A digital essay by Will Self
I am guilty of an association of ideas; or rather: I am guilty – that’s a given, and in casting about for the source of my guilt I find I cannot prevent myself from linking one idea with another purely on the basis of their contiguity, in time, in place, in my own mind. It’s not only ideas I connect like this, I do it with images, sensory impressions and the most epiphenomenal of mental glitches. Hume writes in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that the imagination is best conceived of as a combinatorial faculty: there is nothing intrinsically imaginative about the idea of ‘gold’, nor the idea of ‘mountain’, but join them together and you have a fantastically gleaming ‘gold mountain’. And might not that gold mountain be the Laurenziberg in Prague? After all, it looms over contemporary Prague – under its Czech language moniker, the Petřín – just as it loomed in the consciousness of Franz Kafka, whose earliest surviving narrative fragment, ‘Description of a Struggle’, is in part an account of a phantasmagorical ascent of its slopes: ‘But now the cool light which precedes the rising of the moon spread over the mountain and suddenly the moon itself appeared from beyond one of the restless bushes. I on the other hand had meanwhile been gazing in another direction, and when I now looked ahead of me and suddenly saw it glowing in its almost full roundness, I stood still with troubled eyes, for my precipitous road seemed to lead straight into this terrifying moon.’
Written during the winter of 1903-4, by a young man of 19, the story postdates by only a few years the intimations concerning his life ambitions that Kafka had had as a schoolboy – also on the slopes of the Laurenziberg – and which he set down in a 1920 letter to his Czech inamorata Milena Jesenská: ‘The most important or charming was the wish to achieve a view of life (and – this was necessarily bound up with it – to convince other people of it in writing), in which life maintained its natural heavy rise and fall, but at the same time would be recognised, no less clearly, as a void, a dream, a floating.’ The adult Kafka – the Kafka vermiculated by tubercular bacilli after having been played on for decades, as a demonic organist might press fleshy keys and pull bony stops, by his own relentless neurasthenia – reached a mystical appreciation of his youthful velleity, characterising it as a desire both to expertly hammer together a table and at the same time ‘do nothing’. The inanition would validate the craftsmanship involved, freeing it to become ‘even bolder, even more resolute, even more real and, if you like, even more insane’. I too have wished for this Dionysian timpani. I too have appreciated that nothing comes of nothing. While for the avuncular Kafka, patting the shoulder of his younger self, it was self-evident that ‘his wish was not a wish, it was only a defence, an embourgeoisement of nothing.’
After a night’s dreamless sleep in a conifer wood, the narrator of ‘Description of a Struggle’ encounters an obese and litter-borne Buddha-like figure whose ‘face bore the artless expression of a man who meditates and makes no effort to conceal it’ – an uncharacteristically taut one-liner for Kafka; he soon put paid to such callow excesses. The holy man inveighs against the Laurenziberg: ‘Mountain, I do not love you, for you remind me of the clouds, of the sunset, of the rising sky, and these are things that almost make me cry because one can never reach them while being carried on a small litter. But when showing me this, sly mountain, you block the distant view which gladdens me, for it reveals the attainable at a glance. That’s why I do not love you, mountain by the water – no, I do not love you.’ As if the mundane urban hillock were golden, it takes on these elemental characteristics: vaporous, gaseous, luminescent. But even as a dross of medieval masonry and Renaissance stucco – the Hunger Wall, the Strahov Monastery, the Hradčany Castle – it still represents a rigid piece of stage dressing, occluding what for Kafka, until the last few months of his active life, would always remain unattainable: the world beyond Prague.
I am guilty of an association of these ideas: on the turn of the year between 1916 and 1917, Kafka wrote to his on-and-off fiancée Felice Bauer, ‘You are acquainted with my two years of suffering, insignificant compared to the world’s suffering during that period, but bad enough for me.’* Like an opiomane in a Wilkie Collins novel, for Kafka the least sound was an exquisite torture. So, despite the pleasant modern rooms afforded him by his parents’ new apartment at the Sign of the Golden Pike (from the window he had a good view of the golden Laurenziberg), Kafka was tormented by the neighbours’ maid hanging up their washing in the attic space above his head, whereupon she would, ‘quite innocently, put the heel of her boot through my skull’. Much of the letter is taken up with Kafka’s apartment hunting: ‘A vast subject. It scares me; I won’t be able to cope with it. Too much for me. I can’t describe more than a thousandth part of it in writing.’ But he breaks off from this kvetching to hymn the diminutive house that has been lent to him by his youngest and favourite sister, Ottla, as a writing bolthole: ‘Today it suits me perfectly. In every respect: the pleasant walk up to the house, the silence; only a very thin wall separates me from a neighbour, but the neighbour is quiet enough; I take my evening meal up there, and usually remain there until midnight; and then the advantage of the walk home; I have to remind myself to stop, then I have the walk to cool my head.’ That winter was particularly chilling: but in the little house, 22 Golden Lane (also known as Alchimistengasse, ‘the Alchemists’ Street’), Kafka was experiencing the frictional heat of his combinatorial powers. Between December 1916 and the next April – with the exception of the fragmentary ‘Guardian of the Tomb’ – he wrote all the short prose fictions that were published during his lifetime. Among them were: ‘Jackals and Arabs’, ‘The Great Wall of China’ (inspired, perhaps, by the nearby Hunger Wall), ‘Report to an Academy’, ‘The Hunter Gracchus’, and the superficially more coherent – more finished, more enclosed in narrative circularity – ‘A Country Doctor’.
