Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at

This post discusses two essays on Kafka, a decade apart. The first, from the recently departed David Foster Wallace is called “Laughing With Kafka,” and appeared in Harper’s from 1998; the second, “F. Kafka, Everyman,” comes from Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books, written in the fall of 2008.

One of the striking things about Kafka is the degree to which people are interested in the way he lived his life; his relationship with Felice, for instance, has attracted about as much attention as the love life of deceased author can. Smith reviews Louis Begley’s biography of Kafka, “The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kakfa: A Biographical Essay,” from which we learn that in many respects Kafka was more normal than he has sometimes been cast; he kept a 9-5 job (actually 8:30-2:30, but more on that later), worked hard, lived with his parents, liked swimming. Kafka was not a very prolific writer, but this is perhaps because he kept a full time job throughout his life, an insurance job that was surely more prosaic than it is presented in Steven Soderberg’s overlooked Kafka, in which Kafka is shadowed at the office by two malevolent and miniature “assistants.” Smith says that his writing day was oddly organized–work from 8:30 to 2:30, nap, dinner, and writing from around 11 until late. We learn that Felice tried to rationalize his schedule, but that this approach worked best for him. As a would-be writer with a full-time job myself, I find nothing strange about this schedule–in fact the late nights here seem seems like a perfectly rational solution to the problem of carving out a block in time to devote to work.

Nonetheless, it is somewhat pleasing to learn that Kafka suffered from long stretches where he got little or nothing done, Begley writes that “Kafka’s failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically suited him” and suggests that the ever-handy iniquities of family life provided “cover” for procrastination and fallow periods.

Wallace’s piece describes Wallace’s attempt to teach Kakfa as comedy to college students in the U.S., which turns out not to be an easy sell: “The particular sort of funniness Kafka deploys in deeply alien to kids whose neural resonances are American. The fact is that Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement–Kakfa doesn’t do slapstick, ‘body humor’ Rothish satyriasis or Barthish metaparody or arch Woody-Allenish kvetching {…} Perhaps most alien of all, Kafka’s authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but are always absurd and scary and sad all at once.” This last point is a central one, and helps to explain why Kakfa can be read in such divergent ways. I mostly find the works absurdly menacing, in the way that only literature from Eastern Europe can be. Even the ridiculous, near-farcical scene of K.’s arrest that opens The Trial is deeply unnerving. Wallace’s idea of fun in Kafka is “A Little Fable” about a mouse who runs into an ever-narrowing world where the walls are closing in: “‘these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stand the trap that I must run into.’ ‘You only need to change your direction’, said the cat, and ate it up.” Why don’t students see the humor? “Kafka’s humor–not only not neurotic, but anti-neurotic, heroically sane–is, finally, a religious humor, but religious in the manner of Kierkegaard and Rilke and the Psalms, a harrowing spirituality {…} And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get.” I think I “get” “A Little Fable,” but it is only funny like a punch in the mouth is funny; it is the kind of blow that brings forth in the recipient a momentary frisson of ecstatic anarchism that gives way to a chest-tightening expression of amusement at the smallness of human endeavor and the complete uncontrollability of fate. “Harrowing spirituality” come close, and again this particular form of black humor is something I find almost exclusively in Eastern European writers who have lived through, have survived, decades of see-saw domination and cultural brutality on the part of Russia and Germany. Kafka is an early exponent of this form of humor, but Wallace is surely correct to locate it.

Taken together, these two essays, one on Kafka’s biography and the other on his humor, pack a powerful punch. Kafka’s “harrowing spirituality”, despite the fact that lived his entire life with his parents and seemed to have no clear idea of how to conduct a relationship with a member of the opposite sex, seems to the modern reader to mark him out as intellectually and culturally “mature,” just as any hard-won spirituality does (consider Augustine coming to god through libertinism, for instance). Wallace sees the opposite in today’s cultural landscape: “Our present culture is, both developmentally and historically ‘adolescent’. Since adolescence is pretty much acknowledged to be the single most stressful and frightening period of human development–the stage when the adulthood we claim to crave begins to present itself as a real and narrowing system of responsibilities and limitations–it’s not difficult to see why we as a culture are so susceptible to art and entertainment whose primary function is to ‘escape.'” For both Kafka’s mouse, eaten by the cat before he can reorient his destiny, and for Wallace, who killed himself in his forties in 2008, no escape proved possible. Coming into a new, uncertain year, it would behoove the rest of us to regard the “real and narrowing system of responsibilities and limitations” that adulthood makes unavoidable as a paradoxical form of freedom far more sustaining and grounded than the “freedom” to escape.