Like Pascal, Kierkegaard and Baudelaire, Franz Kafka (1883- 1924) is one of the great masters of spiritual desolation. We don’t actually read his work, we are harrowed by it. In German of classical directness and purity, this desk functionary of the Prague Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute presents tableau after tableau of what Pascal called ” la misre de l’homme sans Dieu ,” the misery of man without God. All of Kafka’s unfortunate protagonists — Georg Bendemann in “The Judgment,” Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis,” Josef K. in The Trial — struggle against the one great, serious truth about life: Each of us is fundamentally and inescapably alone, especially in the face of death.
Reiner Stach’s Kafka builds on much of this research. (Drawing by Franz Kafka and a portrait taken in 1910 (From “Kafka”).