Kafka at Las Vegas

Alan Bennett

There are many perils in writing about Kafka. His work has been garrisoned by armies of critics with some fifteen thousand books about him at the last count. As there is a Fortress Freud so is there a Fortress Kafka, Kafka his own castle. For admission a certain high seriousness must be deemed essential and I am not sure I have it. One is nervous about presuming even to write his name, wanting to beg pardon for doing so, if only because Kafka was so reluctant to write his name himself. Like the Hebrew name of God, it is a name that should not be spoken, particularly by an Englishman. In his dreams Kafka once met an Englishman. He was in a good grey flannel suit, the flannel also covering his face. Short of indicating a prudent change of tailor, the incident (if dreams have incidents) serves to point up the temptation to English Kafka and joke him down to size. The Channel is a slipper bath of irony through which we pass these serious Continentals in order not to be infected by their gloom. This propensity I am sure I have not escaped or tried to: but then there is something that is English about Kafka, and it is not only his self-deprecation. A vegetarian and fond of the sun, he seems a familiar crank; if he’d been living in England at the turn of the century, and not in Prague, one can imagine him going out hiking and spending evenings with like-minded friends in Letchworth. He is the young man in a Shaw play who strolls past the garden fence in too large shorts to be accosted by some brisk Shavian young woman who, perceiving his charm, takes him in hand, puts paid to his morbid thoughts and makes him pull his socks up.

Charm he certainly had, but not at home. Chewing every mouthful umpteen times so that at meals his father cowered behind the newspaper, Kafka saved his charm for work and for his friends. Home is not the place for charm anyway. We do not look for it around the fireside, so it’s not so surprising Kafka had no charm for his father. His father, it seems, had none for anybody. There is something called Home Charm, though. In the Forties it was a kind of distemper and nowadays it’s a chain of DIY shops. In that department certainly Kafka did not excel. He was not someone you would ask to help put up a shelf, for instance, though one component of his charm was an exaggerated appreciation of people who could, and of commonplace accomplishments generally. Far from being clumsy himself (he had something of the dancer about him), he would marvel (or profess to marvel) at the ease with which other people managed to negotiate the world. This kind of professed incompetence (‘Silly me!’) often leads to offers of help, and carried to extremes it encourages the formation of unofficial protection societies. Thus Kafka was much cosseted by the ladies in his office and in the same way the pupils of another candidate for secular sainthood, the French philosopher Simone Weil, saw to it that their adored teacher did not suffer the consequences of a practical un-wisdom even more hopeless than Kafka’s.

One cannot say that Kafka’s marvelling at mundane accomplishments was not genuine, was a ploy. The snag is that when the person doing the marvelling goes on to do great things this can leave those with the commonplace accomplishments feeling a little flat. Say such a person goes on to win the Nobel Prize: it is scant consolation to know that one can change a three-pin plug.

Gorky said that in Chekhov’s presence everyone felt a desire to be simpler, more truthful and more oneself. Kafka too had this effect. ‘On his entrance into a room,’ wrote a contemporary, ‘it seemed as though some unseen attendant had whispered to the lecturer: “Be careful about everything you say from now on. Franz Kafka has just arrived.” ’ To have this effect on people is not an unmixed blessing. When we are on our best behaviour we are not always at our best.

This is not to say that Kafka did not make jokes in life and in art. The Trial, for instance, is a funnier book than it has got credit for and Kafka’s jokes about himself are the better for the desperate circumstances in which they were often made. He never did win the Nobel Prize but contemplated the possibility once in fun and in pain, and in a fairly restricted category (though one he could have shared with several contemporaries, Proust, Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence among them). When he was dying of TB of the larynx he was fetching up a good deal of phlegm. ‘I think,’ he said (and the joke is more poignant for being so physically painful to make), ‘I think I deserve the Nobel Prize for sputum.’ Nothing if not sick, it is a joke that could have been made yesterday.

