How Good is Kafka?
To the Editor:
In his interesting essay on “The Jewishness of Franz Kafka” for April Mr. Clement Greenberg, having observed that “no moral choices are made in Kafka’s fiction,” writes: “To the extent that this fiction succeeds, it refutes the assumption of many of the most serious critics of our day—F. R. Leavis is notably one of them—that the value of a work of literary art depends ultimately on the depth to which it explores moral difficulties.” I shouldn’t myself put in this way any assumption I bring to criticism, but I do, of course, think that the response to which a great work of literary art challenges us entails a valuation of a most radical kind—a valuation of attitudes to life made at the prompting of a new profound sense of the possibilities of living. I assume, for instance, that a contemporary work that strikes us as important and vital art will do so for reasons suggested by D. H. Lawrence when he defines the criteria of “interest” with which he approaches new fiction: “Supposing a bomb were put under the whole scheme of things, what would we be after? What feelings do we want to carry through to the next epoch? What feelings will carry us through? What is the underlying impulse that will provide the motive power for a new state of things, when this democratic-industrial-lovey-dovey-darling-take-me-to-mamma state of things is bust?”
The conclusion to which Mr. Greenberg’s considerations bring one is, surely, that Kafka is not a great creative writer at all. One can arrive at that conclusion while recognizing that Kafka certainly had something in the nature of genius. It is manifested in the pertinacious originality with which he achieves a literary expression for his neurosis. But “to the extent that this fiction succeeds” it succeeds as the expression of neurosis: We walk the neurotic treadmill, we suffer the claustrophobia, and we share the life-frustration insofar as we respond to Kafka’s art. The two chief novels on which, along with a number of tales (which are all essentially the same, the neurosis remaining the same), Kafka’s reputation rests are both unfinished, and Mr. Greenberg seems to concede that they were unfinishable. He makes a further significant concession when he says that, owing to Kafka’s “scrupulousness governed by so anxious a vision,” his “manner risks boring us,” and this is why “his shorter efforts are generally more successful than his novels or extended short stories” (and he remarks how “tautological [Kafka's] imagination was on the plane of fiction”). The conclusion should surely be, not that “what Kafka wanted to convey transcended literature,” but rather that he didn’t succeed by creative art in transcending his neurosis: he remained its prisoner. Mr. Greenberg points out that the way in which Kafka gave his imprisonment literary expression has, by reason of its adaptation of a traditional theologico-legalist “logic,” a special interest for those familiar with Jewish culture and tradition, and Mr. Greenberg’s approach in general is explicit in his title. Can I without offense suggest that he should reflect on the widespread tendency among Catholics to attribute to (say) François Mauriac and Graham Greene an existence as distinguished creative writers that they certainly (it seems to me) haven’t? As myself neither a Jew nor a Catholic I find in Kafka a genuine originality and an interest that I don’t find in Mauriac and Greene. But I think all the same that, partly at any rate because of the approach represented by his title (and in spite of the explicitness of this), Mr. Greenberg tends to slip into some confusion about the nature of the interest, and so to overvalue the originality and the achievement.
F. R. Leavis
Mr. Greenberg writes:
I was aware that I might have been giving Dr. Leavis’s point of view a little too swiftly, but I am still not sure that the point of view I attributed to him is very different from the one he states, which indeed seems to me a less tenable one. I would agree that successful art heightens our sense of the possibilities of life, but I would say that it works on that sense as a sense alone, without indicating superior or inferior possibilities as such. Lawrence’s assumption, followed to its logical consequence, would make good taste in art a sign of wisdom and of the capacity for wise action, which it manifestly is not. There is not the space here to go into this whole perennially confused question, but I am surprised that Dr. Leavis is not aware of how conclusively, and how often, the fallacies in this position have been demonstrated.
Dr. Leavis writes that my considerations and “concessions” would indicate that Kafka is “not a great creative writer at all.” I think he deduces too much from what I say. I could “concede” more than I have, and the experience of Kafka’s text would still leave him a “great creative writer”; all I can do here is ask Dr. Leavis to re-read that text (preferably in the original, for Kafka is a great master of language) without consulting his critical principles. I have the impression that he does not really consult them in Lawrence’s case and therefore finds, rightly, that Lawrence is a great writer despite his unevenness and his obsessions. In his own way Kafka, too, transcends his fragmentariness and his “imprisonment,” and perhaps does so even more triumphantly by virtue of his humor, which anticipates most of the criticisms of his view of life that Dr. Leavis or I can make.
Dr. Leavis seems to judge Kafka in part on his reputation and where it rests. As so often with writers close to us in time, we sense Kafka’s genuine greatness in his very manner and mannerisms before we grasp it in the completeness of any individual work. With time, I think, we shall get a better view, and perceive that Kafka is perhaps even greater than we think, and more rounded and fulfilled, in a tale like “Josephine,” or a “sketch” like “The Investigations of a Dog,” or a prose poem like the second “Hunter Gracchus” fragment, than in his novels.
I suppose that Dr. Leavis brings in Kafka’s special Jewish interest for me because he cannot account otherwise for the high opinion I retain of him in spite of the reservations I expressed. Well, I could cogently qualify my admiration for Shakespeare, or for any other great writer, and have infinite room left for praise while seeming to damn beyond redemption. It is distressing that Dr. Leavis should have to imply that Jewish egocentricity is what permits my esteem for Kafka’s writing to survive everything I object to in it.
What I cannot see at all is why the resemblances I find between the method of Kafka’s imagination and Halachic logic should have any more special—that is, exclusive—an interest for “those familiar with Jewish culture and tradition” than Shakespeare’s echoes of Montaigne have for experts in 16th-century French literature, or the cosmological scheme of the Divine Comedy has for Catholic medievalists. I hoped I was explaining the cause of an effect in Kafka’s writings that those unacquainted with Jewish tradition feel as much as I do—who am not, in my ignorance of Hebrew and many other things, that familiar with Jewish tradition anyhow. The explanation of the cause was not intended to enhance one’s opinion of the effect, nor was the Jewishness of Kafka’s art expected to recommend it in any way that it could not recommend itself at first hand to any reader, Gentile or Jew.
I, too, happen to find Graham Greene an overrated writer, but since so many of the people who admire him are not Catholics and are even unsympathetic to Catholicism, I have to conclude that his vogue is the product of bad taste rather than of a special, weighted, extra-literary interest. (I haven’t read Mauriac.) I wish that Dr. Leavis, in disagreeing with me about Kafka, had attributed my position to a similar error of taste and argued on that basis.