Thoughts on Franz Kafka

My favorite authors to discuss are dead authors, especially “the classics.” There’s something fascinating to me about reading one of the classics, especially for the first time as an adult, in order to form my own opinion. I’m obsessed with that feeling. It’s a strange combination of trust and skepticism, eagerness and dread, pleasure and work. To read something others have deemed great and decide for myself if I agree or disagree – and why. At worst it’s a fantastic way to exercise critical thinking. At best I discover a new master of writing to appreciate. (You can find my other such discussions under the “Not Quite Book Reviews” category tag.)

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My most recent adventure was Franz Kafka, the world-renowned nineteenth-century author from Prague, who was a Jewish man writing in German. (English-speakers read translations of his work, obviously. I think this fact alone is daunting and perhaps off-putting to many modern readers, which is a shame.) I picked up a “Barnes & Noble Classics” edition of his collected short stories called Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis and Other Stories translated by Donna Freed with introduction and notes by Jason Baker.

Kafka’s most famous story is “The Metamorphosis,” a novella in which a young salesman wakes up transformed into a giant roach-like insect. I knew the premise, and I knew that Kafka often dealt with the surreal and the depressing, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for reading his work. “The Metamorphosis” was a great and fascinating read. It really was. I quickly realized that Kafka has an uncanny talent for blending the surreal/supernatural with the ordinary in such a way that I forgot which was what as I was reading. What seemed impossible to me were characters’ reactions to this bug man, not the bug man himself. It was a really enjoyable sense of unreality and the bizarre. (This is a similar skill to Shirley Jackson, but it’s executed in an entirely different way.)

Unlike Lovecraft, who I found both wonderful and disappointing at the same time, Kafka’s prose is excellent, as is his story structure. He truly is a master. His concepts are unique, but his themes and general tone are usually pretty redundant (though not exhaustingly so). He explores existentialism and futility through complicated and volatile family relationships – usually father/son – and often comments on art/the life of an artist and how that relates to society as a whole. He’s obsessed with failure, and, ironically, I got the impression that his willingness to embrace himself as a failure (both a failed artist and a failed son) is what makes him so accessible despite his difficulty level, and so memorable as a storyteller. In short, he’s depressing as hell, but relatable. He puts his heart out there, and I loved him for it, even when he bummed me out.

“The Metamorphosis” might be Kafka’s most famous story, but by far my favorite in this collection was “A Hunger Artist,” sometimes translated as “A Starvation Artist.” The story is about a man who travels as a type of avant-garde artist who goes on exhibit for willfully starving himself. (Strangely, it reminded me of an episode of Sex & the City where they view almost that exact concept as an art exhibit.) I won’t give the story away, but I will say that I thought it was honestly brilliant. It’s arguably surreal, but it struck me as not only believable but realistic. People are obsessed with “danger acts” and “shock value” entertainment. I can actually imagine this type of thing happening in real life, and that made the story all the more powerful to me. It can be interpreted in many ways, but regardless of what you take away from it, I doubt you’ll be disappointed in the craft of his writing. I highly recommend it.

Some brief thoughts on other stories in this collection. The second story was “The Judgment,” and this was when I realized I’d have to relax my rationale a bit to enjoy Kafka. “The Metamorphosis” was surprisingly coherent to me, but after reading “The Judgment” I had to look up analyses online to make sure I hadn’t missed something. (I hadn’t; it’s surreal and somewhat nonsensical.) I didn’t particularly care for “The Stoker” or “An Old Leaf,” but “In the Penal Colony” was amazing and highly disturbing. “A Country Doctor” eventually won me over on a second read, and “Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse People” had undeniable charm as well as highlighting Kafka’s dark, wry, delightedly twisted sense of humor. “Before the Law” made me incredibly sad, which I guess means it was well done, especially for such a short piece.

I have one other thought after reading Kafka; he’s at least sometimes a horror writer. I think “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” and “A Hunger Artist” are almost undeniably horror stories (and damn good ones). I say almost undeniably because there are many, many people out there afraid to admit when something good is horror, and Kafka definitely gets the runaround. I’ve already read at least one respected critic who claims Kafka would be a lowly speculative fiction author if it weren’t for his exceptional talent. (Spoiler: he’s still a speculative fiction author; talent doesn’t somehow negate that.) If one more person claims a fabulous story/book/author “doesn’t count as horror” because it’s good I’m going to have to punch someone. Case in point? No one even told me Kafka was a master at horror, or I probably would’ve gotten to him long before now. Luckily I discovered him on my own.

Let’s wrap this up before I descend into full-blow rant territory. Did Kafka change my life? No, but he might’ve changed my writing, and he definitely broadened my reading. Do I think he’s worth the time? Yes, for avid readers and classic literature lovers, though casual leisure readers might be put off by his style. If nothing else, I think everyone should read “The Metamorphosis” to better understand allusions and references in popular culture as well “The Hunger Artist” because I think it’s his best work. He eked into my current top 40 favorite books at number 36.

