Thursday, 19 May 2016

On the Literary Style and Concerns of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) in Der Verschollene (1911-14) and other stories

It is particularly apt, given the writer whose work we are discussing, that we should have difficulty in pinning down Franz Kafka’s “literary concerns”, in tabling them and classifying them; as Stanley Corngold says, “Kafka’s commentators must despair of ultimate interpretation, but…they are obliged to be lucid about their despair”[1]. How does one properly distinguish Kafka’s literary treatment of sexuality, say, from that of innocence or guilt?  Is there not a great overlap between his understanding of fathers, domination and oppression? Or, for that matter, the relationship between vision and reflection? It is, therefore, perhaps advantageous to avoid a loose and baggy attempt to divide up Kafka’s literary interests into three or four themes so interconnected that to begin a discussion of one invariably results in a digression down a different part of the labyrinth. Far better to begin with his literary style, an in any case much more discernible category; and this is to our gain, too, for it is also through discourse on his style that we will answer the question of his literary passions. As I will show, in many ways the question of Kafka’s literary style is his chief literary concern.
When considered as prose artist, Kafka reveals himself to be a master of unifying style and content – indeed, in many of his finest, most lyrical passages, style and content are practically inseparable. Let us take, for example, a sentence from Chapter 1 (‘Der Heizer’) of his unfinished first novel, Der Verschollene, in which the protagonist Karl Rossmann, searching for his suitcase, heads back into the ship in which he has just arrived in America: ‘Unten fand er zu seinem Bedauern einen Gang, der seinen Weg sehr verkürzt hätte, zum erstenmal versperrt, was wahrscheinlich mit der Ausschiffung sämtlicher Passagiere zusammenhieng, und mußte sich seinen Weg durch eine Unzahl kleiner Räume, fortwährend abbiegende Korridore, kurze Treppen, die einander aber immer wieder folgten, ein leeres Zimmer mit einem verlassenen Schreibtisch mühselig suchen, bis er sich tatsächlich, da er diesen Weg nur ein oder zweimal und immer in größerer Gesellschaft gegangen war, ganz und gar verirrt habe.’ This subclause-heavy sentence may be unconventionally lengthy and labyrinthine, may be far more likely to confuse us than it is to help us understand exactly where he is in the ship at any given moment, yet it functions paradoxically as a terribly effective conveyor of meaning: Karl loses his bearings, just as we have lost ours[2]. The geographical maze on the boat – corridors turning off one another, staircases one after another – is perfectly evoked in the spatial maze on the page – sentences and clauses tripping over each other. Kafka has not just performed the prosaic task of moving his protagonist to the next square on the board where he needs to be, but has even this early in the novel planted the idea in our heads that the America in which this novel takes place is “a space which is neither real nor wholly imaginary”[3]. Fuchs argues about Kafka’s labyrinths that “what is striking about [them] is the combination of a grammatical precision which mimics architectural complexity, and his hero’s sense of confusion. The labyrinth is thus characterised by a fundamental ambivalence: from a bird’s-eye-view it is a magnificent design, from the perspective of the maze-walker it is a ‘space of anxiety’”[4].
This particular trick is one to which Kafka returns numerous times. Auf der Galerie, one of his shortest pieces, consists of two incredibly lengthy sentences. In Spahr’s words “the structural and stylistic effects form an integral part of the meaning of the images evoked”[5]; beginning with the tentative pianissimo (“wenn irgendeine” is a vague and slippery opening), the narrator accelerates things quickly, introducing urgency and louder, more plosive sounds with Nebensatz after Nebensatz, the plethora of polysyllabic adjectives (vergehenden, anschwellenden) almost blurring from one into the next, whipping up in the phrases and in the reader a passion that is never outright stated – and then the crescendo “Halt!” as the young man watching the circus dares to interrupt it. This is followed by the bathos, by the voices dying with a dying fall (“da es aber nicht so ist”): by longer, slower clauses as the narrator slowly describes what is rather than what could be. Like spectators at the circus, we too are caught up in the stylistic, linguistic passion of the piece – the rise to that crescendo, and the diminuendo that follows[6]; we find ourselves unable to intervene, unable to lift a finger, serving merely as passive observers of an active drama.
The first sentence of Auf der Galerie is caught in the clasp of the conditional tense (what might happen, given the tiniest adjustments in circumstances) while the latter purports to show us what is. We are given two ‘takes’ of the action, as it were, two impressions, as though it has been shot from two entirely different cameras; the events are so mutually exclusive, however, that we initially suspect one to be true and the other false. Put another way, Kafka seems to be setting up the dichotomy between Sein and Schein, those two great bedfellows dating back to Plato. He does this over and over in all his works, but perhaps nowhere with such succinct effect as in the short story – indeed, little more than a sketch – entitled Die Bäume. After musing that one could almost knock over the trees, so flimsy do they look in the snow, Kafka rebuts his own thought with a logical, rational rejoinder that of course the trees are deeply rooted into the ground; yet to this logical rejoinder comes a different pearl of wisdom: ‘aber sieh, sogar das ist nur scheinbar’. Once more we observe the blurring of that which we believe to be implausible or untrue and that which we feel is dependable, solid. Robertson notes the parallel between Die Bäume and Die kaiserliche Botschaft, in that both portray a now-godless world that has lost and/or rejected what was formerly its reference point; in the latter piece, the emperor’s last great message never arrives to be heard by any listener, the deus ex machina is so long in coming that one starts to think it will never arrive, and so as we see in the story’s final sentence, “if none is available we will imagine [a divine message] for ourselves”[7]: the recipient simply sits and dreams one up.
Thus far, then, analysis of particular instances of Kafka’s style has shown us his treatment of the uncertain labyrinth of existence, of absent or declining authorities we can no longer rely on, and the paralysis that comes from being unable to act. All of these will be returned to; they are by no means isolated instances. It would seem an oversight, though, not to segue from the middle of these three (the absent, declining authority) to examine what Kafka’s literary style tells us about his treatment of fathers and sons. The Landarzt collection, after all, does contain the short story Elf Söhne, while the author himself wanted Das Urteil, Der Heizer and Die Verwandlung collected together under the title ‘Die Söhne’; during the early period of 1911-1915 in particular the topic seems of great importance to him. We will avoid a long biographical study or an attempted psychoanalysis of Kafka’s own relationship with his father – save, perhaps, for one instructive turn of phrase from his Brief an den Vater: ‘du muntertest mich zum Beispiel auf, wenn ich gut salutierte und marschierte, aber ich war kein künftiger Soldat’. In this vivid metaphor we see the perfect expression of Kafka’s thoughts on fatherhood and military might, or indeed military oppression. Fathers in Kafka’s works are associated with military bearing, or with uniform (see Herr Samsa in Die Verwandlung), or with a super-ego patriarchal force of the duty to one’s profession within one’s own psyche (as Salinger argues about the country doctor in Ein Landarzt[8]) and the same leitmotif recurs with particular poignancy in Der Verschollene – in the unlikeliest of places. Karl Rossmann’s suitcase, among other things, is the emblem of his father back home in Europe; Hammond identifies it as a Soldatenkoffer or soldier’s suitcase, a very careful word choice (Karl calls it ‘der alte Militärkoffer meines Vaters’). It is thus his father’s proud military and paternal legacy passed down to his son – the same son whom he has also banished from his sight; to lose the suitcase is to be utterly unable to regain paternal recognition. In Hammond’s view the suitcase is emblematic of the military-esque training from boyhood to manhood that Rossmann Senior wants his son to undergo[9]. The suitcase matters to Karl not because of the value of the belongings within (which we know he has hardly used over the sea journey: ‘leid tat es aber Karl, daß er die Sachen im Koffer noch kaum verwendet hatte’) – but because of its symbolic, abstract value.
