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Professor Milada Polisenska
5 June, 2008 Tyrone Schiff
2 I have decided to summarize some of the explanations and scholarly work that was published in the Cambridge Companion to Kafka, which was published in 2006. The text is written in English, and goes through a host of various writings by the famous author, Franz Kafka. Franz Kafka, a Jew born into a middle-class family in Prague, is considered one of the most prolific and important authors of the 20th century and of Western Culture in particular. Most of Kafka’s writing was only published after his death in 1924. Kafka was the eldest of six children in his family, however, his parents hardly took part in bringing the children up, as they had to work very hard during the week. As a result, Kafka was mainly reared by servants. Academically, Kafka went to the German Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague. He started out studying chemistry, but switched to law after a short time. While at University, Kafka joined a literary group called Leseund Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten, which gave him an outlet to both read and write. As time progressed, Kafka began to suffer from tuberculosis, which he was very embarrassed about and tried very hard to cover this up by impressing others with his good looks, intelligence, and demeanor. Aside from tuberculosis, it is agreed that Kafka suffered from clinical depression, social anxiety, suffered from headaches and migraines constantly, and was plagued by insomnia. Kafka published only very few writing during his lifetime, most of which were published after his death, and he hardly ever finished his writing, with the exception of “The Metamorphosis.” Most of the posthumous publication was done by Kafka’s good friend, Max Brod. Kafka’s work has been looked at through a variety of different lenses, including existentialism, modernism, and magical realism. All of his works display some
3 sort of these characteristics, but scholars are still struggling to find a specific train of thought that they can attribute his writings to. As for the Cambridge Companion to Kafka, the book is split up and summarizes the most influential works of Kafka in a brilliant and organized fashion. Specifically, the book looks at the following pieces by Kafka: The Man Who Disappeared, The Trial, and The Castle. Amidst these particular readings, the book outlines various perspectives on Kafka and ideas that relate to his writing. There are chapters that discuss, Kafka and Gender, Kafka and Popular Culture, Kafka and Political Reading, and Kafka and Jewish Life. All of these are most important in fully understanding and drawing conclusions about the work that Kafka has done in his lifetime. All of the contributors to this book are extremely well versed in the life and writings of Kafka as their brief biographies explain towards the beginning of the book. Most have written entire books about Kafka as they relate to various topics in the modern world. Another really helpful aspect of this book is that it begins with a chronology of events. This helps put various events in Kafka’s life in perspective and thus makes it quite easy and logical to navigate through the rest of the book as it is presented. The book begins with a summary of the life and times in which Kafka came to live. It is entitled, “Kafka’s Europe.” This is an appropriate title, because Europe is constantly changing and evolving, especially during the 20th century, and it is critical to provide the right context to gain a greater and richer understanding of his texts. The chapter also talks about his family life, and how his penmanship was not unexpected as his father and family in general were terrible skilled in language and writing. Apparently, his father was trilingual. The first chapter also does a good overview of the texts that are
4 discussed specifically in the book. It sheds light on the fact that Kafka hardly ever used locations in his writing. It also talks about Kafka, the man, and his views on reality. It describes him as, “self-loathing,” and very critical of himself in all aspects. Chapters two, three, and four all look specifically at a particular piece that was written by Kafka. The authors of each chapter are different, which provide ample perspective on the writing of Kafka. The first chapter, written about the psychoanalysis of The Man Who Disappeared goes into a deep argument and discussion on what was at the core of this short story, and first publication that Kafka had. Anne Fuchs, the author of this chapter, attributes most of Kafka’s writing and literary abilities to the deranged personality that he had. She believes that due to Kafka’s continual abuse of himself, he was able to conjure the images and ideas that he eventually wrote down and we are all able to read today. The next chapter discusses the book, The Trial. The Trial deals with the persecution of an individual who was arrested and eventually killed for doing nothing. However, as is the case with most of all Kafka’s writing, the meaning is very far from clear when just reading and discussing it on the surface. The author of this chapter takes a more political approach to the understanding of Kafka’s writing. He explores the role of the Law and the Court as two symbols in society and extrapolates meaning from them. The final one of Kafka’s pieces that are looked at specifically is The Castle. Strangely, the protagonist of The Castle is a character called K., which is very similar to the name of the individual in The Trial. The Castle is a lot more philosophical than the prior two pieces that we have already discussed. The Castle is an extremely frustrating account of a man who is alienated by a community and troubled by the bureaucracy of
5 the system. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka goes into these details and explains them far better and more complete. The author of this chapter, Elizabeth Boa, has written about Kafka in a race, class, and gender perspective. She does a similar account in this chapter and really gets into the meat and bones of the topics that are coming out of The Castle. Following the directed and specific titles that are explored in this scholarly text, it loses a little bit of focus and talks about Kafka and his writing more generally. The next chapter goes into detail about the short essays that Kafka wrote. Kafka had a number of short stories and during this chapter, the author who discusses Kafka’s short fiction talks about them more generally. I’m not sure if this is necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is the take that the book has on Kafka’s short fiction. I suppose that there would have to be an entirely different book in order for all of Kafka’s short fiction to be adequately dealt with in a scholarly way. Similar to the last chapter, the book also deals with some of the letters that Franz Kafka sent during his life time. Some of the most notable ones are those to his father, lover Felice, and sisters Ottla, and Milena. The letters are very good at depicting the mindset and feelings that Kafka was going through at the time. It sheds a lot of light on the thought process that goes into some of his writings. The author of this chapter in the Cambridge Companion believes that these letters hold the truth and meaning behind most of the symbols and ideas that are espoused in Kafka’s works. Another significant chapter in the Cambridge Companion is Kafka and his relation to Judaism and Jewish folklore in general. Kafka is cited to have used a number of old Jewish symbols, motifs, and images to conjure up and work through some of his
6 stories, yet he portrays them in a modern sense. At the same time however, the idea of Judaism and Jewish folklore do not really play an integral part in any of his writings and they are only under the surface if there at all. This is one of the first times in the Cambridge Companion in which the famous story of The Metamorphosis is brought to light. According to Gershom Scholem, “The concept of The Metamorphosis is an integral part of Jewish popular belief and Jewish folklore” (151). Therefore, it is the belief of the Cambridge Companion that Judaism did in fact have an impact on the writings of Kafka. Overall, I thought that this book was very helpful in gaining a superb and further understanding of Kafka and his writing. It doesn’t really go into too much detail, but provides a good overall analysis for the amateur scholar of Kafka, like myself. It was generally easy to read and follow and I enjoyed learning further about Franz Kafka and his life. I would definitely recommend this book to someone who wanted to learn more about Kafka. I think it also does a good job of putting Kafka’s work in perspective of the 20th century because of its analysis of ideas like gender, religion, and culture. A very good read and I’m glad that I was able to find it.
Work Cited Preece, Julian. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka. Cambridge University Press: England. 2006.
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