K., by Roberto Calasso, trans Geoffrey Brock

Retrial for Kafka - with a friendly judge
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Calasso's new study of Kafka, very fluently translated into American English by Geoffrey Brock, is represented as the fourth part of a "work in progress" that began with The Ruins of Kasch, followed by The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka: big analytical explorations of myth, eastern and western. But it is also described as an effort not to dispel the mystery of Kafka, "but to let it be illuminated by its own light".

In practice this results in a much quieter book than one might have expected. In place of a grand hermeneutic narrative we have a series of finely expressed, thoughtful - one is on the verge of saying old-fashioned - readings of Kafka's work. Calasso deprecates the many "voluble and intrusive" interpretations and prefers a more listening tone.

That is not to say that Calasso the mythographer and panoptic scholar is not fitfully present, but for the most part what strikes one most about these companionable readings is their justice and tact. Happily expressed apothegms like "Kafka can't be understood if he isn't taken literally" or "with a minimum of words he achieves maximum effect" help to balance the more exuberant flights.

Calasso has clearly spent time with the German critical edition of Kafka's texts, quoting cancelled passages and conducting sporadic interrogations of individual words. But he makes the bizarre assertion that "only once... did Kafka speak of Jews directly and at length": that wouldn't survive a riffle through the indexes of the basic Kafka texts.

Calasso thinks too much has been made of Kafka's Judaism but then proceeds to use it himself as an interpretative tool. His equable tone is occasionally punctuated by a personal note (he dislikes secular funerals and hates grunge) or by a light squirt of scholarly odium. He tilts gently at Benjamin and Adorno, noting that the women in Kafka's fiction generate "some unruly psychic turmoil" in these two lofty critics.

The heart of the book is in the readings of The Castle and The Trial, in the course of which he launches the notion that both the big novels "take place within the same psychic life. After the execution of his sentence, Josef K. reappears under the name K."

Calasso is also very interesting on the "Zürau aphorisms". He warms to their ripe wisdom, product of one of Kakfa's only periods of pure happiness, describing them as "the rapid brushstrokes of an exceedingly old master, with "an eye that simplifies to the point of utter desolation". For Calasso, as he tries to reconcile his obsessions with Kafka's, the latter's recognition in the aphorisms of what lies beneath the surface of things should be sufficient "to put an end to the atavistic struggle against the gods".

Nicholas Murray's biography of Kafka is published by Abacus

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