A quartet of somber fictions on the surprising influence of Franz Kafka’s work and life on those around him.
This story collection by Cantor (creative writing/Tufts; Great Neck, 2003, etc.) opens with Kafka on his deathbed in Austria, finishing his story “The Hunger Artist” while starving himself from tuberculosis. Kafka told his friend Max Brod to burn all his writing upon his death, and the first two stories track the varied consequences of his refusal to do so—literary greatness for Kafka but despair over his betrayal and a creeping sense that he was made into a Kafkaesque fiction himself. The whole book thrives on the tension between the liberating honesty of Kafka’s writing and the existential suffering it depicted, most effectively in the novella-length “Lusk and Marianne.” That story tracks the relationship between Kafka’s widow and German Communist Ludwig “Lusk” Lask; after years in prison at the hands of the Gestapo and Soviet Russia, he finally gets to know his daughter, Marianne, whose own demeanor keeps reminding him of Kafka. The closing story, “Milena Jasenska and The World the Camps Made,” takes place in a Nazi concentration camp; Milena was Kafka’s Czech translator and lover, and she takes another woman, Eva, under her wing before dying. Years after the war, Eva is still wrestling with Milena’s command over her psyche. Thinking about Milena only provokes Eva’s suffering, but as Cantor writes, “more pain was at least more”—a Kafkaesque sentiment if there ever was one. The tone of these stories is inevitably dour, but Cantor’s prose is never ponderous; in Brod, Lusk and Eva, he uncovers three different varieties of emotional pain, depicting each with intelligence and depth.
Shot through with black comedy, unsparing honesty and robust intellect—in short, a fitting Kafka tribute.