What is it that makes Kafka’s fiction so important? There are more readily identifiable features in other major modern authors that make it more straightforward – perhaps due to a sensibility their work has helped shape – to account for the esteem in which they are held. The face-melting prose of Nabokov or Henry James; the allusive density of Joyce or Proust; the psychological subtlety of Woolf or Eliot; the social sweep of Dickens or Tolstoy; the flashy metaphysics of Musil or Mann.
But it is more problematic to find a relevant subsection under Great in which to file Kafka. The style is understated. There are none of the extended dialectical workouts we find in the more overtly cerebral modernists, and there’s little in the way of technical trickery. Like Beckett after him, if Kafka makes it new it is primarily by subtraction rather than addition, stripping his prose of most of the stylistic adornments that classical aesthetics have taught us to admire. Kafka doesn’t trade in quotable turns of phrase but in granitic paragraphs, an incremental build-up of subtly dissonant sentences whose overall effect is not so much to impress us as make us feel unsettled and slightly seasick.
If, as is sometimes said, Kafka’s voice epitomises the era in which he lived, he doesn’t approach the historic circumstances of that age head-on, but rather through a variety of oblique and often surreal removal strategies. This is especially pronounced in the short stories. A low-level office worker wakes one day having been transformed into a giant insect (‘Metamorphosis’); a dog ruminates on the meaning of life (‘Investigations of a Dog’); a chimpanzee delivers an address to an auditorium (‘Notes From an Address to the Academy’); a subterraneous mole-like creature obsessively guards its burrow against imaginary intruders (‘The Burrow’).
This technique is rarely far from allegory, yet, in an evasiveness familiar to anyone who has tried to construct a consistent argument about Kafka, nor is it straightforwardly or reliably allegorical. If you were to catch Ian Dowie discoursing on Kafka, he would probably call this ‘unpindownability’.
Perhaps due to the more extensive fictional furnishing required to deck them out, Kafka’s novels operate at a less dramatic remove from reality as we know it, but clearly they cannot be said to reflect it without subjecting it to strange and unsettling alterations. This unnerving assault on our perception of normality is given perhaps its most sustained and disorienting expression in The Castle. A dream-cum-nightmare in which many of the causal links on which we depend to make sense of the world have been removed, the experience of reading the novel is akin to listening to an endless dissonant crescendo. An ever-thickening suspension chord, it refuses at every turn to provide the resolution that instinct and experience leads us to demand.
K, the protagonist (insofar as such a conventional term has meaning in such an anti-conventional narrative), is a character on an endless quest, an interminable middle without a beginning or an end. He arrives by carriage one snowy night at a nameless village at the bottom of a castle in the mountains. Having found a spot in a crowded inn in which to spend the night, K is awoken by an official from the castle demanding to know whether he has permission to stay in the village. (It’s worth noting that the idea of waking up to be confronted by altered circumstances – during that limbo period preceding full consciousness which Proust describes as the time during which we are briefly free of our habitual persona – acts as the catalyst in arguably Kafka’s three most important works, The Castle, The Trial and Metamorphosis).
From here, K is plunged into a vortex of bureaucracy and confusion as he pursues a mission to gain approval from the castle. However, the premises of this mission are neither explained, nor is it ever resolved. We never know K’s real purpose for coming to the village, the exact nature of the legitimation he seeks, and what he intends to do once he has achieved it. K is referred to as the Land Surveyor, but even this may be a case of mistaken identity, as he seemingly adopts the title at random. Throughout, chronology, the relationships between characters, their motivations, identities, and the attitudes that underlie their incomplete and semi-nonsensical interactions, are all undermined to create a heightening sense of absurdity.
As readers accustomed to certain novelistic norms of sequence and causality, we play our role by trying to piece together the fragments to form an explicable whole. We follow K’s disconnected course – trying all the time to mentally weave together the disparate strands into a common thread to which we can give the name ‘meaning’ – only to discover that this process is in itself the book’s destination, at once its beginning, middle and end. ‘Meaning’ isn’t a noun but a verb in Kafka, an act in which we participate rather than a state toward which the narrative travels. Ever the incomplete allegorist, Kafka creates an experience that serves as a kind of analogue for the modern condition even as it undermines the entire idea of a ‘condition’, or stable state of being to which we can pin our identity.
Which brings us back to the question of what makes Kafka great. Though his method seems to work by chipping away at the edifice of our knowledge of the world and undermining the links that we put in place to make it explicable, if The Castle were merely a random and meaningless sequence of events, there would be little reason to be affected or impressed by it.
As in other surrealist narratives that I admire such as David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive or Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled, there is both a warped logic that gives the seemingly disconnected events some sort of aggregate meaning, and – perhaps most crucially – a humanity that makes each individual scene memorable and affecting. And for my money, the paradoxical way in which Kafka manages to tap deep into his characters’ humanity, while undermining and deferring the knowledge and presumptions on which that humanity is based, is one of the main places in which we can locate his genius.