When Franz Kafka’s name mutated into an adjectival cliché it ceased to be connected in any significant way to his tremendous vision. I can recall precisely when and where the willy-nilly tossing around of his name turned ridiculous: It was the summer of 1995 in a movie theater in central Jersey. The movie was a menagerie of mental defects based on a novel of galactic stupidity—Congo by Michael Crichton. In a plot that involves homicidal gorillas, one cipher says to another cipher that their circumstances are Kafkaesque, by which the hamstrung scriptwriter—Crichton himself—presumably meant “strange.” Aside from the clangorous dropping of Kafka’s name, I don’t remember much about the movie, but I’m certain there was nothing truly Kafkaesque about it. Poor Franz—the inimitable seer of modernity without whom twentieth-century European literature would be a weakened affair—had come to be associated with either mere strangeness or else with killer apes.

Of course the promiscuous use of “Kafkaesque” was common long before Crichton and has continued long after. In 1974, Philip Roth wrote that the great man’s name “is plastered indiscriminately on almost any baffling or unusually opaque event that is not easily translatable into the going simplifications.” Just two weeks ago in The New York Times, a reviewer tried to get away with saying that a first-time author’s work contains “a realm of blackness reminiscent of Kafka.” One might as well liken the writer to Dante—such facile vagueness can mean nearly anything and so instead means nothing. There are myriad and overlapping hues of darkness in Kafka, along with myriad and overlapping hues of comic irony—he is much too multitudinous for the haphazard applying of his name whenever a situation isn’t sunny.

Kafka’s genius is easily snatched for misappropriation because it asserts itself in shadows. A vision of existence as seemingly cryptic and complex as Kafka’s inevitably becomes a strip of flypaper to catch any interpretation that buzzes by it. In 1952, literary philosopher William Hubben wrote of Kafka that “there remains something enigmatic about him that eludes classification,” and in the ensuing decades he has become, with Samuel Beckett, the go-to guy whenever someone wishes to comment upon enigmas. In his introduction to Kafka’s Complete Stories, Updike contends that it is Kafka’s “extrapolations from his experience of paternal authority and naysaying … that define the word ‘Kafkaesque.’ Like ‘Orwellian,’ the adjective describes not the author but an atmosphere within a portion of his work.”

But what about the other portions, those not easily connected to patriarchal terrorizing? Unlike “Orwellian”—which has as its principle source only two slim and unambiguous novels—“Kafkaesque” must pull from scores of stories, fables, parables, and aphorisms, three incomplete novels, 3000 pages of letters and diaries, and, contrary to Updike’s opinion, forty years of the author’s heart-wrecked life—one reaved by hypochondria, insomnia, acute sensitivity of hearing, and the tuberculosis that killed him. In Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, the Pulitzer-winning Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer reassesses those letters and diaries, emphasizing “the personal anguish” that informed Kafka’s singular canon. Friedländer’s concise new book, born of both sorrow and affection, is an ideal place to begin among the hulking alps of Kafka studies. In a touching introduction Friedländer outlines the parallels between Kafka’s life and his own, “all these hidden links” that give his delving into Kafka’s work a visceral pitch absent from much of the Kafka industry. With his attention to those lines in Kafka’s letters and diaries that were excised by Kafka’s friend and puritanical literary executor, Max Brod, Friedländer does a lovely service to the real Franz Kafka.

The autopsy of a writer’s personal papers is normally a tedious endeavor, but as Friedländer makes clear, Kafka’s diaries are evidence that he was incapable of a quotidian thought; his letters are astonishing documents with an intellectual and stylistic register to rival Keats’s. (As Brod put it in 1937: “He never spoke a meaningless word.”) His famous, almost fifty-page “Letter to His Father” is an incomparably naked confession of familial truth, a cathartic eruption written just four years before Kafka’s death. Any son with volcanic feelings for his father cannot fail to be awe-smacked by this letter—a letter that never reached its target because Kafka’s mother, ever protective of Hermann Kafka’s frangible sense of self, never delivered it.

Neither obnoxiously fixed to Freudian sexual theory nor convinced by Brod’s sanctifying of Kafka, Friedländer believes that “the issues torturing Kafka most of his life were of a sexual nature.” In a letter to Brod in 1918, Kafka wrote, “You are right in saying that the deeper realm of sexual life is closed to me.” What for Kafka was a “deeper realm” is for the rest of us the normal and natural pleasures of sexuality—sexuality uncontaminated by a potent cocktail of agita and disgust. Terrified of marriage and domesticity, incapable of not cogitating on the foulness of the human body, convinced that his success as an artist demanded his suffering as a man, he sabotaged every relationship he ever had with a female. Friedländer makes mention of the drawing Kafka sent to his married lover, Milena Jesenká—a ghastly mechanism of torture designed to tear a body in half. Not the best way to woo a gal, but also not altogether surprising, coming from the author of “In the Penal Colony.” In a letter to Brod about Kafka’s devitalizing fears, Jesenká wrote, “Flesh is too uncovered; he cannot stand the sight of it,” and one wonders at the disfigurement of psyche that did not permit him to see the nude female form as a source of life-giving beauty.

