Franz Kafka

A Deeper Respect for the Demands of Complexity

Norman Mailer discussing his novel The Castle in the Forest with Michael Silverblatt (KCRW's Bookworm, 5/12/07):

One small example of what I'm trying to do here maybe. I was very struck with Clara, Hitler's mother, because she adores him when he's a little boy. She loves him so much. And she really believes she's created an angel. There he is--outrageously spoiled by her when he's young. And I thought this is one of the disproportions of life that we live with so often which is that good mothers can give birth to children whom they turn into monsters through their love. That's how difficult love is. That's how difficult our existence is. There are perversities at every turn. And it's as if there is no single rule that say to you 'This is the way to live.' That indeed, what we have to do is we have to embark as human beings on a deeper respect for the demands of complexity.

And if I find anything disturbing in American life, and one of the reasons I've despised George Bush from the word go, is he's a simplifier. And in doing that, he's injuring a great democracy, because the virtue of a democracy is that the openness and freedom for thought in the country enables us to enter more and more difficult domains of moral ambiguity. We live in moral ambiguity. It's usually a small person or a rare person who can say I'm a good person or a bad person. Generally we sit there and we say, "Who am I? What do I stand for? Am I moral or am I immoral?" Because for so many of our actions, we have no guides. The churches can't guide us. The scientists can't guide us. The psychoanalysts can't guide us. And my vanity, since I'm a novelist, is occasionally good novels come along that can be a bit of a guide. Because dealing with fancy, not fact, they can create models that sit there as hypotheses...When we read a really good novel, it sits with us afterward as one more human possibility and we keep bringing it up and thinking about it and saying, "Do I believe in this or don't I?"

For instance, we read Kafka. We love his notion of absurdity and frustration and they become models for us in times in our lives when everything seems to be going wrong. We say to ourselves, "My lord, this is Kafkan." And doing so, he's relieved us of incredible tantrums and terrors. And in that sense, you can point to all the great novels and they all give us something that is a model of possible reality. And that is what we need. What we need is an entrance into more and more complexity rather than the assumption that I want to have answers.

One of the most intelligent people I ever knew in my life once said in the middle of a lecture when he was on fire, someone said to him, "You never give us answers, all you ever offer are questions." And he said, 'There are no answers. There are only questions.' And I've used it to live with for the rest of my life.

According to Strength, Pleasure, and Happiness

In 1912, Kafka wrote "The Metamophosis", "The Judgement" (which he wrote in one night), large segments of Der Verschollene (Amerika), and published his first book, Meditation. It was the same year he met his fiancé, Felice Bauer. He described his daily routine to her in a letter:

From 8 till 2 or 2:20 office, until 3 or 3:30 lunch, from then on sleeping in bed (usually just trying to, for a week in that sleep I saw nothing but Montenegrins with an extremely disagreeable, headache-inducing clarity of each detail of their complicated costume) until 7:30, then 10 minutes exercise, naked at the open window, then an hour walking alone or with Max [Brod] or with some other friend, then dinner with my family, then at 10:30 (although it’s often as late as 11:30), sit down to write and stay at it according to strength, pleasure, and happiness until 1, 2, 3 in the morning.

- from Kafka’s Prage: A Travel Reader by Klaus Wagenbach

The Supreme Fabulist of Modern Man's Cosmic Predicament

From the forward by John Updike (originally published as an article in the New Yorker) to The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka:

"It is the shorter stories, too, that sparkle most with country glimpses, with a savor of folk tales and a still-medieval innocence. They remind us that Kafka wrote in a Europe where islands of urban wealth, culture, and discontent were surrounded by a countryside still, in its simplicity, apparently in possession of the secret of happiness, of harmony with the powers of earth and sky. Modernity has proceeded far enough, and spread wide enough, to make us doubt that anyone really has this secret. Part of Kafka’s strangeness, and part of his enduring appeal, was to suspect that everyone except himself had the secret. He received from his father an impression of helpless singularity, of being a 'slave living under laws invented only for him.' A shame literally unspeakable attached itself to this impression. Fantasy, for Kafka even more than for most writers of fiction, was the way out of his skin, so he could get back in. He felt, as it were, abashed before the fact of his own existence, 'amateurish' in that this had never been quite expressed before. So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; more than a century after his birth he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament."