IF the word "Joycean" evokes a style, "Proustian" a specific mode of memory, "Kafkaesque" is a word that seems to summon up the terror, comedy, absurdity, alienation, and the sheer disjunctiveness of modern life.
Whether or not Franz Kafka is indeed, as biographer Frederick Karl proposes, the "representative man" of our era, no one would deny that he makes a strong candidate for the title (if there can be such a creature as a representative man for a century that has continued to explode with the unforeseen and the irreconcilable).
More than any other modern writer, Kafka manages to capture the darkest and most disturbing undercurrents of the so-called Age of Anxiety. He encompasses the private, night-world of dream-logic and the dehumanizing day-world of bureaucracy; the Freudian realm of irrational dreams that have rational meanings and the Marxian realm of rational schemes that become irrational realities.
Although he died in 1924, at the age of 41, his work seems to prophesy the horrors of violence, persecution, and victimization unleashed by the Nazis (Kafka's three sisters would perish in concentration camps). Yet the irony is that someone as intensely private as Kafka, self-absorbed to the point of near-solipsism, should have emerged as master of the political parable for our time.
What could be more emblematic of the plight of modern man than the experience of Joseph K. in "The Trial," arrested without having done anything wrong and involved in a futile attempt, not only to clear himself but also to figure out what he is being accused of?
Or the equally fruitless efforts of K. to establish contact with whoever is in charge of "The Castle," efforts that leave him ever more deeply mired in the labyrinths of bureaucratic confusion?
And who can forget the waking nightmare of persecution undergone by Gregor Samsa of "The Metamorphosis," who awakens "one morning from uneasy dreams" to find himself "transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect," reviled and rejected by his own parents and sister? Prophetically enough, the term Kafka used to designate "insect" or "vermin" when writing the story in 1912, Ungeziefer would be the same used by Hitler to designate such social "undesirables" as gypsies, Jews, and Slavs. Like a lizard swollen to the size of a dinosaur, politics can be seen as psychopathology writ large.
"We need the books that affect us like a disaster," wrote the young (20-year-old) Kafka to a friend in 1904, books "that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves.... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."
The oldest child and only surviving son of bourgeois Jewish parents, Kafka grew up and spent most of his life in Prague, a Jew among Gentiles, a German-speaker among Czechs, and a preternaturally sensitive boy whose gruff, well-meaning parents did not even begin to understand him.
Although he managed to get his degree in law and to function very effectively in his job at the Workers Accident Insurance Company, where he helped injured workers to receive their benefits, Kafka was determined that nothing should stand in the way of his writing. Thrice engaged - and twice to the same woman, Felice Bauer - he never …