How to start reading Kafka?

This week, ahead of the third OGN reading group, Karolina Watroba thinks about how to tackle one of the most famous German writers of the early twentieth-century: Franz Kafka.
Kafka1906_cropped
Franz Kafka in 1906

Franz Kafka is probably the most famous German-language writer, and he has certainly been one of the most influential authors of world literature in the twentieth century. His unique style has even given rise to a brand new adjective, ‘kafkaesque’ – so if having one’s name turned into a common word is anything to go by, Kafka has really become an inseparable element of our culture. It might seem overwhelming to actually have a go at reading something written by a literary legend like Kafka, which is why I want to share five ideas for how you can start reading him!

1. Translations of famous opening lines – different every time!
The first of Kafka’s texts I read in German, and in fact one of the very first pieces of literature written in German that I decided to tackle in the original language, was a novella called ‘Die Verwandlung’ – ‘The Metamorphosis’. It later turned out that I would study this story in my first year at Oxford – it is one of the prose set texts for first-year students here. ‘Die Verwandlung’ was originally published in 1915, and it begins with one of the most famous opening sentences in the history of literature:
‘Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.’
In Ian Johnston’s translation: ‘One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed, he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.’
You’ll find eight other English translations of the opening sentence to compare in this fun article from The Guardian. Kafka’s works are in the public domain, so you can find them online for free. Check out this bilingual edition of ‘Die Verwandlung’.
2. Expect the unexpected!
Perhaps the best-known, and the most influential of Kafka’s texts, is his unfinished novel Der Prozess The Trial. He wrote it at about the same time as ‘Die Verwandlung’, but it wasn’t published until 1925, a year after his death, when his lifelong friend, Max Brod, decided to go against Kafka’s will and start publishing his hitherto unpublished texts, rather than burning them. Der Prozess boasts another unforgettable opening sentence:
‘Jemand mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.’
In John Williams’s translation: ‘Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.’
Even in this opening sentence, it is already evident that, in many ways, Der Prozess is written like a detective story. So if you like suspense and investigations, you’ll find Der Prozess very interesting – partly because it reverses the conventions of this genre and constantly challenges your expectations of it.
3. Short forms for the short of time
If both ‘Die Verwandlung’ and Der Prozess seem too long to start with, why don’t you try one of Kafka’s many shorter pieces? He wrote numerous little texts that range in length from just one line to one or two pages. Those published during his lifetime are conveniently collected in one volume, Ein Landarzt und andere Drucke zu Lebzeiten (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994). There you’ll find such little gems as ‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’, or ‘Der neue Advokat’, as well as ‘Die Sorge des Hausvaters’, which will be the text for our reading group next week. These texts are very brief (‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’ is just one sentence, six lines!), but also incredibly intriguing – and simply unlike anything you’ve ever read.
4. Get an introduction to the critical debates
While having a go at reading Kafka is definitely the best way to get to know his works, at some point you might feel like having a look at some secondary literature on him. A great starting point would be Kafka: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2004), written by Oxford’s own Ritchie Robertson. This little book is accessible and thought-provoking, which makes it an ideal place to start exploring broader themes and concerns running throughout Kafka’s work.
5. Get an introduction to the critical debates (Teil 2!)
Another place to go if you’d like to discover new ways to approach Kafka, is a series of documentaries and drama called In the Shadow of Kafka, produced by BBC Radio 3 in May 2015. You’ll hear there, among others, German poetry expert Karen Leeder talking about meaning and communication in Kafka’s works, or Margaret Atwood – a famous Canadian writer – reflecting on what Kafka’s texts have meant to her since she was a teenager.
I hope that this post has given you plenty of ideas about how to approach Kafka yourself. Go explore!

 

Karolina Watroba, Magdalen College, Oxford

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