The Pleasures and Punishments of Reading Franz Kafka


Arts & Culture

Franz Kafka. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reading the work of Franz Kafka is a pleasure, whose punishment is this: writing about it, too.

In Kafka, no honor comes without suffering, and no suffering goes unhonored.

Being asked to write about Kafka is like being asked to describe the Great Wall of China by someone who’s standing just next to it. The only honest thing to do is point.

Once, a student approached Rabbi Shalom of Belz and asked, “What is required in order to live a decent life? How do I know what charity is? What lovingkindness is? How can I tell if I’ve ever been in the presence of God’s mercy?” And so on. The Rabbi stood and was silent and let the student talk until the student was all talked out. And even then the Rabbi kept standing in silence, which was—abracadabra—the answer.

Having to explain the meaning of something that to you is utterly plain and obvious is like having to explain the meaning of someone. Providing such an explanation is impossible and so, a variety of torture. One of the lighter varieties, to be sure, but torture nonetheless. It is a job not for a fan, or even for a critic, but for a self-hating crazy person.

Kafka’s work should be standard reading for a time that cannot define its standards: a time that treats all identities as spectrums but all judgment as binary (“like” or “dislike”); a time that insists on appropriate behavior but forbids appropriation (people should read more books from other cultures, but must never write a book set in a culture not their own); a time that has replaced literacy with numeracy, but then laments that its only common culture is political (“Remember 2017?” “Whose 2017?”).

Kafka: “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”


I’ve been asked to write about Kafka six times in my life. The first five times I said no. Because I was too busy, too depressed, too busy, too busy, too depressed.

None of Kafka’s novels were finished, or published, during Kafka’s lifetime. Only nine of the fictions included in He: Shorter Writings of Franz Kafka were published during his lifetime. It’s not clear how many of them were finished. Are finished.

The aspect of essay writing that I loathe the most: giving a biographical account of the author. It’s ridiculous to give an account that I’ve inevitably sourced, at least in part, from the very same online omniscience that’s equally available to the reader. I’ve resolved, then, not to consult the internet for this—not to consult anyone, or anything. If the world burned now, and all of the internet with it, and then all the libraries, and then all the books, this is what I would know and must be judged by: Kafka was born in Prague, the third city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1880-something, and, due to complications from tuberculosis, basically starved to death in a sanatorium located in a town that starts with a K, in post-Empire, independent Austria, in 1920-something. He was trained in law at Charles University and practiced as a lawyer in the insurance industry. He was engaged to be married three times, twice to the same woman, whose name was Felice Bauer. He left instructions for all of his work to be burned after his death, which his friend Max Brod disobeyed. In 1918, which year I remember because it’s the last year of the World War I, Kafka wrote in the notebook that he otherwise used for his Hebrew lessons, “Work as joy, inaccessible to the psychologists.” I think I recall a few other Kafka quotations, but this is the one I repeat to myself aloud like a prayer, dragging home after my expensive, every-Wednesday-at-4-P.M. appointment describing my childhood to a stranger: “Work as joy, inaccessible to the psychologists.”


Kafka’s characters have no choice but to suffer Kafka. We readers, however, have chosen to submit to his machinery of our own free will, and we have done so in every generation since Kafka’s own, in the process producing thousands of essays and academic papers, more than a hundred biographies, more than a dozen films and TV shows, not to mention the Kafka-branding industry, which includes a computer font that reproduces the author’s handwriting (and features, alongside the author’s signature capital-K, a whimsically anachronistic sign), T-shirts, hats, keychains, and smartphone covers emblazoned with his face, und so weiter. From a psychoanalytic perspective, our Kafka cathexis can be read as a product of the subject’s rejection of us—a reaction to the fact that every time a new merchandiser of scholarly Kafkaiana claims to have finally gotten a grasp on a certain aspect of the author’s life—on his identity as a Germanophone Czech, or Jew, or Zionist, or anti-Zionist, or Marxist, or feminist, or Americophile, or vegetarian, or hypochondriac, or lawyer, or brother, or son—Kafka, whoever Kafka was or is, floats away even further. It’s my conviction that we keep abasing ourselves in this unrequited pursuit because Kafka was the last truly great writer that any of us have had, and by us, I mean Germanophone Czechs, Jews, Zionists, anti-Zionists, Marxists, feminists, Americophiles, vegetarians, hypochondriacs, lawyers, brothers, and sons.