Dead sixty-odd years, Kafka is still modern and there is much in the present-day world to interest him. These days Kafka would be intrigued by the battery farm and specifically, with an interest both morbid and lively, in the device that de-beaks the still-living chickens; in waste-disposal trucks that chew the rubbish before swallowing it; and those dubious restaurants that install for your dining pleasure a tank of doomed trout. As the maître d’ assists the discerning diner in the ceremony of choice, be aware of the waiter who wields the net: both mourner and executioner, he is Kafka. He notes old people in Zimmer frames stood in their portable dock on perambulatory trial for their lives. He is interested in the feelings of the squash ball and the champagne bottle that launches the ship. In a football match his sympathy is not with either of the teams but with the ball or, in a match ending nil-nil, with the hunger of the goalmouth. He would be unable to endorse the words of me song by Simon and Garfunkel ‘I’d rather be a hammer than a nail’, feeling himself (as he confessed to one of his girlfriends) simultaneously both. And in a different context he would be concerned with the current debate on the disposal of nuclear waste. To be placed in a lead canister which is then encased in concrete and sunk fathoms deep to the floor of the ocean was the degree of circulation he thought appropriate for most of his writing. Or not, of course.

Kafka was fond of the cinema and there are short stories, like ‘Tales of a Red Indian’, that have a feeling of the early movies. He died before the talkies came in and so before the Marx Brothers, but there is an exchange in Horse Feathers that sums up Kafka’s relations with his father:

Beppo: Dad, I’m proud to be your son.

Groucho: Son, you took the words out of my mouth. I’m ashamed to be your father.

The Kafka household could have been the setting for many Jewish jokes:

Father: Son, you hate me.

Son: Father, I love you.

Mother: Don’t contradict your father.

Had Kafka the father emigrated to America as so many of his contemporaries did, things might have turned out differently for Kafka the son. He was always stage-struck. Happily lugubrious, he might have turned out a stand-up Jewish comic. Kafka at Las Vegas.

Why didn’t Kafka stutter? The bullying father, the nervous son – life in the Kafka household seems a blueprint for a speech impediment. In a sense, of course, he did stutter. Jerky, extruded with great force and the product of tremendous effort, everything Kafka wrote is a kind of stutter. Stutterers devise elaborate routines to avoid or to ambush and take by surprise troublesome consonants, of which K is one of the most difficult. It’s a good job Kafka didn’t stutter. With two Ks he might have got started on his name and never seen the end of it. As it is, he docks it, curtails it, leaves its end behind much as lizards do when something gets hold of their tail.

In thus de-nominating himself, Kafka was to make his name and his letter memorable. Diminishing it, he augmented it, and not merely for posterity. K was a significant letter in his own time. There were Ks on every banner, palace and official form. Kafka had two Ks and so, in the Kaiserlich and Königlich of the Habsburg Emperors, did the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Emperor at the time was Franz Joseph and that comes into it too, for here is Franz K writing about Joseph K in the time of Franz Joseph K.

There was another emperor nearer at hand, the emperor in the armchair, Kafka’s phrase for his father. Hermann Kafka has had such a consistently bad press that it’s hard not to feel a sneaking sympathy for him as for all the Parents of Art. They never get it right. They bring up a child badly and he turns out a writer, posterity never forgives them – though without that unfortunate upbringing the writer might never have written a word. They bring up a child well and he never does write a word. Do it right and posterity never hears about the parents: do it wrong and posterity never hears about anything else.

They fuck you up your Mum and Dad, and if you’re planning on writing that’s probably a good thing. But if you are planning on writing and they haven’t fucked you up, well, you’ve got nothing to go on, so then they’ve fucked you up good and proper.

