Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Kafka, Franz

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(1883-1924) Jewish Austro-Hungarian writer who wrote in German. Along with Jorge Luis Borges he is of central importance to the literature of the Western World and of seminal significance to the evolution of fantasy. No more than Borges, however, was FK a creator of Secondary Worlds or of tales with Crosshatch structures; in FK's work, anything that has the semblance of a Threshold will likely be revealed as some façade or cul-de-sac in a surrealistic maze of bureaucracy, a Labyrinth through which there is no passage. If fantasy is a literature which resolves anxiety through the medicament of Story, through the assurance that – at least in imagination – the Reality of other worlds can be trusted, then FK is not a writer of fantasy. Some of his many stories are among the most brilliant Fables and parables ever written, but – significantly, for one of the salient features of the fantasy story is that it generally ends – the best are fragments, haunted and anxiety-ridden strobes into the darkness. There is a sense that, as with Borges, FK's vision of the world can be understood as gnostic (see Gnostic Fantasy): the material world may be an error, a falling from true being, but if there ever was a God from whom we fell there is none now; the Pleroma (which has some distant affinity to the more real Reality many fantasy writers – e.g., C S Lewis – describe as intensifying their secondary worlds) is beyond reach, or null. The world is recursive, and it refers back only to itself. If FK can be understood as a religious writer, his religion addresses a Universe from which God has been evacuated.

To fantasy writers and readers, the four main FK texts are probably: Die Verwandlung (1915 Germany; trans A L Lloyd as The Metamorphosis chap 1937 UK), whose protagonist suffers Transformation into a cockroach; Amerika (first chapter as Der Heizer ["The Stoker"] 1913 chap Germany; remainder written 1911-1914; 1927 Germany; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as America 1938 UK), whose protagonist (Karl) undergoes Picaresque adventures in a theatrical Land-of-Fable USA. Der Prozess (written 1914-1915; 1925 Germany; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as The Trial 1937 UK; exp rev with new material trans E M Butler 1956), whose protagonist (K.) is arrested one morning and subjected to profound anxiety and guilt as his "case" progresses unfathomably through an arcane legal bureaucracy in the direction of his inevitable death; and Das Schloss (written 1921-1922; 1926 Germany; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as The Castle 1930 UK; exp rev with new material trans Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins 1953), whose rather more formidable Confidence-Man protagonist (again named K.) constantly fails in his attempts to have his existence recognized by the authorities in the eponymous Castle to which he believes he has been summoned. All except The Metamorphosis were left incomplete at FK's death; they were published by his executor, the writer Max Brod (1884-1968), who fortunately ignored instructions to destroy the manuscripts. Movie versions have appeared as The Trial (1962), The Castle (1969) and The Trial (1992 tvm).

FK did, however, publish much of his shorter work. Betrachtung ["Meditation"] (coll 1913 Germany) contains mostly short sketches. Das Urteil ["The Judgement"] (1913 chap Germany) is a parable in which a father orders a son to kill his friend and Double, which he does. The title story of Ein Landarst ["A Country Doctor"] (coll 1919 Germany) is a brilliant and horrifying parable in which – in the manner of a Conte Cruel – nightmarish immensities of misfortune attend a doctor's response to a call, until at the end he has become an Accursed Wanderer. In der Strafkolonie ["In the Penal Colony"] (1919 chap Germany) features a machine designed to etch a description of his crime into the flesh of the prisoner, but which merely causes death. Ein Hungerkünstler ["A Hunger Artist"] (coll 1924 Germany) contains four exemplary tales, each profoundly ironic. These fictions – plus a new translation of Metamorphosis, as "The Transformation" – were assembled as The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces (coll trans Willa and Edwin Muir 1948 US; vt with slightly differing contents In the Penal Settlement: Tales and Short Prose Works 1949 UK); a similar coverage of FK's stories is presented in The Transformation and Other Stories: Works Published During Kafka's Lifetime (coll trans Malcolm Pasley 1992 UK).

An important posthumous collection, Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer (coll 1931 Germany; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as The Great Wall of China and Other Pieces 1933 UK), contains the Beast Fable "Forschungen eines Hundes" (here trans as "Investigations of a Dog"), the famous title story, and a number of parables and fables. The book was later issued, with additional material, as Description of a Struggle, and The Great Wall of China (coll with new material trans Tania and James Stern 1960 UK). Further posthumous material appears in Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande (coll 1953; trans Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins as Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Posthumous Prose Writings 1954 UK).

FK's oeuvre seems to trail off, but fragmentation is at the heart of his vision of a duration without meaning or God or stop. [JC]

Franz Kafka


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.