Of all modern German — and not only German — writers of stature Franz Kafka is the most elusive. Interpretations abound: yet more frequently than not they disagree, indeed, contradict one another.1 Not only do critics have different views of the meaning of his work; they also differ in their appraisal of what he is actually writing about. If they agree on anything at all they hold that his work is symbolic rather than allegorical. But most critics pay only lip-service to this insight, for in practice they rapidly succumb to the temptation of looking for a key to unlock the mystery of his work. This quest is fundamentally mistaken; though not all critics would admit as much. For Kafka’s work seems to invite the reader to search for allegorical interpretations which invariably provide proof of the fertility of the critic’s imagination rather than of his insight into Kafka’s work. Thus, much of Kafka criticism has been mistaken, spreading confusion rather than light. For Kafka is elusive because he is deeply tormented, and this inner torment is writ large across his work. It springs from the depths of his personality, from his desire to fathom the meaning of the world and from his inability to do so. Kafka was driven by a most powerful urge to show how the world intrinsically hangs together, how it is a system of necessary relations. But all that he could achieve was to depict that this underlying unity could not be established while at the same time conveying the impression that it existed and that all experiences were related to one another.2


Subjunctive Mood Powerful Urge Conditional Clause Underlying Unity Public Insurance Company 
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  1. 3.
    For studies discussing Kafka’s view of the function of art cf. Heinz Hillman, Franz Kafka: Dichtungstheorie und Dichtungsgestalt Bonn, 1964, particularly pp. 5–50. Hillmann does not, however, emphasise Kafka’s basic ambivalence sufficiently.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Cf. also Jürgen Demmer, Franz Kafka. Der Dichter der Selbstreflexion Munich, 1973, who also discusses this question (pp. 31–99.) (Cf. my review of this book in Erasmus xxvi, 1974, pp. 348–50.)Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    I am using these terms in the sense defined by C.M. Bowra, The Heritage of Symbolism, London, 1942.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Cf. James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake London, 1939, p. 489, who writes ‘That letter selfpenned to one’s other, that neverperfect ever-planned?’Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    Max Brod, Franz Kafka. Eine Biographie, 3rd ed., Frankfurt/Main, 1954, p. 98.Google Scholar
  6. 32.
    Cf. my analysis of the moods in Kafka’s work, ‘Zwei Erzählungen Franz Kafkas. Eine Betrachtung’, Trivium, VIII, Zurich, 1950.Google Scholar
  7. 34.
    Cf. Heinz Politzer, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox Ithaca, New York, 1962, who skilfully explores this question of the parabolic and paradoxical nature of Kafka’s work.Google Scholar
  8. 36.
    Cf. Malcolm Pasley, ‘Two Kafka Enigmas’, MLR LIX, 1964, pp. 73–81, and ‘Drei literarische Mystifikationen Kafkas’, Kafka Symposium Berlin, 1965, 21–37, who discusses the important question of Kafka’s use of mystification.Google Scholar
  9. 41.
    The relationship between Nietzsche and Kafka is analysed by Patrick Bridgwater in his Kafka and.Nietzsche Bonn, 1974. I have serious reservations about his method of dealing with this question. Cf. my forthcoming review to appear in MLR Lxxu, 1977.Google Scholar

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© Hans Reiss 1978

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hans Reiss
    • 1
  1. 1.BristolUK

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