Franz Kafka: Cryptic, confessional, aphoristic
Ahead of Kafka Fragments and The Metamorphosis, a look at the iconic writer’s work and worldview.
About ten years ago the American illusionist David Blaine performed an extreme endurance stunt in London – he starved himself for 44 days, suspended in a transparent box over the Southbank. As he entered the box he told the crowd why he was doing it: ‘The feeling of wonder is amazing… I’m going to push myself as far as I can.’
Eighty years earlier, Franz Kafka published A Hunger Artist – a short story about a man who confines himself to a circus cage and starves himself to death. But when Kafka’s hunger artist is asked why he has chosen such a performance, he unexpectedly replies: ‘I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss about it and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.’
The more cynical of Blaine’s audience speculated that his test of the limits of human endurance was actually an inauthentic spectacle. He is an illusionist, after all – perhaps his water was laced with vitamins, or his blanket steeped in salt for him to suck out. Hunger artists have always courted scepticism, and for Kafka’s perhaps dying was the best way to demonstrate his sincerity.
Kafka’s writing reminds us that the limitations of existence are commonplace, and he is the more engaging for being matter of fact about it. He treats the deaths of his fictional creations (many of them displaying aspects of his own personality) with far less reverence than fans treated Blaine’s experiment.
Kafka himself had been losing weight when he conceived and wrote A Hunger Artist and he would die from tuberculosis a little over two years later. He was also in a relationship with a journalist called Milena Jesenská, to whom he vented emotions, imaginations, nightmares and ailments in almost daily letters. ‘So the thought of death frightens you?’ he wrote in one, ‘One has just been sent out as a biblical dove, has found nothing green, and slips back into the darkness of the Ark.’ For Kafka, like his hunger artist, life was a brief window of futile searching: a yearning for higher understanding foiled at every turn by its impossibility.
When György Kurtág composed his Kafka Fragments song cycle (1985–7) he compiled the libretto from scraps of Kafka’s writings collected over years; diaries, letters and aphorisms, variously cryptic, mundane, confessional and aphoristic. There are hints of haiku-like sense: ‘Like a pathway in the autumn: hardly has it been swept clean, it is covered again with dry leaves.’ There are reflections on the tedium of everyday life: ‘Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life,’ but there are also genuine-sounding confessions: ‘I can’t actually… tell a story, in fact I am almost unable even to speak’.
Kafka’s writing is infused with this awareness of human limitation – from the protagonist in The Trial and his anxious pursuit of an explanation of the unspecified crime an inscrutable court has charged him with, to the frustration faced by the protagonist of The Castle who will never be admitted to the castle and yet cannot return home. In a letter to his friend Max Brod, Kafka wrote, ‘Literature helps me to live, but wouldn’t it be truer to say that it furthers this sort of life?’
Kurtág’s song cycle offers a rare opportunity to read Kafka through the prism of music. We have a glimpse of this from Kafka himself, in a line from a letter to Milena included in the Fragments – ‘None sing as purely as those in deepest Hell; it is their singing that we take for the singing of Angels.’