A Week In Books: Kafka may have been right

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The Independent Culture

Next Tuesday, the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize will trigger the usual outbreaks of bile and bliss. The Booker circus remains the only arena where British culture in general clears a space to consider the nature of good fiction. So it's a pity that the hullabaloo always ends up resembling the Grand National more than Cruft's. In a nation of punters, picking winners becomes the name of the game, rather than asking what exactly makes a champ.

Next Tuesday, the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize will trigger the usual outbreaks of bile and bliss. The Booker circus remains the only arena where British culture in general clears a space to consider the nature of good fiction. So it's a pity that the hullabaloo always ends up resembling the Grand National more than Cruft's. In a nation of punters, picking winners becomes the name of the game, rather than asking what exactly makes a champ.

This year, that tougher question may be less avoidable than usual. No one could deny that Elizabeth Costello by J M Coetzee - already a double Booker laureate - counts as one of the most impressive and impassioned texts on the long-list. Whether the South African master's bracing blend of Socratic dialogue and ethical fable merits an automatic place on the fiction shelves next to Jonathan Coe and Jackie Collins remains more open to debate.

Too often, when that debate does happen, the action- and character-packed realist novel wins by default. A priori, other forms of narrative art - the ancient heritage of tales, fables, parables and allegories - are deemed inferior. This is surely a prejudice more than a principle. And its fragility struck me more forcefully than ever last week when I heard Zadie Smith talk - with even more eloquence and brilliance than you might expect - on "Kafka versus the Novel".

The author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man was delivering the Jewish Quarterly's Jacob Sonntag Memorial Lecture. She chose to discuss a writer whose fastidious revulsion from the coarse, inchoate stuff that fuels normal novels not only prevented him from ending one (The Trial, The Castle and America stayed incomplete), but also led him to demand that Max Brod burn all his manuscripts. Never has a broken promise given so much to the world.

Zadie Smith's exploration of the reasons why Kafka thought the novel "not quite good enough for him" proved almost enough to persuade me that the anguished Prague perfectionist - not the smug ranks of yarn-spinners and pot-boilers - might be in the right after all. What made her sympathy for his suspicion of fiction's "tools, tricks and machinery" all the more compelling was the knowledge that it came from a writer whose own work embraces the messy human comedy of the classic novel with such exuberant delight. She also noticed that his wary, arm's-length relationship with the novel proper meant that Kafka has acquired admirers (worshippers, even) among later novelists, rather than disciples or imitators. Although far from a mere epigone, Coetzee himself is one major living author who has found a way to use Kafka in his fiction. Elizabeth Costello, although "no devotee of Kafka", still finds herself thrust into a "Kafkaesque" ordeal of walls, forms, rules, gates and sentries. If Coetzee progresses in the Booker stakes (as he should), then Kafka's troubling legacy for fiction will have to be inspected once again.

By the way, I suspect that I can add another name to the roster of Kafka acolytes. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the gruesome Dolores Umbridge makes Harry write out the line "I must not tell lies" - for, so she says, "as long as it takes for the message to sink in". As soon as he begins to write, Harry gasps in pain as he finds the words of his crime cut into the back of his hand "as though traced there by a scalpel". Presumably, J K Rowling had in mind the torture and execution machine of In the Penal Colony. And if she truly didn't: well, then Kafka's nightmares have invaded ours in an even weirder way than we had thought.

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