"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Friday, 21 September 2012

Kafka: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Tomorrow is the centenary of one of the more remarkable moments of 20th century literature when, through the night of 22/23 September 1912, Franz Kafka wrote his breakthrough story, Das Urteil, ("The Judgement").  He wrote it, as he said afterwards, "in einem Zug" or "in one go".  One translator is said apocryphally to have rendered this as Kafka having written it "on a train" (Zug being the same word for both).  It is wonderful to read, in Kafka's diaries, his description of the joy of this creation, how he was carried away by it, how he felt suddenly that "everything could be said" ("Wie alles gesagt werden kann").  Whatever else Kafka was, he was, for me, the supremely dedicated writer of his century, who was interested not in fame, "deals", "exposure", and all the other things that are urged on young writers as their goal, but the act of writing itself, its beauty and agony, its needfulness.  "The conviction verified," he wrote in the aftermath of the story, "that with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing.  Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence [Zusammenhang], with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul."

I won't say any more about the story itself but I suggest you join me in reading it in silent tribute tomorrow night.

Just now there is a little flurry of correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement following a review by Gabriel Josipovici of some recent books on Kafka in which Josipovici expressed some discontent (I oversimplify his argument) with critics who think they have finally captured Kafka's meaning.  I have some sympathy with him.  Kafka's greatness is partly due to the fact that we cannot neatly sum up what he was "saying".  The mystery, the never quite knowing, is what constitutes the peculiar appeal of his writing.  I have written a biography of Kafka and you can order it by clicking on the dreaded Amazon box to the right of this column but, in truth, biography can point to certain correspondences in the story with Kafka's life and can contextualise it usefully but it cannot explain its magic.  Reading it to his sister when it was still fresh she said that the house in the story was like theirs: "I said: How? In that case, then, Father would have to be living in the toilet."

Once again Kafka has the last word.

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