felice Bauer in Budapest, 1917View image in fullscreen

Watroba’s final chapter moves unexpectedly to South Korea, where, she shows, there have been both a huge number of translations of Kafka’s works into Korean, and a plethora of Korean books overtly influenced by Kafka, including many that have been translated into English, notably Han Kang’s International Booker prize-winning The Vegetarian, frequently compared to The Metamorphosis and another of Kafka’s greatest stories, A Hunger Artist. Watroba cannily shows that, on the one hand, Kafka’s writings have provided a potent resource by which Korean novelists can express alienation and ennui, while, on the other, the very existence of these novels in English translation is the result of a concerted, lavishly funded effort by the South Korean government to make the nation’s literature a global product in the manner of Korean cinema and K-pop.

Just as the image of Kafka as isolated and frustrated genius is a partial one – he was, she writes, “both a cog in the bureaucratic machinery and its subject” – Korean Kafkaism is an apt paradox, an array of isolated and anguished voices made accessible to the English-speaking world by an elaborate bureaucratic machinery.

If Watroba wants us to rethink what we think we mean by Kafkaesque, the stories collected in A Cage Went in Search of a Bird take it largely for granted. There is something inescapably gimmicky and opportunistic about books of this sort, which inevitably proliferate in the anniversary year of a major author’s birth or death. The high-profile talent on display here – Ali Smith, Joshua Cohen, Elif Batuman, Helen Oyeyemi and others – goes some way towards redeeming the enterprise, even if it feels at times like a set of extended riffs on experiences that someone might describe as, like, totally Kafkaesque: buying an apartment; being treated in a hospital; online dating – all these and more are remodelled in line with the experiences of Josef K, protagonist of The Trial.

The least successful stories are those that attempt Kafkaesque sci-fi, such as Naomi Alderman’s God’s Doorbell; this is partly the limitations of the form, which restrict the space for expansive world-building and require blunt explanation of, for example, how technologised humans will think in the future: “Our interconnected networks show us millions of people’s thoughts every second. It’s very like telepathy.”

The most successful either make something new and important of the bureaucratised scenario – as with Leone Ross’s hospital story, Headache, which subtly shows how the dehumanising dimensions of treatment focus on the racialised body of its protagonist – or strive to match Kafka for sheer weirdness. The collection confirms that Kafka’s most electrifying effects often lie in incidental moments of disorientation rather than the more eye-catching scenarios, a fact best grasped by Batuman, whose somewhat predictable story The Board, about the trials of property-purchasing, is enlivened by quicksilver shifts of perception: what is thought to be a bush turns out to be the broker, “a young and emaciated man in a textured, shrubbery-coloured coat”; “a heap of dirty carpets” is revealed to be a sleeping figure; a dog bed contains a cashmere blanket that is in fact the seller, an “aged man with a long beard”.

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An illustration for Kafka’s The TrialView image in fullscreen

To gauge the fidelity of these sudden recalibrations of perception it is necessary to turn to Kafka’s own writings, and a welcome opportunity to do so is richly afforded by the publication in Penguin Classics of his diaries, in their entirety. Its significance lies in the fact that these writings, like much of Kafka’s work and legacy, reached the world in a form heavily curated by his close friend Max Brod, who notoriously ignored Kafka’s demand that they be burned after his death. The very notion that the word “Kafkaesque” could describe one, single mood and tone is in large part thanks to Brod, who gave us a Kafka streamlined and uniform.

The unedited diaries give us back a Kafka who, among other things, can be quite rude and cutting about Brod, and had a series of powerfully homoerotic experiences that his friend excised: where Brod’s edition included Kafka’s description of “Two handsome Swedish boys with long legs”, he omitted the rest of the sentence – “which are so formed and taut that one could really run one’s tongue along them.” While such deletions are especially loaded, they are just one facet of the general tidying up of Kafka that Brod effected, both literally – the diaries are a mess, an editor’s challenge – and figuratively, in sifting a single Kafka from the many possibilities that these works contain.

Ross Benjamin’s complete translation gives us back Kafka in all his sprawling and cranky glory. Often turgid and repetitious in their fevered writing of how impossible he found it to write (“1 June 1912: Wrote nothing. 2 June 1912: Wrote almost nothing.”), they are a fitting challenge to any glib attempt to distil the nature of the Kafkaesque, showing us instead the lightning shifts and transformations that have offered so much to later readers and writers, and the immense cost that these exacted upon him: “The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces.”

The most extraordinary moment, for me, in nearly 600 pages of entries, is when Kafka seizes on to a passing mention of two seamstresses who are glancingly mentioned in a play that he saw, but who never appear. He makes them a typically opaque symbol of those excluded from history, and what it means to peer at them while they peer in; as if anticipating his own posthumous place, at once central and marginal, and the rippling glimpses of contorted beings and worlds – his most of all – that his writings afford us:

“This pursuit of secondary characters I read about in novels, plays, etc. The sense of belonging together I then have! … there’s mention of two seamstresses … How are these two girls doing? Where do they live? What have they done that they are not permitted to come along into the play but veritably drowning in the downpours outside Noah’s Ark are permitted only to press their faces one last time against a cabin window so that the patron in the orchestra sees something dark there for a moment.”

Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka by Karolina Watroba is published by Profile (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird: Ten Kafkaesque Stories by Various is published by Abacus (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com