Speaking Volumes: Kafka's Collected Stories

January 26, 1996

James Hawes on Franz Kafka's Collected Stories .

As finals loomed in 1982, we fourth-years would assemble in the Magdalen middle common room, sporting white leather Stan Smith trainers (the ancestors of all today's hypertrophically padded "yoof" shoes) and pale jeans, before crossing Magdalen Bridge towards the allegedly knife-ridden haunts of town girls, swaggering with lager and Kafka.

We were 21 and naturally bulletproof with testosterone. But we were also historically the last year to have come up under a Labour government - the unknowing intellectual vanguard of Eighties Man, scornful of inherited privilege and bad-faithed do-gooders alike.

And Kafka?

Kafka's stories were gloatworthy truths others dared not admit. We loved the bone-jarring emotional honesty of "Turned down" (Die Abweisung); the negative clarion-call to "Go for it" ("Before the law"); the warning against waiting for "A Life to be delivered from outside" ("A message from the emperor").

Gide did it, Stendhal did it, but nobody did it better: in those nights, Kafka's voices insisted that each of us act, freely and alone, on the merest radar-blip of sexual invitation, with no safe buddy-buddy huddling in the grey area between bar and dance-floor. Limelighted rejection - always the most common outcome - was no dishonour, for Kafka was in our ears, shouting: THIS IS NOT A REHEARSAL.

Sir Malcolm Pasley - who knew our enthusiasm, if not the all-too-epochal nature of our idolatry - was at first hesitant when Noel Whitbread and I asked to see the manuscript of The Castle. After all, his stewardship of one of the century's most-disputed pieces of intellectual property had hardly been advertised. But soon he relented; soon, we saw and touched.

The ocular proof confirmed our worship. This was not some text, bound and gagged courtesy of Fischer GmbH: it was a human production, an addition to the world, something that once had not been, and now was. It had been done, and Kafka had done it. He was gone, but he had gone for it. That night, we swilled lambent Holsten and quizzed the girls with a positively Darcian superiority.

Four years later I was sitting flat broke in a Greenwich pub, having just failed to get a job in Hull that I had not wanted but had been desperate to get. I was half thinking about inventing a CV for the inevitable interview with Price Waterhouse and half trying to understand my own annotations in the travel-battered Collected Stories. My life was lies and losses; the . My life was lies and losses; the future made me want to cry out aloud.

But that night, a Portobello Market jewellery designer called Jill from Mumbles finally lost patience with my failure to marry her friend: I was always going on about Kafka, said she, so why the hell didn't I just stop pretending and go back to bloody university. I can still recall the jaw-dropping certainty that she had delivered a self-evident truth off her leather cuff.

The next day, I called Martin Swales at University College London.

Now I am 35 and as clever as clever, I have changed my opinion of Kafka. Not of his status, but of what his writings mean. Now I am sure that Kafka is writing about a certain historical era - our own - and that he uniquely combines the intellectual awareness of when he is living with the visionary instinct for the places where our daily thoughts and (hence) words slide into more comforting realms.

I am as sure of this today as I was sure in 1982 that Kafka and Julian Sorel would have gone philandering arm in arm. And I am sure that whatever I am sure of in the future, I will find it in my battered edition of Kafka's Collected Stories, because however wrong I may have been, and may be, and may become, they will still be true.

James Hawes is lecturer in German, University of Swansea.

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