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Five Books for Kafka’s Birthday

Simon Owens By Simon Owens Published on July 4, 2016

While our American cousins might be a little busy celebrating their Independence Day, the rest of us can let our Monday evening be taken up in celebration of Franz Kafka’s birthday. Though he died young at the age of 40, Kafka left behind a trove of unpublished papers. Despite his having expressed a wish for it to be burned, his work has gone on to become some of the best-regarded literature of the 20th Century.

Naturally, this being his birthday, the world is already overflowing with recommendations on what Kafka books you should read first (try The Metamorphosis, unless you’re in sales). With that in mind, we thought it might be more helpful to recommend some books that touch on some of the same broad themes as Kafka’s work for those of you who already know and enjoy Kafka.

So, a belated happy birthday, Franz. We had hoped to post this yesterday, but I’m sure you’ll understand, the paperwork for getting an article posted on a Sunday is a real nightmare...

Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

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A repeating theme of Kafka’s work is a sense of being at sea in a world whose rules and systems don’t quite conform to one’s expectations. As a result, the of reading experience is one of constant low-level discomfort, of being at the mercy of agencies that act forever just beyond the limit of your understanding.

In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Murakami’s nameless protagonist is slowly swallowed up by a strange and sometimes magical world. At the outset, this sense of uncomfortable weirdness is experienced entirely externally, centred on an abandoned house at the end of the street. As things progress, that discomfort seems to permeate every aspect of his life, until the alien feeling is internalised, developing into a profound and inescapable sense of disquiet.

It stops just short of being outright disturbing, but there is a sense of looming dread, as though things could go terribly wrong at any moment.

Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman

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Alongside their oppressive strangeness and a sense of an almost Brazil-style inescapable bureaucracy, Kafka’s stories are often fundamentally absurd. Unfortunately, the humour of that absurdity can be subsumed in the hopelessness of the situations themselves.

There are few writers who manage to convey the combined humour and horror of these situations as well as Flann O’Brien. The Third Policeman follows a one-legged fugitive on the lam after committing a murder, who stumbles into a small town whose inhabitants seem to work on an alternative logic inaccessible to the reader.

Isolated, he navigates a series of increasingly nonsensical interactions with the local constabulary, a trio of apparently ageless policemen who are obsessed with bicycles to the exclusion of all else. All crimes are investigated relative to any bicycles that might be involved. If no bicycle can be involved, they may determine that no crime has been committed. The policemen are at once stern, ineffectual, and somehow terrifying.

Ted Hughes: Tales from Ovid

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If you ask the overwhelming majority of people which Kafka novel they’d recommend, they’d tell you to read The Metamorphosis, in which the unassuming salesman Gregor Samsa is transformed into an enormous insect. What is most striking about this transformation is the matter-of-fact practicality with which it is approached in the text.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is so long that it’s a little difficult to reasonably recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already have an interest in Roman poetry. If Kafka has left you thirsty for more stories about undergoing transformations, Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid is a more accessible selection of 24 stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The tales are related with less granular attention to the transformation itself, but often with more romance than a cockroach lying in bed, worrying about its career in sales.

You can also take a smug satisfaction in the fact that you’re reading a book about transformations that is itself something that another book has mutated into, maximising your metamorphosis count.

Don DeLillo: White Noise

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White Noise is another book that takes place in a world whose rules seem only to be one step removed from our own, but that one step renders the setting near impossible to navigate. Moreover, the fundamental uneasiness of White Noise has its roots in the stinted interaction between organisations and reality, resulting in situations like the very real evacuation of a town by an agency that specialises in running simulations of evacuations.

The conversation in which SIMUVAC is revealed to the reader is a perfect example:

"That's quite an armband you've got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important."
"Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they're still battling over funds for."
"But this evacuation isn't simulated. It's real."
"We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model."
"A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?"
"We took it right into the streets."

The conversation goes on to document the inconveniences of working with a messy reality instead of a nice, organised simulation. The sense of a disconnect between the reality as it would be simulated and the simulation as it acts on reality is at once hilarious and deeply discomfiting, almost nauseating.

Franz Kafka: Complete Short Stories

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If one of the hallmarks of Kafka’s writing is that characters find themselves in situations in which they are at the mercy of systems acting just beyond their knowledge and understanding, then it seems entirely reasonable to end a list of books that deal with similar themes to Kafka's with a book written by Kafka.

For a long time, there was a terrible belief that the short story, as a form, was dying. It is perhaps as a result of this that people are far more inclined to recommend that you read an author’s novels than their short fiction. In Kafka’s case, this means neglecting some of his best work. Where his novels can sometimes feel bleak and drawn out, his short stories tend to be short and sharp. Some are readable in just a few minutes, and leave a lasting impression.

If you’ve been meaning to investigate some Kafka and find yourself not quite getting around to it for years, then you might find that the short stories are exactly the spur you need. 

I am a man who enjoys hiking and woodland walks. I love the smell of freshly cut grass and of wild onions in early spring.