Book Report: Collected Stories by Franz Kafka (1993)

My beautiful wife gave me this book for Christmas in 2004 because I’d admitted to not having read “The Metamorphosis”. Well, thanks to her intervention, I cannot claim that. I’ve also read 400+ pages of Kafka’s non-“Metamorphosis” work, and that’s no small price to pay for having missed a pivotal short story in the Czech canon.

As some of you might recall, I have some reservations about reading translations because I assume that I don’t get everything out of the language that the author put into it. For example, in the Kafka story “The Burrow”, I must doubt that the term for the smaller animals as “small fry” comes directly from the Czech.

Also, I’ll point out I’m not a fan of Eastern European literature or maybe any European literature from east of the English Channel. In addition to the language barrier, I don’t really groove on the bleak, bureaucracy-rules-all worldview that the books tend to embrace. Although, as a liberative, I think our society is trending in that direction, I don’t want to read about those things. I want to read a little about how life can be. Perhaps that’s too much the influence of Ayn Rand’s romanticism.

Some of the stories in the collection are engaging; “The Metamorphosis”, “In the Penal Colony”, “A Hunger Artist”, and maybe, to be charitable, “The Burrow”. However, with any roll-up volume, you get padding material, and most of the stuff in this volume seem like that. Many stories are five paragraphs or fewer, with no discernable character development or plotline. Slice of life material at best, but not really worth reading.
Of course, some of the stories really hammer home eurobleakism, so maybe they’re worthwhile to some people.

As I read this volume, I wondered if the twentieth century marked the point where high art became more and more inaccessible. I’ll be frank, some of the stories I had to muscle through (“Investigations of a Dog”) I had to muscle through, and I couldn’t even force myself through (“Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk”). Aside from the stories I read above, I didn’t really get into any of the stories and didn’t really get much out of them. I suspect I couldn’t enjoy the beauty of the stories in their original language, if that’s what makes these stories worthwhile, but the plots nor characters don’t draw the reader in, so the greatness of Kafka lies in….something. But academics have told us he’s great, and they’ve spent their time and energy explaining how great he is. Perhaps his greatness, to their eyes, lies in the fact that normal people cannot recognize his greatness and his academic acolytes must interpret his greatness for the common man. Or perhaps I’m just keen on dinging the people who took the easy way out with their English degrees.

So the book made me better in that I can claim now to have read the complete works, or at least the collected “stories” of Franz Kafka, but it took a long time and some effort to reach those bragging rights. All reading is good and consumption of all ideas is good (note consumption of is not adherence to or acceptance of), but you might better serve yourself to reading only the heavily-anthologized stories of Kafka.

But thanks, honey. It’s a handsome edition.

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