A Man’s Guide to One of the Great Writers
Modern life can be humiliating, emasculating, just plain confusing—not just for men, but for everybody. Even kids are increasingly being affected by this cursed Age of Anxiety.
As technology advances and civilization becomes more complex, we’re left in a constant state of dizziness. Gender roles, family relations, work hierarchies, social mores—all in a constant state of flux. In such a situation, even Julius Caesar himself would have a hard time maintaining his dignity.
No writer has depicted this plight as insightfully—or entertainingly—as Franz Kafka.
A Life in Brief
Kafka was born in Prague in 1883. Spoke and wrote in German, was Jewish.
Studied to be a lawyer, worked for an insurance company. Didn’t like his day job, struggled to find time to write at night. From his diaries:
19 February. When I wanted to get out of bed this morning I simply folded up. This has a very simple cause, I am completely overworked. Not by the office but my other work… But for me in particular it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no escape but insanity.
Loved/hated his dad, a successful businessman. From a letter to his father:
This feeling of being nothing that often dominates me (a feeling that is in another respect, admittedly, also a noble and fruitful one) comes largely from your influence.
Got interested in Yiddish theater, became a vegetarian, contracted tuberculosis. In addition, an inveterate brothel visitor and breaker-offer of engagements.
Died at forty years old. Starved to death because his TB got so bad that he couldn’t swallow. Before he died, he wrote to his good friend Max Brod:
Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me… in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.”
Max didn’t do so.
Why You Should Read Him
Kafka is one of the modern era’s great humorists. Now, he’s not funny in the usual sense—his humor has a layer of existential dread generously slathered on top. But he’s funny nonetheless.
The closest thing he can be compared to is Charlie Chaplin. Kafka’s protagonists are not hobos, by any means—they’re mostly nice, middle-class professional young men—but they’re similar to Chaplin’s Little Tramp in that they’re incessantly caught up in absurd situations and are frequently demeaned. Occasionally they get the upper hand, but that upper hand doesn’t stay upper for long.
And, as in Chaplin’s films, the whole world seems to be against them. Frequent antagonists in Kafka’s stories include labyrinthine bureaucracies, overbearing authority figures, seductive yet fastidious women, and the cold-hearted, indifferent crowd.
His writing also almost perfectly reflects the world of dreams. I don’t know about you, but my dreams are neither prophesies nor pithy glimpses into the spirit world. Rather, they are feverish expressions of my pent-up anxieties.
I’m a teacher, so one of my most common dreams is that I’ve suddenly had a new class thrust upon me at the last moment—and not only am I not prepared to teach, but I’m running late as well, and the school is a confusing, maze-like structure, so I can’t find my classroom. When I finally locate my class and start teaching, I find that my students are a group of belligerent malcontents.
If you have similar dreams—or nightmares, rather—then Kafka’s your man.
The Castle, translated by Mark Harman.
Kafka’s long short story “The Metamorphosis” is his most famous work, and although I love the story, I always try to recommend something that people may not have already read in high school or college.
When I first read The Castle, I was living and working in China. To me, the book perfectly captured what it was like to be caught up in a new, strange, confusing environment.
“Who are you?” cried an imperious voice… “I am the land surveyor of the Count,” said K., trying to justify himself in front of these as yet invisible people. “Ah, it is the land surveyor,” a woman’s voice said, and then there was complete silence. “You know me?” asked K. “Of course,” the same voice said, curtly. Their knowing K. did not seem to recommend him.
Miscommunication and faux-pas plague the main character K. as he shows up in a small mountain village, having contracted to work there as a surveyor. Problem is, nobody’s sure why he was hired or where he’s supposed to go—and his employer located in the ominous castle looming above is mysteriously inaccessible.
One sign of great literature is the variety of interpretations it elicits. The castle in The Castle could represent God, enlightenment, happiness, false projections, hell, ultimate reality, the human condition, authority, future goals, the ego, organized religion, the intellect, or human civilization in general. Or something not even listed here.
After That, You Should Read…
The Trial, translated by Breon Mitchell.
As you can see in the two recommendations I’ve given, I’ve also included the translators. This is because when reading a book written in another tongue, it’s absolutely crucial that you also choose a good translation. Sometimes the difference is stark.
The Trial, like all of Kafka’s novels, is unfinished—and after “The Metamorphosis,” it’s his most well-known work. It describes the struggles of (once again) a character named K. He is charged with a crime—some crime, who knows what.
The crime doesn’t seem to be too serious, but nonetheless he finds himself entangled in a confusing web of bureaucracy which induces great anxiety—and his anxiety slowly starts to seem justified as things escalate.
And now he was expected to work for the bank?—He glanced over at his desk.—Now he was supposed to admit clients and deal with them? While his trial rolled on, while the officials of the court were up there in the attic going over the trial documents, he was supposed to conduct bank business? Didn’t that seem like a form of torture, sanctioned by the court, a part of the trial itself, accompanying it? And would anyone in the bank take his special situation into account when judging his work? No one, not ever.
Kafka’s vision of guilt is becoming more and more prescient. Not only do the authorities—whether it be the police or employers or, if you’re a politician, the general public—have an almost-unerasable history of past indiscretions available to them via the Internet, but the ease of dissemination of stupid comments or compromising pictures ensures that your past could come back to haunt you at any moment, no matter how many years later.
What a nightmare.