Have you read any Kafka? What did you think?

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  • Julia Munroe Martin

    So interesting. LIke you, I’ve been revisiting the classics and right now, coincidentally, reading The Dubliners by Joyce. LIke Joyce, I feel like Kafka is one of those authors who I can’t imagine not being familiar with. Not only because his writing has been so influential over other writers but also because The Metamorphosis (which I loved) has had so many references in pop culture. As for The Hunger Artist (which I had to look up to refresh my memory; it’s been a few years), I was pretty shocked to learn that Kafka finished editing it as he was dying — of starvation (due to an illness that made it impossible for him to swallow). Horrifying in itself. Great post, Annie, and you’ve definitely inspired me to reread some of his work.

    • Wow! I didn’t know that about Kafka starving to death. Good lord, that’s horrible. No wonder the story felt so realistic to me. I know what you mean about influence and culture. It’s funny how I tend to not notice references until after I read the source material, and then they’re everywhere. Of Mice and Men was like that for me. I read Joyce in college, but I had to rush it for the course, and I would love to read him again someday. Thanks, Julia!

  • Peggy

    Great, fascinating review! I have to admit I’ve never read him, but R is over here saying, “Who hasn’t heard of Kafka?” Yikes:(

    • Thank you! Don’t feel bad; there are hundreds if not thousands of “classics.” We can’t keep up with all of them! Not to mention that I don’t think you’d care for Kafka, so he’s a good one for you to have missed.

  • Carie Juettner

    I really enjoyed reading this! Thanks to you, Kafka is now on my to-read list. Also, where can I find this “top 40 favorite books” you mention? I’m in awe that you have the ability to rank them so specifically.

    • Awesome! Thanks, Carie. 🙂 I have a “favorites” bookshelf on Goodreads, and I rank them (roughly) by my general enjoyment/appreciation. Of course the minutiae change frequently, but I like keeping a list and adding new books as I find them. I think this link should take you there: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/7067522?shelf=favorites My rankings are under “#” on the far left.

  • This was awesome! I feel all caught up. I’ve only read The Metamorphosis and like you said, I’m glad I did not only for the story, but for the ability to get all the references in pop culture!

    • Thanks, Nina! Yeah, it’s always nice to feel ‘in the know’ when it comes to things like this. It makes me want to go gobble up a few more classics I might be missing out on!

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Gosh it’s been so long since I read any Kafka, Annie. But I do recall liking some of his work. A horror writer? Hmm, maybe so. It’s certainly darkish. And as to the expectation by some that horror writers can’t be ‘good’, I’m with you 110 percent on dispelling that misconception. Hell, Stephen King is a fabulous writer (IMO), and so is Clive Barker (very literary). Have you ever read Barker’s, Books of Blood?

    • If you have any doubt that Kafka does horror, I’d suggest “In the Penal Colony.” I was trying to think of what else that one might be considered, but really horror is the only one that fits (besides literary, which in this case is a style rather than a genre). But yes, obviously I agree. I love Stephen King! Clive Barker is on my list, but I haven’t gotten to him yet. I’ll check to make sure Books of Blood is included. Thanks for the rec!

      • Cynthia Robertson

        Oh, you will LOVE Clive Barker! I can’t wait to hear what you think of him. He’s written several novels, but Books of Blood is a collection of his shorts, and it’s a marvel of its genre. I don’t know if he writes anymore – haven’t seen anything new by him in ages, anyway.
        I’ve read The Penal Colony, but it’s been years. I see a reread on the horizon. 🙂

  • jclementwall

    Love this post, Annie. I’ve read “The Metamorphosis” several times, for classes, and recently when Chad told me he’d never read it before, so I sat on the counter while he cooked dinner and read it to him. (I did this when I found out he’d never read “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas too.)

    I thought I’d read other Kafka short stories, but none of the ones you talked about sound familiar. (Completely fascinated by Julia’s discovery that Kafaka was himself starving as he finished The Hunger Artist.)

    Definitely adding this collection to my TBR list. And a couple of nights ago I finally picked up the Shirley Jackson collection of short stories I told you I’d found in a bag of old books from my parents. I will think of you as I read! ; )

    • Thanks, j. I love that you read to him while he cooks! That is such a sweet thing to do. 🙂 I can hardly wait to hear what you think of both Jackson and Kafka’s other stories!

  • Traci Kenworth

    Another I’ll have to try, thanks for the tip!!

  • Diann (books + body)

    What a cool post. I’ve definitely read Kafka in the past, though not for a while, so it was really interesting reading your fresh take. Have you considered giving The Trial a read? Also, because I associate him with some of my philosophy classes, I’m thinking of The Stranger as well, which might be worth a visit.

    • Thanks! The Trial is on my list, actually, but it’s pretty far down at the moment. I definitely liked Kafka enough to read more. I hadn’t heard of The Stranger so I looked it up; are you thinking of the novel by Camus? If so, you aren’t the only one to associate it with Kafka, because they came up together frequently in my search. Interesting!