Franz Kafka, a century of metamorphoses

Why on earth does the world still care so much about Kafka, even though he has been dead for a century? It would be nice to find the answer in the columns of a newspaper, let’s say in three sentences – well, okay, six at most. Wouldn’t it actually be doing readers a service to explain to them why we should read or reread Kafka? Explain to them what Kafka really is?

Everything about this author is so enigmatic that we would at least have liked to elucidate the reasons for the Kafka effect from Japan to South Africa, over the decades. So please give us the explanation…

The problem is that there isn’t one. Even Shakespeare, the only author who is constantly being talked about across the entire surface of the globe, seems to be a more easily identifiable phenomenon due to the strength of his dramas. On Kafka’s side, on the other hand: a few short prose texts, a handful of stories, three unfinished novels, and that’s about it…

A language genius

Any self-respecting Kafka connoisseur always comes back ultimately – and even from the start, in the best case scenario – to the language, in particular to the extreme acuity with which Kafka sees situations and cuts them with a scalpel. “This ability of Kafka to grasp a situation at a single glance and at the same time with the highest possible resolution, to extract the significant details, to bring out the hidden correlations and to fix everything in a language riddled with surgical images, stripped of all approximation – it is a faculty which borders on the marvelous and which defies any social or psychological explanation, whatever it may be.” This is how Kafka’s biographer Reiner Stach attempts to summarize the phenomenon (his biography Kafka, a reference work in three volumes, is available in French from Editions du Cherche-Midi).

But if the Kafka effect only depends on this perfection of language, how can we explain the international impact his work experienced just after his death, to the point of giving rise after the war to a veritable Kafkamania which will never run out of steam? Most enthusiasts have read Kafka in one of his translations, which for some left something to be desired. The poor little American student who cheerfully said, in Prague, that she had learned Czech in order to read Kafka in the original version was certainly committing a gross error (Kafka wrote in German), but at least she had understood the added value that ‘brings reading in original language.

The first translations often distorted the text. It must be said that many problems were almost insoluble, linguistically speaking: for example, how to render in Chinese the alternation between the preterite and the present tense in the short story A country doctor, necessary to restore the passage between external reality and dream reality, whereas in Chinese time is not expressed in verbal form?

An author who gets to the point

All this proves that Kafka’s work can withstand some linguistic twists without the extreme situations that the author depicts being significantly weakened: the tyranny of an opaque regime, of a castle, of a labyrinthine court. ; arbitrary executions and torture; the endless wait, sitting in front of a door, hoping to get in, until the door guard shuts it in his face (“This entry was not

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