Dissecting the Beetle
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Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.

 — E B White

There is an old interpreters’ joke (there turns out, when you look into it, to be a whole genre of interpreter jokes) about the time Konrad Adenauer visited the UN. Adenauer stood up to address the General Assembly, launched into his speech, and spoke for quite some time, growing increasingly impassioned in his delivery. But the delegates could hear nothing through their headsets. They looked around the hall at each other in confusion, frantically twiddled the knobs on their sound systems. A senior diplomat rushed up to the interpreters’ booth, saw the assembled team sitting in total silence and shrieked ‘Why aren’t you translating?!’. One turned round, shrugged apologetically and explained: ‘We can’t – we’re waiting for the verb.’

For German, as Mark Twain said, is a ‘perplexing language’, ‘slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp’. Clauses can build interminably upon clauses, and when they do, the grammatical principle of satzklammer means the verb is sent to the end of the sentence, leaving a reader or listener potentially unaware of its meaning until the very last word. Franz Kafka made able use of this linguistic built-in punchline. It is preserved in miniature form in the famous opening to The Metamorphosis:

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.

In German, the sentence itself mimics Gregor’s dozy awakening. It opens slowly and prosaically, its mind still on the dreams of the night just passed, and it stretches out serenely until the arrival of the adjective — ungeheueren, huge — signals something unexpected. The noun that follows is a surprise: a generalised sort of vermin, an Ungeziefer, has made its way into this bedroom. But the verb, when it comes, is a shock. Only now do we realise that what Gregor has done to this insect – verwandelt – is turn into it.

There is something about that joke and this sentence that encapsulates the experience of reading Kafka. The text can feel impenetrable, like the worlds his characters tend to inhabit: labyrinthine cities and structures made up of endless corridors and staircases, rooms opening on to other rooms, systems of authority with uncountable layers. And as in the sentence above, the punchline, when it eventually arrives, may bring fresh bewilderment, not resolution. To read Kafka may make you feel like that audience at the UN, or as Mark Twain said he felt when he read anything in German: ‘one is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way.’

Perhaps for this reason, Kafka seems not to get much credit for his humour. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the adjective to which he has bequeathed his name as meaning ‘especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality’ (the OED, sensibly, is more generic), but makes no mention of a comic one. And admittedly, the confusing worlds of Kafka’s stories are regularly nightmarish, and tragic too. The story Kafka felt turned him into a true writer, which he completed in one night of frenzied work – ‘The Judgment’ – ends with its hero humiliated by his father and throwing himself off a bridge to his death. But contemporary accounts describe Kafka giggling uncontrollably as he read his work out to friends, and even the most solemn of readers could not fail to glimpse the occasional flash of comedy among the misfortune, like laughter in the dark. ‘In the Penal Colony’, whose plot may be the grimmest in all Kafka’s stories, tells the tale of a society that sentences men to death without trial, and the gruesome execution machine that delivers it by engraving into its victims’ skin, with torturous slowness, the words of the judgment passed down on them. No laughing matter, you would think – except that the officious bureaucrat administering the machine is so pompous in his grand explanations of the device, so clown-like, sweating in the sun in his thick winter uniform with two handkerchiefs tucked under the collar, so cartoonish in his frenetic tinkering at the controls, his constant complaints at the difficulty of obtaining spare parts for the horrific instruments within, that you find yourself chuckling guiltily and willing the action onward. You balk at the word, but it is funny. And despite E B White’s warning about the likely consequences of explaining a joke, Kafka’s humour deserves exploration, because it is not just an occasional bonus or distant echo in his work but a crucial facet of his art.

The caricatured bureaucrat in ‘In the Penal Colony’, together with his many half-relatives throughout Kafka’s stories, should probably bear a lot of the blame for his author’s sober reputation. In his introduction to the complete works, John Updike credited Kafka with great powers of foresight, pointing to the climates of guilt and fear and the vast systems of meaningless bureaucratic authority in his works and seeing them, as many readers have, as reminiscent (or more accurately, pre-cognisant) of the totalitarian politics of the twentieth century:

Kafka’s reputation has been immeasurably enhanced by his seeming prophecy, in works so private and eccentric, of the atrocious regimes of Hitler and Stalin, with their mad assignments of guilt and farcical trials and institutionalised paranoia. But the seeds of such vast evil were present in the world of the Emperor Franz Josef, and Kafka was, we should not forget, a man of the world, for all his debilities. He attended the harsh German schools of Prague; he earned the degree of Doctor of Law; he had experience of merchandising through his father’s business. […] Out of his experience of paternal tyranny and decadent bureaucracy he projected nightmares that proved prophetic.

