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Reiner Stach
Franz Kafka in the 21st century

Kafka at the age of 34 in July 1917
Kafka at the age of 34 in July 1917 | © Wagenbach Verlag (Art work: Tobias Schrank)

Why do we continue to find Franz Kafka so compelling 100 years after his death? Why is Kafka still considered to be so modern and contemporary? What awaits us in Kafka’s anniversary year of 2024? Reiner Stach, Kafka’s most important biographer, provides us with some answers.

By Reiner Stach

Prague-born writer Franz Kafka, who died in 1924 aged just 40, has long been considered one of the founders of literary modernism. Although he published only a few works of prose himself and left behind an unusually large number of fragments – all three of his novels remained unfinished – his status as a classic writer is undisputed today. All students of advanced-level German at German-language high schools inevitably encounter Kafka, and in almost all federal states in Germany, Kafka’s texts have come up as a subject in Abitur exams.

But even in the select circle of classic writers, Kafka has a remarkable standing. On the one hand, he is seen as a particularly complicated, profound, often enigmatic author who has preoccupied generations of exegetical scholars all over the world; an author whose texts are studied like revelations, line by line and often using highly complex methodology. Publications about him are too numerous to count, and it is hard to keep track of the interpretation guides for teachers and students that are constantly being re-published in new variations. On the other hand, however, no other 20th-century author has intrigued and inspired so many creative people, sometimes even far beyond the boundaries of literature, including illustrators and painters, film directors, composers, actors and theatre producers.

In world literature, only a very small number of authors enjoy such a posthumous double life. The undiminished impact of Shakespeare perhaps best compares to that of Kafka. The works of these writers apparently do not age; each new generation of readers feels that impulse to study them anew. Even the fact that the texts have been surveyed and “dug up” as academic fields of research hundreds of times over does not change this.

Kafka and hyper-bureaucracy

This vitality, which is also reflected in the number of languages their work has been translated into, has often been attributed to the fact that such writers provide memorable images for fundamental human experiences: experiences that are recognised and understood across eras and cultures. This is undoubtedly true of much of Kafka’s work. His father’s authoritarian character, the fatal consequence of which is described in The Verdict, may no longer be considered a problem everywhere in the world today. But feeling alienated within one’s own family (The Metamorphosis) or being rejected by a tight-knit community merely for not knowing its rules (The Castle) – these are experiences that are plausible in any cultural context and can therefore also be conveyed through literature.

But in Kafka’s case, there is another factor that is at least equally significant for his popularity: he portrays an unquestionably modern world that has taken on sinister qualities. This was initially misunderstood. Experiences of totalitarian terror led many readers of the first generation to see Kafka as a prophet who had foreseen the horrors of fascism and Stalinism. Today, however, we read his texts more attentively and in a less biased way. In doing so, we realise that those “Kafkaesque” scenarios – especially in The Trial and The Castle – affect us so profoundly not so much because their heroes are exposed to arbitrary violence. Rather, the nightmarish momentum has to do with the protagonists constantly finding themselves in inscrutable situations in which they feel observed and deprived of their privacy. Their requests for clarification are met with what appears to be a willingness to oblige, and they are given plenty of information. And yet there is never anything that really helps them. They are cold-shouldered, sent from pillar to post, and in the end, no one is responsible.

These are experiences that are characteristic of modern, bureaucratically over-regulated mass societies, in which a lot of people can only keep track of their own professional or financial situation with the help of advisers. They are even more characteristic of societies in which communication is becoming increasingly anonymous or even automated (social media, hotlines), where private data is widely misused and surveillance technology deployed on an increasingly extensive scale. Readers of Kafka’s The Trial in the 21st century therefore recognise something the author could not possibly have foreseen to this extent, but which must have appeared on his social radar at least as an ominous trend. This is surely one of the key reasons why we still consider Kafka to be so modern and so contemporary.

Kafka and the animals

Another factor we should consider is that readers of Kafka today no longer limit themselves to just a few classic texts. Kafka’s extensive literary legacy has been fully catalogued and affordable editions of his work are now available. A paperback collection of short stories published by Fischer Taschenbuch, for example, contains more than 80 texts. Although many of these are fragmentary, readers are now offered a much broader, more colourful literary panorama beyond the father complex and guilt-and-punishment themes that were so persistently associated with Kafka in the past.

One example of this is offered by the astonishingly large number of prose works which feature talking and thinking animals – an entirely independent motif which, although always popular with actors (A Report to an Academy – Kafka’s Monkey), has only ever played a very subordinate role in classroom lessons and academic discourse. It is quite conceivable that these animal figures will gradually become another of Kafka’s trademarks, especially if they appear on stage and in films more frequently and more intensively than before.