In 1916 the German equivalent of the Pyrrhic victory, ‘sich zu Tode siegen’ (‘to commit suicide by winning’), entered the language. The Russians’ Brusilov offensive was finally halted in October, but it shattered the Austrian armies on the Eastern Front. More than 350,000 soldiers had been captured, and total casualties have been estimated as high as a million men. Eight divisions of the Austro-Hungarian forces were Czech*. The Austro-Hungarian Army Handbook issued by the British War Office in 1918 gives the acute perspective of an enemy: the Czech troops are described as ‘united in their opposition to the Western Bohemian Germans’, who themselves are characterised as anti-Slav, ‘vigorous and unpleasant’. The Czechs are ‘intensely nationalistic, energetic and forceful’ but also ‘poor fighters who are generally willing to surrender unless their resolve is stiffened by a large proportion of Teutonic officers and NCOs’. In April 1915 the 28th (Prague) regiment deserted in its entirety, going over to the druzhina (or ‘retinue’) battalion that had been raised from among the 70,000 Czechoslovaks living within the Russian empire. The druzhina targeted their countrymen, who often came to meet them waving white flags and singing the anthem of the pan-Slavic movement Hej Sloveni. In May 1915 the 8th regiment deserted, and during the Brusilov offensive two more Czech regiments went over to the Russians. These men went on to form the core of the Czech Legion, which after the war became the basis of the new state’s national army. But in 1916 the officer corps of the Czech divisions of the Austro-Hungarian army still represented the ethnic and linguistic tensions of Kafka’s Prague. While the Jewish population of the Dual Monarchy was only about 5 per cent, Jews made up almost 18 per cent of the reserve officer corps, and one of those reservists was Kafka.
It has been characteristic of the Kafka industry not so much to neglect the social, cultural, political and historical dimensions of the writer’s life but to sideline them, except insofar as they contribute to one or other paradigmatic view of the writer. Even a biography as nuanced as Ernst Pawel’s The Nightmare of Reason foregrounds the headaches, the agonising over the mésalliance with Felice Bauer, the office grind and the strident cheeping of the Modernist cuckoo still – at this time in his early thirties – occupying the patriarchal nest. The commonplace problem of taking a writer at his own word(s) always seems compounded in the case of Kafka by the queered provenance of those words: the unfinished novels and unpublished stories, the copious journals saved from oblivion by Brod; and the letters to Felice Bauer and Milena Jesenská that surfaced in the years after the writer’s death*. These are taken to form the purlieu of Kafka’s citadel consciousness, on the basis of his perceived ability to cast a dark shadow forward over the middle decades of the 20th century. The canard is in part that of his genius being constituent of our climate quite as much as making its own weather, and in part that of a refusal to allow a writer whose vowels howl out towards the universal – through the purgation of the particular, the specific and their psychic consonants – to exist within a matrix of ephemera: a member of a German-speaking Jewish minority within a German-speaking minority within a Czech minority within the turbidly disintegrating Austro-Hungarian empire.
But I am guilty of an association of ideas: that winter, Prague, already supporting a large refugee population of Ostjuden fleeing the 1914 advances of the Russian army into Galicia, was further swamped by wounded and shell-shocked troops returning from the Eastern Front, and a series of defensive battles against the Italians along the Isonzo River. Fuel and food supplies ran low, with each of the city’s moieties accusing the other of hoarding. Even the well-to-do Kafkas were subject to privation, and Kafka’s mother wrote to Felice Bauer’s mother in the New Year that at Yom Kippur: ‘The fasting came easy, since we’ve been in training for it all year.’ Her etiolated and vegetarian son was always match-fit for privation, but while many commentators have seized upon Kafka’s journal entry of 6 August 1914 as confirmation of his disengagement from the European Gotterdämmerung: ‘I discover in myself nothing but pettiness, indecision, envy, and hatred against those who are fighting and whom I passionately wish everything evil’, I am minded to look to the words he wrote in the tiny house in the lee of the Hradčany Castle, and in particular to his description of the wound the eponymous narrator of ‘A Country Doctor’ finds in ‘the right flank’ of his young patient, a wound described with a combination of forensic precision and lubricious eroticism: ‘at around hip-height, he has a fresh wound as big as my hand. Pink, in many shades, a deep carmine at the centre, lightening towards the periphery, with a soft granular texture, the bleeding at irregular points, and the whole thing as gapingly obvious as a mineshaft.’
