Saturday, August 2, 2008

50 Greatest Books

The Complete Stories - by Franz Kafka

By Sam Solecki

I want to suggest that Franz Kafka would have endorsed my choice of a volume of his best stories over The Trial for The Globe and Mail's list of the 50 greatest books. After all, when he asked his friend Max Brod to destroy his papers and manuscripts, Kafka spared the stories. Brod ignored the writer's wishes, and in the three years following Kafka's death in 1924, he published The Trial, The Castle and Amerika. The English translations by Edwin and Willa Muir appeared a decade later. The rest is literary history. Kafka's admirers include Auden, Beckett, the French existentialists, García Márquez and Milan Kundera, and there is a consensus that he is one of the great modernists and a giant of world literature.

Whatever his personal demons and neuroses, the situations and dilemmas of Kafka's fiction are also ours. In fact, he is the only one of the modernists whose work has not dated. What he has to say about alienation, despair, absurdity, the nightmare of reason, the assault on the self and the absence of God is as relevant today as it was in the early decades of the last century. The fiction is radically innovative, but because Kafka belonged to no artistic movement, it doesn't come burdened with a dated style or label. The novels and stories might have been written yesterday.

Their place of origin is the Prague of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but they aren't burdened with the contingent clutter of their time and place. In a move that anticipates Beckett, Kafka strips his narratives to essentials that are universal: claustrophobic rooms and nondescript furniture, a handful of animal or human characters, often without names, a narrative verisimilitude predicated on an absurd premise that undoes plausibility, and a setting that is nowhere and everywhere.

This is as true of the novels as it is of the short fiction: The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, The Great Wall of China, A Country Doctor, The Hunter Gracchus, A Hunger Artist, A Report to the Academy, Investigations of a Dog, The Burrow, and the last completed work, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.

Though I understand why most readers regard The Trial as Kafka's signature work, I return to the stories more often and with greater anticipation. And though it's heresy to say so, I've found that The Trial and The Castle tend to drag; both have magnificent sections but, in the end, I find them repetitious and, dare I say it, occasionally boring. They sit on the same shelf as Broch's The Death of Virgil, Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Mann's Doctor Faustus and Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke - novels admired but not loved.

The best stories, by contrast, strike me as perfect works of art that seem fresh each time I read or teach them. There's a family resemblance in style and theme, but each offers a different situation, plot and set of characters. There's also the pleasure of what one critic describes as "the most obscure lucidity in the history of literature." Their paradoxes, contradictions, allusions and details tease you with the possibility, ultimately denied, of what one fragment contemptuously calls a coherent story. Instead, Kafka offers a radical indeterminacy that allows various, not-always-compatible interpretations.

And on one level, each story is perfectly coherent, if you accept its basic absurd situation and are willing to hand yourself over to the often impersonal voice of the narrator: A man turns into "vermin"; an aging carnivorous rodent describes his anxieties about the safety of his burrow; a traveller witnesses an officer's suicide on an elaborate machine designed to execute prisoners on an island where "guilt is never in doubt"; an ageless hunter who is both dead and alive wanders the Earth on a ship; and a man who calls himself the hunger artist discovers that people are no longer interested in his anorexic art.

Kafka wrote in his diary, "Life is merely terrible," but his fiction makes it more bearable than it otherwise would be by leaving us with the same complex pleasures that we feel when we read Sophocles or Rushdie.

Next week - The King James Bible.

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