The Trial makes this connection most explicit. Josef K wakes one morning to find that he is being arrested in response to an accusation that he cannot even determine, let alone defend. The low-level functionaries and ancillary characters he encounters either refuse to name the supposed crime, or else are so far removed from the distant echelons of power that they are unable to advise on its mysterious workings. Like any show-trial, the outcome is tragic: K is eventually sentenced to death, no less ignorant of his offence. The atmosphere throughout is oppressive. The action takes place in a weirdly circular city where buildings at one end of town connect impossibly to those on the other, where law courts are hosted in crowded attic rooms, and where the air itself is stifling and thick:

The fuggy atmosphere in the room was unbearable, it actually prevented one from seeing to the other end[…] He peered from beneath his hand to see what was happening, for the reek of the room and the dim light together made a whitish dazzle of fog.

‘You feel a little dizzy, don’t you?’ she asked […] Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘That’s nothing out of the common here, almost everybody has an attack of that kind the first time they come here […] the air, well, on days where there’s a great number of clients to be attended to, and that’s almost every day, it’s hardly breathable.’

Wherever he goes, it seems, K searches desperately for doors, windows or skylights that he might open, but they are either blocked off, sealed shut or, if they are opened, no relief whatsoever:

It was difficult to open, he had to push the latch with both hands. Then there came into the room through the great window a blend of fog and smoke, filling it with a faint smell of burning soot. Some snowflakes fluttered in too. ‘An awful autumn,’ came the voice of the manufacturer behind K.

This is nightmarish, certainly, and frighteningly so. But it is not an invention of the twentieth century. This is Dickens, describing the law courts of Bleak House:

Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery…

The word ‘fog’ appears twenty four times in the first chapter of Bleak House alone, and throughout the novel the murk and mud are ubiquitous metaphors for the impenetrability of the judicial system – and the dirtiness of it. Like K in The Trial, ‘scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why’. You might argue that Dickens’s tone is overtly comic, and the direction in Kafka more tragic – after all, Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a lawsuit about who will inherit a vast sum of money, while K’s trial is a matter of life and death – but Dickens continually reveals that the iniquities of the system, with its slowness and meaningless impositions of power, drive many who encounter it to madness or the grave.

The totalitarian system and foggy atmosphere of The Trial, then, are nothing new. In fact Dickens, writing in a period 60 years before Kafka’s, seems far more motivated by desire to expose its injustices.  Kafka’s innovation is his unblinking focus not on the system but on the individual and his psychological experience of it, on how it feels to face a world so vast and incomprehensible and so apparently capricious in its deeds. In this respect the judicial labyrinth of The Trial, though bleak, is just one of many metaphors for the disorienting world, like the snow-covered town in The Castle, with its winding, innavigable streets, or the incomprehensibly huge new country of Amerika – on whose shores the novel’s hero, young Karl Rossman, has not even set his feet before he loses himself in the huge structure (‘down endless recurring stairs, through corridors with countless turnings’) of the ship that is taking him to it. This world is comically, farcically large. A tour of Karl’s uncle’s business in America reveals a building ‘which took several days to traverse in its entirety, even if one did nothing more than have a look at each department’; the office in which the whole business once operated is now ‘the restaurant and storeroom for the sixty-fifth group of porters’. Faced with such bewildering scale, a system of authority that hides some of its workings from view may even be doing so with benevolent aims. In this way, in ‘The Great Wall of China’, the wall is built piecemeal, in thousand-yard sections, and each architect is sent far away when their section is completed to start work on another – thereby saving them from the despair of knowing that the work will never be finished in their lifetimes. The fact that this means the great wall is built with gaps everywhere, and is therefore pointless, is just more reason to protect the workers from the truth.

Though the humour in Kafka often lies in the absurdities of these surreal situations, much is also delivered at the expense of his heroes – naïve, hopeless men of inaction who seem determined to be complicit in their demise. An early story, ‘Wedding Preparations in the Country’, tells of a man leaving town on his way to his fiancée’s small village and of his constant nervous prevarication, his fretting over whether to have stayed longer in town, whether anybody will be there to collect him, whether the locals will make him go on boring walks, whether his friends will think his new wife is pretty, and so on. The story was never finished, and trails off in the middle of a sentence, but as such achieves a kind of artistic perfection – this hero was never going to make it to his wedding. In ‘The Judgment’, the poor suicide victim spends the first half of his story agonising over how much and what kind of news to send to his good friend who lives abroad, only to learn that his more decisive father has intervened and shared it already. In their anxious internal monologues these characters talk themselves into arguments more circular and contorted than any of the external systems to which they are subject. Faced with a godless, existentialist world they respond, like Vladimir and Estragon, by waiting for the verb, and can prefer even a malicious instruction to the uncertainty of having to make up their own minds. In The Trial, K briefly considers taking flight but instead waits patiently until he is called by the Inspector:

The command itself was actually welcome to him. ‘At last,’ he shouted back, closing the cupboard and hurrying at once into the next room. [my italics]

K, like most of Kafka’s characters, simply waits for ‘that certainty which the natural course of things would be bound to bring’.

If they do act, these men usually do so only in reaction, asserting themselves in opposition to external circumstances and often causing themselves far greater problems as a result. When K is first arrested in The Trial, he remembers that a friend of his is a lawyer, and asks permission to telephone him. But when the Inspector says yes, K petulantly refuses, unwilling to continue on a course of action that has received the blessing of his captors – ‘No, I don’t want to now,’ he says, like an outmanoeuvered child. But it is not just that these characters tend hilariously to make their lives more difficult: there is sometimes even a sense that they might be enjoying their misfortune. When K is distracted, in The Castle, by the charms of an alluring barmaid (demonstrating a weakness shared by his counterparts throughout these books), his experience of sleeping with her is oddly reminiscent of the general experience of reading Kafka:

There, hours went past, hours in which they breathed as one, hours in which K was haunted by the feeling that he was losing himself or wandering into a strange country, farther than ever man had wandered before, a country so strange that not even the air had anything in common with his native air, where one might die of strangeness, and yet whose enchantment was such that one could only go on and lose oneself further.

This is no victim of external circumstance – however ‘haunted’ K may feel by this unfathomable new world. The comedy here is crucial, because it brings a light into the gloom of K’s misfortune, shows agency and free will in a land that seemed impossibly constricting. With deliberate irony, Kafka demonstrates with his characters’ very flaws – their inaction, their haplessness – the possibilities of self-determination, the path out of the maze. These novels would be ‘a fine setting for a fit of despair,’ as K realizes in a moment of self-awareness in The Castle, ‘if I were only standing here by accident instead of design.’

The humour, then, lies in the gap between the protagonists’ understanding and the reality of their worlds. And they can be hopelessly uninformed about that reality. Like so much in Kafka, this thread begins in ‘The Judgment’, when the young hero Georg fails completely to understand that his father retains a mind of his own and, devastatingly, the strength to act on it. When the father asserts himself, Georg thinks at first he is joking – ‘You comedian!’, he shrieks nervously – but the joke is sadly on him.  Its finest realisation is The Metamorphosis, where Georg has turned into Gregor but outgrown none of his predecessor’s naivety. The literary purpose of the transformation – the reason Kafka made Gregor wake up in the form of a bug – is to dramatise the division between his mind and the world around him. It separates Gregor’s mental state (in which he is confused, concerned and profoundly human) from the physical world (in which he is an insect), and in so doing reveals his utter failure to comprehend the external reality. When Gregor first wakes, transformed, he takes stock of his armour-plated back and segmented abdomen with sleepy concern and then reverts to worrying about his career. It is more than he can conceive.  And in fact we never learn exactly what kind of creature he has become. Vladimir Nabokov, with his great loves of both entomology and close reading, was tempted to try to determine it and went to great lengths in his lectures on The Metamorphosis to identify the species, but the descriptions in Kafka’s text are deliberately vague. The words ungeheuren and Ungeziefer are, as the translator Susan Bernofsky has pointed out, ‘virtual non-entities’, both words prefixed by un- and therefore essentially negative descriptors, defining what they are not. And in a now famous letter to his first publishers, Kafka begged that they resist the urge to depict the insect on the cover – suggesting instead just an open doorway with a dark room beyond. The truth is that we should not know what creature Gregor has become, because he himself does not know, and with the narrative focused on his interior view we see him only through his own, now increasingly deteriorating eyes.