If anything is gapingly obvious, it’s associative thinking, unless, that is, like Kafka (and myself), you have come to suspect still more the metaphor’s detachment from, and modification of, its metaphrand. The fugitive quality of Kafka’s seeming metaphors, which, in common with the directives of the Castle’s inexorable bureaucracy, are ‘as shy as young girls’, must derive in part, as one of his translators, Joyce Crick, has observed, from the near obsolescence of the subjunctive in contemporary English. In Kafka’s German it is omnipresent: it always seems to be the case that such-and-such was, which is by no means the same as the wooden modality of ‘would’, let alone the bedevilling similitude implied by ‘as if’ and its sluttish coeval ‘like’. And yet, when, in Michael Hofmann’s 2006 translation of ‘A Country Doctor’,* I read this description of the wound, it was as if a light had gone on in my mind. I was writing an introduction to the Folio Society’s edition of Metamorphosis and Other Stories (which includes ‘A Country Doctor’). I had returned to these texts with a heavy sigh; occluding my view was the Laurenziberg-sized heap of objections to Kafka in translation piled up by Milan Kundera in his essay ‘A Sentence’. Kundera was writing about translations from German into French, but his remarks on the willed sparseness of Kafka’s vocabulary, its precise employment of repetition, and the rhythmic flow of this prose – achieved by pruning articulations to the bare minimum – which in itself constitutes an untranslatable and unique violation of ‘good German style’, seemed to me, a non-German reader, unassailable barriers to a proper appreciation of Kafka in any translation. Then there were Hofmann’s own more nuanced remarks on Kafka’s style: on the significance of the little words rather than the big, on the expressiveness of German word order – contra English – and how the punctilious encoding of these semantic bytes allowed the prose to become ‘drily controlling’. He also observes that translating Kafka is difficult because ‘(he) has already translated himself’ from the Prague German which Hofmann quotes Klaus Wagenbach characterising as ‘dry and papery . . . incapable of conveying the unhesitating intimacy and immediacy of ordinary or dialect German speech’. This would account for the otherworldliness of Kafka’s prose, for its strange penumbra of ultra-realism, which imparts a sense of fidelity to the commonplace it simultaneously undermines. But there are contrary views of this: others speak of Prague German as a chewy dialect, leavened with Czech and Yiddish loan words, a sort of strange ‘mockney’ (Mauscheln), spoken by a derided commercial elite aping their own helots.
Whichever the case: it was all up with me. Nine months of relatively fruitless French lessons had recently convinced me that, bar scanning headlines in Le Monde and ordering food, I would always remain a miserable monoglot; and so I resolved to write the introduction, and then descant no more on the properties of texts written in languages I don’t understand. I might read translations of foreign language works for the associations of ideas they provoked in me, but I could no longer convince myself that I understood the writer’s own associative faculty as it was instantiated in his or her prose.* Then came the wound. ‘Metamorphosis’ was the text that I thought of as the beacon lighting the way into my own crepuscular fictional realm: ‘One morning, when Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.’* This was all it had taken – or so I romanticised – to show me, at age 16, the reality-transforming powers of narrative prose. There was no need of chemical aids or technical inventions: a few simple words could usher you into a world mutated out of this one, all it required was your assent.
I had been reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. I found his thesis beguiling: in the contrast between the jinglingly innocent jingoism of the Great Powers’ armies as they trotted off to a short war, confident in August 1914 that it would all be over by Christmas, and the subsequent assembly lines of death that snaked their way across Europe* lay the very crucible of modern irony. Indeed, this grandly horrific reversal, from evanescent hope to intransigent despair, was for Fussell a sort of irony factory. He adduces many examples to support his thesis, but the one that reared up from the page at me was the climactic scene from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in which the protagonist Yossarian attempts to succour the wounded gunner Snowden, who’s been hit by flak during a bombing mission. Heller first describes Snowden’s wound thus: ‘the wrong wound [my italics], the yawning, raw, melon-shaped hole as big as a football in the outside of his thigh, the unsevered, blood-soaked muscle fibers inside pulsing weirdly like blind things with lives of their own, the oval, naked wound that was almost a foot long and made Yossarian moan in shock and sympathy the instant he spied it and nearly made him vomit.’
We have already had this episode with Snowden implanted in our minds far earlier in the novel, but in the closing pages of Catch-22 both reader and protagonist are thrust into its full, gory revelation. Yossarian, lying in the night time darkness of the hospital where he has taken refuge, is unable any longer to repress the memory: ‘The wound Yossarian saw was in the outside of Snowden’s thigh, as large and deep as a football, it seemed. It was impossible to tell where the shreds of his saturated coveralls ended and the ragged flesh began.’ After he discovers that the morphine has been stolen from the first-aid kit, Yossarian gains control: ‘His mind was clear now, and he knew how to proceed. He rummaged through the first-aid kit for scissors.’
Yossarian cuts away Snowden’s clothing, and although ‘stunned at how waxen and ghastly Snowden’s bare leg looked, how loathsome, how lifeless and esoteric the downy, fine, curled blond hairs on his odd, white shin and calf,’ he is nonetheless heartened by this: ‘The wound, he saw now, was not nearly as large as a football, but as long and wide as his hand and too raw and deep to see into clearly. The raw muscles inside twitched like live hamburger meat.’ That the unit of comparison should be a football – with all the apple pie resonance of high school sports – is given still more ironic intensification by the metaphoric ‘live hamburger meat’. Having applied a tourniquet and sprinkled copious amounts of sulfanilamide * into the wound and also tucked in ‘shreds of drying flesh’, Yossarian binds it up in a compress.