Although Friedlander sifts through the various strata of darkness, he misses a titillating paragraph in “Letter to His Father,” one essential to any attempt at lighting the cave of Kafka’s mind:

Marrying is barred to me because it is your domain. Sometimes I imagine the map of the world spread out and you stretched diagonally across it. And I feel as if I can consider living in only those regions that are not covered by you or are not within your reach. And in keeping with the conception I have of your magnitude, these are not many and not very comforting regions—and marriage is not among them.

Extraordinary lines: Kafka blamed his father for that climate of his psyche that forbade him from the felicity of marriage. For once the mother is not at fault. In Kafka’s mother, Julie Löwy Kafka, scholars and biographers don’t have a handy scapegoat for their subject’s sexual woes over women.1 The female characters, however, especially in the novels, can be shifty temptresses of ruin. In The Missing Person—misleadingly titled Amerika by Brod—sixteen-year-old Karl Rossmann is seduced by a servant girl whom he impregnates, prompting his ashamed parents to ship him off to foreign shores—an odyssey put in motion by the libidinous wrangling of a woman. “I am dirty,” Kafka wrote to Jesenká, “infinitely dirty, this is why I scream so much about purity.” And in a diary entry just two years before his death, he wrote, “What have you done with your gift of sex? It was a failure, in the end that is all they will say.” All they will say? Right about much, he was wrong about that. Friedländer writes of those words as being from a time, early in 1922, when Kafka was tormented by sexual needs that made him feel half mad.

One expects such carnal difficulties from a Luther or a Calvin, but from the Jewish artist who has seen deeper into our minds and spirits than any other modern writer? Kafka’s most famous story, “The Metamorphosis,” is nothing if not a fearsome comment on the body’s awful physicality, but it is also a fearsome comment on humankind’s spiritual state in the postlapsarian cosmos—the outer grotesque is a manifestation of the inner grotesque.2 It would have been impossible for Kafka not to have absorbed the various Christian mythologies of Europe—90 percent of Prague was Catholic in Kafka’s day, and indeed his propensity for guilt and somatic obsession smell suspiciously of Catholicism. As most of Kafka’s biographers have noted, the thinker who meant the most to him during his many dark nights of the soul was the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard—Kafka’s letters to Brod stress the powerful affinity he felt for the Dane. Friedländer notes correctly that “in Kafka’s world the sacred and profane cannot be untangled,” just as Harold Bloom and George Steiner, following closely on the heels of Walter Benjamin, have argued that Kafka cannot be understood apart from either the normative or the mystical Jewish tradition of thought.

The gears of the Kafka industry will turn into perpetuity because the sources of his self-punishing perspective are obscured within his mellifluously baffling work.3 This is also precisely the reason “Kafkaesque” refuses definition: because Kafka himself contains too many meanings—the Talmudic-Catholic admix, the self-sabotaging disgust for women and sex, the father who haunts from far and near, our vassalage to a mechanical and mysterious bureaucracy, man’s spiritual isolation under an empty firmament, the criminally overlooked comic irony, the parabolic reaching for an elusive truth, the maddening impulse to shame and guilt, and others we will go on trying to learn. Because in Kafka what appears surreal or allegorical or fabulist is actually blood and bone reality, and yet this reality remains resolute in its decision to thwart our every effort to digest it.4 Bloom suggests that he “did everything possible to evade interpretation.” But Kafka is not, as Brecht told Walter Benjamin, all “obscurantism” and “sheer mischief.” Kafka is among us and knowable, despite being, as Friedländer writes, “the most protean cultural figure of the last century.” If he was “the poet of his own disorder,” his fait accompli is that he is also forevermore the poet of ours.

William Giraldi is the author of the novel Busy Monsters and fiction editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.

  1. In his wise biography, The Nightmare of Reason, Ernst Pawel compliments Kafka’s mother as “an enormously warmhearted woman … affectionate and generous," and then speculates that if Kafka did harbor any unconscious animosity toward her it was for shifting her affections from his toddler self to his foolishly needy father.

  2. You can say the same about Flannery O’Connor, Kafka’s spiritual sister—although O’Connor, a touch myopic in this regard, was not pleased by comparisons to the “German Jew . . . who wrote a book about a man that turns into a roach.”

  3. "If I had to construct a scale with literary self-esteem at one end and aesthetic self-flagellation at the other,” Harold Bloom writes in In Ruin the Sacred Truths, “then Milton would be at the self-celebratory pole, and Kafka at the extreme of self-punishment” 

  4. Steiner: “Kafka’s fiction invites decipherment, and makes of this invitation a trap.”