Throughout Der Verschollene, the father/familial tyrant, as an absent authority, exerts his oppression and dominance over Karl, particularly regarding his tortured relationships with women (and thereby is the emblem of many of Kafka’s major themes at once). This is usually through ‘surrogate’ father figures such as ‘Onkel Jakob’, who is ‘ein Mann von Principien’ and sits and listens to Karl playing an old ‘Soldatenlied’; Herr Pollunder, whose feet are ‘soldatisch zusammengeklappt’; and other, if not military, at least authority figures such as the Oberkellner – all of whom, in turn and with a chapter-by-chapter regularity that really could be said to be ‘like clockwork’, reject him just as his biological father exiled him. This Vertreibungsmodus follows Karl Rossmann throughout the novel, much as it will later follow Josef K. and K. in Das Schloß – no matter how great the effort, there will always be a severe punishment for a minor misdemeanour, and guilt can never be argued with. No wonder the central figure of another short story, Der plötzliche Spaziergang, wants to flee the stifling atmosphere of his family life; and for a moment, it seems, he is the only one of Kafka’s heroes to have succeeded. But almost the entirety of that story revolves around a wenn…dann construction that is both conditional and features an invented protagonist (man); and so, crushingly, this appears to be the description of unfulfilled wish rather than actuality.
It is not as though Kafka’s literary attitude towards women is much healthier, however; in fact, to the degree that bodies are gendered in Kafka, women are often excessively corporeal creatures, animalistic like Leni in Der Proceß or (in the case of Brunelda the opera singer) a gigantic mass of flesh. In Der Verschollene the female characters are divided into the maternal, for whom Karl has a naïve longing (such as his real mother, or the Oberköchin); and the ‘fallen women’ stock figure who is almost always a sexual predator (the Dienstmädchen, Klara and Johanna, in their various liaisons with Karl, all follow this pattern to some degree). Those in the former category, in particular, often emerge as subservient to the phallically empowered male authority figures – the Oberköchin is powerless against the Oberkellner, for example. In Ein Landarzt, the wound in the young boy’s groin resembles a vast, quasi-vaginal gash (‘eine handtellergroße Wunde’), its scarlet colour intimately bound up with the maid Rosa, for whom the doctor feels uncontrollable sexual desire; the ‘schwer blutiges Handtuch’ clutched by the patient’s sister has undertones of menstruation or defloration[10].
Another aspect of Kafka’s style that is much remarked upon – and is of particular interest when discussing Die Verschollene, for a variety of reasons – is the debt it owes to film and other visual arts. This comes across strongly in a number of his works, in which we find a photographically detailed freeze-frame or tableau (the trees in the snow, the snap-shot moment in the gallery), but its particular worth with regard to ‘the American novel’ is Kafka’s near-utter reliance on photos of America, especially from the travelogues of the day, in order to build a linguistic representation of it[11]. Travel photography, of course, fetishizes the object, and travel photography of the booming consumerist America made its many images into global icons. Not for nothing does Kafka open the story with the Statue of Liberty ‘wie in einem plötzlich stärker gewordenen Sonnenlicht’, as though ready for her photoshoot (and almost as if by proof that none of these literary concerns of Kafka’s exists in isolation to any other, the Statue of Liberty is an excellent comment on gender relations in the novel; she holds a castrating Schwert rather than the factually accurate Fackel). He ticks off all the cultural myths in turn – the American dream which has been fulfilled by the uncle, vast steel apartments stocked with lifts, the Hotel Occidental (surely there can be no finer linguistic emblem of the West). Sometimes he puts them to humorous effect – we will never know for certain if Kafka was familiar with the films of Charlie Chaplin, but Max Brod and many other commentators since have drawn parallels between the scene in which Karl must flee the hotel and the silent comedy film genre[12]. But in sum the America we see in Kafka’s novel is an America of vivid images rather than moving pictures, drawn in finest detail yet still retaining an unreality about them; it is almost as though, much like Wuthering Heights, the author’s sheltered ignorance actively enhances the resultant literary product.
To return briefly to the Statue of Liberty’s torch-cum-sword, Fuchs makes the compelling case that seeing the wrong object in the statue’s hand is as much about how we see the statue as it is what the statue is actually holding[13]. Much of the novel, in her eyes, is about Karl Rossmann being unable to properly read what he sees – a string of “unstable images and distorted objects…simultaneously vivid and blurred, hyper-real and anti-mimetic”[14]. This instability, this uncertainty, the fundamental inadequacy of communication (to look at it down the other end of the lens), permeates every single one of these stories. In Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer, the Tower of Babel stand-in never even gets built; this is not so much the noble failure of a grandiose architectural attempt, but arguments that stop plans even getting off the ground. Human wisdom and knowledge – such as that of a trained doctor, wisdom and knowledge based on the transmission of information from one milieu to another – are ultimately powerless in the face of that slow, sure loss of vitality we call death (Ein Landarzt). Seeing, like writing and like reading, is ambiguous and incomplete. And thus Kafka’s literary style is his chief literary concern; that is to say, the “pathos of ineffectuality, of inability to communicate”[15] inhabits almost everything he ever wrote. It is, perhaps, even one of the most impressive skewerings of the job of the critic. If, as Corngold suggests, we despair at the manifold interpretations of Kafka’s works, but are obliged to be lucid about our despair, then we are working on construction, artifice, and meaning at the place where Thanatos and Eros meet[16] – the place where we desire to pin down meaning once and for all, to kill the ongoing debate about what it means, and yet the entire function of the critic is to thrive off that constant life-giving source of vitality, the overlapping concentric circles of consciousness that makes itself manifest in human conversation. Thus we too are poised in between certainty and uncertainty, like the young man high up in the gallery, little entering the arena of life itself – and thus, ultimately, the honed precision of Kafka’s style, for all the myriad of themes it addresses along the way, boils down to expressing one prominent literary concern: showing us that for all he tries, we must accept our ignorance, must accept that we cannot “penetrate the veil”[17].

