June 2007

Chris Barsanti

nonfiction

Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz, illustrated by Robert Crumb

The existential horror -- posthumous, of course -- of being reduced to an adjective. "Kafkaesque," employed by practically anybody who cracked a book in college to mean... well, something weird and creepy about modern life, particularly bureaucracy. Like the Twilight Zone, only European. Hard to put into words but you know it when you see it. Overused almost as much as "Dante-esque," this adjective has at least one advantage in that most people using it have at least read the man who inspired it. (Wasn't there one about a guy who turned into a cockroach? That was weird.) Like many popular authors long slotted into the public education canon, Kafka's a name everyone knows they should know. A literary touchstone. A clever reference. A joke. In that classic of post-graduate slacker ennui, Noah Baumbach's Kicking & Screaming, the aspiring writer protagonist grouses upon hearing his girlfriend is leaving for Prague, "Prague... you'll come back a bug."

It's this sense of a great author being severed from his own writing that motivates the awe-inspiring new graphic biography Kafka, with text by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrations and comic panels by Robert Crumb. After opening with a gruesome graphic rendering of Kafka's nightmares of his own death, the book states its case rather plain: "No writer of our time, and probably none since Shakespeare, has been so widely over-interpreted and pigeon holed... [Kafkaesque] is an adjective that takes on almost mythic proportions in our time, irrevocably tied to fantasies of doom and gloom, ignoring the intricate Jewish Joke that weaves itself through the bulk of Kafka's work."

Half literary analysis and half biography, Kafka is intensely aware of the author's Jewishness, especially as a Czech-born and German-speaking Jew growing up in the Hapsburg empire at the end of the 19th century; his life, like most Jews in that tumultuous part of Europe, could delicately be described as a balancing act. Mairowitz's incisive writing first establishes Kafka's milieu, the old and twisted streets of the Prague ghetto, full with legend and superstitions, stories of The Golem and rabbis with strange powers. Later, as Mairowitz follows the winding and often unhappy progress of the author's life -- his unfortunate experiences with the opposite sex are nothing short of heartbreaking -- he delves into the genius of his writing, providing long summations of his works that whets one's appetite to go back and read him all over again. All the while, Crumb's powerfully evocative drawings are woven in and between Mairowitz's text, smartly blurring the line between biographical details of Kafka's life and explications of the fiction itself, those powerful tales he put down in his parents' cramped apartment while working as a bureaucrat. (In a fascinating aside, we find out that while working at the Workman's Accident Insurance Institute, Kafka oversaw the implementation of revolutionary new safety procedures, "and was personally responsible for saving hundreds of lives, primarily in the lumber industry.") Kafka is a resounding argument for reclaiming the man as an author, as a genius, and not just an adjective.

It's not hard, of course, to understand the popularity of the idea of Kafka. His sense of nightmare, that pervasive dream-logic, produces a shiver in most anybody who comes across it. Even the name has resonance, with those hard and clashing consonants. Kafka. No first name required. Kafka. It even sounds frightening, like the name of a dictator or diabolical villain. Kafka. Or as he often referred to his alter ego in his fiction, just K. A letter only, no soul required.

Kafka ends with a mordant examination of modern-day Prague, where the author's name is slapped on everything possible as a sort of perverse tourist magnet, the Czech Republic having rediscovered its, "strange Jewish son, no longer a threat and suddenly bankable as a tourist attraction." Mairowitz grumbles (beneath an illustration of himself and Crumb wearing Kafka t-shirts), "Soon, like Mozart in Salzburg, you'll be able to eat his face on chocolate." It's the writer and his oeuvre as brand; less horrifying than the Hemingway furniture collection (available only at Thomasville!), but a commodity no less.

What Crumb and Mairowitz accomplish in this invaluable book, one of the most exhilarating graphic works of the year so far, is to give Kafka -- that frightened, tortured, gentle, cruel, and brilliant creature -- back his soul.

Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz, illustrated by Robert Crumb
Fantagraphics
ISBN: 978-1-56097-806-0
176 pages