The title of the post is the remark Patricia Clarkson makes starring as the imaginary Rachel Solando in the movie Shutter Island when she emerges in the mind of Teddy Daniels, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. However, since I’m still marveled and emotionally charged by the fact that Franz Kafka beat Nathaniel Hawthorne by 52 points on the list of greatest writers (previous post), I decided to take a closer look at the writer who not only wins out over Hawthorne, but comes in at No. 2.
Franz Kafka was the firstborn son of a Jewish family born on July 3, 1883 in Prague, Austria. In this light, fundamental modernism mixed with late-antiquity works to his advantage: During his prime, he wrote during an age when many aspects of literature had yet to be discovered, therefore his own style would emerge as “breakthrough.” When he was younger, he wrote plays for his sisters to act out, though he eventually went on to graduate with a degree in law. Kafka was multilingual, speaking both Czech and German. When his father asked him to supervise a family asbestos company, Kafka was nearly driven to suicide. He did, however, manage to keep a different job by which the hours allowed him to write thoughtfully. Kafka was not impressed with his Bar Mitzvah, a testament to his opinion about his natural-born religion. As a fully matured man, he engaged in multiple sexual affairs and was a regular at the local brothels, behavior that was not uncommon for Austrian men. The paradox was that he found the act of sex to be vulgar, thus he found the idea of sex with a respectable woman as crude. These thoughts did not keep him from being enamoured of a few woman, relationships that could be considered love under special circumstances. Kafka has visits to the sanitarium in his history and he eventually died of starvation because his throat hurt too much from tuberculosis.
So what makes him a genius? What could really irk me is: When I sometimes write a sentence that is more than 15 words, all hell breaks loose with anyone and everyone within the vicinity, yet here, with Kafka–the world’s second greatest writer of all time–the man is credited for sentences that sometimes span an entire page. At any rate, he is known for manipulating the German language with the marked use of ambiguity so that translators often have difficulty transcribing his works. This use of ambiguity leads to the task of searching for meaning, the same as that of a great painting that is to be deciphered for its hidden message. Among his famous works, The Metamorphosis is a story about a young man who becomes a bug. The bug becomes stuck in his room having to deal with his family who basically comes to shun him, yet the work is taken to be metaphorical for a myriad of themes involving Jewish life, bureaucracy in politics, law and many more. His other well-known story is A Hunger Artist, a short story that encompasses subjects of isolation, depression, anorexia, and Freudian psychology to name a few.
What I found when I first read Kafka was a dry tone that I couldn’t understand: Was he trying to be funny? I wasn’t sure whether or not I was supposed to be laughing or if I was supposed to be mortified. Dry humor, like Kafka’s, and witty humor, such as Austen’s, are two different worlds, and I’m certainly more accustomed to the latter. I jumped the gun when I labeled his story about the bug as “silly and stupid” as I realized, when perusing a couple of my own short stories that I began recently, they seem a bit…silly and stupid. What I am finding is, that for a writer, placing a character in peculiarly nonsensical situations, such as having a bank robber tell a bank teller to go ahead and call the cops because they’re about to be robbed, is cathartic for a writer, though it can read strange, even annoying for a reader. I like some of the unrealistic situations I have put my characters through, such as the woman who pulls a gun on her office mates, only to have her boss calm her down and send her to the restroom to freshen up, therefore I am understanding some of the ideas Kafka presents. The catch is the ultra-dryness of Kafka’s writing that is difficult to explain, and maybe that’s the Kafkaesque genius of it: Kafka utilizes unreal situations and circumstances with a blend of revolutionary writing techniques (in German) and uncanny humor to outline his perception of the world.
Whatever the case, after my own excursions into the silly and the stupid begin to abate, I return to notions of either contemplative thought or, you guessed it, the ghost story. This relates to my understanding of Nathaniel Hawthorne: When I read him, I don’t catch drifts of the silly and the stupid. Instead, I take in the depth of rich, perfected prose crafted by a master writer. If Kafka’s reworking of reality into the surreal and fantastical is what makes him a genius, then Hawthorne’s immaculate mirror of reality blended with subtle surprise and incisive social commentary should place him slightly before Kafka, if not equal to the No. 2 spot on the list, directly behind Shakespeare (who happened to come in No. 3 by the way).
Complete information about Franz Kafka can be found at: