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Franz Kafka: Literary Martyr

Biography and criticism of the introspective author are fused in one hefty volume

IF the word "Joycean" evokes a style, "Proustian" a specific mode of memory, "Kafkaesque" is a word that seems to summon up the terror, comedy, absurdity, alienation, and the sheer disjunctiveness of modern life.Whether or not Franz Kafka is indeed, as biographer Frederick Karl proposes, the "representative man" of our era, no one would deny that he makes a strong candidate for the title (if there can be such a creature as a representative man for a century that has continued to explode with the unforeseen and the irreconcilable). More than any other modern writer, Kafka manages to capture the darkest and most disturbing undercurrents of the so-called Age of Anxiety. He encompasses the private, night-world of dream-logic and the dehumanizing day-world of bureaucracy; the Freudian realm of irrational dreams that have rational meanings and the Marxian realm of rational schemes that become irrational realities. Although he died in 1924, at the age of 41, his work seems to prophesy the horrors of violence, persecution, and victimization unleashed by the Nazis (Kafka's three sisters would perish in concentration camps). Yet the irony is that someone as intensely private as Kafka, self-absorbed to the point of near-solipsism, should have emerged as master of the political parable for our time. What could be more emblematic of the plight of modern man than the experience of Joseph K. in "The Trial," arrested without having done anything wrong and involved in a futile attempt, not only to clear himself but also to figure out what he is being accused of? Or the equally fruitless efforts of K. to establish contact with whoever is in charge of "The Castle," efforts that leave him ever more deeply mired in the labyrinths of bureaucratic confusion? And who can forget the waking nightmare of persecution undergone by Gregor Samsa of "The Metamorphosis," who awakens "one morning from uneasy dreams" to find himself "transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect," reviled and rejected by his own parents and sister? Prophetically enough, the term Kafka used to designate "insect" or "vermin" when writing the story in 1912, Ungeziefer would be the same used by Hitler to designate such social "undesirables" as gypsies, Jews, and Slavs. Like a lizard swollen to the size of a dinosaur, politics can be seen as psychopathology writ large. "We need the books that affect us like a disaster," wrote the young (20-year-old) Kafka to a friend in 1904, books "that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves.... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." The oldest child and only surviving son of bourgeois Jewish parents, Kafka grew up and spent most of his life in Prague, a Jew among Gentiles, a German-speaker among Czechs, and a preternaturally sensitive boy whose gruff, well-meaning parents did not even begin to understand him. Although he managed to get his degree in law and to function very effectively in his job at the Workers Accident Insurance Company, where he helped injured workers to receive their benefits, Kafka was determined that nothing should stand in the way of his writing. Thrice engaged - and twice to the same woman, Felice Bauer - he never married. Loneliness, the experience of being thrown back upon oneself, made to listen to one's inner voices, was essential to his writing. "Writing that springs from the surface of existence ... is nothing," he wrote, "and collapses the moment a truer emotion makes that surface shake. That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence when one writes, why even night is not night enough." So he insisted in one of the 500 letters he wrote to Felice, simultaneously pleading for her love and understanding while warning her that he would make a disastrous husband. A scholar-critic whose devotion to the cult of Modernism is evident in his 1,000-page biographies of Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner and his massive study of "American Fictions: 1940-1980," Frederick Karl portrays Kafka as a kind of literary martyr - self-absorbed, self-wounding, on one level self-destructive, but in a deeper way self-preservative, saving himself for his writing. His biography of Kafka is hardly the first, but he claims it is the first study of Kafka to balance biography and literary criticism. German studies, he contends, have concentrated on Kafka's works, while English studies, like Ronald Hayman's and Ernst Pawel's, have been chiefly biographical in focus. Professor Karl places special emphasis on Kafka's awareness of Modernism as it sprouted up around him in its divergent forms, from the theories of Freud and Nietzsche to the cubist abstractions of Picasso. He also portrays in detail the political-social-cultural world in which Kafka grew up: the ancient Central European city of Prague, still part of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire, no backwater, but a center of political and intellectual ferment only slightly behind Vienna or Berlin. Karl casts his net wide, bringing in all manner of historical and social background material. At the same time, he delves deeply into the complex psychology of the man and his works. As a critic, Karl rightly recognizes that the extraordinary power of Kafka's works lies in their resistance to easy interpretation - biographical, allegorical, or historical - and he offers readings that are open and suggestive rather than patly definitive. In a strange way, Karl approaches Kafka the man as if he were a fictional character playing out the paradoxical role of the martyr who triumphs by sacrificing his life to literature. The Kafka who emerges in these pages is thus in some respects more like an idea than a person. The outline of Kafka's life becomes over-embellished with Karl's lengthy, often repetitive, disquisitions on Modernism, Freudianism, Czechoslovakian bilingualism, and the tortuous course of Kafka's attempts to forge and sever relationships with women. At times the reader may suspect that neither the author nor his editors ever stopped to read this book through from start to finish to weed out the excessive undergrowth. Karl argues ingeniously, but too often his arguments go in circles. Karl brings a great deal of scholarship and learning to bear on his subject, as well as a deep appreciation for Kafka's genius. Unfortunately, he lacks Kafka's gift for rendering complex matters in the form of classic simplicity.

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