Many parents, one imagines, would echo the words of Madame Weil, the mother of Simone Weil, a child every bit as trying as Kafka must have been. Questioned about her pride in the posthumous fame of her ascetic daughter, Madame Weil said: ‘Oh! How much I would have preferred her to be happy.’ Like Kafka, Simone Weil is often nominated for secular sainthood. I’m not sure. Talk of a saint in the family and there’s generally one around, if not quite where one’s looking. One thinks of Mrs Muggeridge and in the Weil family it is not Simone so much as her mother who consistently behaves well and elicits sympathy. In the Kafka household the halo goes to Kafka’s sister Ottla, who has to mediate between father and son, a role which, in weaker planetary systems than that revolving round Hermann Kafka, is more often played by the mother.

Kafka may have been frightened that he was more like his father than he cared to admit. In a letter to Felice Bauer he indulges in the fantasy of being a large piece of wood, pressed against the body of a cook ‘who is holding the knife along the side of this stiff log (somewhere in the region of my hip) slicing off shavings to light the fire’. Many conclusions could be drawn from this image, some glibber than others. One of them is that Kafka would have liked to have been a chip off the old block.

Daily at his office in the Workers Accident Insurance Institute Kafka was confronted by those unfortunates who had been maimed and injured at work. Kafka was not crippled at work but at home. It’s hardly surprising. If a family is a factory for turning out children, then it is lacking in the most elementary safety precautions. There are no guard rails round that dangerous engine, the father. There are no safeguards against being scalded by the burning affection of the mother. No mask is proof against the suffocating atmosphere. One should not be surprised that so many lose their balance and are mangled in the machinery of love. Take the Wittgensteins. With three of their five children committing suicide they make the Kafkas seem like a model family. One in Prague, the other in Vienna, Kafka and Wittgenstein often get mentioned in the same breath. Socially, they were poles apart but both figure in and are ingredients of the intellectual ferment of the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Not at all similar in character, Kafka and Wittgenstein sometimes sound alike, as in Wittgenstein’s Preface to his Philosophical Investigations:

I make [these remarks] public with doubtful feelings. It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another – but, of course, it is not likely. I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own. I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

Though Nabokov was sure he had travelled regularly on the same train as Kafka when they were both in Berlin in 1922, Kafka and Wittgenstein could meet, I suppose, only in the pages of a novel like Ragtime or in one of those imaginary encounters (Freud and Kafka is an obvious one) that used to be devised by Maurice Cranston in the days of the BBC Third Programme. But if Wittgenstein had never heard of Kafka, Kafka would certainly have heard of Wittgenstein. It was a noted name in Bohemia, where the family owned many steelworks. A steelworks is a dangerous place and the Wittgenstein companies must have contributed their quota to those unfortunates crowding up the steps of the Workers Accident Insurance Institute in Poric Street. So when Kafka did come across the name Wittgenstein it just meant more paperwork.

It must have been a strange place, the Workers Accident Insurance Institute, a kingdom of the absurd where it did not pay to be well and loss determined gain; limbs became commodities and to be given a clean bill of health was to be sent away empty-handed. There every man carried a price on his head, or on his arm or his leg, like the tariffs of ancient law. It was a world where to be deprived was to be endowed, to be disfigured was to be marked out for reward and to trip was to jump every hurdle. In Kafka’s place of work only the whole man had something to hide, the real handicap was to have no handicap at all, whereas a genuine limp genuinely acquired cleared every obstacle and a helping hand was one that had first been severed from the body. The world as hospital, it is Nietzsche’s nightmare.

Kafka’s career in insurance coincided with the period when compensation for injury at work was beginning to be accepted as a necessary condition of employment. Workers’ compensation was and is a pretty unmixed blessing but it did spawn a new disease – or at any rate a new neurosis. Did one want a neurosis, the turn of the century in Austro-Hungary was the time and place to have it, except that this condition was a product of the factory, not the drawing-room, not so richly upholstered or so literate or capable of literature as those articulate fantasies teased out at No 19 Berggasse. Compensation neurosis is a condition that affected and affects those (they tend to be women more than men) who have suffered a slight accident at work, and in particular an accident to the head: a slight bump, say a mild concussion, nothing significant. Before the introduction of compensation such a minor mishap was likely to be ignored or forgotten. With no chance of compensation there was no incidence of neurosis, grin and bear it the order of the day. But once there is the possibility of compensation (and if the – scarcely – injured party does not know this there will be well-wishers who will tell him or her) then the idea is planted that he or she might be owed something. One does not need to be a conscious malingerer to feel that some recompense is called for, and from this feeling is bred dissatisfaction, headaches, wakefulness, the whole cabinet of neurotic symptoms.