What’s most notably missing from even the major studies of Kafka is a technical consideration of the writing itself—of the style of a Kafka sentence—which typically opens with a perfectly lucid idea and then proceeds to get mired in a murkiness of commas, as it strives to contain all the ideas that might conceivably be derived from that idea, often including even the counter-idea, before the final period. This attempt to present the complete consequences of a single thought within the span of a single sentence—which torrent of thinking would almost always be more comfortably accommodated in two sentences, or even in an amply bourgeois warm-hearthed paragraph—imparts to the prose an accruing intensity that’s constantly being undercut by grammatical delay, which is less evident in English than it is in the original German, with its “inverted” word order. English’s SVO (subject-verb-object) order results in sentences about who is doing what to whom, while German’s SOV order is more concerned with who to whom is doing what. This syntactical difference is one reason, but only one reason, why English-language natives tend to expect a sentence to express itself immediately—to state from the start what it’s all about—whereas German-language natives are more conditioned to uncertainty, given that their full comprehension of a sentence must be suspended until its end. Because an English-language sentence usually announces its basic purpose at the top, it almost always can only amplify or modify that purpose, and never, or rarely, upend it. A German-language sentence, however, can expand a reader’s understanding as it itself expands, becoming less provisional as it heads past the object toward the concluding verb of each subordinate clause, as the sentence itself heads toward its ultimate semantic consummation.

Here is a quintessential Kafka sentence, on the building of the Great Wall of China, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir:

In fact it is said that there are gaps which have never been filled in at all—according to some they are far larger than the completed sections—though this assertion is merely one of the many legends to which the building of the wall gave rise, and which cannot be verified, at least by any single man with his own eyes and judgment, on account of the extent of the structure.

And here is the same sentence translated by Stanley Corngold:

Indeed, it said that there are gaps that have not been filled in at all; according to some people these are much larger than the completed sections, although this assertion may be only one of the many legends that have grown up around the Wall and which, given the length of the Wall, is not something one person can verify, at least with his own eyes, and by his own standards.

The Muirs’ version strains for such torque that it risks becoming not merely unfaithful, but incomplete, while Corngold’s version is so intent on attempting both accuracy and explanation that it risks achieving neither. I’m not saying that I could do any better—I couldn’t. I’m just saying that neither version captures the anxiety of the German:

Ja, es soll Lücken geben, die überhaupt nicht verbaut worden sind, nach manchen sie weit größer als die erbauten Teile, eine Behauptung allerdings, die möglicherweise nur zu den vielen Legenden gehört, die um den Bau entstanden sind, und die, für den einzelnen Menschen wenigstens, mit eigenen Augen und eigenem Maßstab infolge der Ausdehnung des Baues unnachprüfbar sind.

If I have to make a fool of myself, I’ll do so not by translating, but by making a rough English approximation of the German syntax, preserving a mix of the Muirs’ and Corngold’s word choices:

Indeed, it is said that gaps there are, that filled in have never been at all, an assertion, however, that probably only to the many legends belongs, that around the Wall have arisen, and that, at least by any single person with their own eyes and standards, on account of the extent of the Wall, cannot be verified.

When verbs come at the close of a clause, the clause’s sense is adjourned until that closure arrives, and so the arrival is read as a verdict.

Try it this way:

Indeed, it is said that gaps there are,
that filled in have never been at all,
an assertion, however, that probably only to the many legends belongs,
that around the Wall have arisen,
and that, at least by any single person with their own eyes and standards, on account of the extent of the Wall, cannot be verified.

The manipulation of this nested “inversion” for purposes of variation, rhythmic drive, cliché lampooning, and subversive humor is a significant feature not merely of Kafka’s style, but of Kafka’s mind, and is at least as important for English-language readers to countenance as the author’s religiosity, eschatology, libido, and insomnia.


