In May, a poster of his face appeared on Gordon Cole’s wall in episode three of Twin Peaks: The Return. In April, a video game inspired by his writing became available on Steam for $9.99. Also in April, a piece in Quartz drew connections between him and the late musician Prince. During March, in New Delhi, the play Giraftari set his novel The Trial in India’s burgeoning modern bureaucracy. Currently, there are over four hundred T-shirts with themes from his life and work for sale on Google Shopping. On Etsy, you can purchase a coffee mug with his name on it or a The Metamorphosis wine glass. The #kafka hashtag appears on over two hundred thousand Instagram posts. And last spring, the Twitter account Thinkpiece Bot tweeted this sobering question: “Is Kafka Why Millennials Keep Hooking Up?”
While Franz Kafka is no Kim, he is arguably the closest an early twentieth-century modernist author has ever gotten to being a Kardashian. Now, into this bizarre milieu of variations, memes, and merchandise comes a new translation of Kafka’s shorter writings by award-winning translator and poet Michael Hofmann. Investigations of a Dog and Other Creatures, which takes its title from one of the longer stories in the collection, gathers 239 pages of Kafka’s fragments and stories written between the spring of 1911 and the winter of 1924—the year he died of tuberculosis.
This isn’t Hofmann’s first time with Kafka. In Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared, he presented a faithful translation of Kafka’s strange American road trip, where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword and true freedom is at the circus. Hofmann also tackled The Zürau Aphorisms, a group of short, metaphysical insights Kafka wrote from 1917 to 1918 while convalescing with his sister in Zürau, West Bohemia.
Hofmann states in the foreword to the new translation: “Kafka’s writing dramatizes a continual dialectic…. Instability is all.” Indeed, Kafka’s best works act as a kind of psychotropic experience, thrusting the reader into a destabilized, uncanny between. We are like Blumfeld, the elderly bachelor (from the incomplete story “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor…”), an organized and rigorous man, who has his routines and tranquility disrupted by a pair of “blue and white striped celluloid balls…bouncing side by side.” These overtly symbolic balls won’t leave Blumfeld alone. They follow him around his room, even bounce beneath his bed as he sleeps. But in classic Kafka fashion, it isn’t the anomaly of these celluloid balls being sentient that disturbs the character—it is their persistent bouncing. And the reader is disturbed, too, left somewhere between a bone-deep fear of these animate inanimate objects, hilarity at the bumbling Blumfeld, and sadness for this man whose only companion is routine.
Hofmann’s translation captures this instability and “between-ness” in Kafka’s sentences. In the page-and-a-half tale “The Bridge,” an anthropomorphized bridge is destroyed when it attempts to turn and look at a man that may or may not be committing suicide:
And I turned round to catch sight of him. A bridge turns round. I hadn’t completely turned when I was already falling, I was falling and already I was dashed to pieces and pierced on the pointed little rocks that had always gazed up at me so quietly from the rushing waters.
Willa and Edwin Muir, the first to translate Kafka into English in 1933, translated the second sentence—“A bridge turns round”—as, “A bridge to turn around!” In their translation, the sentence has flippancy and jollity. One imagines the bridge as an old man—much like the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph himself—mustachioed and puffing on a rank tobacco pipe, exclaiming lightly at his own daftness: “Oh my!” In contrast, Hofmann’s version presents us with an almost third-person observation of the bridge itself. It pulls us out of the fable framing into a very real and very dark scene. We are there on the bank watching as “A bridge turns round.” The Muirs’ translation says: What silliness! Hofmann’s shakes us and says: Imagine that.
Another of Hofmann’s virtues is his faithfulness to the original manuscript. Where the Muirs and Kafka’s friend and champion Max Brod sought to make a wholeness of incomplete novels and stories, Hofmann leaves them as they were found. “The Great Wall of China” is wrapped up neatly in the Muirs’ translation by cutting it off at a point that feels balanced. Hofmann’s version, keeping the original title, “Building the Great Wall of China,” gives us the rest. As with “The Bridge,” we are pulled out of the fable style of telling into a scene: “It [news of the Great Wall] happened one summer evening. I was ten years old, standing with my father on the river bank.” This switch to scene is itself disruptive. Yet the abruptness of the ending—in the middle of a sentence—is a more fitting conclusion to the mystical disquisition that came before. The speaker’s father, who had just heard of the Great Wall, is going to tell his family all he was told, and our speaker is going to tell us, too, but that is where it stops: “What my father said was this:”
Throughout these stories and fragments we see Kafka—his instabilities, insecurities, and talents—in microcosm, in selfies rather than grand portraiture. We see his famed version of law in the fragment “Advocates,” the same law—perfected in The Trial—that is less Austro-Hungary and Franz Joseph than Hammurabi and Babylon. In “An Everyday Confusion,” where person A. continually misses his meeting with person B., we get the feeling, so common in Kafka’s larger works, that there are children laughing somewhere at the edges of the story. These invisible kids—perhaps hidden under the stairs A. collapses on—laugh uncontrollably at that which causes confusion, disillusionment, and horror in the adults. As David Foster Wallace—quoted on the book jacket—wrote: “Kafka’s comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy always also an immense and reverent joy.”
