Wednesday, April 1, 2015

the problem of protagonists in Kafka's novels

I could--maybe I should--write about the interesting and groundbreaking elements of Franz Kafka's fiction. Instead, I choose to complain. Plenty of other people have written about why we should read Kafka. We should read Kafka. You should read Kafka. I've read Kafka, all of his fiction. I come today not to praise, nor to bury, but to bitch, I guess. Or, to put a better spin on it, to talk about craft and point of view.

I don't know what to do with the protagonists of Kafka's three unfinished novels. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Kafka approached his subject matter from the wrong point of view; centering the story on the isolated male figure is a poor narrative strategy that effectively hides some of Kafka's strengths as a writer. He was a better writer than these novels make him look, I will argue. Or he could've been, had he not made this annoying male character the focus of his novels.

The protagonist of Kafka's three unfinished novels is a fish out of water who struggles constantly against a world he can't understand, a world that is fundamentally impossible to understand because the rules of the world are secrets whose custodians have all the power, which they guard jealously. The protagonist misunderstands almost everything said to him; nearly every other character in these novels understands the part they are expected to play in the baffling world--they are not baffled, or if they are, they accept that they aren't supposed to know anything. Only the protagonist digs, explores, examines, contradicts and demands explanations and logical ordering of things. Although the protagonist himself is just as irrational and selfish as the world he fights against. That's one of the jokes. It's a good joke, too. Everything is irrational, everyone claims that he is a rational agent, everyone is wrong about that, truth is mercurial and belongs to whoever has power at any given moment. That's all good stuff. But the problem is, that's a single joke that Kafka hammers out over and over again, and his other themes--the themes of actual human existence and human interaction on a smaller scale than Government or Religion or Society--the stronger, more deeply-felt themes of Kafka's fiction, are buried (in these unfinished novels) beneath this joke, beneath the single-purpose male protagonist. The protagonist and his role as challenging agent in a world of irrationality limits the possibilities of Kafka's novels, shoves the author's best investigations to the side and weakens the books.

In Amerika, the story begins as the tale of Karl Rossmann, a young man whose parents send him abroad to get him away from a scandal at home (he's impregnated a servant). Very quickly, however, Amerika becomes merely a picaresque novel of a foreigner in a (absurd and funny enough) fictional America, interacting with clowns and being buffeted by the winds of fate and bad decision. The young man at the center of the story doesn't understand America, a monstrous nation of loud cities peopled by loud citizens. The immense scale of architecture and urban sprawl and the irony of the smallness and selfishness of Americans becomes the point of the novel, as Rossmann and his humanity disappear; he is just another prop, a thing to move around from set piece to set piece. There was nowhere to go with all of this and Kafka eventually stopped writing.

The Trial is the novel that everyone reads. Orson Wells made a pretty good film of it, with Anthony Perkins jittering through every scene as Josef K. The Castle is essentially the same story as The Trial: K's attempts to understand and communicate with the Castle officials are more or less an identical struggle to Josef K's attempts to influence the course of the investigation into his undefined crimes. The narratives are about systems in which humans are trapped; the narratives are not about humans.

These books, all three of them, therefore spend most of their narrative energy pointed away from humans and point instead at institutions and abstractions. They turn into philosophical arguments, each book an endless Hegelian dialectical that never moves past the original thesis/antithesis conflict. I get that this is Kafka's thing, the ironical accusal of society as dehumanizing system, but his books end up being dehumanized systems themselves. His short stories do not have this problem, and his short stories are rightly more widely read because of this difference.

What I mean is, because Kafka's leading men lack humanity since they are nothing but mouths from which pour arguments and claims about truth, these novels lack any core of humanity. The protagonists maintain a running commentary about large sociopolitical elements and tramp around landscapes to get nowhere, and too often while reading these books "I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably." After a hundred or so pages, I begin to miss the company of people, of characters based on human beings.