But the wounded young man carries on whimpering, ‘I’m cold. I’m cold’, until ‘with just the barest movement of his chin’ he points towards his armpit, and Yossarian sees ‘a strangely coloured stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit’. That the grotesque wound in Snowden’s thigh is, in fact, the lesser of his injuries, is served up to the reader in two distinct spasms; first when Yossarian rips open his flak suit and screams wildly as ‘Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.’ Then there is a brief hiatus as Yossarian contemplates the mechanics of this second and far worse wound – the result of a three-inch chunk of flak tearing laterally through the young man’s thorax – before ‘Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes. His teeth were chattering in horror. He forced himself to look again. Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared – liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch. Yossarian hated stewed tomatoes and turned away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning throat.’
To return to Kafka’s wound, which we left boring into the page ‘as gapingly obvious as a mineshaft’, we then learn that, from the country doctor’s perspective, this was only the case ‘from a distance, at any rate. Closer to, there’s a further complication. Who could take in such a thing without whistling softly? Worms, the length and thickness of my little finger, roseate and also coated with blood, are writhing against the inside of the wound, with little white heads, and many many little legs. Poor boy, it’s not going to be possible to help you. I have found your great wound; the flower in your side is going to finish you.’ You don’t need to be that guilty of the promiscuous association of ideas to discover unnerving parallels here between these roseate worms ‘writhing against the inside of the wound, with little white heads,’ and ‘the unsevered, blood-soaked muscle fibers inside [Snowden’s wound] pulsing weirdly like blind things with lives of their own.’ Especially since Heller offers a wormy image of his own: ‘The raw muscles inside twitched like live hamburger meat.’
In Kafka’s story, the patient, like Snowden, is preternaturally aware of his own mortal condition: ‘the lad pulls himself up in his bed, drapes his arms round my neck and whispers into my ear: “Doctor, let me die.”’ The practitioner shares Yossarian’s numbed confidence, and when compelled by the lad’s relatives to make an examination, finds ‘I am confirmed in what I thought already: the boy is perfectly healthy, his circulation a little sluggish, plied with coffee by his anxious mother, but basically healthy and needing nothing more than a good kick to get him out of bed.’ In both narratives a mounting ironic tension is effected between an optimistic healer and a fatalistic patient, a tension that finds a sort of anti-catharsis – confirmatory, but with wholly negative psychic consequences – in the revelation of the wounds. Looking for the real-life correlate to Kafka’s wound, many commentators go to his journal entries of December 1911, where, recounting his nephew’s circumcision Kafka writes: ‘One sees blood and raw flesh, the moule bustles about briefly with his long-nailed, trembling fingers and pulls skin from some place or other over the wound like the finger of a glove.’* And then goes on to explain the ‘dreams or boredom’ of those present who listened to the prayers: ‘I saw Western European Judaism before me in a transition whose end is clearly unpredictable and about which those most closely affected are not concerned, but, like all people truly in transition, bear what is imposed on them.’
I am not insensible to those analyses and interpretations of ‘A Country Doctor’ that place the story within a context provided by Hassidic parable and then undercut by Kafka’s sceptical engagement with his own Jewishness. To accept this you do not have to go to the extreme represented by Max Brod’s remoulding of Kafka as a Jewish saint, nor the one that comes from Kafka’s own notorious – and in my view notoriously misinterpreted – notation of 8 January 1914: ‘What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.’ But other journal entries from this period suggest a Kafka alive to the new ironies generated by the war. A tense skit on a ‘patriotic parade’ witnessed in Prague at the beginning of August sees him inveigh against its organisers: ‘Jewish businessmen who are German one day, Czech the next; admit this to themselves, it is true, but were never permitted to shout it out as loudly as they do now.’ The deadpan coda is: ‘Naturally they carry many others along with them. It was well organised. It is supposed to be repeated every evening, twice tomorrow and Sunday.’ Is it fanciful to find an echo of this political observation in the 20th of the so-called Zürau Aphorisms, composed by Kafka in the winter of 1917-18: ‘Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.’
In November 1914 Kafka devotes a journal entry to a Fussellian anecdote told him by his brother-in-law on his return from the front: ‘Story about the mole burrowing under him in the trenches which he looked upon as a warning from heaven to leave that spot. He had just got away when a bullet struck a soldier crawling after him at the moment he was over the mole – His Captain. They distinctly saw him taken prisoner. But the next day found him naked in the woods, pierced through by bayonets.’ The form of the vignette is of a series of falsely secure surfaces beneath which yawn oubliettes of excavated irony: the captain is shot but survives to be taken prisoner, however, ‘the next day found him naked in the woods, pierced through by bayonets. He probably had money on him, they wanted to search him and rob him of it, but he – “the way officers are” – wouldn’t voluntarily submit to being touched.’ His death results from social mores rather than mortal threats, and Kafka then digs out still more ironic traps, by relating how his battle-shocked brother-in-law ‘met his boss (whom in the past he had admired ridiculously, out of all measure) on the train, elegantly dressed, perfumed, his opera glasses dangling from his neck, on his way to the theatre.’* With slapstick timing Kafka then tells how his brother-in-law slept one night at a castle, a second in front of the Austrian batteries, and a third in an overcrowded peasant cottage. He completes the entry with the laconic observation: ‘Punishment given to soldiers. Stand bound to a tree until they turn blue.’
