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Review of "Selected Stories" edited by Mark Harman – A Master of Brevity

Review of “Selected Stories” edited by Mark Harman – A Master of Brevity
Franz Kafka in 1917. Photograph: Alamy

In the singular case of Franz Kafka, it’s fascinating how his terse writings yield profound insights. Kafka mastered the art of fragments and aphorisms, matching the wisdom of Nietzsche or Rochefoucauld. Just consider a few examples: “A cage went in search of a bird.” “I feel like a Chinaman going home; but then, I am a Chinaman going home.” “There is a destination but no way there; what we refer to as way is hesitation.” And to his friend Max Brod who asked if there was any hope to be had in the world, Kafka wittily replied, “Plenty of hope – for God – no end of hope – only not for us.”

This new selection from Kafka’s fiction, skillfully edited by Mark Harman, professor emeritus of German and English at Elizabethtown College, offers rich insights. Harman opens with two small yet potent fragments, Wish to Become an Indian and The Trees, which could almost serve as Kafka’s own epigraphs.

Following these are more substantial works. The Judgment, written in one night in September 1912, is one of the few works Kafka deemed acceptable. Then appear some of his longest tales: The Transformation, rightly titled by Harman rather than the usual The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa awakens to find himself transformed into a beetle; and the disturbing In the Penal Colony.

The translations are surely definitive – Harman’s grasp of the German language is as comprehensive as was the Czech-born Kafka’s.

Not as well-known but equally powerful is In the Penal Colony, which describes an apparatus that executes its victims by engraving their sentences into their bodies with a metal stylus. The calm tone in which this horror is narrated is striking. Harman’s notes reveal Kurt Tucholsky’s visceral reaction when he first read it: “I gulped down a faint taste of blood…”. This taste lingers with the reader.

After these stories, the collection narrows down to even shorter pieces. The final two, Little Fable and A Commentary, are as brief as the fragments that began the collection.

Kafka’s writings show that substance is not necessarily linked to length. One of his most haunting aphorisms, written in March 1922, reads: “Somewhere help is waiting and the beaters are driving me there.” Kafka revisited this image often. He once wrote to his lover Felice Bauer, describing how his mother played the role of a beater in a hunt during his childhood. He felt perpetually pursued, forever dodging the inescapable penalty of death.

To Max Brod, Kafka acknowledged his impending fate after being diagnosed with tuberculosis: “What I have play-acted is really going to happen. I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now I will really die.”

Kafka’s utterances, published or otherwise, consistently reflect his literary essence. Even in his moments of deepest anguish, he couldn’t refrain from a touch of melancholy humor or stylish turn of phrase. Late in life, he and Dora Diamant entertained a whimsical plan to emigrate to Palestine and work in a restaurant in Tel Aviv. He humorously shared this with another lover, Milena Jesenská: “If I’m never going to leave my bed, why shouldn’t I go at least as far as Palestine?”

Harman’s introduction is incisive and insightful, one of the most thorough analyses since Reiner Stach’s comprehensive biography of Kafka. Published to commemorate the centenary of Kafka’s death, this compilation, Selected Stories, stands out for its translations and rich annotations.

The value of the book lies in its meticulous annotation. Harman flags every subtle nuance, cross-references diligently, and highlights Kafka’s intricate humor. This academic work shines in faithfully serving both the text and its readers.

Kafka: Selected Stories, translated and edited by Mark Harman, is published by Harvard University Press (£24.95).

Source: The Guardian