ART / The Living Dead: The devil's work: In the first of a new monthly series about the afterlife of late great artists, Kevin Jackson considers the presence, in person and in spirit, of Franz Kafka in literature, art and drama

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Someone has been telling stories about Franz K; or more exactly, thousands of people have told, and are still telling them. There is something appropriately uncanny in this pervasive cultural rumour about Kafka, who (as is well-known) made his most celebrated art out of dark rumours and paranoid misgivings, and (as is less well-known) was strongly drawn to the occult, attending seances, studying theosophy and the mystical Jewish traditions enshrined in the Kabbala. To be sure, it is a dull commonplace that all great artists enjoy an afterlife, achieving a form of immortality through their work. But Kafka belongs to a stranger, more elite group of artists, whose achievements survive not as safely ignorable monuments but more like the dangerously insistent ghosts of his dramatic sketch 'The Warden of the Tomb' (1916), and whose spirits have often been summoned up by later artists for wrestling matches. Kafka's themes and narrative ploys have been reworked by countless subsequent writers, while the man himself has reappeared in dozens of fictional works. Kafka is, we could say, not just any old artistic immortal. He is one of the Living Dead.

The point is not too hard to argue, although in some respects it is highly improbable. Most of the artists whose biographies prove tempting to the novelist or film-maker have been rakehells and bohemians and lunatics. Put Kafka's nocturnal scribblings to one side, and, to the innocent eye, he would appear to have lived a life of quite exemplary tedium - worked in insurance, lived meekly with his parents, never married, never engaged in politics, didn't smoke opium or drink, never travelled very far from his home town, fell ill of a then- commonplace disease, died young, and (unless you credit one suspect account) left no bastards.

Nothing much there to pad out a biopic. However, just as his unassumingly written tales may be seen to conceal darker intents, a closer inspection of Kafka's CV soon yields not just bizarre details, but the makings of a grand biographical melodrama tinged with the glowing hues of martyrology, certain moments of which have grown to seem like Scenes from the Life of St Franz of Prague. His contemporaries helped set this tone. 'Mein Franz war ein Heiliger', were the last recorded words of his spurned fiancee Felice Bauer: My Franz was a saint.

In Prague today, you can buy photos and drawings of Kafka's face from street vendors. Like religious knick-knacks anywhere, these secular icons may look tacky, but can also be the focus of genuine fervour. Antonio Di Stephano's remarkable painting of Kafka (see right) engages with this tradition of hagiography, alluding to the Turin Shroud and the veil of St Veronica. Although its partial erasures originally resulted, Di Stephano says, from an accident - he became dissatisfied with the piece, but was then struck by the power of the defaced image - they chime with Kafka's habit of rubbing out his own work.

Some of the sacred elements of Kafka's tale are familiar even to those who have never read Max Brod or the subsequent biographers. A lifelong struggle with his overbearing father, Hermann Kafka, compounded of rage, hopeless love and self-abasement, and culminating in the extraordinary Letter to his Father (1919), which - the misfire is an emblem for Franz's whole life - his mother failed to deliver. A passionate, albeit intermittent, love life, coloured with both yearning and disgust. Deep kindness, frightening asceticism: 'Relentlessly cutting through all my muscles,' he wrote, 'is the desire to renounce the greatest human happiness for the sake of writing.' Occasional farce, grotesque failures of human imagination, still more grotesque triumphs of artistic imagination: The Castle, The Trial, Amerika.

In the first years after the Moscow Show Trials and the Holocaust (in which his sisters were murdered), it was the works on their own which lent Kafka his posthumous being. He became revered as a prophet, first by keen intellects such as Hannah Arendt, then by anyone with a paperback library and the habit, as Martin Seymour-Smith once quipped, of sitting up late at night sipping Neskafka. To some extent this visionary reputation persists, and perhaps Kafka's greatest single feat is to have survived the ravages inflicted by that mixed blessing, universal recognition. Nowadays, though, you have to be very young or very careless not to know that the overworked adjective 'Kafkaesque' has been pensioned off except for special occasions. Wiser critics have turned away from bromides about alienation and looked to more subtle questions about the ties which bind Kafka's work to his life, and indeed to his body.

