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Cockroaches, allegations, and personal versus universal tragedy as presented in the work of Franz Kafka.


Harold Lines Balmer

Monday, 11 March 2024

A personal and tumultuous literary journey with Kafka and many other authors.

Cockroaches, allegations, and personal versus universal tragedy as presented in the work of Franz Kafka.

When you try to sell metamorphosis to an avid reader, you don’t describe the three bearded lodgers that appear near the end. The hook of the tale is the absurdity of it. A man wakes up and finds he’s been turned into a giant cockroach. That’s all you need. That’s the hook. 

 It was in a meeting with my A Level English teacher, while considering English as a degree option, where he succinctly summarized Kafka’s legendary short story to me. He’d written his university thesis on the work of Kafka, and this conversation in fact was the first time I heard the name. It was immediately enticing. Franz Kafka. Succinct and to the point, words I doubt anyone would use to describe the Czech writer’s prose. I’d say Kafka falls under the tortured artist category of historical creatives. To be honest I’d say anyone hoping to end up in the literary hall of fame is probably expected to have dealt with some serious shit. I’m not saying if you want to win the booker prize you should saw off your own leg - though maybe if Van Gogh had gone for a larger organ his work might’ve at least ended up being sold in some flea markets in Provence - but there is something perversely enticing about a writer who strives for artistic perfection as a means to heal the gashes of past traumas into scabs.  

 For those ‘Swifties’ amongst the readers who are giddy at the title of her new album (‘The Tourtured Poet’s Department’), I’d say if you’re looking for a comprehensive guide of history’s real tortured poets, you should definitely add Kafka to your list. It was only recently that I learned of the supposed abuse suffered by Kafka at the hands of his father. The information both offers up a completely new reading of ‘The Metamorphosis’ and poses the question why this abuse is not the main topic of his work. Whilst a sense of despair and self-loathing thanks to ills past can fuel writing like coal in a steam engine, Kafka’s work instead takes a left turn and veers towards something lying between Dostoevsky and Kharms. Dostoevsky was, as Kafka confessed, a huge influence on his work. The influence of ‘Crime and Punishment’ can be seen in ‘The Trial’- a novel that critics would sight as Kafka’s magnum opus and what I state is my favorite book (pretentious I know, could have just gone for chamber of secrets like a normal person). Yet whilst you’d have better luck finding jokes in a documentary about ‘9/11’ as you would in ‘Crime and Punishment’, Kafka’s work can brim with a subtle, jet-black humour that cuts through the bleak philosophy like acid cuts through fat.  

It can admittedly be hard to grapple with at first. I remember after having finished ‘The Trial’, brimming with newfound love for Kafka, snatching ‘Metamorphosis’ of the shelf of our study and tucking in, expecting to power through the story in the garden on a sunny afternoon.  Alas, I just couldn’t click with it. The words seemed dry and lifeless, I felt there was so much potential lacking. The conceit was humorous and individual lines made me chuckle, but it just didn’t ebb and flow in the way I felt ‘The Trial’ did. It was only on a dreary car journey to Wales that I finally clicked with ‘Metamorphosis’. I’d brought the book along and was hoping I’d be able to click with it. And click I did. It seemed so much better now; I could drown out the squabbling of my brother and the incessant drone of ‘Radio 2’ with what seemed like an intimate Chekhov play sprinkled with surreal wit. I think the problem with Kafka is that in such a short career, he presented so much and communicated something unique to his readers. It seems criminal to leap from work to work. His prose is meant to be ingested and pondered, lamented and discussed- much in the way the priest and Joseph K discuss philosophy in one of the later chapters of ‘The Trial’.  

In my mind, Kafka is one of the greatest writers of all time, precisely because his oeuvre is so intimate and fragmented. Dickens is fine but, like the other great writers, the demand for his prose meant he delivered some right dreck. It’s only Dostoevsky who, for me, never misses a beat. Kafka is such an excellent philosophical and existentialist writer because of his unique tendency to depict life. We think of Kafka with this very esoteric and surrealist lens but really, he perfectly balances raw human emotions with this alien surreal black humour.   He sort of hits you where you most feel yourself as a human, but don’t really know anything about Joseph K the protagonist of ‘The Trial’, other than some trivial details. Yet because of this profound sense of perspective in the novel, I can’t get to the last page and not weep at how mercilessly our hero is slain. He ends the novel so abruptly with this quite loathsome and meagre death for what feels like a very operatic and tragic story. It’s almost like we skipped this third act that should have come before the denouement. It’s such a wonderfully bleak and surgical ending, himself. The death at the end is something akin to Kafka’s own death. ‘K’ dies in a hole at the hands of two gentleman who look like they’re dressed for the opera and reflects on how insignificant and pointless his death was. There is this poignant juxtaposition between the finality of death and the eternity of shame. This idea that it’s only in people’s memories that you’ll live on, and for ‘K’ and Kafka, there was nothing more than shame to be remembered. Though, this was perhaps Kafka’s own crippling self-doubt talking, something that we also heavily attribute to Kafka when we think of him. This nervous, lowly Czech ex solicitor with his wiry demeanour and little moustache furiously scribbling away beneath the candlelight in his room at night.  

