Friday, June 27, 2008

The Real (Punctual) Franz K

Zadie Smith reviews a new biography of Kafka:

How to describe Kafka, the man? Like this, perhaps:

It is as if he had spent his entire life wondering what he looked like, without ever discovering there are such things as mirrors.

A naked man among a multitude who are dressed.

A mind living in sin with the soul of Abraham.

Franz was a saint.
[1]

Or then again, using details of his life, as found in Louis Begley's refreshingly factual The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay: over six feet tall, handsome, elegantly dressed; an unexceptional student, a strong swimmer, an aerobics enthusiast, a vegetarian; a frequent visitor to movie houses, cabarets, all-night cafes, literary soirees and brothels; the published author of seven books during his brief lifetime; engaged three times (twice to the same woman); valued by his employers, promoted at work.

But this last Kafka is as difficult to keep in mind as the Pynchon who grocery-shops and attends baseball games, the Salinger who grew old and raised a family in Cornish, New Hampshire. Readers are incurable fabulists. Kafka's case, though, extends beyond literary mystique. He is more than a man of mystery—he's metaphysical. Readers who are particularly attached to this supra-Kafka find the introduction of a quotidian Kafka hard to swallow. And vice versa. I spoke once at a Jewish literary society on the subject of time in Kafka, an exploration of the idea—as the critic Michael Hofmann has it—that "it is almost always too late in Kafka." Afterward a spry woman in her nineties, with a thick Old World accent, hurried across the room and tugged my sleeve: "But you're quite wrong! I knew Mr. Kafka in Prague—and he was never late."

I love the first footnote, too: "[1] Respectively, Walter Benjamin, Milena Jesensk√°, Erich Heller, and Felice Bauer." What a list!

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