There are those who say that Franz Kafka has been overtaken by history. Somehow, Kafka seems to belong to one's student days, with his dark and frightening world, the vast old buildings where his people waited forever to meet their anonymous accusers, the insufferable bureaucrats whose arrogance at last turned their world into a madhouse.
It was a world laced with mordant humor: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." It was also a world of fiction that one tended to leave behind, since the things Kafka wrote about seemed to be happening in reality.
But now, on the 100th anniversary of the great Czech writer's July birth, the University of Maryland's remarkable exhibition of pictures, letters and early writings brings him back sharply into focus. This thorough display, assembled in Austria, is shown here for the first time in America.
And last night the artist's work was celebrated in a way that surely would have enchanted him: with music and dancing. Three of his parables were set to tape music by composer Lawrence Moss and danced by Improvisations Unlimited, directed by Meriam Rosen. Poets Reed Whittemore and Merrill Leffler read selections from Kafka's diaries and novels.
"The alienating forces that he perceived in the world are still growing," observed Peter Beicken, a Maryland German professor who heads the Kafka Society of America, sponsoring the exhibit with the Austrian Institute. "I think Kafka's relevance is increasing, not diminishing."
The show is full of fascinating clues to the enigmatic writer, who spoke to the angst of the modern world by exploring his own neuroses. In his work as an insurance clerk, for instance, he dealt with industrial accidents, and one item shown is a sketch he made of a particularly dangerous lathe.
The drawings immediately bring to mind the torture machine of "In the Penal Colony," a device so bizarre and so elaborately described that one wondered if the author was simply indulging a sadistic streak. But the origins of the fantasy are clearly this real-life machine that regularly tore off workers' fingers.
"In the Penal Colony" is one of the reasons why Kafka has been called a prophet of the Holocaust. Though he himself was not particularly political, he understood that when evil is legitimized it becomes banal, and his brilliant picture of the torture machine's operator--fussing over the worn gears and complaining about the difficulty of getting new wrist straps--fully anticipates the mundane horrors of the death camps.
"Here and in 'The Trial' and other works, Kafka showed the middle class being ground down, as was to happen in Germany in the '30s," Beicken said. Thus, for people who clung to the normal and the routine, evil would present itself as normal and routine and in this guise would dominate and eventually destroy them.
Also to be noted is the portrait of Jizchak Lowy, a friend of the youthful Kafka who introduced him to the Yiddish theater. At that time in Prague, Yiddish was considered somewhat beneath bourgeois society, but Kafka came to appreciate its color and, on the stage, its bravura gestures.
And Kafka's writing is full of dramatic physical gestures, embraces and caresses and wavings of arms, rather like Gogol, to whom he has been compared. Kafka once publicly defended Yiddish in a speech that helped rehabilitate it culturally.
Interesting, that the lonely, introspective and self-absorbed Kafka, like Hamlet, should be attracted so to the theater.
Many documents in the show are in German, but translations are provided. Among the rarer objects are photocopies of the first page of "The Trial" (in which one sees the key verb of the opening sentence crossed out and changed to a word meaning arrested, foreshadowing the legalistic troubles ahead for Josef K) and the famous letter to his father, Hermann Kafka, a self-made man, son of a butcher who rose to a comfortable position in Prague's middle class:
"Dearest Father: You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you . . ."
The father, evidently overbearing and brusque and possibly a bit of a domestic tyrant, becomes in the son's writings a symbol of monolithic, unfeeling authority. The early stories are full of fathers; later the symbol turns into a larger social authority, the state itself, the Castle.
Freud would have had a field day with Kafka, who appreciated but did not agree with the pioneer psychoanalyst's positive approach to neurosis, his search for cures. For Kafka, apparently, the neurosis was something to be protected since it was the greatest source of energy for his writing.
Rereading Kafka today, one is struck by the clarity and grace of the prose, the sheer readability of it. This is no simple trick when you are telling a circular tale leading nowhere.
One notices how many of the works have no real ending. "The Castle" was never finished, but the author left numerous fragments and notes hinting how it might end. Five different endings have been found for the penal colony story. In fact, nearly all of Kafka's efforts seem to fizzle out vaguely.
Was it deliberate? Was Kafka a conceptual artist in words? Or was he so overwhelmed with the ambiguities of life that he felt any pat ending would be a lie? Some passages from the diaries use systematic repetition in a way that takes it quite beyond mere rewriting. The different versions of the same thought, appearing one after the other, build an unsettling impression of indecision and many-mindedness that must have meant constant anguish for the author even while revealing the complexity of the modern world in a way no one had managed before.
The photographs alone are worth the trip to the university student union: the child, the unsmiling student, the famous father, the women with whom Kafka so yearned to be happy, and finally the writer in his 41st and last year, the eyes already haunted, the mouth barely curved in a bitter half-smile, the smile of a man who had ordered his executor to burn all his works and discontinue the few that had been published.
How he would have laughed at all this.