Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka by Karolina Watroba; Kafka: Making of an Icon by Ritchie Robertson (ed); Diaries by Franz Kafka (Translated from German by Ross Benjamin) - review by Morten Høi Jensen

Morten Høi Jensen

Paranoid Humanoid

Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka

By

Profile 256pp £18.99

Kafka: Making of an Icon

By

Bodleian Library Publishing 192pp £35

Diaries

By

Penguin 704pp £24
 

When Franz Kafka died on 3 June 1924, he had published just a few collections of short prose, none of them to much acclaim. The majority of the writing for which he is now known and celebrated, such as the novels The Trial and The Castle, were left unfinished and published posthumously thanks to Kafka’s best friend, Max Brod, who defied Kafka’s instructions to burn the manuscripts. In the 1930s, when English translations of his work first appeared, Kafka became the object of cult-like worship. Before long, the allegorical and prophetic qualities of his fiction, which seemed to have foreshadowed the totalitarian horrors of Nazism and communism, were being universally acclaimed. Despite a few murmurs of dissent – Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker in 1947, confessed he found it ‘impossible’ to take Kafka seriously – the works of the Prague-born writer rose quickly to canonical status. By 1952, Philip Rahv, introducing a Modern Library edition of Kafka’s stories, felt able to claim that Kafka was ‘firmly linked in the literary mind to such names as Joyce and Proust and Yeats and Rilke and Eliot’.

Of those writers, Kafka is surely now the most culturally resonant. The word ‘Kafkaesque’ is second only to ‘Orwellian’ as a term used by people who have never read a word of the author it evokes. One doesn’t even need to have read much, if any, of his work to get the 2009 video made by the satirical website The Onion in which the fictional Franz Kafka International Airport in Prague is named ‘World’s Most Alienating Airport’ (‘I asked the ticket person what gate my flight was at,’ a weary traveller reports, ‘and they said the airline I was flying didn’t exist’). But how did this happen? How did a workers’ insurance agent who died of tuberculosis at the age of forty become a global literary icon? This is the question explored in two very different new books: Karolina Watroba’s Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka and Kafka: Making of an Icon, a collection of essays and images edited by Ritchie Robertson to accompany an exhibition at the Bodleian Library. 

To understand how Kafka became Kafka, Watroba, a Polish-born scholar of German literature who teaches at Oxford, believes we should look to his readers. Early on, she recounts how Sir Malcolm Pasley, the Oxford scholar who gained the trust of Kafka’s surviving heirs, drove in 1961 from Switzerland to

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