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The Human Stain | The Nation

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The Human Stain

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Kafka's work, Maurice Blanchot observes, "is not always only literary. Salvation is an enormous preoccupation with him, all the stronger because it is hopeless, and all the more hopeless because it is totally uncompromising." It is no accident that shortly after the ordeal at the Askanischer Hof, Kafka set to work on The Trial, which begins, "Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K."

About the Author

John Banville
John Banville is the author, most recently, of The Sea, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize.

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A certain symmetry was in operation here. Two years before, just after he had met Felice for the first time, Kafka sat down at his desk at 10 o'clock on the night of September 22, 1912, and wrote without a break until 6 am. The next day he described the experience:

I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water. Several times during this night I heaved my own weight on my back. How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again.

The story he completed that night was "The Judgement," the breakthrough work that convinced him at last of the validity of his artistic vocation. It is a highly autobiographical text--"thoughts about Freud, of course," Kafka noted--in which, Murray writes, "the looming presence...of Georg Bendemann's father echoes the overwhelming presence in Kafka's life of his own father." At the close of the story the father commands the son to drown himself, and Georg eagerly complies. "The alternative to slaying the father," Murray shrewdly observes, "is self-destruction."

In a sense, art was for Kafka a means of immolating the self. He disappears into his writing like snow falling on water. What other great writer has written with such clarity, directness, simplicity and, above all, such impersonality? Erich Heller, one of Kafka's closest readers, speaks of the "ruthlessly compelling logic" of his writing. Kafka, according to Heller, "is the least problematic of modern writers," whose "thinking is a reflex movement of his being and shares the irrefutability of all that is."

Like sorrow in the tenth of Rilke's Duino Elegies, despair is given a home of its own in Kafka's works, faithfully made in the image of customary life, but animated by the blast of the curse. This gives to Kafka's writings their unique quality. Never before has absolute darkness been represented with so much clarity, and the very madness of desperation with so much composure and sobriety.

Surely it is this sense of absolute and terrible calm that convinces us Kafka is speaking directly to us, and about us, and about our world.

Murray notes that there have been dissenting voices in the matter of Kafka's reputation, which Edmund Wilson, for instance, considered "wildly overdone," describing The Trial and The Castle as "rather ragged performances," which are damaged by not having been finished or properly worked out in the first place. There is something to this argument. Many, including the present writer, believe that Kafka is at his greatest not in the novels but in the short stories, the parables and even, or especially, in the diaries.

Nicholas Murray, scrupulous as ever, does not join this argument. His biography is eminently sensible on a subject about which much high-flown transcendental nonsense has been written. He gives a good, straightforward account of the life, and of the work. Where Kafka's self-condemnations are concerned, he lays out the evidence and leaves the judgments to others. His portrait is all the more moving for the measured fashion in which it is executed. Murray's Kafka is thoroughly human and yet more than human, too, one of those whom Kafka himself had in mind when he wrote: "No people sing with such pure voices as those who live in deepest Hell; what we take for the song of the angels is their song."

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