With Lily in my play The Insurance Man I have assumed that such a case did occasionally get as far as the Workers Accident Insurance Institute. If so, then here was one more hopeless quest going on round the corridors of that unhappy building. This kind of quest, where what is wanted is the name of the illness as well as compensation for it, has something in common with Joseph K’s quest in The Trial. He wants his offence identified but no one will give it a name; this is his complaint. Until his offence is named he cannot find a tribunal to acquit him of it.

Kafka and Proust both begin on the frontiers of dreams. It is in the gap between sleeping and waking where Marcel is trying to place his surroundings that Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a beetle and Joseph K finds himself under arrest. ‘Metamorphosis’ and The Trial are the two works of Kafka that are best-known, are, if you like, classics. Classics – and in particular modern classics – are the books one thinks one ought to read, thinks one has read. In this category, particularly for readers who were young in the Fifties, come Proust, Sartre, Orwell, Camus and Kafka. It isn’t simply a matter of pretension. As a young man I genuinely felt I ought to read Proust and Eliot, though it did no harm to be seen reading them. However, a few pages convinced me that I had got the gist and so they went onto the still uncluttered bookshelf beside Kafka, Camus, Orwell and the rest.

The theory these days (or one of them) is that the reader brings as much to a book as the author. So how much more do readers bring who have never managed to get through the book at all? It follows that the books one remembers best are the books one has never read. To be remembered but not read has been the fate of The Trial despite its being the most readable of Kafka’s books. Kafka on the whole is not very readable. But then to be readable does not help a classic. Great books are taken as read, or taken as having been read. If they are read, or read too often and too easily by too many, the likelihood is they are not great books or won’t remain so for long. Read too much, they crumble away as nowadays popular mountains are prone to do.

The readers or non-readers of The Trial remember it wrong. Its reputation is as a tale about man and bureaucracy, a fable appropriate to the office block. One recalls the office in Orson Welles’s film – a vast hangar in which hundreds of clerks foil at identical desks to an identical routine. In fact, The Trial is set in small rooms in dark houses in surroundings that are picturesque, romantic and downright quaint. For the setting of The Trial there is no blaming the planners. It is all on an impeccably human scale.

The topography that oppressed Kafka does not oppress us. Kafka’s fearful universe is constructed out of burrows and garrets and cubby-holes on back staircases. It is nearer to Dickens and Alice and even to the cosiness of The Wind in the Willows than it is to our own particular emptinesses. Our shorthand for desolation is quite different: the assembly line, the fence festooned with polythene rags, the dead land between the legs of the motorway. But it is ours. It isn’t Kafka’s. Or, to put it another way, the trouble with Kafka is that he didn’t know the word ‘Kafkaesque’. However, those who see The Trial as a trailer for totalitarian bureaucracy might be confirmed in this view on finding that the premises in Dzherzhinsky Square in Moscow now occupied by the Lubianka Prison formerly housed another institution, the Rossiya Insurance Company.

Joseph K’s first examination takes place one Sunday morning in Juliusstrasse, a shabby street of poor tenements. The address he had been given was of a gaunt apartment building with a vast entrance that led directly into a courtyard formed by many storeys of tenement flats.

Futile to go looking for that courtyard in Prague today. It exists, after all, only in the mind of a dead author whom you may not even have read. But say you did go looking for it, as a Proust reader might go looking for Combray, or Brontë fans for Wuthering Heights, and say even that you found the address, it still would not be as Kafka or as Joseph K describes it. These days the stone would have been scrubbed, the brick pointed, the mouldings given back their old (which is to say their new) sharpness, in what the hoarding on the site advertises as a government-assisted programme of restoration and refurbishment. Go where you like in the old quarters of Europe it is the same. Decay has been arrested, the cracks filled; in Padua, Perpignan and Prague urban dentistry has triumphed.

