European studies blog

06 June 2014

Malevolent magical realism: the enigmatic world of Franz Kafka

Of all the world’s authors, very few have been honoured by having their names used as the basis of adjectives occurring in almost every language. Among these is Franz Kafka. 2014 marks not only the ninetieth anniversary of his premature death from tuberculosis of the larynx, but also the centenary of the composition of one of his most famous works, Der Prozess (‘The Trial’; Berlin, 1925: BL shelfmark 12553.r.2.), which, together with Die Verwandlung (‘Metamorphosis’; Leipzig, 1915, 011421.m.24.), established his reputation as a creator of bizarre worlds in which the uncanny and incongruous gradually infiltrate humdrum surroundings to devastating effect.

Both Gregor Samsa, the object of the metamorphosis which leaves him trapped in the form of a human-sized insect, and Josef K, whose ‘trial’ is the subject of Der Prozess, belong to Kafka’s own world, the everyday milieu of an insurance clerk in German-speaking Prague. The creeping unease which pervades both novels after the initial disturbing discovery (in Herr K’s case, that he ‘must have been slandered’, as he is arrested one morning without being aware of having done anything wrong) builds up to a tragic conclusion. Unlike the characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, whose transformation into birds, animals, trees or stars occurs as a direct reward or act of retribution for a definite action, Gregor simply wakes to find that he has undergone a mystifying change which embarrasses and disgusts his family, with no explanation or right of appeal.

Commemorative plaque on a street corner with a bust of Franz KafkaPlaque commemorating the birthplace of Franz Kafka in Prague (photo by Godot13 from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0))

A similar situation confronts Josef K, but is compounded when he attempts to seek justice. The twisted succession of appeals and counter-appeals, cat-and-mouse games of capture and release, and mysterious encounters leads to a climax as horrifying as it is inevitable. The sheer banality of the surroundings in which it is played out – drab apartments, shabby offices, and anonymous streets – heightens the unsettling atmosphere of the novel and lends itself to a reading which suggests a prophecy of the show trials, trumped-up accusations and sudden disappearances which became all too common in Kafka’s home city and elsewhere in Eastern Europe within a few years of his death.

Kafka, in his diaries, described four great European writers as his ‘blood brothers’ – Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Grillparzer and Heinrich von Kleist. By 1913, the year before he began to write Der Prozess, he had read Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas at least four times. The story of an ordinary horse-dealer whose apparently minor dispute with a local nobleman ends in his execution after endless legal complexities and eruptions of violence, it bears obvious parallels with Kafka’s novel. However, while Kleist’s narrative has been criticized for the clumsy addition of a sensational sub-plot involving a mysterious gypsy soothsayer, Kafka’s is all the more chilling because the element which Sigmund Freud termed das Unheimliche (The Uncanny) in his essay of 1919 operates with no need of such paraphernalia.

The first English translation of Der Prozess was published in 1937 by Willa and Edwin Muir (12554.r.22). The novel has inspired a number of adaptations for stage and screen, including versions by André Gide, Harold Pinter and Steven Berkoff, as well as operas by Gottfried von Einem and by the Danish composer Poul Ruders, who created an orchestral work entitled Kafkapriccio (2007-08;  i.33.x.(2.)) paraphrasing episodes from his Kafka’s Trial. Inexorable and implacable, the powers which seal Josef K’s fate are universal precisely because they are faceless, and their irruption into the day-to-day existence of a petty functionary represents a grim forerunner of magical realism.

 Susan Halstead, Curator Czech & Slovak



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