Franz Kafka, Everyman

Zadie Smith reviews Louis Begley’s The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay, in the NYRB:

[I]f we’re not to read Kafka too [Max] Brodly, how are we to read him? We might do worse than read him Begley. Gently skeptical of the biographical legend, Begley yet believes in the “metaphysical smile” of the work, the possibility that it expresses our modern alienation—here prophet Kafka and quotidian Kafka are not in conflict. He deals first, and most successfully, with the quotidian. The Kafka who, like other diarists, indulged a relentless dramaturgy of the self; the compulsive letter-writer who once asked a correspondent, “Don’t you get pleasure out of exaggerating painful things as much as possible?” For Kafka, the prospect of a journey from Berlin to Prague is “a foolhardiness whose parallel you can only find by leafing back through the pages of history, say to Napoleon’s march to Russia.” A brief visit to his fiancée “couldn’t have been worse. The next thing will be impalement.”

The diaries are the same, only more so: few people, even in that solipsistic form, can have written “I” as frequently as he. People and events appear rarely; the beginning of the First World War is a matter to be weighed equally with the fact that he went swimming that day. The Kafka who wrote the fictions was a man of many stories; the private Kafka sang the song of himself:

I completely dwelt in every idea, but also filled every idea…. I not only felt myself at my boundary, but at the boundary of the human in general.

I am the end or the beginning.

Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often—and in my inmost self perhaps all the time— I doubt that I am a human being.

One could quote pages of similar sentiments: Kafka scholars usually do. Thankfully, Begley has more of a comic sense than most Kafka scholars, tending to find Kafka in quite other moods; at times whiny, occasionally wheedling, often slyly disingenuous, and, every now and then, frankly mendacious. The result is something we don’t expect. It’s a little funny:

It turns out we really do keep writing the same thing. Sometimes I ask whether you’re sick and then you write about it, sometimes I want to die and then you do, sometimes I want stamps and then you want stamps….