The sentence—the Satz—is what writers are judged by. “Sentence” is more than a bad pun on Kafka’s vocation. His prose—especially the fiction that he wrote at night and during his sick leaves and sanatorium vacations—imitates the aspiration of the law: both are attempts to engineer through sections, subsections, and subordinate clauses a stately structure of utterly coherent logic within an utterly incoherent illogical world. It’s that coherent logic that is the principal fiction, of course: because the world cannot be made to unfold as orderly as prose, with the same balanced elegance of form. Kafka’s fiction only diagnosed, and refused to ameliorate, the crises experienced by his characters, as if to mimic the limits of the law, which can only compensate for damages, but remains powerless to prevent them. Where Kafka’s writing and legal writing share the greatest similarity, however, is in their ambiguity—in their precise relationship to ambiguity. Both are made out of the author’s efforts to perpetually measure and define exactly what leeway is being left for interpretation and application. In his fiction, Kafka leaves certain elements undescribed (characters’ faces), and underdescribed (settings), in order to allow the reader to impose descriptions of their own that personalize the universality. He furthers this permissiveness by rarely writing surface metaphors, preferring instead to inculcate structural metaphors (or allegories, or parables) by defining his subjects negatively: “Our little town does not lie on the frontier, nowhere near; it is so far from the frontier, in fact, that perhaps no one from our town has ever been there” (“The Refusal”). In general, Kafka prefers not to associate things or people inside his fiction with things or people outside it. Self-reference is his primary mode: His fiction is full of formulations like “as I used to do,” and “as I had often thought,” which, by comparison and contrast, establish precedent. Kafka’s most profound ambiguity, though, inheres in his use of the subjunctive—his moments of “as if” and “as though” (in German, als): “If I merely walk in the direction of the entrance, even though I may be separated from it by several passages and rooms, I find myself sensing an atmosphere of great danger, actually as if my hair were growing thin and in a moment might fly off and leave me bare and shivering, exposed to the howls of my enemies” (“The Burrow”). Here, and elsewhere, Kafka harnesses the humblest grammar to metamorphic power, until the predominant effect ceases to be the presence of an unreliable narrator, but the absence of the universe’s only reliable narrator, who is God.

The ambiguity of the law is more infamous, and more materially consequential. In brief, the most heinous law is written by those most hoping to evade it. Legislators are systemically incentivized to omit or obscure all provisions of the law that check their power. To be clear, the law I am referring to here does not include that overtly oppressive legislation that makes no attempt to obfuscate its discriminatory intent (such as the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, which ensnared Kafka’s three sisters, or my own country’s slavery legislation, Black Codes, and Jim Crow). Instead, I am referring to the law of willful inadequacy, which employs loopholes to enable policy circumventions, and cloaks corruption in beneficent rhetoric before burying it deep beneath superficial reforms. More ambiguous still, at least in terms of its authority, and certainly more pernicious, is a country’s body of classified or secret law, which contravenes the law as it is publicly known. One example, again from my own country, is the officially secret law that, in violation of the U.S. constitution, lets the U.S. government surveil all of its citizens’ communications, including what I am now writing on my computer.

As the law becomes ever more ambiguous, literature becomes ever less, and we humans become mainly legible as data—as points of habit, preference, and demographic information used to generate algorithms, which are the strictures, the sentences, that bind us. Algorithms are sentences that calculate outcomes based on inputs (I almost wrote incomes). They are constructed out of a series of binary choices—if this happens, then that should happen; if this doesn’t happen, then that shouldn’t happen—in a constant calibration of inclusion and exclusion. The earliest algorithms were written by humans, as a way of instructing computers to perform calculations that humans were incapable of performing on their own. Today, these algorithms are written by computers “themselves,” as a way of instructing other computers to perform increasingly convoluted, world-controlling tasks.

This automation is the ultimate sign of the decline of the law’s authority—an authority that once came from churches and monarchies that claimed the sanction of God, and then came from governments that claimed the sanction of election, and now comes from our machines, which generate for each of us an individual law based on our every click and keystroke, our every weak decision. These automated laws now define our lives. They are responsible for nearly everything that we see and hear. They tell us where to eat, when to exercise, and even whom to have sex with. They tell us what to read and so, they tell us who we are. There is no way to calculate what effect this automation is having on our souls, because our souls do not exist in the domain of calculation. Any attempt to enumerate that harm just strengthens the enumeration-harm of the technocracy.