Well over 15,000 books on Kafka have already been published and there are no signs of a slump ahead. A good reference library will now hold studies of Kafka's Prague, Kafka's Loneliness, Kafka's Jewishness, Kafka's Relatives and even Kafka's Clothes - this last, incidentally, an excellent work by Mark Anderson, full of curious facts and insights about the young Kafka's dandyish dress, his later keenness for nudism and the influence on his prose of his father's Galanteriewaren (fancy goods) shop.

And in recent years, other kinds of storytellers have been weaving their way through the deceptively intricate yarn of his existence. Alan Bennett has added two major items to the Kafka bio-bibliography, with his stage play Kafka's Dick (Roger Lloyd Pack as Kafka) and his television play The Insurance Man (Daniel Day-Lewis as Kafka). The first of these is a shrewd comedy about the Kafka biography trade, which begins with a scene that casts doubt on the precise degree of sincerity with which Kafka ordered his friend Max Brod to burn all his writings, and then has Kafka and Brod materialise decades later in the home of Sydney, a nice middle-aged chap who works in insurance and is working up an article about Kafka for his house journal, Small Print.

Bennett's television play is in more sombre mode and, with a nod at the writer's own sensitivity to cruel reversals, imagines how one of Kafka's acts of kindness to a disfigured worker ultimately led to the poor fellow's death. Steven Soderbergh's unusual thriller Kafka (Jeremy Irons as Franz) also begins in Kafka's insurance office, before taking off into a series of adventures involving a dark plot hatched in a castle. The screenplay for Kafka was written by Lem Dobbs, the son of R B Kitaj, the distinguished American artist who has frequently cited Kafka as a profound influence on his paintings.

The past few years have also seen Zbig Rybczynski's fantasia Kafka, heavy on video effects and ladies in domination gear; a short comedy by Peter Capaldi, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life (you can almost see the blue flash of comic inspiration here, leaping from the assonance of 'Frank Capra' and 'Franz Kafka', the dewy-eyed American director and the owl-eyed Czech writer); and even an Emmy-winning episode of Northern Exposure, in which Kafka, played by Rob Morrow, pays a visit to Cicely in its early days.

As to Kafka's influence on other writers: well, a brief discussion can only encompass the most cursory list of those who are or have been marked by his work. In North America: Paul Auster, John Berryman, Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, John Steinbeck (the most unlikely of disciples, but his late novel The Winter of Our Discontent is steeped in Kafka), Kurt Vonnegut.

In Central and South America: Jorge Luis Borges (whose story 'The Lottery of Babylon' alludes to a 'sacred latrine called Qaphqa'), Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, Nicanor Parra, Octavio Paz. In Europe: Andre Breton, Hermann Broch, Albert Camus, Elias Canetti, Eugene Ionesco, Edmond Jabes, Milan Kundera, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Mann, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bruno Schultz. And then there is Salman Rushdie, who woke up one morning to find that half the world wanted to kill him . . .

If seized in a nocturnal raid, put up before a judge and forced to account for Kafka's influence in a single phrase, one could do a lot worse than quote Sydney from Kafka's Dick: 'One reason why Kafka is so celebrated is because his life conforms in every particular to what we have convinced ourselves an artist's life should be.' If allowed a few more phrases, some minor qualifications would also be useful: Kafka represents not quite every artist, but the artist as hermit, the artist as melancholic, the artist as lonely bachelor.

Almost everyone who is engaged with art feels the appeal of myths of this kind. Even Kafka (who, as he remarked in a glum tautology, was 'as lonely as Franz Kafka') needed the spectral company of role models, and found them in Grillparzer, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Kleist. It would not be altogether right to say that Kafka was tormented by his loneliness, since he suffered from the presence of others and sought isolation as the only circumstance in which he could get up to his 'Devil's work' of writing. Yet one cannot stay long in Kafka's world without feeling the seductions of paradox. Walter Benjamin memorably said of Kafka that he courted the 'purity and beauty of a failure', and it was the suavity and earnestness of that courtship which has earned Kafka his place among the Living Dead. Only he could have said whether this amounts to a reward or a punishment.

Next month: Oscar Wilde

(Photograph omitted)