The setting for Joseph K’s first examination is a small upstairs room with a low ceiling, a kind of upstairs basement, a rooftop cellar. It is a location he finds with difficulty since it can be reached only through the kitchen of one of the apartments. It is this block of apartments that, let us imagine, has now been restored, the architect of which, grey hair, young face, bright tie and liberal up to a point (architects, like dentists, being the same the world over) shows off his latest piece of conversion:

‘What we had here originally was a pretty rundown apartment building. The tenants, many of whom had lived here literally for generations, were mainly in the lower-income bracket – joiners, cleaners, factory workers and so on, plus some single ladies who were probably no better than they should be. I believe the whole district was rather famous for that actually. My problem was how to do justice to the building, improve the accommodation while (single ladies apart) hanging on to some sort of social mix.

‘Stage I involved getting possession of the building itself, which, since it’s situated in the heart of the conservation area, we were able to do by means of a government grant. Stage 2 was to empty the apartments. Happily many of the tenants were elderly so we could leave this largely to a process of natural wastage. When the overall population of the building had come down to a manageable number, Stage 3 involved locating this remnant in local-authority housing on the outskirts. Which brings us to Stage 4, the restoration and refurbishment of the building itself.

‘Initially what we did was to divide it up into a number of two and three-bedroom units, targeted, I suppose, on lawyers, architects, communications people, the kind of tenant who still finds the demands of urban living quite stimulating. We’ve got one or two studios on the top floor for artists of one kind and another, photographers and so on, and a similar number of old people on the ground floor. Actually we were obliged to include those under the terms of the government grant, but though they do take up some very desirable space, I actually welcome them. A building of this kind of after all a community, old, young – variety is of the essence.

‘The particular unit associated with the gentleman in the novel is on the fifth floor. Trudge, trudge, trudge. I’m afraid the lifts are still unconnected. Bureaucracy, the workings of.’

And so they go upstairs to the fifth floor as Joseph K went up that Sunday morning in the novel, looking for the room where his examination was set to take place.

‘Actually I remember this particular apartment,’ says the architect, ‘because it was a bit of an odd one out. Whereas most of the other flats amalgamated quite nicely into two and three-bedroomed units, this particular one wouldn’t fit into any of our categories. Here we are. You come into a small room, you see, which has obviously served as a kitchen …’

‘Yes,’ says the visitor. ‘That’s described in the book.’

‘Never read it alas,’ says the architect. ‘Work, pressure of. Come in, have supper, slump in front of the old telly box and that’s it for the night. However, this kitchen rather unexpectedly opens into this much larger room. Two windows, rather nicely proportioned, and I think once upon a time there must have been a platform at the far end.’

‘Yes,’ says the visitor. ‘That’s in the book too.’

‘And does he mention this?’ asks the architect. ‘This rather attractive feature, the gallery running round under the ceiling?’

‘Yes,’ says the visitor. ‘People sat up there during his examination. They were rather cramped. In fact, they were so cramped they had to bend double with cushions between their backs and the ceiling.’

‘Is that in the book?’ asks the architect.

‘Yes. It’s all in the book,’ says the visitor.

‘Really?’ says the architect. ‘It sounds jollier than I thought. I thought it was some frightful political thing. Anyway we had a site conference and all of us – architects, rental agents and prospective tenants – agreed it would be a great pity to lose the gallery. Someone suggested converting the place into a studio with the gallery as a kind of sleeping area, but that smacked a little bit of alternative life-styles which we were quite anxious to avoid, so in the end we’ve given it a lick of paint and just left it, the upshot being that the management are probably going to donate the room to the tenants. If it has some connection with this fellow in the novel we could call it after him.’

‘The Joseph K room,’ says the visitor. ‘But what would you use it for?’

