Happy Birthday, Franz

kafkaIt’s hard to believe Franz Kafka ever had a happy birthday. Or any sort of happy day ever. Biographers describe him variously as depressed, anorexic, and occasionally suicidal, possibly with a schizoid personality disorder. He trained as a lawyer, worked in insurance, and died of tuberculosis at the age of 40. He did his writing on the side, which seems to have kept him far too busy for serial murder. Once again, we are saved by books.

If you’re finding these sunny July days just don’t comport with your personal idiom, Kafka might be just the right cloud for you. Here are a few classics to consider.

1. The Metamorphosis

metamorphosis

This packs one of the most powerful opening lines in all literature:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

And one of its film adaptations sports the most quotable line ever:

“I’m getting better.”

—horrid fly-human creature

(Spoiler alert: He’s not getting better.)

In The Metamorphosis, Kafka explores what it means to be human in a way that leaves us suspicious that our noblest passions (a love for the violin, for example) are not qualitatively better than the joy a scaraby creature gets from mucking about in filth. Starting to see why you never married, Franz.

2. The Trial

trialThis jacket of The Trial is from a truly snazzy collection, The Schocken Kafka Library. I give full marks for their terrific series design and their scholarly approach to the texts. If you’re new to Kafka, though, SKIP THE INTRODUCTIONS. They’re good, but read them last.

This romp through early 20th-century legal horror has another great opener:

“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., because he had done nothing wrong, but one day he was arrested.”

You have to wonder what Franz was like at a cocktail party. No idle yammering for this guy—he must have been out that day in the third grade when we all had the unit on chit-chat and social niceties. I’m imagining:

Host: “Hey, Franz, I’d like you to meet my neighbor, Jane.”

Jane: “Hello. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Franz: “One marvels at the presumption of those who feign pleasure when meeting someone who wants only to soil you, eat you, and bury your putrid remains in a shallow grave.”

The Trial can be read from a lot of perspectives. It is an insightful social commentary, a great example of an unsympathetic narrator, and a deft combination of bureaucracy and terror. Unless that last is oxymoronic, as may be. On a dark day, it is easy to read The Trial as a metaphor for life itself—we’re all here on earth, subject to confusing and upsetting circumstances, and very likely to be executed without ever knowing what it was all about.

If the tale itself does not fill you with dread, consider that we only have it at all because Kafka’s close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, ignored his dying wish that his unpublished works be burned. Dear Reader, I submit to you that books are better than friends.

3. Amerika

amerika

There are good reasons not to recommend Amerika, but here’s why I do:

  1. Tomorrow’s July 4, and I was feeling a wee bit patriotic.
  2. It’s one of K.’s few stabs at a full-length novel.
  3. Parts of it are, ironically, not Kafkaesque.

Some people think it’s funny. It’s not— not by a long shot—but by Kafka’s standards, it’s a laugh riot. Perhaps it’s because Kafka was writing about a place he’d never been at a time when some of America’s chief exports were Keystone Cops flicks. He converts the torch in the hand of the Statue of Liberty to a sword, so he doesn’t seem to be trying to be funny. He may have just thought that the American justice system was best exemplified in the work of Mr. Fatty Arbuckle. He may have been right.

It’s a short list today, because no one should read too much Kafka at a stretch. When I was young, my mother would periodically charge into my room and march me outside to sit in the sun for ten minutes. “You’re going to be vitamin-D deficient!” she’d rail. While that was preposterous, it was also accurate; my doctor makes me take megadoses. He doesn’t know about the reading. So get outside for a minute and shake off the cobwebs, stretch out the old exoskeleton, and take a deep breath of tuberculosis-free air.

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