Kafka and humour

The ways in which Kafka’s humour is perceived have also changed and expanded. These perceptions were initially obscured by ideological discussions. Kafka was seen as an existentialist or religious man of sorrows; the slapstick scenes in his novels did not quite fit in with this and were often ignored altogether. Since the 1990s at the latest, however, our picture of Kafka has brightened permanently. More and more readers are realising that the vast majority of Kafka’s texts contain overt or hidden comedic moments. And if we scan his entire oeuvre, we discover a wide range of comic narration, including diverse tragic and comic overlaps. There is still a great deal to discover in this respect – although whether Kafka’s humour is understood and ‘works’ interculturally probably depends on the audience. This is another experimental playground that has so far been little explored.

Kafka and his letters

Scholars and readers of his work in general still disagree on whether the 1,500 surviving letters written by Kafka should also be considered part of his literary oeuvre. It is extremely unusual that an author, even in his most private communications, achieves a level of linguistic expressiveness and creativity that is in no way inferior to that of his literary work. In autumn 2024, the long-awaited final volume of the critical edition will be published by S. Fischer, which means that this segment of his work will then be accessible too. Readings and other events on his epistolary work may help introduce less experienced readers to Kafka’s language, his characteristically metaphorical way of thinking and his sense of the comic.

Kafka on stage

Today, we read Kafka in a more “literary” way than previous generations. This means that the aesthetic pleasure derived from his language, ideas, paradoxes, intriguing imagery and plots plays an ever greater role than the urge to instantly search for the right interpretation. Logically enough, this development has made Kafka’s works open to more creative approaches, to an almost kaleidoscopic reception. Firstly, we should mention the theatre. Although Kafka did not write a single piece for the theatre (he got no further than the first scenes of The Warden of the Tomb), his texts can be regularly heard on stages, and his plots and characters have been visualised in hundreds of variations. In 2015, Andreas Kriegenburg presented an exemplary production based on texts from Kafka’s oeuvre (A Cage Went in Search of a Bird, Deutsches Theater Berlin). Also in 2015, actor Max Simonischek successfully adapted the short story The Burrow as a one-person play. Fronted by author Jaroslav Rudiš, the Kafka Band composed songs with lyrics taken from Kafka’s novels and, in turn, integrated this musical material into theatre productions (The Castle in 2015, America in 2017, The Trial in 2022).

Kafka on the big screen

Film visualisations of Kafka’s texts became less diverse after Orson Welles and Steven Soderbergh tried their hand at it in the 20th century. Adaptations in short films are numerous, however, and many can be seen on Youtube. The virtual reality experiment VRwandlung (Goethe-Institut Prague, 2018) also attracted international attention. A whole series of film projects is planned for Kafka’s anniversary year in 2024, including a biopic by Polish director Agnieszka Holland and a six-part German-language TV series, which will intertwine his life and work (written by Daniel Kehlmann and directed by David Schalko).

Kafka in comics

Graphic novel artists have also developed a special fondness for Kafka. Since the release of Robert Crumb’s now classic Introducing Kafka in 1993, there have been so many new visualisations of this kind around the world that there would be enough material for a solo exhibition. Outstanding examples include Zámek / Das Schloss by Jaromír Švejdík (2013) and most recently, Die Aeroplane in Brescia by Moritz von Wolzogen. A spectacular new publication has now established Kafka as an illustrator in his own right (C.H. Beck Verlag, 2021), which could boost this trend even further.

Kafka as a pop icon

All these activities are convincing evidence of the fact that Kafka’s work has retained its vitality, that it is considered to be highly relevant today and, moreover, continues to be “palatable” from a literary point of view. It has a broad international reception that can already be referred to as pop culture in terms of its reach, and it has distanced itself from discourse in literary studies. Kafka has become a literary world figure, his name and portrait are known to people even if they still think of him as a Czech author because of his background.

Of course, there is also the risk of popularisation and trivialisation, even commercialisation, which is always especially virulent in the context of commemorative days. We could dismiss this by arguing that Kafka's work has withstood decades of bombardment by religious, philosophical, political and psychological interpretations, that it will surely stand up to pop-cultural appropriation – but this sounds a little cynical and, moreover, clearly underestimates the effectiveness of fake images, which has increased millions of times over today.

Kafka’s universe is grounded in his language

Given the diversity of activities taking place in 2024, we should not lose sight of the fact that Kafka’s universe – as rich in imagery and as multifaceted as it now seems – is ultimately grounded in his language. The linguistic form is the foundation of his work and it should remain as intact as possible, even when used by other media, and not be manipulated for the benefit of enhanced effect. Literary studies and not least of all the philological study of editions therefore continue to have a monitoring function: these are the sciences that catalogue, present and explain Kafka’s manuscript pages. But we should also listen more attentively to translators of Kafka’s works in the 21st century and give them the opportunity to engage in dialogue with each other and also with the readers – on the one hand, because of the global reception of these works, and on the other, because translators study the intricacies of their linguistic structure and can therefore help prevent misunderstandings, misrepresentations or misleading simplifications and popularisations.

Kafka himself predicted the exact consequences of disassociating ourselves from this linguistic foundation in one of his aphorisms: “He eats the leftovers from his own table; for a little while, he feels more sated than everyone else, but he also forgets how to eat at the table itself; in this way, there cease to be any leftovers.”