But the most beautiful thing about my burrow is its stillness.
--Kafka, "The Burrow"
Front cover of the first edition of
The Metamorphosis, published in October 1915
Courtesy of Archiv Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin
Kafka's fiction delves into the significance of life at its most physically and psychologically intimate levels. In texts such as "Hullabaloo," "The Judgment," and "The Metamorphosis," Kafka's heroes wander through places that do not belong to them and that they do not understand. They are lost in a world where distance and proximity have no relevance.
"The Burrow," one of Kafka's last short stories, is the monologue of a paranoid mole describing his burrow with disturbing realism: the exhausting conquest of one's own home ultimately betrays the impossibility of ever really living at peace. The tortuous connection between the mole and its burrow resembles Kafka's struggle with his work and with finding his place in the world. Kafka cannot live with himself, cannot live anywhere. The mole-writer can use only his claws, snout, and the strength of his forehead to show us an architecture created out of fear.
In this short story, Kafka gives a detailed description of the noise pollution that he suffered at his parents' house: "I hear all the doors close, because of their noise only the footsteps of those running between them are spared me, I hear even the slamming of the oven door in the kitchen." In such an atmosphere, he could only write with "a constant trembling on my forehead." Everything in the house was din, from his father's dragging dressing gown to the more delicate, but no less hopeless, singing of the canaries.
Gregor Samsa, an ordinary commercial traveler, woke up one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect- thereby undergoing the most famous regression in modern literature. This representation of dislocation is set within the four walls of a room to which Gregor's family lays siege. There has been much speculation about the kind of insect he becomes; some have suggested a bedbug, a centipede, and a wood louse. Novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov imagined a brown convex beetle the size of a dog. Kafka was horrified at the idea of having his creature illustrated. His instructions to Ottomar Starke, who designed the cover of the first edition, were precise: "The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance."
This short story was written on the night of September 22, 1912, in eight hours of work. Kafka called the event a "complete liberation": it was the first time he had been able to write as he had dreamed of doing. "The Judgment" is generally considered to be a turning point in his life and writing, yet Kafka was aware that there was nothing new about the story's subject- the conflict between father and son. As his friend Gustav Janouch said: "The son's rebellion against his father is an old theme in literature, but an even older one in the real world."
An ape who tries to explain to academics that their condition means that "everyone on earth feels a tickling of the heels." A dog is concerned with an unknown science that places freedom above all else. A cat has a lamb's soul. Vultures and sirens reinvent their origins. A giant mole. A singing mouse. Bucephalus, Alexander's horse, turns into a lawyer. In the City of K., men become animals and animals aspire to understanding the laws of human beings. Kafka's bestiary has led to many different interpretations. His choice of animals is not coincidental. Each one is a mirror of the darkest corners of the labyrinth.
The Messiah will only arrive when we no longer need him.
--Kafka, “Fragments from Notebooks and Loose Pages”
You are about to enter the threshold. Here, Kafka and Prague recognize each other once more—then conceal themselves again. The threshold is Kafkaesque. It also refers to the mythical origin of the city’s name—práh, that is, threshold. The myth of Prague and Kafka’s aura feed off each other. Both the writer’s lucid final agony and K.’s struggle, in all its variations, partake of the metaphor of the threshold. There, the belief in a Promised Land merges with the impossibility of Kafka journeying to Palestine. At this frontier, we perceive the embrace of the god of suffocation, but also the presence of another world, one where there is no evil. The threshold is a deferred place, a postponed end, an unfinished work. Alienation, violence, and nihilism fight to close off the horizon, but the desire for meaning persists.
“Kafkaesque” is one of the adjectives that the contemporary world has chosen to represent itself. It is quick to apply the term in intolerable or hopeless situations. Yet Kafkaesque also implies something more. There always comes a moment when creation is not taken tragically; it is merely taken seriously. In that moment we see a small light in the dark, which extends the realm of the possible as we are led away from denial.
Joseph Florian, a Catholic schoolteacher who gave up teaching in protest of the anticlerical policies of the young Czechoslovakian republic, founded a publishing company in the small Moravian town of Stará Rise. He was instrumental in the acceptance of Kafka’s work in Bohemia in the years following the writer’s death.
Pavel Eisner, a bilingual Czech-German journalist and translator, played a major role in popularizing Kafka’s work in Bohemia in the years before World War II. Eisner was one of the people responsible for the gradual international recognition of Kafka’s body of work. As early as the late 1920s, Eisner insisted to the German Studies department of the University in Prague that Kafka—“a giant for whom ten Nobel prizes would have been too few”—should be required reading.
In 1989, the Velvet Revolution saw Kafka reunited with Czech culture. He could not have envisioned how accurate his prophesies about the future of his city would prove to be, nor could he have foreseen the tribute that every generation of leading writers would pay him. While the center of Prague may have been the setting for an extraordinary spectacle in his dreams, he could never have imagined that he would be recognized as one of the city’s major cultural figures.