For most of his adult life, Franz Kafka appeared to have a double existence. During the day he worked for an insurance company, sorting his way through claims, while his nights were also spent behind a desk, but this time writing stories, mainly short ones, sometimes very short ones – four or five sentences – until the early hours.
But despite the fact that writing was a means of escape from a job he hated, was it really such a ‘double existence’? Many of the scenarios Kafka spins have the same mundane and repetitious nature of an insurance claim. Yet they are some of the most wonderful short stories to have ever been written. Take, for example, The Village Schoolmaster. As with many insurance claims, there is no easily attainable ‘objective truth’ in this story, just a series of claims and counterclaims.
Ostensibly about a giant mole spotted in a small village, the story recounts the narrator’s vain attempts to defend the name of a schoolmaster who has become a laughing stock among ‘experts’ after writing an academic paper on the creature. But not only is the narrator uncertain as to whether the mole exists, he also admits that he has not even read the schoolmaster’s paper. He claims he decided to write his own thesis on the mole only to defend the honour of a ‘good man’. However, the narrator ends up being ridiculed by the same experts he was defending the schoolmaster against and, what’s more, the schoolmaster believes the narrator only joined the debate to pile further mockery upon him. “So, as was bound to happen, in seeking to associate myself with the teacher, I met with his incomprehension, and probably instead of helping, soon stood in need of a new helper myself, whose appearance on the scene was highly unlikely.” Whether the mole even existed in the first place is never resolved.
A lack of resolution is a common theme of these forty-plus newly translated stories, even among the few that are actually ‘finished’. In his diary Kafka once wrote: “You are destined for a great Monday! Well spoken! But Sunday will never end.” The important word here is ‘destined’. Despite the worlds these men live in being set up to thwart and humiliate them at their every turn, time and time again the protagonists of these stories continue to live in hope and look for meaning.
In 2007, Penguin published Michael Hofmann’s much-praised translation of Metamorphosis, Kafka’s most famous work, and for this collection he has translated all the short stories not published in Kafka’s lifetime. A German poet who writes in English, Hofmann perfectly captures the solipsistic, nightmarish world Kafka created from his desk in the middle of the night. He has also captured the dark humour in these stories – an important, but often ignored feature of Kafka’s work that in the past has not always survived translation.
The Burrow: Posthumously Published Short Fiction by Franz Kafka is published by Penguin Modern Classics on 26th January 2017.