Gregor could be forgiven, as could anyone, for finding his metamorphosis incomprehensible – indeed its nightmarishness makes him a sympathetic man. But the purpose of his comic failures of percipience, like the metaphor of his weakening eyesight (or the Dickensian fog that follows K in The Trial), is to reveal the blindness that predated his transformation, the inability to recognise his position in the world. Gregor works to support his family and pay off his parents’ debts: he believes he is shackled to his unpleasant, exhausting job for five or six years more at least. But his family, unbeknown to him, has built savings that would support them for as much as two years, and when Gregor’s metamorphosis forces them to act, his father, mother and sister – supposedly too old, too asthmatic, and too ladylike respectively to work – all prove suddenly capable of earning for themselves. Gregor might have known he had more freedom, but ‘of course he had not asked’. His naivety is often charming – like his secret grand ambition to sponsor his sister through the conservatoire, though we discover from the lodgers’ response to her violin playing that there may be no talent to nurture there – but it is laughable too. Like all Kafka’s heroes, Gregor makes you want to respond like the mysterious, parable-speaking priest in The Trial: 

And at that the priest shrieked from the pulpit: ‘Can’t you see anything at all?’ It was an angry cry, but at the same time sounded like the involuntary shriek of one who sees another fall and is startled out of himself.

It is the hallmark of Kafka’s writing that there is both tragedy and slapstick in the fall.

The same fissure, the same comic gap, lies in the language of these tales. Just as the protagonists perceive one version of reality, and the outside world offers back its quite different understanding, so the prose is limpid and patent where the situations it describes get ever murkier and more surreal.  It delivers absurdity in a coolly matter-of-fact tone. For those of us who read Kafka in translation, it is impossible to know how much of this humour has been lost, but Thomas Mann spoke of Kafka’s ‘conscientious, curiously explicit, objective, clear and correct style, its precise, almost official conservatism’, and much of this linguistic approach carries through. It is most overt in some of the short stories, where Kafka was toying with these extremes, as in this characteristic opening line:

Honoured members of the Academy!

You have done me the honour of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as an ape.

But its subtler sounds reverberate throughout Kafka’s work, constantly presenting its unexpected turnings, its impenetrable and impossible developments, in serious, incurious notes. It is the prose equivalent of the deadpan delivery.

And once more the comedy, while providing hilarious diversions, also serves a more profound purpose in the text. By presenting the absurd with a straight face, abstruse situations with clear-cut prose, Kafka dramatises for the reader the very bewilderment his protagonists feel. Po-faced and indisputable, he treats us in much the same way that his heroes are treated by the worlds they encounter. We perfectly understand their position. A similar stylistic effect is achieved through Kafka’s use of detail: he and Max Brod were passionate disciples, according to Milan Kundera, of Flaubert, ‘the master observer’, and that influence is palpable in Kafka’s approach. Even the most curious scenarios contain moments of sensitively witnessed, minutely realistic detail – often comic in themselves, like the officer in the penal colony trying to clean his bloodied hands first in dirty water, and then in sand – and these turn the impossible into the compellingly real, make the surreal suddenly plausible. In fact this is what most gives the stories their nightmarish quality: the vividness of the detail in these otherwise nebulous worlds. As readers, we share the experience of the protagonists, simultaneously baffled by reality and bound to it. The joke, therefore, is on all of us.

What this means is that though the fates suffered by these characters may be cruel, Kafka is not.  Though he may mock his heroes’ naivety, he forces his readers to recognise the same weakness in themselves, prompts us to share his affection. And throughout, in all the labyrinths, among the fog and the fear, he leaves clues that signal a way out. There is a parable in ‘The Great Wall of China’ about a message sent ‘to you, the humble subject’ by a dying emperor.  The messenger sets out towards you, but has to struggle through the vast crowds around the bed, out through the palace and the throngs massed outside, the courts of the citadel and the walls around it and the fields beyond, on a journey so incomprehensibly far that it would take many thousands of years to accomplish, if ever it could be accomplished, and yet –

But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.

And at the end of The Trial, when K is being led off by his guards for the final time, he comes to a realisation:

‘The only thing I can do now,’ he told himself, and the regular correspondence between his steps and the steps of the other two confirmed his thought, ‘the only thing for me to go on doing is to keep my intelligence calm and discriminating to the end. I always wanted to snatch at the world with twenty hands, and not for a very laudable motive either. That was wrong, and am I to show that not even a whole year’s struggling with my case has taught me anything? Am I to leave this world as a man who shies away from all conclusions? […] I don’t want that to be said.’

The external world, for all its complexity and power, is no match for the cogent mind. This is the lesson of Kafka’s comedy. By dramatising the gap between his heroes’ perceptions and the world around them, he promotes, above all, the individual mind, affirms its ability to determine its own conclusions, its potential to interpret reality.

He shows us that what we need to do, when faced with a bewildering world, is not to wait for the verb, but to choose it.



'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera