Allan Massie

The Funny Thing About Franz K



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NABOKOV TOLD HIS students, ‘Kafka is the greatest German novelist of our time. Such poets as Rilke or such novelists as Thomas Mann are dwarfs or plaster saints in comparison with him.’ This seems to me silly. Not reading German, I can’t assess Rilke, but prose writers may be judged in translation as poets can’t be, and Kafka is to me less interesting than Mann, Musil and Joseph Roth among his contemporaries. He is a minor artist, though a fine one – like Beckett, and for the same reason: that his range is too narrow, his obsessiveness ultimately wearisome. He is a writer to read, and delight in, when you are young; I thought The Trial and The Castle masterpieces when I was an undergraduate. Who, at twenty, could resist The Trial’s first sentence? ‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K because, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one morning.’ This offers a child’s view of the baffling adult world; it also, of course, presents us with an impression of life in a bureaucratic police state. But, having created the maze, Kafka leads us neither to the centre nor out of it; we are trapped for ever. This seemed satisfyingly grim, and I was rather shocked to be told that when Kafka read his work aloud to his friends, he frequently had to break off because he was laughing so much. Kafka the humorist? Perhaps, yes.

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