‘Well, what will we use it for?’ says the architect. ‘I don’t want to use the dread words “community centre” with all the overtones of Bingo and Saturday-night hop. But it could be used for all sorts. As soon as you say the word “crèche”, for instance, you’ve got the ladies on your side. Encounter groups and suchlike, keep-fit classes, and then, of course, we have the Residents’ Association. What we are hoping, you see, is that the residents will join in. After all, this is a co-operative. Everybody needs to pull their weight and to that end all the tenants have been carefully – I was going to say screened, but let’s say we’ve made a few inquiries in terms of background, outlook and so on, nothing so vulgar as vetting, you understand, but if we are all going to be neighbours it makes for less trouble in the long run.

‘And supposing anybody does step out of line, stereo going full blast in the wee small hours, ladies coming up and down a little too often (or indeed gentlemen in this day and age), kiddies making a mess on the stairs, then in that event I think this room would be the ideal place for the culprit to be interviewed by the Residents’ Association, asked to be a little more considerate and even see the error of their ways. After all, I think a line has to be drawn somewhere. And the Joseph K Memorial Room would be just the place to do it.’

In our cosy little island, novel readers are seldom accused of crimes they did not commit, or crimes of any sort for that matter: PROUST READER ON BURGLARY RAP is not a headline that carries conviction. Few of us are likely to be arrested without charge or expect to wake up and find the police in the room, and our experience of bureaucracy comes not from the Gestapo so much as from the Gas Board. So The Trial does not at first sight seem like a book to be read with dawning recognition, the kind of book one looks up from and says: ‘But it’s my story!’

Nor is it a book for the sick room. It’s seldom to be found on those trolleys of literary jumble trundled round the wards of local hospitals every Wednesday afternoon by Miss Venables, the voluntary worker. The book trolley and the food trolley are not dissimilar, hospital reading and hospital food both lacking taste and substance and neither having much in the way of roughage. The guardian and conductress of the book trolley, Miss Venables, would have been happier taking round the tea, for which the patients are more grateful, but in the absence of a Mr Venables, Miss Venables is generally taken to be rather refined and thus has got landed with literature. The real-life sentences come from judgments on our personal appearance, and good behaviour, far from remitting the sentence, simply confirms it and makes it lifelong. Kafka was always delicate and his father therefore assumed he was a bookworm, an assumption his son felt was unwarranted and which he vigorously denied.

Miss Venables is not a bookworm either, seldom venturing inside the books she purveys, which she judges solely by their titles. Most patients, she thinks, want to be taken out of themselves, particularly so in Surgical. In Surgical, novels are a form of homeopathy: having had something taken out of themselves the patients now want something else to take them out of themselves. So coming out of Surgical Miss Venables finds her stock of novels running pretty low as she pauses now in Admissions, at the bedside of a patient who has come in, as he has been told, ‘just for observation’. Presumptuous to call him Mr Kay, let us call him Mr Jay.

‘Fiction or non-fiction?’ asks Miss Venables.

‘Fiction,’ says Mr Jay, and hopes he is going to do better than last week. Last week he had wanted a copy of Jake’s Thing, but could not remember the title and had finished up with Howards End.

‘Fiction,’ says Miss Venables (who would have come in handy in the Trinitarian controversy), ‘Fiction is divided into Fiction, Mystery and Romance. Which would you like?’

Truthfully, Mr Jay wants a tale of sun and lust, but daunted by Miss Venables’s unprepossessing appearance he lamely opts for Mystery. She gives him a copy of The Trial.

How The Trial comes to be classified under Mystery is less of a mystery than how it comes to be on the trolley at all. In fact, it had originally formed part of the contents of the locker of a deceased lecturer in Modern Languages and had been donated to the hospital library by his grateful widow, along with his copy of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. This Miss Venables has classified under Children and Fairy Stories. So, leaving Mr Jay leafing listlessly through Kafka, she passes on with her trolley to other wards and other disappointments.