  1. Boa, Elizabeth, Kafka: Gender, Class and Race in the Letters and Fictions, Clarendon Press, 1996.
  2. Duttlinger, Carolin, “Visions of the New World: Photography in Kafka’s Der Verschollene”, in German Life and Letters, Vol 59 No 3, 2006.
  3. Eilittä, Leena, “Kafka and Visuality”, in KulturPoetik, Bd 6 H. 2, 2006.
  4. Fuchs, Anne, “A psychoanalytic reading of The Man Who Disappeared”, in The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (ed. Julian Preece), Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  5. Grandin, John M., “Kafka’s “Der plötzliche Spaziergang””, in MLN, Vol 89 No 5, 1974.
  6. Gustafson, Susan, “Watching the Subject: The Mother’s Gaze in Dickens’s David Copperfield and Kafka’s Der Verschollene”, in Monatshefte für deutschen Unterricht, deutsche Sprache und Kultur, Vol 93 No 1, 2001.
  7. Hammond Jnr., Charles H., “A Soldier and His Suitcase: Karl Rossmann’s Arrival In and Deliverance From Kafka’s Amerika”, in Pacific Coast Philology, Vol 47, 2012.
  8. Heller, Erich, Kafka, Fontana Modern Masters (ed. Frank Kermode), Fontana/Collins, 1974.
  9. Kafka, Franz, Der Verschollene and Fragmente, Reclam, 1997.
  10. Kafka, Franz, Sämtliche Erzählungen (ed. Paul Raabe), Fischer, 1970.
  11. Kopper, John M., “Building Walls and Jumping Over Them: Construction in Franz Kafka’s “Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer””, in MLN, Vol 98 No 3, 1983.
  12. Mitchell, Breon, “Franz Kafka’s “Elf Söhne”: A New Look at the Puzzle”, in The German Quarterly, Vol 47 No 2, 1974.
  13. Muir, Edwin, Introduction to America (English translation), Penguin Modern Classics, 1938.
  14. Müller, Michael, Nachwort to Der Verschollene, Reclam, 1997.
  15. Robertson, Ritchie, Kafka: A Very Short Introduction¸ Oxford University Press, 2004.
  16. Salinger, Herman, “More Light on Kafka’s “Landarzt”, in Monatshefte für deutschen Unterricht, deutsche Sprache und Kultur, Vol 53, No 3, 1961.
  17. Spahr, Blake Lee, “Kafka’s “Auf der Galerie”: A Stylistic Analysis”, in The German Quarterly, Vol 33 No 3, 1960.