Once, in Jerusalem, I was sitting at a café reading Kafka (in English). At some point the café had become a bar—meaning that the coffee and tea drinking had given way to alcohol—and when I took a break from the pages and looked around, I realized that a lot of people were drunk. One man came over to my table, turned an empty chair around, sat down straddling its back, grabbed the book out of my hands, and examined it. “What’s it about?” he asked. He was in his early twenties, twitchy, aggressive, entirely serious. “It’s about impossible situations,” I said in Hebrew, and the moment that the phrase was out of my mouth, I regretted the fact that, especially given my foreign accent, it sounded like I was quoting some journalistic euphemism for the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The guy leaned in close and said, with boozy breath, “Impossible situations like what?” Realizing that I’d have to defuse this impossible situation, I told him that one of Kafka’s books was about a man who is accused of a crime, but no one will tell him what that crime is, and so he is unable to defend himself. I told him that another of the books was about a man who incompetently surveys land (I didn’t know the Hebrew for “land surveyor,” so I said something like “mapmaker”) who comes to a strange town in the course of his duties and must receive permission to practice his trade there, and even just to stay there, from the authorities who rule the town from its castle, but the castle authorities refuse to grant him a labor or even a residency permit and defer any decision about his legal status indefinitely. Meanwhile, the face of the man in front of me had turned siren red and the vessels in his neck swelled and throbbed. Not knowing what I had said to enrage him, or what else I could do that might calm him, I just continued with my explanation, by saying that this book—the one that he was still holding, and gripping so tightly that I thought he’d tear it in half—was called Amerika, and that it was about America, and, because it was the author’s first novel, it wasn’t quite typical of—

The man jumped out of the chair and banged the book on the table, yelling (in my loose translation), “So the people in the books are fucking idiots? Is it supposed to be funny that they’re so stupid? When I had to get a new passport on short notice, because my old one expired and I had to go to London for business, at the passport office they told me no, it’s not possible. And I could have just left it at that and given up, but I didn’t. It was too much money to lose. So I just phoned my cousin, whose wife’s brother works for the Ministry of Interior, and I got my new passport within a week. That’s how you have to be. I mean, you have a job to do, you do it. Don’t let anything get in your way.” He flung the book to the floor, and now all the café-bar’s patrons were paying attention to what was happening, but also moving away, giving him some room to have his tantrum. “And if someone accused me of some crime that I didn’t do,” he continued, “I’d get this friend of mine from the army who’s a lawyer to sue them for all their money and take their apartment and car. And if they kept on accusing me after that, I’d beat the shit out of them. I’d find out where their offices were and wait outside until they came out and I’d jump them from behind and go like this and like that”—he was air-punching and air-kicking some imaginary nemesis, putting phantom opponents in headlocks and choking them out.

I ran away down the block and turned around only at the corner: the man was being restrained by waiters. Amerika was lost—it is the only book by Kafka that I have never finished. But to this day, the man’s words, and his air-fighting, remain with me, and I’m still not sure how to take them—as anything other than an indication of the differences between the Mitteleuropean will to ambiguity and the near-universal impatience of the present.

Kafka is buried in the New Jewish cemetery in the crumbling suburbs of Prague. The original gravestone was stolen (some say by a literary-minded Nazi, others say by the Czechoslovak Communist government). Then the replacement gravestone was stolen (some say by a Czechoslovak anti-Communist underground youth movement, others say by a private collector from the West). Today the stone under which the author reposes is a replacement’s replacement—an ugly hexagonal monolith. The last time I visited the cemetery, for the funeral of a man, a Holocaust survivor whose memoir I ghostwrote, workers were installing CCTV cameras.


Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Moving Kings, Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, n+1, the London Review of Books, The New Republic, and others. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

From He: Shorter Writings of Franz Kafka, edited by Joshua Cohen, published this week by riverrun editions. © Joshua Cohen, 2020.