It does not take Mr Jay long to realise that he has picked another dud. What is to be made of such sentences as ‘The verdict doesn’t come all at once; the proceedings gradually merge into the verdict’? Mr Jay has a headache. He puts The Trial on his locker beside the bottle of Lucozade and the Get Well cards and tries to sleep, but can’t. Instead he settles back and thinks about his body. These days he thinks about little else. The surgeon Mr Mclver has told him he is a mystery. Matron says he has baffled the doctors. So Mr Jay feels like somebody special. Now they come for him and he is carefully manoeuvred under vast machines by aproned figures, who then discreetly retire. Later, returned to his bed, he tries again to read but feels so sick he cannot read his book even if he really wanted to. And that is a pity. Because Mr Jay might now begin to perceive that The Trial is not a mystery story and that it is not particularly about the law or bureaucracy or any of the things the editor’s note says it is about. It is about something nearer home, and had he come once again upon the sentence ‘The verdict doesn’t come all at once, the proceedings gradually merge into the verdict’ Mr Jay might have realised that Kafka is talking to him. It is his story.

In the short story ‘Metamorphosis’ Gregor Samsa wakes up as a beetle. Nabokov, who knew about beetles, poured scorn on those who translated or depicted the insectified hero as a cockroach. Kafka did not want the beetle depicted at all, but for the error of classification he is largely to blame. It was Kafka who first brought up the subject of cockroaches, though in a different story, ‘Wedding Preparations in the Country’. ‘I have, as I lie in bed,’ he writes, ‘the form of a large beetle, a stag beetle or a cockchafer, I believe.’ Cockroach or not, Gregor Samsa has become so famous waking up as a beetle I am surprised he has not been taken up and metamorphosed again, this time by the advertising industry. Since he wakes up as a beetle why should he not wake up as a Volkswagen? Only this time he’s not miserable but happy. And so of course is his family. Why not? They’ve got themselves a nice little car. The only problem is how to get it out of the bedroom.

The first biography of Kafka was written by his friend and editor Max Brod. It was Brod who rescued Kafka’s works from oblivion, preserved them and, despite Kafka’s instructions to the contrary, published them after his death. Brod, who was a year younger than Kafka (though one somehow thinks of him as older), lived on until 1968. The author of innumerable essays and articles, Brod published 83 books, one for every year of his life. Described in the Times obituary as ‘himself an author of uncommonly versatile stamp’, he turned out novels at regular intervals until the end of his life, the last one being set during the Six-Day War. These novels fared poorly with the critics and were one able to collect the reviews of his books one would find few, I imagine, that do not somewhere invoke the name of Kafka, with the comparison inevitably to Brod’s disadvantage. This cannot have been easy to take. He who had erected not only Kafka’s monument but created his reputation never managed to struggle out of its shadow. He could be forgiven if he came to be as dubious of Kafka’s name as Kafka was himself.

Never quite Kafka’s wife, after Kafka’s death Brod’s role was that of the devoted widow, standing guard over the reputation, authorising the editions, editing the diaries and driving trespassers from the grave. However, living in Tel Aviv, he was spared the fate of equivalent figures in English culture, an endless round of arts programmes where those who have known the famous are publicly debriefed of their memories, knowing as their own dusk falls that they will be remembered only for remembering someone else.

Kafka was a minor executive in the insurance company in Prague. In Kafka’s Dick this fact is picked up by another minor executive in another insurance firm, but in Leeds seventy-odd years later. The insurance man’s name is Sydney and he decides to do a piece on Kafka for an insurance periodical (I imagine there are such, though I’ve never verified it). As he works on his piece, Sydney comes to resent his subject, as biographers must often do. Biographers are only fans, after all, and fans have been known to shoot their idols.

‘Why biography’? asks his wife.

