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15 February 2017

Unlucky Franz: Ian Thomson on Kafka’s life of unholy tedium

The strange creatures of Kafka’s posthumous collection The Burrow.

By Ian Thomson

Was there ever any other writer so afflicted by misfortune as Franz Kafka? Born in Prague in 1883 into a German-speaking Jewish family, “St Franz of Prague” (as Primo Levi called him) lived a life of almost holy tedium, working as an insurance clerk and seldom venturing beyond his own home or that of his parents. Each of his three sisters was destined to die in the Holocaust under the Nazis – casualties of the grotesque bureaucracy forecast by their brother three decades earlier in his novel The Trial. No less grimly, Kafka was not quite 41 when, in June 1924, he died at a sanatorium outside Vienna. Almost unknown in his lifetime, he would be hailed as one of the most significant fiction writers of the 20th century. Among his admirers today are J M Coetzee, Lydia Davis and Jonathan Franzen.

Kafka’s posthumously published short stories cry out for critical exegesis. In “The Burrow”, written in 1923, a badger-like creature builds itself a labyrinthine fortress underground with a camouflaged entrance hole and a store of dead prey for sustenance. What does the story mean? Is it an allegory of political paranoia? No single key is likely to turn the lock; even Kafka might not have been able to “interpret” this fiction, which ends bafflingly in mid-sentence. “The Burrow” is what it is: a dark metaphysical fancy with a paranoid-seeming logic.

Several of his animal-themed fictions were published after his death by Max Brod, his literary executor. With their images of tunnelling and subterranean darkness, they confirm a certain view of Kafka as an author too physically frail and sensitive for this world. His famed aversion to noise, coupled with his bouts of depression and squeamishness about sex with women he knew (prostitutes were another matter), contribute to what the novelist James Hawes calls the “K-myth”. The reality, naturally, was more complicated.

Newly translated by Michael Hofmann, the stories collected in The Burrow mingle dark comedy with a proto-surrealist intent to unsettle. Dogs do not usually write auto­biographies. But “Investigations of a Dog” is the title (added by Brod) of a canine fantasia in which a dog spends its life exploring aspects of “dogdom” and “doggedness”, from eating habits to mating rituals. The narrator-dog’s curiosity is aroused by the appearance of seven “music dogs”, which are seen to walk on their hind legs while playing brass-band melodies. “No species, to my knowledge, lives as widely dispersed as we dogs do,” the narrator says. Are these, in Kafka’s allegorical vision, Jews?

For all his status as an assimilated Jew living in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kafka was fascinated by Yiddish culture and history. In a story here from the early 1920s, “In our Synagogue . . .”, a wolverine creature (perhaps a marten) frightens female visitors by scurrying across the latticework over the section of the temple where women sit. Another posthumous story, “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor . . .”, tells how the Jewish manager of a linen factory returns home one night to find two coloured rubber balls unaccountably bouncing in his room.

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Some of the other tales are less abstruse. A political parable, “Building the Great Wall of China”, describes how an all-powerful nation decides to construct a giant wall as protection against “nomads” and other undesirables from across the border. In Kafka’s ironic view, nation-building requires the ritual humiliation and subjugation of a perceived “enemy”, by means of bricks and cement if necessary. Written a century ago in 1917, the story was not published until 1931 – by which time the author was dead of laryngeal tuberculosis.

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According to recent biographers, Kafka was a womaniser who frequented brothels, and a follower of women’s fashion (his father ran a fancy-goods shop). Max Brod’s 1937 biography, on the contrary, viewed the Czech-born writer as an essentially redemptive figure with a perceived Jewish “spirituality”. The word “Jewish”, however, appears nowhere in Kafka’s fiction. “In the City”, written as early as 1911, probes a tormented Jewish father-son relationship that may recall his own difficulties: “I’m disgusted by such a son, who by sheer laziness, prodigality, wickedness and stupidity is driving his old father to an early grave.”

Although Kafka did not live to see Hitler’s rise to power, The Burrow hints at future depredations. In “The Village Schoolmaster”, written between 1914 and 1915, an elderly (possibly Jewish) teacher compiles an academic paper on the existence of a freakishly large mole, only to be mocked and persecuted by leading scientists. Hofmann, alert to the author’s fascination with Eastern Jewry and Ashkenazi custom, uses the odd Yiddish term (“keep shtum”) to enhance these excellent new translations.

Ian Thomson’s books include “Primo Levi: a Biography” (Vintage)

This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine