Anthology of freshly translated stories by the acerbic master of early continental modernism.
Kafka (1883-1924) did not live long, and the years he did have were filled with angst that he put into the service of art. He is best known for strange, gloomy stories of, say, an unfortunate young man who turns into a beetle or another unfortunate if somewhat older man caught up in a grinding legal system that makes Bleak House look like summer camp. Yet Kafka had a playful side, as this little anthology of “essential stories” reveals early on with a small, little-known piece called “Poseidon,” in which Kafka—himself a lawyer in an insurance firm—imagines the Greek god of the sea as a beleaguered accountant annoyed at the presupposition that he, as a deity, was free to do as he pleased: “The only interruption to this monotony were occasional visits to Jupiter, visits, by the way, from which he usually returned in a fury.” The one-page title story is of a piece, reporting that the putative freedom of a bachelor really means loneliness: “both today and in the future you’ll actually be standing there yourself, with a body and a real head, as well as a forehead, which you can use your hand to slap.” Some of the better-known stories are here, including the long piece “In the Penal Colony,” which anticipates the tortures and bureaucratic horrors of the 20th century (“I want to describe the machine before I start the process,” the just-following-orders jailer blandly explains). Throughout, reading and rereading these stories, one is reminded of how timely Kafka is: He writes of “European attitudes” that give way to nationalist clashes and tribalism (“Why is the chief engineer a Romanian?” grouses an engine-room denizen who, as a German, imagines himself superior) and always of the inhumanity that lurks just below the thin veneer of civilization.
A welcome distillation of Kafka’s short fiction, essential indeed.