The Complete Kafka

Reviewing three recent biographies of Franz Kafka, Kevin Jackson upends what we might assume about the German-Jewish writer:

One day, when he was walking in a Berlin park, Kafka saw a little girl crying. He asked her why she was sad and she told him that she had lost her doll. Oh no, Kafka said, her doll was not lost – the toy was simply off on an exciting adventure. Understandably sceptical, the girl asked for proof. So Kafka went home and wrote a long, detailed letter from the doll, and gave it to the little girl the following day. Then, every day for the next three weeks, he gave her an additional letter. It seems that the doll had met a boy doll, and become engaged, and then married. By the end of the three weeks, the doll was setting up her marital home and the little girl no longer missed her mute companion.

This is hardly the sort of thing you would expect of the fellow who wrote The Trial or The Castle or ‘In the Penal Settlement’ (one of the most horrific short texts ever to have sneaked its way into the literary canon), and it is poignant as well as charming, not least because in our own climate of nervy erotic suspicion a middle-aged male writer who attempted such kindliness would have the social services or police on him like a shot. But the story of Kafka and the Lost Doll is instructive as well as surprising.

It explains to the neophyte what an unusually kind and thoughtful man he could be, even when he was drawing his shallow breaths in sharp pain. Some of his fans think that – again like Beckett – he bordered on the saintly. But it also hints at Kafka’s knowledge of the power that lies in stories, his own stories in particular. Stories can cure the sadness of small girls. They can also frighten, console, give courage. They can help even a sick and dying writer make some sense of what remains of his short life. Kafka seems often to have thought of writing as a curse or (to borrow a term from the literature of shamanism) a sickness vocation. And yet the thing that makes you ill may also, from time to time, make you powerful.