It’s either a huge compliment or a huge mistake to be invited so kindly to write a piece for this blog — and, more particularly, this series. Diving at the heart of what Kafka has to offer the universe is a noble pursuit, and the idea that I turned some of his stories into a picture book for kids either fits in perfectly or is way out of its depth.
Earlier this week, on this blog’s fabulous series of Kafka-related pieces, the Schlemiel wrote that “Kafka and Benjamin direct us to a more acute sense of the ‘how’ of their work rather than the ‘what.’” When you read Kafka, whether you’re an academic or not, and whether you’re a kid or not, it’s pretty impossible not to look for deeper themes and connections, some meaning beyond the apparent text and, well, thestory of the story. At some point in every Kafka piece, there’s a moment where you pull back* and realize that maybe there are deeper things going on than just the plot, the characters, the events in motion. Is Gregor Samsa a disgrace to his family because he’s a giant vermin, or because he’s a hopelessly single middle-manager? Are The Castle’s K. and The Trial’s Josef merely physically lost, or is there a deeper existential lost-ness?
We’ve been conditioned not to ask these questions, not because they’re obvious (although they certainly are) but because the nature of the question disspells everything we’ve been taught to believe in about stories. Stories are spells, and in them the interior and exterior are fused together, from the sublime to the ridiculous; it’s taken for granted in what we think of today as “serious” literature, but it’s no less true in popular literature. In Twilight, Bella is drawn to a dark, sulking guy because he makes his solitude and broodiness into something supernatural and magical, something she wishes it would be for herself (spoiler: it happens! She becomes a vampire too). In Dan Brown’s books, “symbologist” Robert Langdon is solving literal puzzles and infiltrating secret orders, but he’s also ostensibly engaged in a quest for self-definition, simultaneously attempting to impress whatever vaguely international love interest pops up as well as the naysayers who are, essentially, always asking, what is a symbologist?
So now that I’ve offended basically everyone who’s ever liked Kafka by comparing him to two of the most vapid, flaccid characters in modern fiction (both of which I think are reasonably good books, taken at their own merits), let me dig the knife in a little deeper by suggesting that, if we’re going to set up some sort of objective comparison, Kafka’s stories are more fundamentally poppy than both. Part of what draws us to Kafka, I think, is that there’s no distinction between signifier and signified, barely a set of cultural constructs that we need to understand, barely any references beyond the words themselves. A lot of the time, all we need to understand Kafka’s writing is a rudimentary understanding of the language.
None of which is actually true. The qualities about which he writes, loneliness and isolation and the fundamental meaninglessness, or our inability to find meaning in our lives, are the very stuff that our lives our made of. The other day someone asked me about my My First Kafka book, and, when I explained, he said, “Kafka? You mean, the philosopher?” Maybe once you pare human experience down to a labelless blob of emotions and motivations, as Kafka does, you switch from stories to philosophy. Or maybe at heart all our greatest philosophy are just stories. And that’s why, in the end, kids understand them so much better than the rest of us.
* that is, if you’re me
(In addition to My First Kafka, Matthue Roth is the author of several works of fiction: Never Mind the Goldbergs, Yom Kippur A Go-Go, Candy in Action, Losers, and Automatic. Check out his blog for more:http://www.matthue.com/p/my-first-kafka.html)