Franz Kafka hated the letter K. The last stroke of its capital, as rendered in his hand, made a flashy downward swoop he detested. Signing his name must have been torture enough, but Kafka went on to name the protagonists of two of his novels Josef K. and just plain K. To write that hateful letter again and again must have been a gesture as self-lacerating as the punishment machine Kafka imagined in his story “The Penal Colony,” which engraved crimes into the skin of the accused. That’s only one of the quixotic revelations about Kafka’s life and work Roberto Calasso recounts in K., an excellent and thorough critical exploration of the body of modern literature that necessitated the creation of the word “Kafkaesque.”
Franz Kafka, vibrating antenna for the godless terrors of the modern age, endured 40 years of unrelenting psychic misery before dying in practical obscurity in 1924. In this exhaustive and ambitious book, Calasso has managed to dissect the larger portion of Kafka’s body of work in less than 300 pages without sacrificing breadth of scope or depth of thought. However, unlike most dissections that kill the subject, Calasso’s intellectual dexterity invigorates Kafka’s work and whets the appetite for deeper understanding.
Starting from Kafka’s original manuscripts (and making careful note of the meanings of scratched-out passages and subtleties of German vocabulary), Calasso ingenuously merges personal interpretations, biographical excepts from Kafka’s life, and Eastern theology (for example, comparing the nightmare netherworld where Kafka’s narratives take place to bando, the nameless void negotiated by the Tibetan Book of the Dead) to make the airtight case for Kafka’s genius. Originally written in Italian, Calasso’s ideas have enough heft to make the journey into English undiluted (credit is also due to Geoffrey Brock’s lucid translation).
This is not light reading—the jaw of one’s intellect may need to unhinge like a snake’s to accommodate some of Calasso’s more nuanced points. But this readable and fascinating book not only provides a dense companion volume to Kafka’s work but humanizes the tortured lost soul at the core. K. exhibits a rare inclusiveness among scholarly texts, proving equally rewarding to those who have read all of Kafka’s works and those who have read none. After absorbing this volume, however, the latter group won’t remain that way for long.