Kafka and the Kafkaesque

Kafka Alexander Provan in The Nation:

What is the Kafkaesque? It is the scene described in Kafka's story “A Report to an Academy,” in which an eloquent ape candidly recounts his arduous path toward civilization: “There is an excellent idiom: to fight one's way through the thick of things; that is what I have done.” It is, Begley suggests, that familiar existential predicament so often played out by Kafka's characters, who “struggle in a maze that sometimes seems to have been designed on purpose to thwart and defeat them. More often, the opposite appears to be true: there is no purpose; the maze simply exists.” It is the explosion of the international market for mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, in which value is not attached to the thing itself but to speculation on an invented product tangentially related to (but not really tied to) that thing. It is FEMA's process for granting housing assistance after Hurricane Katrina: victims were routinely informed of their applications' rejection by letters offering not actual explanations but “reason codes.” It is the Bush administration's declaration that certain Guantánamo Bay detainees who had wasted away for years without trial were “no longer enemy combatants” and its simultaneous refusal to release them or clarify whether they had ever been such. It is, as Walter Benjamin wrote, “the form which things assume in oblivion.” “Kafkaesque,” in other words, is a phrase that has come to represent very much about modern life while signifying very little.

For some, the haze of the Kafkaesque has become so dense–if not Kafkaesque–as to prevent readers from seeing the real Kafka. In his “definitive biography” Kafka: The Decisive Years, which was translated from the German in 2005, Reiner Stach assembles the available bits of information about the writer's life between 1910 and 1915 as if they were puzzle pieces, but he finds he has no key, or too many; loath to impose his interpretation of the various facts and accounts (though he must do so occasionally) or to indulge purveyors of the Kafka myth, he leaves the reader with a 600-page buildup to a titular punch line.