Decocted into these few short lines are all of the magical thinking that Fussell – and many others – identified as the very essence of the miasma that blew across the battlefields of the First World War: the preoccupation with omens, both ill and good; the obsessive linkage of events, objects and persons into numerological strings – often of threes; the profound alienation felt by those at the front from those at home; and of course, the ceaseless ironic reversals signalled by the drum fill of machine gun, rifle and artillery: b’boom-boom-chhhh! There are entries in Kafka’s journal that amply confirm a hermetic reading of ‘A Country Doctor’ – one purely in terms of the author’s self-generated worldview, which he himself characterised as ‘a talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life’ – but they depend for their force on the same purgation of the particular, the temporal, and the contingent that his prose enacts. Thus on 16 September 1915 there are three short entries that put forward a dialectic that begins with this thesis: ‘The Polish Jews going to Kol Nidre.* The little boy with prayer shawls under both arms, running along at his father’s side. Suicidal not to go to temple.’ It is followed by a turn in which Kafka, after consulting ‘the unjust Judges’, concludes: ‘I am never visibly guided in such things, the pages of the Bible don’t flutter in my presence.’ Finally, the somewhat paradoxical resolution comes in the form of a vision of a vision of a suicide – Kafka imagines that ‘between throat and chin would seem to be the most rewarding place to stab’, but concludes, ‘this spot is probably rewarding only in one’s imagination. You expect to see a magnificent gush of blood and a network of sinews and little bones like you find in the leg of a roast turkey.’*
The hallucinogenic quality of this image – no one expects a gush of blood when they cut into a fowl, not even Henry Spencer in Lynch’s Eraserhead – only serves to make of the self-murder a hazily collective one. In ‘A Country Doctor’, the doctor inveighs against the people of the parish: ‘They have lost the old faith; the priest sits around at home, ripping up his altar garments one after another; but the doctor is expected to perform miracles with his delicate surgeon’s fingers.’ One such miracle might be to suture the gaping wound in traditional religious belief and sew it scientifically up. The patient’s family together with the village elders undress him, while a choir of school children sing the words: ‘Undress him, and he will heal you,/ If he doesn’t heal you, kill him!/ He’s just a doctor, a doctor!’ Lain in the bed beside his faithless patient, the two quibble with one another, pained and marital in their unity. The doctor accuses the lad of lacking perspective: ‘I, who have been in sickrooms far and wide, tell you: your wound isn’t so bad as all that. A couple of glancing blows with an axe. There are many who offer their flanks, and barely hear the axe in the forest, never mind it deigning to come any nearer to them.’
In the harsh midwinter of 1916-17, Kafka ceased to make entries in his journal just as he stopped his epistolatory head-butting at Felice Bauer. Kafka, who favoured literary biography over fiction, perhaps found it possible to free himself from remorseless self-examination only when he was engaged in imagined worlds. But a liberation from providing psychic bulletins doesn’t necessarily imply an immunity to the news. 7 November 1916 saw the re-election of Woodrow Wilson and the death of the 85-year-old Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary Franz Josef.* Many Prague Jews feared the worst: the city had been subjected to periodic anti-semitic riots, while only days before the son of the Austrian socialist leader – himself a Jew – had assassinated the prime minister, Count Stürgkh. In Prague, at least, the worst didn’t happen, although elsewhere it already had: the 16,000 operational German machine guns on the Western Front and the 16,000 deployed by the Russians on the Eastern Front had spent the entire year ripping up flesh. The battle of the Somme had enacted the most savage single annihilation of human life heretofore: the 50,000 British casualties in the first morning’s offensive. The corpses were so densely slumped along the German wire that observers thought they were praying. But arguably it was at Verdun that the most gaping wound was torn. General Falkenhayn’s assault on this pocket-sized salient had resulted – by the time it was called off that November – in 800,000 casualties. General Pétain had shovelled men into ‘the furnace’ as the French called the battle; and although Falkenhayn’s own strategy for this obscene attrition – to ‘bleed the French army white’ – is now viewed as an ex-post facto justification, there’s no gainsaying that the experience of Verdun cut the French nation to its cleft centre. It was no longer the France Kafka had known: in September of 1912, on a visit with Brod and his brother to Paris, they had seen Carmen at the Opéra Comique and also Racine’s Phèdre. Kafka had confided to his journal a ‘lonely, long, absurd walk home’ from a brothel where he noted of the girl offered that her ‘clenched fist held her dress together over her pudenda’.
I cannot speak for other writers of fiction, but for myself I can divide my fiction reading between the instrumental, and that vanishingly small category: the rest. I must have read the balance of Kafka’s fiction by the time I was 21 – the three unfinished novels in their first translations by Edwin and Willa Muir, ‘Metamorphosis’ and a fair selection of the shorter pieces and fragments. I read them concerned particularly with technique: how did Kafka achieve suspension of disbelief? How did he suffuse his milieus with the uncanny? How did he impel his narratives forward, while simultaneously applying the brakes?* I was sublimely unconcerned by symbols, themes – meanings, or their context. I read neither the letters to Felice, nor those to Milena; I had no familiarity with Kafka’s journals or aphorisms. Over the years I returned to Kafka intermittently, picking up and letting fall texts insofar as they chimed with things I was working on. When I was writing my novel Great Apes, I puzzled over the narrator of ‘Report to an Academy’, but not to any great purpose. No, my relationship with Kafka took place within the compass of the Kafkaesque.
