Kafka and Musil

This excerpt from the very excellent Philip Payne in Philip Payne, Graham Bartram and Galin Tihanov (eds), A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007, pp. 39-40).


Musil admired Kafka’s work. He made a point of meeting Kafka when the Czech author visited Berlin. As we have seen, Musil wanted to publish Kafka’s story “Die Verwandlung” (The Metamorphosis) in the journal that he edited, Die Neue Rundschau, but Musil’s employer, Samuel Fischer, insisted on cuts that Kafka would not permit. Kafka’s story deals, of course, with the transformation of the central figure from a human being into a grotesque creature resembling a monstrous insect that provokes disgust in those who see it. (The word that Kakfa uses for this creature is Ungeziej”e·, which might be translated as “vermin”- this was one of the terms that the National Socialist propagandists would use later to describe Jews.) In this and many of Kafka’s other works, readers sense a level of meaning that seems almost tangible, yet remains elusive. An even shorter narrative, Kafka’s sketch “Auf der Galerie” In the Gallery) is typical in this respect; it records a scene in a circus where a visitor watches a bareback rider going round and round the ring. At the end of the sketch, which is only two paragraphs long, a bystander lays his head on a parapet and weeps. That is all.

Particularly memorable, and relevant to our present enquiry, is the linguistic realization of Kafka’s sketch. Kafka’s first paragraph consists entirely of a sequence of “if” -clauses, of unreal conditions; the second paragraph is entirely in the indicative, thus stating unequivocally that it gives an accurate record of the scene before the eyes of an observer. The first paragraph, with its unreal conditions, presents a circus ring from hell, a bleak scene of unrelieved suffering; the second paragraph, in the indicative, is a scene of harmony and beauty, a view of this same circus, but as if seen through the eyes of a young child enchanted by the spectacle. One might argue that the power of Kafka’s writing rests precisely in the way it frustrates any attempt at conclusive interpretation, but I consider that this sketch is one in which Kafka intends his reader to reverse the explicit meanings of the verbs in the two paragraphs. Here the virtual (the “unreal conditions” found in the first paragraph) overturns the actual (the second paragraph with its idyll in the indicative mood). I believe that here Kafka employs the device of ironic dissimulation; the unreal (the circus ring from hell) is in fact real, whereas the real (the circus idyll) is unreal. This insight, the loss of childhood innocence, prompts the despair expressed by the bystander. A similar literary play with meaning-reversal is to be found in a series of curious entries in Musil’s diaries, the so-called “Kriegstagebucli eines Flohs” (War Diary of a Flea).