Sometimes I pick themes to read around and sometimes themes pick me.  The last few months have seen a spate of titles, picked in the main quite independently, which have all referred to Kafka.  It has felt like a conspiracy at times.  

Lost, Stolen or Shredded (Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature) – Rick Gekoski

Now here’s a book that deserves a review of its own, if ever I read one.  It’s unlikely though given the state of my reviewing backlog.   Still let me recommend this book heartily, for it is a veritable treasure trove of information relating to works of art and literature that have been lost to us one way or the other and why sometimes an absence fascinates us more than a presence.  The book begins with Franz Kafka adding to his private collection of invisible curiosities: sights, monuments and works of art he had missed seeing.  In this instance he is standing in the Louvre staring at the space where the Mona Lisa used to hang. It is 1911 and the painting had been stolen a week before. Of course, if Kafka had had his way,  his entire oeuvre would be missing.  Neither would this post have seen the light of the interweb.  I shall leave it to you to decide whether you are thanking or cursing Max Brod for ignoring the wishes of his friend to destroy his manuscripts.  Gekoski argues that Brod did a good thing in publishing them.  He also argues that the executors of Byron and Philip Larkin did the right thing in destroying their respective memoirs and letters.   How so?  Read the book.  It really is fascinating.

The Investigation – Philippe Claudel (translated from French by Daniel Hahn) / The Guard – Peter Terrin (translated from Dutch by David Colmer)

The authors shared a stage at the Edinburgh Book Festival at an event entitled The Legacy of Kafka.  Funnily enough there was very little talk about their literary antecedent until I asked what they found so inspirational. I’ll come to their answers in a minute.

Now I read both novels fully expecting to feel the knots of frustration I can remember experiencing when I read Kafka at university.  For gawds sake, what is this angst-ridden rubbish, I cried before hurling The Castle at the wall!  

So I was a bit baffled when I found myself wanting to read Philippe Claudel’s retake and even more baffled when I found myself enjoying it!    I even laughed out loud at the absurdity at times.  Perhaps now that life has been truculent and non-cooperative, I can relate more?  Anyway Claudel’s proficient inspector, sent to investigate a spate of suicides at the Firm is conspired against on all fronts.  Even the weather is at it.  Someone with sense would abandon the mission, but the inspector is proud.  He has been chosen, entrusted and he will not give up.  Thus  he richochets from one miserable episode to the next – all of it based in a recognisable but slightly surreal reality.  We have killed God and ideology, said Claudel.  We now create monsters, companies without heads.  It’s well done up until the last 30 pages where the surrealometer goes off the scale. Such a shame.

Terrin’s guards (there are two – one narrator and one colleague) also work for a nameless organisation.  Their purpose, which, for the sake of their sanity, they believe vital, is to guard an apartment block.  Yet as a result of a nameless catastrophe in the world outside,  the apartments are abandoned and their supplies increasingly meagre.   It is unthinkable for them to leave because if they are vigilant the organisation will reward them.  Minions they may be but they are ambitious  and dream of promotion to the elite corps of security officers.  Reality is that they are stuck with one another. As they gradually starve, rivalry, suspicion and paranoia emerge.  The narrator becomes increasingly unreliable and it’s hard to know what is real or hallucinatory as the novel progresses. Does it matter in an existence that’s so purposeless?

The riffs on Kafka’s themes are clearly visible.  So the answers to the question I asked the authors may come as a surprise.

Philippe Claudel admitted that he had never completed a Kafka novel in his life.  40 pages is enough to send him to sleep!  His familiarity with Kafka comes from the films of Orson Welles and given the visual nature of key scenes in The Investigation, I can see that.  Peter Terrin was even more ascerbic maintaining that Kafka wouldn’t be so well known if he’d had a less memorable surname.  He also though Brod should have consigned Kafka’s novels to the flames.  However, the short stories are brilliant he said.  Kafka’s letters, though, are sublime.

The Minotaur – Benjamin Tammuz (translated from Hebrew by Kim Parfitt and Mildred Budny) Reviewed here.  What I didn’t mention was that the spy character adopts the identity of Franz Kafka- the man everyone knows but cannot grasp?

Fallen Land – Patrick Flanery

The second part of Flanery’s novel (reviewed here) is a homage to Kafka’s short story The Burrow.  Given Terrin’s recommendation for Kafka’s short stories, this might just be the story that all these summer reading roads have been leading me to.  With German Literature Month only a week away, I’d say it’s a distinct possibility.