[1]Corngold, Stanley, The Commentator’s Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Port Washington, 1973.
[2]Fuchs, Anne, “A psychoanalytic reading of The Man Who Disappeared”, in The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (ed. Julian Preece), Cambridge University Press, 2002.
[5]Spahr, Blake Lee, “Kafka’s “Auf der Galerie”: A Stylistic Analysis”, in The German Quarterly, Vol 33 No 3, 1960.
[7]Robertson, Ritchie, Kafka: A Very Short Introduction¸ Oxford University Press, 2004.
[8]Salinger, Herman, “More Light on Kafka’s “Landarzt”, in Monatshefte für deutschen Unterricht, deutsche Sprache und Kultur, Vol 53, No 3, 1961.
[9]Hammond Jnr., Charles H., “A Soldier and His Suitcase: Karl Rossmann’s Arrival in and Deliverance from Kafka’s Amerika”, in Pacific Coast Philology, Vol 47, 2012.
[10]Robertson, Ritchie, Kafka: A Very Short Introduction¸ Oxford University Press, 2004.
[11]Duttlinger, Carolin, “Visions of the New World: Photography in Kafka’s Der Verschollene”, in German Life and Letters, Vol 59 No 3, 2006
[12]Brod, Max, Postscript to America (English translation), Penguin Modern Classics, 1938.
[13]Fuchs, Anne, “A psychoanalytic reading of The Man Who Disappeared”, in The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (ed. Julian Preece), Cambridge University Press, 2002.
[15]Spahr, Blake Lee, “Kafka’s “Auf der Galerie”: A Stylistic Analysis”, in The German Quarterly, Vol 33 No 3, 1960.
[16]Kopper, John M., “Building Walls and Jumping Over Them: Construction in Franz Kafka’s “Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer””, in MLN, Vol 98 No 3, 1983.
[17]Politzer, Heinz, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Cornell University Press, 1966.


  1. Great blog - really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Kafka (which you substantiate quite well) as well as on the thesis of my Soldier / Suitcase article. I think we concur on the meaning of soldiery in Kafka's oeuvre.

    Keep up the good work! And feel free to contact me any time at hammond (AT)!


    Chuck Hammond

    1. Thanks very much for your kind words! I really love Kafka. As is probably obvious. And I recall very much enjoying reading your piece on soldiers/suitcases! I think a few of these pieces would get re-polished if I could do them again, but I'm particularly fond of my Schloss/Humour ones.