This oscillation between laughter/fear, scene/parable, ancient/modern, and reality/phantasm are Kafka’s modus operandi, and this smattering of stories and fragments does well in showing these instabilities. Yet despite the instability that saturates the writing, and Hofmann’s aptitude at capturing it, one cannot read this collection without thinking about a certain stability outside of the text: Kafka’s reputation itself. Since 1925, when Max Brod began posthumously publishing his work (against his wishes), the stability of Kafka’s literary reputation has been an unchanging stone idol in a forest of blooming and withering literary acclaim.
As this new collection proves, when it comes to the words on the page, this reverence is earned. One of the marks of literary greatness—having a suffix attached to one’s name to describe others’ work—has stuck with Kafka more than any other writer. “Kafkaesque” is a more common descriptor than Joycean will ever be (even spell-check recognizes the former, but not the latter). There is something about Kafka’s work that makes all else seem derivative. From Jorge Luis Borges to Andy Warhol, David Lynch to Elena Ferrante: all seem students. Some artists may have a similar aberrancy in their works—the same undulation between real, dreamlike, and nightmarish. Yet they always stand within the long-stretching shadow of the dark man from Bohemia. Which, circuitously, brings us back to the Kardashians.
The myth of Kafka and his literary prowess is now, like everything else, a part of our increasingly digitized world. Like Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie, Kafka shares an ever-spreading internet popularity. And for both Franz and Kim, the line between earned praise and praise for mere existence is often hard to discern.
The fragments and sketches in this collection—ranging from near-complete stories, to dislocated, incomplete paragraphs—exemplify this. We have classics, such as “The Helmsman,” but also bantamweight peregrinations like “I Really Should Have…” Such tiny experiments and sketches, though they have a certain charm, are less the brief linguistic sparks of genius Hofmann and scholars would have us believe than the common detritus of any writer. Not every selfie turns out well, as we all know. But because these vestiges come from the literary godhead of Kafka, they are here enshrined and worshipped. In a different world, one where Kafka died in 2017 and not 1924, one can imagine the Max Brods, Muirs, and Hofmanns selling his castoff clothes on eBay just as Kim Kardashian-West does her own. A Homburg hat or frock coat, worn personally by Franz—put in your bid now.
In the paragraph-long story “The Spinning Top,” a philosopher obsesses over a spinning top while children (those invisible laughers) shout and ridicule him. The philosopher believes “that the understanding of any little thing, for instance a spinning top, enabled one to understand everything.” This notion, like instability, is prevalent through all of Kafka’s work, and it seems to have been applied to the composition of Investigations of a Dog. If we can completely comprehend a fragment or an incomplete story, we will comprehend all of Kafka’s universe. If we understand Kafka’s routine selfies, we will understand his Mona Lisas. Yet as Kafka shows in “The Spinning Top,” this avenue of investigation doesn’t lead to revelation, but leaves the searcher “lashed by a clumsy whip” of their own creation. In the note to the collection, Hofmann states that “the emphasis is on stories,” and that some writings, such as nonfiction or co-written works, were left out. Perhaps that editorial impulse should have also been applied to the forty-two stories and fragments. As Orwell wrote in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” So, too, with Kafka’s literary litter.
On the whole, this Kardashian-esque reverence of Kafka is a minor blight on Investigations of a Dog and Other Creatures. Any translator, the revered Michael Hofmann included, would be hard-pressed to screw up Kafka. Any translation will be good, because the bulk of the material is so good.
Perhaps the best takeaway comes from the title story. A dog, embarking on a meandering investigation of his species’ nature and the nature of the world, says:
All I see is decline, by which I don’t mean that previous generations were superior—no, they were just younger, their memory was not so burdened as ours today, it was easier to get them to speak, and even if no one succeeded in doing it, the sense of possibility was greater, and it is this greater potential that so rouses us as we listen to those old, really rather unsophisticated stories.
Though our memories are burdened with the likes of the Kardashians, as we read Kafka we can remember a time when it was easier to speak.