Sydney’s answer is less of a speech than an aria, which is probably why it was cut from the play:

I want to hear about the shortcomings of great men, their fears and their failings. I’ve had enough of their vision, how they altered the landscape (we stand on their shoulders to survey our lives). So. Let’s talk about the vanity. Read how this one, the century’s seer, increases his stature by lifts in his shoes. That one, the connoisseur of emptiness, is tipped for the Nobel Prize yet still needs to win at Monopoly. This playwright’s skin is so thin he can feel pain on the other side of the world. So why is he deaf to the suffering next door; signs letters to the newspapers but still holds his own wife a prisoner of conscience? The slipshod poet keeps immaculate time and expects it of everyone else, but never wears underwear and frequently smells. That’s not important, of course, but what is? The gentle novelist’s frightful temper, the Christian poet’s mad, unvisited wife, the hush in their households where the dog goes on tiptoe, meals on the dot at their ironclad whim? Note with these great men the flight and not infrequent suicide of their children, their brisk remarriage on the deaths of irreplaceable wives. Proud of his modesty, one gives frequent, rare interviews in which he aggregates praise and denudes others of credit. Indifferent to the lives about him, he considers his day ruined on finding a slighting reference to himself in a periodical published three years ago in New Zealand. And demands sympathy from his family on that account. And gets it. Our father the novelist, my husband the poet, he belongs to the ages, just don’t catch him at breakfast. Artists, celebrated for their humanity, they turn out to be scarcely human at all.

Death took no chances with Kafka and laid three traps for his life. Parched and voiceless from TB of the larynx, he was 40, the victim, as he himself said, of a conspiracy by his own body. But had his lungs not ganged up on him there was a second trap, twenty years down the line when the agents of death would have shunted him as they did his three sisters into the gas chambers. That fate, though it was not to be his, is evident in his last photograph. It is a face that prefigures the concentration camp.

But say that in 1924 he cheats death and a spell in the sanatorium restores him to health. In 1938 he sees what is coming – Kafka was more canny than he is given credit for, not least by Kafka himself – and so he slips away from Prague in time. J.P. Stern imagines him fighting with the Partisans; Philip Roth finds him a poor teacher of Hebrew in Newark, New Jersey. Whatever his future when he leaves Prague, he becomes what he has always been, a refugee. Maybe (for there is no harm in dreams) he even lives long enough to find himself the great man he never knew he was. Maybe (the most impossible dream of all) he actually succeeds in putting on weight. So where is death now? Waiting for Kafka in some Park Avenue consulting room where he goes with what he takes to be a recurrence of his old chest complaint.

‘Quite curable now, of course. TB. No problem. However, regarding your chest you say you managed a factory once?’

‘Yes. For my brother-in-law. For three or four years.’

‘When was that?’

‘A long time ago. It closed in 1917. In Prague.’

‘What kind of factory was it?’

‘Building materials. Asbestos.’

This is just a dream of Kafka’s death. He is famous, the owner of the best-known initial in literature and we know he did not die like this. Others probably did. In Prague the consulting-rooms are bleaker but the disease is the same and the treatment as futile. These patients have no names, though Kafka would have known them, those girls (old ladies now) whom he describes brushing the thick asbestos dust from their overalls, the casualties of his brother-in-law’s ill-starred business in which Hermann, his father, had invested. A good job his father isn’t alive, the past master of ‘I told you so.’

In the last weeks of his life Kafka was taken to a sanatorium in the Wienerwald and here, where the secret of dreams had been revealed to Freud, Kafka’s dreams ended.

On the window sill the night before he died, Dora Dymant found an owl waiting. The owl has a complex imagery in art. Just as in Freudian psychology an emotion can stand for itself and for its opposite, so is the owl a symbol of both darkness and light. As a creature of the night, the owl was seen as a symbol of the Jews, who, turning away from the light of Christ, were guilty of wilful blindness. On the other hand, the owl was, as it remains, a symbol of wisdom. It is fitting that this bird of ambiguity should come to witness the departure of a man who by belief was neither Christian nor Jew and had never wholeheartedly felt himself a member of the human race. He had written of himself as a bug and a mouse – both of them the natural prey of the bird now waiting outside the window.