I didn't quite figure this out until I was reading the last fifty or so pages of Kafka's final attempt at a novel, The Castle. Most of The Castle's final chapter is a monologue from a minor character, a chambermaid named Pepi. The Pepi chapter is great stuff (until K starts talking):
She was a chambermaid, she had an insignificant job with few prospects, like every other girl she dreamed of a wonderful future, you can’t forbid anyone to dream, but she didn’t seriously expect to get very far, she had come to terms with what she had already attained. And then Frieda suddenly left the bar, so suddenly that the landlord didn’t have a suitable replacement to hand, he looked around and his eye fell on Pepi, who had certainly done her own part here by putting herself forward. At that time she loved K. as she had never loved anyone before, she had been living for months in her tiny, dark room down below, and expected to spend years there, her whole life if the worst came to the worst, with no one paying her any attention, and then along came K. all of a sudden, a hero, a deliverer of maidens, and he had opened the way for her to rise. Not that he knew anything about her, he hadn’t done it for her sake, but that didn’t make her any less grateful. On the night when she was appointed barmaid—the appointment wasn’t certain yet, but it was very probable—she spent hours talking to him, whispering her thanks into his ear. What he had done seemed even greater to her because the burden he had taken on his own shoulders was Frieda, there was something amazingly unselfish in the fact that to free Pepi from her predicament he was making Frieda his mistress, an unattractive thin girl not as young as she used to be, with short, sparse hair, a sly girl too, who always had secrets of some kind, just the thing you might expect from her appearance; although her face and body were undoubtedly a miserable sight, she must at least have had other secrets that no one could know about, perhaps to do with her alleged relationship with Klamm. At the time, Pepi even entertained ideas like this: was it possible that K. really loved Frieda, wasn’t he deceiving himself, or was he perhaps deceiving no one but Frieda, and would the only result of all this be just Pepi’s rise in the world? Would K. see his mistake then, or stop trying to hide it, and take notice of Pepi instead of Frieda? That wasn’t such a wild idea of Pepi’s, for as one girl against another she could hold her own against Frieda very well, no one would deny that, and it had been primarily Frieda’s position as barmaid and the lustre with which Frieda had managed to endow it that had dazzled K. at the moment when he met her. And then Pepi had dreamed that when she had the position herself K. would come to plead with her, and she would have the choice of either listening to K. and losing the job, or turning him down and rising higher. She had worked it out that she would give up everything and lower herself to his level, and teach him the true love that he could never know with Frieda, the love that is independent of all the grand positions in the world. But then it all turned out differently.

[from Oxford World Classics 2009 edition. Anthea Bell, translator]
That's a good story; that's a book I wish I'd been reading. Kafka could've worked in all of his themes about isolation and power, all his ideas about religion and government, but rather than 350 pages of abstract argument interrupted by absurdity, Kafka could've produced a dramatization of actual human suffering as the result of these abstractions propping up society. That would be a powerful book. You can see where Orhan Pamuk, in his novel Snow, took up all the wrong elements of The Castle, letting his people remain slogan-spewing machines, and writing a pretty empty book. Yes, this entire post is about what kinds of novels I want to read. I am making an aesthetic argument. There are reasons Kafka's novels are influential, but there are also reasons why they are not more widely read. They contain good ideas, but they are not good novels, being fundamentally flawed structurally.


  1. Italo Calvino, from a 1985 interview (p. 241 of Hermit in Paris):

    "If a continuity can be discerned in my earliest development - let's say from the age of six to twenty-three - it is one that goes from Pinocchio to Kafka's Amerika, another decisive book in my life, an one that I have always considered 'The Novel' par excellence in world literature in the twentieth century and perhaps not only in that century. The unifying element could be defined thus: the adventure and solitude of an individual lost in the vastness of the world, as he moves towards an internal initiation into the world and a construction of the self."

    I read this and thought: !!! If that is what you are looking for, the unfinished and picaresque qualities do not matter much. The initiation is always ongoing. Perhaps this just confirms your last paragraph.

    1. Huh, I say. Mr Calvino is a smart guy, but I didn't see any "internal initiation into the world and a construction of the self" in Amerika. Rossmann remains an alien in an alien land and--as far as I remember--never looks inward past any immediate desires and fails to learn anything useful about the world. But yeah, if you want the lost solitary man story, you don't need a well-formed narrative (whatever that means) or any kind of dramatic arc. It's all Don Quixote at that level of abstraction. Don Quixote doesn't undergo any initiation or construction of self, either. He is punished, he endures, he never fits in, he dies at the end.

  2. Kafka for me was writing about ordinary life in an extreme, authoritarian-like society, and his deliberate use of passive, naive, dry protagonists, in K and Josef K, was very telling. They both seemed to go through all the motions and to be utterly helpless in every misadventure thrown at them. I suppose if he chose a rebel or a radical (a hero and not merely protagonist) the weight of that dark, fantastical society would have been lessened. In any case, there could be detected a transformation in the characters of K and JK, however seemingly slight, such that there was increasing (however incrementally small) resistance to the way they view the world that confines them, I think. They were more tragic figures in the end than they started. Kafka opted not to directly dramatize human suffering because the entirety of the book is the abstraction of suffering under an unjust regime. Robbed of human rights, the characters were robbed of the right to live.

  3. after reading a number of kafka's works years ago i read a biography of him. at that time i wondered if he might be slightly autistic. i still wonder.