It’s a peculiar apotheosis: the adjectival. It is widely held that the 20th century was Kafkaesque rather than Joycean, let alone Proustian. Kafkaesque, and latterly Orwellian, another adjective slapped on to practices, institutions, innovations to evoke the alienating dimension of mass, authoritarian, technologically mediated society. My sense of the rise and fall of the Kafkaesque is that it mirrored the solidification then dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Kafka, characterised relentlessly in the three decades after Yalta as the secular prophet of totalitarianism, lent his name to this catchall, which in turn was deployed by the West against itself. When I was young every instance of bureaucratic arbitrariness, vaguely sinister intent, or paradoxical norms – ‘Everything not forbidden is permitted’ read a popular 1980s graffito – was deemed ‘Kafkaesque’. The reasons for this were, I think, akin to those that explain the ideological floundering of the Western left since 1989: the Kafkaesque, like the utopian socialist, required the lowering presence of the Soviet doppelgänger. For the leftist liberals where I grew up in London it was sufficient – since the Stalinist Terror for some, the Hungarian Uprising for others, and the Prague Spring for virtually all – to believe in what they were not, and would never become: which was the perverse mutation of socialism in the East. It was less pressing to present coherent ideological solutions to the intractable problems of nationalism versus internationalism, or parliamentary gradualism versus revolutionary change. In a similar fashion, to label a minor abuse of power, or judicial doublethink ‘Kafkaesque’ was to indulge in a sort of psychic legerdemain: sneaking a little of the East’s oppression for one’s own, and so justifying jejune anomie – or, as Kafka himself might have termed it, ‘the embourgeoisement of nothing’.
That the world is now girdled by slick and translucent info-panels on which glow all the data you would need to have to confirm the rise and fall – among English speakers and writers – of the Kafkaesque* is at once liberating and unpleasantly constricting. Think of the sharp attention the writer himself paid to human gesture and movement. For Kafka the action of any given narrative largely consists in just this: actions , painstakingly described. These, together with his use of montage and the dissolve have been interpreted as his responses to the new medium of cinema, but they seem to me quite as anticipatory of the condition of the contemporary extended mind, smeared from a static, and compulsively gestural, body into a virtual, and frictionless, space . ‘Kafkaesque’, then, with some minor peaks and troughs, steadily proliferates in English texts after 1945. It would be nice – in the sense of exact – if the data set was precise enough to identify a partial stagnation in the early 1980s, in line with a general tedium vitae in the West when it came to the Cold War, or perhaps a the sharp peak in the term’s use immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall that would bear out my general contention, but what we can see is a precipitate decline throughout the 2000s. The instances in English texts of the name ‘Kafka’, on the other hand, display an altogether spikier profile that does indeed seem to mirror wider phenomena in the political and cultural realms.
It was Robert Musil, an early and consistent champion of Kafka’s writing, who in The Man without Qualities wrote of asylums for the insane that ‘they have something of hell’s lack of imagination.’ When I visited Theresienstadt, walking out from the tunnel that leads under the ramparts of the Small Fortress, our guide Susannah pointed out the swimming pool the SS concentration camp guards had had built for them and their families to frolic in while a few yards away inmates were being shot or hanged. The Nazis were great bricoleurs of the exterminatory – but imagination was not their forte. I’m not the first to observe that the Theresienstadt camp – condensed into its kilometre-square grid-pattern of streets lined with 18th-century Italianate buildings – represents the most extreme example of the Nazis’ genocidal improvisation; their equivalent of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. The vast bulk of Prague’s Jewish population either died in Theresienstadt, or was deported further east to Auschwitz, Treblinka and other camps to be killed*. Among those sent to Auschwitz was Ottla David (née Kafka), who insisted on accompanying a group of orphaned children who had become attached to her, although there was no necessity that she herself go. The Theresienstadt camp became notorious as an example of the Nazis’ monstrous perfidy: specially selected wealthy Jews were encouraged to pay for housing in what was advertised as a sort of garden city resettlement zone. Instead, they were interred in the militarily obsolete fortress-town, in conditions that were a parody of the worst of the old Eastern European ghettos, such as Prague’s own Josefov, which before its 1917 demolition was described by one of its own Jewish inhabitants as ‘a suppurating ulcer on the face of the Mother of Bohemian towns’.
