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For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny.

David Foster Wallace on Kafka, from a speech given at a symposium in the mid 90s:


Nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories. Because, of course, great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication theorists sometimes call "exformation," which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve. It's not for nothing that Kafka spoke of literature as "a hatchet with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us." Nor is it an accident that the technical achievement of great short stories is often called "compression" -- for both the pressure and the release are already inside the reader. What Kafka seems able to do better than just about anyone else is to orchestrate the pressure's increase in such a way that it becomes intolerable at the precise instant it is released. (More....)

Readers Comments

  1. This is very good. But perhaps a book needs to be written about why DFW has failed to mention Kafka's magazine collection ...

    Also, that's an odd, alternative translation of: "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us".

  2. Why hello again Stephen. Now, curiously, the main conclusion of my book is precisely DFW's - that Kafka is a black-comic writer. Not that this will stop you bad-mouthing me, no doubt. I suppose I should be flattered in some bizarre way, but instead I'll simply note that your outrage isn't shared by the current chair of German at Oxford, who came publicly to my defence on the World Service when similar charges were made by some Germans who (like you, I suspect) hadn't actually read the book.

  3. DFW's speech tries to explain why Kafka's humour is missed. It carries on, with me as Kafka: apparently my little tongue-in-cheek remark is *bad-mouthing*.

    But anyway. James, about what exactly am I supposed to be outraged? Is it your argument that Kafka is blackly-comic or that the pornographic magazines constitute an important discovery (whose previous obscurity taints Kafka scholarship)? Of course it could be both, including what followed, but, to answer the first possibility, I have not expressed any disagreement about Kafka being a comic writer. Actually, it isn't an argument: it's the bleedin' obvious (Bellow says the comedy in “Herzog” was missed too by the way, a fact that bewilders me also). Maybe I should read your book to find out who claims otherwise. However, I'm sure the great British public is even more innocent of Kafka than DFW's students, so to explain this is no doubt worthwhile. But the second issue is another matter.

    My blog post on the book concentrated on the reviews precisely because I haven't read the book. It points to a review that itself wonders why you fail to mention Kundera's famous essay that describes the sexual context of his novels and argues against solemn interpretations as exemplified by Max Brod. Did this, I wondered, correlate to the *suppression* of news about K's erotic magazines? In your comment, you didn't answer.

    Since then, in comments here, I have expressed frustration with the prurience of the British response to the revelation about the magazines. I've done this before with Colm Toibin when he tried to *out* Kafka. It seems typically British, like Nathan-Barley gangster capers.

    By the way, you say that those infamous magazines were published by one of Kafka's publishers. Could it be Kafka was given a subscription, or took one out of politeness? His letters are full of references to magazines and newsletters being passed around among friends. Their importance hasn't been analysed have they? As I said, Marthe Robert doesn't mention the Zionist paper.

    And was the information about Felice suppressed by biographers before Rainer Stach presented it? This and Marthe Robert's silence emphasises the logical fallacy of making any judgment based on absence. But who cares?

    I don't read much kafka scholarship - Stanley Corngold's close reading counts I suppose. I prefer essays by writer critics such as Blanchot and Josipovici. If Ritchie Robertson is the chair of German, the only thing I've read by him is a short introduction to Wagenbach's short biography. It doesn't mention the porno mags and says Terry Jones' directed the 1993 movie of The Trial when it was David Hugh-Jones. We all make mistakes of course, even scholars.

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