There are many perils in writing about Kafka. His work has been garrisoned by armies of critics with some fifteen thousand books about him at the last count. As there is a Fortress Freud so is there a Fortress Kafka, Kafka his own castle. For admission a certain high seriousness must be deemed essential and I am not sure I have it. One is nervous about presuming even to write his name, wanting to beg pardon for doing so, if only because Kafka was so reluctant to write his name himself. Like the Hebrew name of God, it is a name that should not be spoken, particularly by an Englishman. In his dreams Kafka once met an Englishman. He was in a good grey flannel suit, the flannel also covering his face. Short of indicating a prudent change of tailor, the incident (if dreams have incidents) serves to point up the temptation to English Kafka and joke him down to size. The Channel is a slipper bath of irony through which we pass these serious Continentals in order not to be infected by their gloom. This propensity I am sure I have not escaped or tried to: but then there is something that is English about Kafka, and it is not only his self-deprecation. A vegetarian and fond of the sun, he seems a familiar crank; if he'd been living in England at the turn of the century, and not in Prague, one can imagine him going out hiking and spending evenings with like-minded friends in Letchworth. He is the young man in a Shaw play who strolls past the garden fence in too large shorts to be accosted by some brisk Shavian young woman who, perceiving his charm, takes him in hand, puts paid to his morbid thoughts and makes him pull his socks up.
LRB 23 July 1987 | PDF Download