However, literary critics tend to idealise a writer’s trauma, whether it be Dickens’ stint in the workhouses that make personal works like David Copperfield a grimy, aesthetic treat, or Bukowski’s alcoholism and homelessness that makes his poetry raw and spiky. As my A Level teacher would never fail to remind me, context is everything in literature. Indeed, historical context was always the thing that irked me the most when studying Shakespeare and Milton for two years in my late teens. A 17th century peasant wouldn’t have known that Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet who died young and inspired the Bard to flush out one of literature’s most praised tortured protagonists. So why such an emphasis on the real world when reading or spectating art? Overall, I found this process too prosaic and laborious. I was always more interested in the manifestation of ideology in literature. The fact of the matter is that Dickens didn’t live in Paris during the French Revolution, yet ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ still shocks with its frightening portrayal of mass hysteria and morally grey class politics. One of my favourite novels: ‘The Idiot’, is indeed enhanced by Dostoevsky’s own fits of violent epilepsy, but it is from Dostoevsky’s faithfully adept well of skill that the various foibles and facets that make Myshkin a contender for one of the Russian heavyweight’s finest creations.  

To return to Kafka, the complete absence of context, and the ambiguousness of the setting and period are what makes his work so addictive. When embarking upon the slog of tackling ‘War and Peace’, one must ultimately become a slave to history, and forensically recall the grand archive of the ‘Tsarist’ period. With Kafka, more specifically ‘The Trial’, the setting and time in historical terms have no inclination on the story whatsoever.   The sprawling tenement blocks, and the sweeping operatic amphitheatres act as the settings for the ravenous tribunals that diminish the protagonist. And, if it counts, make my father appreciate the scale of the novel on a whole new level (thanks to the Marijuana he’d smoked when he was reading the book for the first time at university). I however, ingested the book when I was sober, and read it on the lead up to an English Literature A-Level mock exam, in which I had to write an essay about Orwell’s ‘1984’. All the things I hated about Orwell’s work seemed to be rectified in Kafka’s story both of which depict struggle of the individual versus the machine of the state.  

Whereas Orwell’s classic seems a diatribe about the organic versus the mechanic, I found the ‘Trial’s’ focus on the self and mortality a much richer lens. I also find Orwell’s style tedious and wanting, specifically in the characterisation of his protagonist Winston Smith. K however, is a tenderly painted enigma that we invariably empathise with. But I really shouldn’t. In Winston’s rejection of the confines of class, his interest in freedom and abolition of a totalitarian government, Winston should emerge a glorious pillar of the left that any self-respecting Marxist such as myself should idealise. Yet, try as I do, he just doesn’t. I found Winston a tedious wet blanket of a character, and perhaps something of a schoolboy’s fantasy manifesting in the ailing Orwell. And seriously whose greatest fear is sodding rats. Be a bit more creative man. We all know that anyone’s greatest fear is being trapped in a vacuous conversation with an Exeter trust fund boy at a party. Or specifically in my case, being trapped in a room with Piers Morgan. K on the other hand, shouldn’t be interesting at all, he quintessentially is an unassuming person, and so is dumbfounded when he’s presented with the ominous charges that propel the novel to move. He’s nothing more than a bank manager, a lowly bureaucrat. His ambivalence is what makes his demise so tragic. With Smith, his reconditioning is designed to make us fear the loss of our humanity more than the loss of our corporeal form, whereas Kafka wafts not only the tragedy of death in our faces but the tragedy of the ambiguousness of the reason for one’s own demise. Kafka’s labyrinthine setting acts as a virtual torture chamber for Joseph K, a man left to ponder endlessly any minor fracture or transgression of moral or societal law that may have sealed his fate.  

Smith knows the enemy, the watching eye of the state in Oceania is in plain view, it’s the reason 1984 gained such notoriety. We’re attracted to the accessible archetypes of hero and villain, players that we can see on stage and either love or hate, so at the end of the story we know who will cripple our future. Part of the reason I love The Trial, is that the story leaves the faceless totalitarian antagonist an ambiguous force. Kafka paints a frightening image of a clandestine totalitarianism that lingers delicately in the mind as opposed to Orwell’s brutal and didactic Big Brother.  


And yet for all his previously stated accolades Kafka is amongst the pantheon of history’s tortured creatives, failing entirely to see the true depth of his genius in his own lifetime. He famously demanded that the entirety of his work be burned when he was on his deathbed. Kafka’s prose, however, is that which brews over time, and will never stagnate. His worlds blend reality and the surreal so effortlessly and transport us into a frightening netherworld full of comic violence and saturated woe. Kafka’s tendency is cold and surgical, and yet he so expertly paints the wonderfully surreal and unique myriad that is human existence. Yet in K we also acknowledge somewhat our own pathetic mortality: a tired man wanting to carry on living just another day.  


"This article is in our Opinions section. As such the views within are those of the contributor and do not represent an editorial stance. 

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union." 

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