a strange marvel


Kafka was not quite 41 when he died in a sanatorium outside Vienna in June 1924. Little-known in his own lifetime, he would later be recognised as one of the 20th century’s most important writers. Samuel Beckett was drawn to his bleak and unsparing vision; today his admirers include JM Coetzee, Lydia Davis and Jonathan Franzen. If Kafka still speaks to us, it is because he is a sort of 20th-century Dante, who wrote a story of Everyman who sets out in search of salvation in this world, only to encounter a proliferating darkness. A writer of such mystique would need a very good biographer and, at first, it looked as though Kafka had found him in his literary executor Max Brod, who had refused to burn his work as instructed, and seen to its publication. While Brod’s 1937 biography had much to say about Kafka’s fiction and inner life (as well as his famed sensitivity to noise and unlikely interest in Prague nightlife), it viewed Kafka as an essentially redemptive figure, whose perceived Jewish “spirituality” was the commanding side of his personality. It is true that Kafka’s literary friends and almost his entire circle in Prague were Jews; yet the word “Jewish” does not appear anywhere in his fiction. Like many German-speaking Jews within the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kafka saw assimilation as a means of escape from the pogrom-tainted past. Nevertheless, he was fascinated by Yiddish culture and Yiddish literature; his Jewish identity was conflicted at best.

more from Ian Thomson at the FT here.