Was the recapitulation of the ghetto in the Holocaust an instance of irony, or merely coincidence? The jibing and disjunction between texts and the worlds they are born out of always allows for plenty of coincidence: imprisoned in Theresienstadt* during the war his assassination had instigated, Gavrilo Princip languished in cell no. 1 in the Small Fortress. He had failed, twice, to commit suicide in the days following his arrest for the murder of the Crown Prince, and was too young to be executed. He instead fell victim to tuberculosis: weighing less than 40 kilos, one arm amputated, Princip died in April 1918, attended by a Jewish doctor who two decades later himself died in Theresienstadt. The impulse to view Kafka’s two minatory novels, The Trial and The Castle, as prophetic of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, is also a queered variant of either dramatic or situational irony. Dramatic, if we consider the novels to be aimed at forestalling the oppressive conditions they describe; situational if we consider Kafka himself as a player in a historical scene and ourselves an audience privileged with hindsight. The rising curve of the ‘Kafkaesque’ suggests the dramatic variant, as each new confirmatory event throws into starker relief the predicament of the neurotic and latterly moribund writer, struggling to forestall the inevitable. The super-saturation in the detail of a writer’s life and works afforded by contemporary media, and seen in the steady rise in the incidence of the word ‘Kafka’, inclines towards the situational variant. Both ironic perspectives propagate happily in a late capitalist world that, as Fredric Jameson has observed, is now wholly constituted by the human and its manufactures.*
The same impulse might lead one to feel that had Walter Benjamin not written on Kafka, it would have been necessary to write his essay Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death for him, then build a time machine to go back to 1934 and implant it in his papers. The perfection of the fit between the loose affiliate of the Frankfurt School and the soi-disant ‘Prophet of Prague’ can also be viewed as culturally necessary, coincidental – or dramatically ironic, given Kafka’s own resistance to the decipherment of a symbolism that he himself always took on emotional trust. Benjamin retells an anecdote concerning Catherine the Great’s chancellor, Potemkin, his paralysing depressions, and the hapless intervention of a minor official, Shuvalkin. The pay-off line: ‘This story is like a herald racing two hundred years ahead of Kafka’s work’ encapsulates the thrust of Borges’s fragmentary essay ‘Kafka and His Precursors’. After enumerating various writings – among them Zeno’s paradox, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and Robert Browning’s poem ‘Fears and Scruples’ – in which he detects a ‘resemblance’ to Kafka’s work, Borges says: ‘In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist.’ Borges’s argument is by no means specific to Kafka: ‘The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant.’
The worms in the wound in the lad’s side have the character of bacilli magnified by the writer’s microscopic gaze. The lesions Kafka was suffering in August 1917, he wrote in a letter to Max Brod, were a ‘symbol’ of the greater ‘wound’ – a manifestation of a deep-seated malaise. The proleptic quality of the wound examined by the country doctor closes the first of the rings that ripple out from the fact of Kafka’s tuberculosis, through his writings, and into the wider world. Rings of coincidence – or situational irony, since the impact that caused them occurred years before, as is attested by their precursors in Kafka’s writings before his diagnosis. That Kafka should suffer and die from tuberculosis would be ironic were it not that so many others did as well. Kafka initially saw his illness not as a tragedy but as a ‘Blighty wound’, allowing for his speedy return home from the frontline of workaday toil and suffering to a Heimat of pacific preoccupation. That Kafka’s death in 1924 comes at a sort of fulcrum-point in time between the dissections of the Parisian doctors Théophile Laennec, Gaspard Bayle* and Pierre Louis – whose combined efforts established both a prospective aetiology and epidemiology for the disease – and the discovery of streptomycin as an effective therapeutic drug in the 1940s, would seem to be just another of those ironic rings. In the autumn of 1923, finally having struggled over the Laurenziberg and tucked up in the Berlin suburb of Steglitz* with his lover Dora Diamant, Kafka witnessed Germany’s hyperinflation, and was compelled by poverty to read the newspapers through shop windows. Together with Diamant he burnt some of his notebooks, and admitted in a letter to Brod that ‘concealment has been my life’s vocation.’* He was visited by his uncle Siegfried Löwy, the country doctor, whose anxieties about Kafka’s health set in train the phased withdrawal to the sanatorium outside Vienna where Kafka would die the next year.
I could go on – and on: linking together the enthusiasm for Naturheilkunde and vegetarianism that Kafka shared with Hitler; or the neurasthenia and phonophobia he shared with Proust. Once bitten by a mania for associative thinking, you can’t tell where you might end up. Alternatively, I could survey the referential underpinnings of ‘A Country Doctor’ that any academic literary critic will already have noticed are conspicuously absent from this essay, but then I am not an academic literary critic. In my teens, I was introduced to the rudiments of the then modish applications of structuralism and deconstruction to literary theory. I recoiled. I dimly perceived that this development represented a shockwave (or perhaps more accurately ‘dullwave’) radiating out from the collapse of the Western tradition of metaphysics: it might no longer be possible, after Wittgenstein, to use pure reason to say anything certain about the world. But theoreticians could perhaps preserve their profession by shifting the locus of enquiry to fictional texts that would stand as proxies for what had been ceded to psychotherapy, anthropology, neurology and cognitive science. Yet I could tell that such studies – when it came to the business of writing fiction – were utterly beside the point. And so I went to university to study philosophy, where I learnt about the combinatorial nature of the imagination.
