The Laughing Kafka

Tim Martin in The Telegraph:

Kafka1111_2639274b“Dear Sir,” the reader wrote, “You have made me unhappy. I bought your Metamorphosis as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of the story. My cousin gave it to her mother, who doesn’t know what to make of it either. Her mother gave the book to my other cousin, and she doesn’t know what to make of it either. Now they’ve written to me…”

History doesn’t record Franz Kafka’s reply to this fan letter from 1917, but his correspondent’s fascinated bemusement echoes down a hundred years of Kafkaology. What, after all, are any of us to make of this body of work, with its elusive blend of the mundane, the comic and the purely uncanny? Generations of readers and scholars have observed it through the telescopes of mysticism, Judaism, modernism, psychoanalysis, theory and biography, but the work continues to float like a strange planet in the skies of literature, enclosed by its unique atmosphere of wide-awake nightmare and hilarious, lazy unease. The German scholar Reiner Stach has spent more than 20 years working on Kafka’s life, and his comprehensive biography is now available in this country for the first time since the publication in German of its two volumes in 2002 and 2008. It arrives in a Kafkan bureaucratic tangle all its own, since these two stout books are, in fact, the final two in a projected trilogy. To write the first volume, covering the childhood, Stach needs access to papers from the estate of Kafka’s friend and executor Max Brod, which have been locked up for years in the possession of their elderly custodian (Brod’s secretary’s daughter) while a protracted court case shuttled between judges.

More here.