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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

In the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith considers Kafka.

Recent years have seen some Kafka revisionism although what's up for grabs is not the quality of the work,[2] but rather its precise nature. What kind of a writer is Kafka? Above all, it's a revision of Kafka's biographical aura. From a witty essay of this kind, by the young novelist and critic Adam Thirlwell:
It is now necessary to state some accepted truths about Franz Kafka, and the Kafkaesque.... Kafka's work lies outside literature: it is not fully part of the history of European fiction. He has no predecessors—his work appears as if from nowhere—and he has no true successors.... These fictions express the alienation of modern man; they are a prophecy of a) the totalitarian police state, and b) the Nazi Holocaust. His work expresses a Jewish mysticism, a non-denominational mysticism, an anguish of man without God. His work is very serious. He never smiles in photographs.... It is crucial to know the facts of Kafka's emotional life when reading his fiction. In some sense, all his stories are autobiographical. He is a genius, outside ordinary limits of literature, and a saint, outside ordinary limits of human behaviour. All of these truths, all of them, are wrong.
Thirlwell blames the banality of the Kafkaesque on Max Brod, Kafka's friend, first biographer, and literary executor, in which latter capacity he defied Kafka's will (Kafka wanted his work burned), a fact that continues to stain Brod, however faintly, with bad faith. For his part, Brod always maintained that Kafka knew there would be no bonfire: if his friend were serious, he would have chosen another executor. Far harder to defend is Brod's subsequent decision to publish the correspondence,[4] the diaries, and the acutely personal Letter to My Father (though posthumous literary morality is a slippery thing: if what is found in a drawer is very bad, the shame of it outlives both reader and publisher; when it's as good as Letter to My Father, the world winks at it).