I remained aware of the pullulating nature of literary critical theory, and took hurried and shocked glances into its gaping maw, much as Yossarian glimpses the wound in Snowden’s thigh and looks away. It wasn’t until I embarked on this essay that I looked it full in the face, and realised that if there were a primary site of infection identifiable, it might well be the works of Franz Kafka. Michael Hofmann in his spare way notes the same phenomenon: ‘Kafka’s writing is a remarkable instance of something coming out of nowhere and, in the space of a human generation, attaining in its reception the condition of inexhaustible intractability he was so often drawn to describing within it . . . As long ago as 1975, one of the great authorities on Kafka, Hartmut Binder, declined to get involved in the making of a complete bibliography running even then to some thousands of titles; instead he merely referred readers to a book that captured the state of the industry in 1961 (suggesting that was the last moment such a thing was possible).’ But then as early as 1947 Max Brod said: ‘One can hardly survey the gigantic essay literature that is concerned with Kafka.’ Kundera wrote of Brod’s admittedly bathetic novel The Enchanted Kingdom of Love: ‘What a marvellous paradox: the whole image of Kafka and the whole posthumous fate of his work were first conceived in this simpleminded novel . . . which, aesthetically, stands at exactly the opposite pole from Kafka’s art.’ Kundera further charges that Kafkaology has removed Kafka and his works from the domain of Modernism: ‘Kafkaology is not literary criticism . . . [it] is an exegesis.’ Kundera means that it does not assess the value of the works or what they say about the world, still less the evolution of fiction, but rather attempts to decode their hidden messages by applying to them one or other interpretative paradigm. He cites psychoanalytic, existential and Marxist strains, and one could add the Lacanian. Kundera’s central point is that these are all, hermeneutically speaking, equivalently religious.
Hannah Arendt said of Walter Benjamin: ‘his basic approach, decisive for all his literary studies, remained unchanged: not to investigate the utilitarian or communicative functions of linguistic creations, but to understand them in their crystallised and thus ultimately fragmentary form as intentionless and noncommunicative utterances of a “world essence”.’ Benjamin was the first ranking critical theorist to survey the corpus delicti, and he had the gift of thinking poetically about this ‘world essence’, rather than seeking to define it in terms of a system; after him have come legion upon legion of Kafka interpreters, who, far from thinking poetically, think prosaically and instrumentally both about his work and their own interpretations. Reaching the head of a lengthy queue, they zip their symbolic order into Kafka’s and then bungee jump into the oblivion of academic publication, bouncing back up to receive tenure. As for these symbolic orders, they are not personally striven for, but issued off-the-peg courtesy of their own university educations. Everyone understands that this state of affairs is a scandal, and an abuse of scholarship that makes the pinpoint deliberations of medieval schoolmen appear positively utilitarian. In academia it’s customary not to critique the work of your peers – at least those with whom you share an institution – so, presumably once you’ve got through the early-career choppy waters, floating on your own frail origami of Kafka, you can look forward to plain sailing, and showing the next whey-faced generation how to open the wound in their side and zip it to the wound in Kafka’s. And just as the marriage between Kafka and the postgraduates seems to have a degree of necessity, so the marriage between Kafka and the web has the nightmarishly dysfunctional air of one arranged between parties oblivious of one another. Kafka himself had a visceral repulsion from marital domesticity, recoiling from the sight of his parents’ nightshirts folded on the bed; but then how much worse is this, the embourgeoisement of nothing? We end up being the relationship counsellors, sitting on the other side of the one-way glass, watching the ceaseless and asexual replication of blog after essay after update, one symbolic order ceding to the next, as Kafka’s long shadow percolates darkly through the glass of the screen you’re currently staring at. In his ‘Letter to my Father’, Kafka wrote: ‘To marry, to start a family, to accept all the children that come, and to help them in this insecure world, is the best that a man can do.’ And so it transpires that these spurious issues are his only ones. And if Kafka’s precursors were Zeno, Lewis Carroll, Lord Dunsany, then his successors are these: the inedible cookies that themselves chomp through virtual space as you flick from info-panel to info-panel, in the process absorbing into their maggot bodies all the information necessary to tell the proper authorities where you live, where you go, what you look at and what you buy.
Resuming his journal on 6 April 1917, after a five-month fiction-writing furlough, Kafka set down a 150-word fragment that he would subsequently incorporate in what, for me, is the most haunting of his shorter pieces, ‘The Hunter Gracchus’. Condemned to wander the earth unceasingly, trapped in a limbo that is coextensive with the world of the living, ‘I am,’ Gracchus says, ‘always on the great stairway that leads upwards. On this infinitely broad flight of stairs now up, now down, now to the right, now to the left, always on the move.’ I see him there, trapped in a characteristically Kafkaesque pose of fluid inanition – and I see you there, also, peering into this world, your hand moving now up, now down, now to the right, now to the left, always on the move while you yourself remain static. I am reliably told that some people now hold races using Google Street View: they go online, sitting side by side, and race across America – or wherever – frantically clicking, going to the right and to the left to circumvent obstacles while maintaining a straight line. You might very well ‘go’ now to Prague, the city where the robot was invented, and organise a little race out from the Old Town and over what was once the Laurenziberg – a very leaden hill, now transformed into a virtual and golden cloud by this alchemy. I would go with you, but I am guilty of associative thinking, and I am sentenced to be my own search engine.