Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka

Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka

Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka

Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka


On the night of September 22, 1912, Franz Kafka wrote his story "The Judgment," which came out of him "like a regular birth." This act of creation struck him as an unmistakable sign of his literary destiny. Thereafter, the search of many of his characters for the Law, for a home, for artistic fulfillment can be understood as a figure for Kafka's own search to reproduce the ecstasy of a single night.

In Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka, the preeminent American critic and translator of Franz Kafka traces the implications of Kafka's literary breakthrough. Kafka's first concern was not his responsibility to his culture but to his fate as literature, which he pursued by exploring "the limits of the human." At the same time, he kept his transcendental longings sober by noting--with incomparable irony--their virtual impossibility.

At times Kafka's passion for personal transcendence as a writer entered into a torturous and witty conflict with his desire for another sort of transcendence, one driven by a modern Gnosticism. This struggle prompted him continually to scrutinize different kinds of mediation, such as confessional writing, the dream, the media, the idea of marriage, skepticism, asceticism, and the imitation of death. Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka concludes with a reconstruction and critique of the approaches to Kafka by such major critics as Adorno, Gilman, and Deleuze and Guattari..


Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Czech Lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This piling up of ethnic particulars right from the start should suggest something of the complexity of Kafka's predicament as it is reflected in his stories, novels, and confessional writings. Kafka's situation, like his city's, is mazy, intricate, and overly specified by history, lending his life an exceptional danger and promise: the danger of becoming lost in impenetrable contradiction that finally flattens out into anxiety, apathy, nothingness; and the promise, too, of a sudden breaking open under great tension into a blinding prospect of truth. At various times you see Kafka laying weight on one or the other of his identity elements in an effort to mark out his way—he understood Yiddish, learned Hebrew, toyed with Zionism; he espoused socialist ideals that aligned him with the aspirations of the Czech-speaking working class; and he sought literary fame by competing with masters of German literature living and writing in the German-speaking capitals (chiefly Berlin, hardly at all Vienna, which he disliked). But the way he took—and to judge from his posthumous fame, found—was, with few interruptions, the way of writing.

The “way” is a figure of speech that is meant to confer a special distinction on Kafka's decision to write. The work that he actually produced and published in his lifetime is not huge by ordinary standards of literary greatness, consisting of seven small volumes, four of them devoted to single stories. Yet on the strength of “The Judgment” (“Das Urteil”), “The Stoker” (“Der Heizer”), and The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), all of which he published early, in single volumes, in the years 1913–15, Kafka enjoyed an indubitable literary esteem. His stories were admired by writers of the order of Robert Musil and Rainer Maria Rilke, and publishers like Ernst Rowohlt and Kurt Wolff pressed him for more of his work. There stood in his way, however, for most of his life, the mass and difficulty of his professional duties: he was a high official—Senior Legal Secretary—at the partly state-run Workers' Accident Insurance Institute.

Kafka's writing arose as an empirical practice, at a place—a desk—at a time—between eleven at night and three in the morning. To accomplish what he did, he had to construct a kind of salient around this time and place: he required an almost unimaginably deep degree of protection for his writing. Yet for as long as he was employed by “the office,”

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