Along with George Orwell, it was perhaps Franz Kafka (1883-1924) who did the most to diagnose the political and existential malaise of the twentieth century. And just as we use the word ‘Orwellian’ for so many aspects of modern-day life, from policing speech to the use of video surveillance, so ‘Kafkaesque’ has become synonymous with the absurd bureaucratic processes which typify – and stultify – our everyday lives.
Kafka famously said that a book must be an ice axe to break the frozen sea within us, and this is a good description of his own books, which deliver a shock to the senses and (to borrow one of his other great lines) a blow to the head. Many of Kafka’s short works – some of them only a paragraph long – betray the influence of classical fables, and in many ways Kafka’s greatest works, even his full-length novels, are fabular in form.
But Kafka’s works are often misunderstood as overwhelmingly bleak and full of angst (they have their fair share of that, but they are also wickedly funny, too), and about being about nothing more than the nightmare of bureaucracy (again, there’s a grain of truth to this, but there is much more to Kafka’s writing).
With the exception of Amerika, all of the following Kafka stories and novels are available in the very affordable The Essential Kafka: The Castle; The Trial; Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Wordsworth Classics).
1. The Trial.
This novel, like Kafka’s other best-known novel The Castle, was left unfinished and unpublished at his death, and he intended it to be destroyed. The most famous section of this novel is the very beginning, which finds the protagonist, Josef K. (the initial clearly suggesting the author himself), being arrested for no apparent reason, although the section in which Josef K. appears before the door of ‘the Law’ has also generated much debate.
The novel focuses on the year between Josef K.’s arrest and the novel’s ‘finale’ (of which we will say no more) one year later. The meaning of Kafka’s novel remains elusive, but what is perhaps most striking is the psychological aspect, with Kafka’s nightmarish description of one man’s hopeless fight against authority eerily prefiguring the tactics later used by totalitarian states.
2. The Metamorphosis.
One of the few works by Kafka to be published during his lifetime, this novella (or long short story) is perhaps Kafka’s best-known. Gregor Samsa (the surname vaguely suggests ‘Kafka’) awakes one morning to discover that he has transformed into a giant insect (the original German has been variously translated as ‘insect’, ‘beetle’, and ‘vermin’).
Many critics interpret this as a tale of modern alienation, but Kafka’s tale is ambiguous, and there is even a suggestion that Gregor is better off in his new (literal) shell.
3. ‘In the Penal Colony’.
Another of Kafka’s best-known short works, ‘In the Penal Colony’ is about a traveller who visits another country and is shown an execution device. There are just four characters, none of whom is identified by name: the Traveller, the Officer (who will carry out the execution), the Condemned Man (who is to be executed using the contraption), and the Captain (who was insulted by the Condemned Man, leading to the latter’s execution). Lurking behind the story, however, is the figure of the Old Commandant, who created the execution device and who is dead when the story opens.
Without giving away too many spoilers, we’ll simply remark that the Traveller later visits the gravestone of the Commandant, and notices that the people of this colony believe he will one day return. This raises the possibility of a religious reading of this intriguing and troubling story – or, at least, that Kafka saw how non-religious political regimes become messianic in their attitudes towards worship of a dear leader and punishment of those who mock or insult those in authority.
4. The Castle.
Along with The Trial, this is Kafka’s best-known novel, and like The Trial it was unpublished – and unfinished – when he died in 1924. It’s essentially a novel about a quest, but there is no apparent point to the quest, and no clear goal, other than for K. – the protagonist – to travel to the castle of the novel’s title. But what the castle represents is shrouded in ambiguity and vagueness, making this a quest novel which subverts or critiques the very idea of the ‘quest’.
K. has been summoned to the village, but he later learns that this was a mistake – or was it? One of Kafka’s most bewildering but also one of his most provocative works, The Castle was his final novel, begun in 1922 although not published until 1926, two years after his death.
This is the third and final Franz Kafka novel on this list, and the only other major work he wrote. Like his other two novels, it wasn’t published until after his death, and although it’s somewhat different from his other work, it shares that common Kafkaesque theme of futility and the helplessness of the individual in the world at large.
Amerika grew out of a short story titled ‘The Stoker’, and focuses on the journey of a sixteen-year-old European immigrant to America, Karl Roßmann. As soon as he arrives in this new country, he becomes friends with a stoker on the ship, and then bumps into his uncle, and an array of events ensue as Karl (once again, the name of Kafka’s protagonist summons his own name) stumbles from one job or project to another.