David Foster Wallace Reads Franz Kafka’s Short Story “A Little Fable” (and Explains Why Comedy Is Key to Kafka)

Just last night I was out with a nov­el­ist friend, one of whose books a review­er described as “the fun­ny ver­sion of Kaf­ka.” While he sure­ly appre­ci­at­ed the praise, my friend had an objec­tion: “But Kaf­ka is already com­e­dy!” Casu­al read­ers, many of whom haven’t set eyes on Franz Kaf­ka since col­lege, might car­ry with them a men­tal image of the ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Aus­tria-Hun­gary-born writer as a crafts­man of pure bleak­ness: of frus­trat­ing­ly inac­ces­si­ble cas­tles, of per­se­cu­tion for unex­plained crimes, of hope­less bat­tles with bureau­cra­cy, of sales­men trans­formed into giant bugs. But Kaf­ka enthu­si­asts know well the humor from which all that springs, and their ranks have always con­tained quite a few oth­er nov­el­ists will­ing to point it out.

None of them have done it quite so elo­quent­ly as David Fos­ter Wal­lace, who deliv­ered a ten-minute speech on the sub­ject at the 1998 sym­po­sium “Meta­mor­pho­sis: A New Kaf­ka,” which lat­er appeared in print in Harp­er’s Mag­a­zine, where he act­ed as con­tribut­ing edi­tor. He begins, by way of illus­trat­ing Kafka’s com­e­dy, with the short­er-than-short 1920 sto­ry “A Lit­tle Fable”:

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is grow­ing small­er every day. At the begin­ning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept run­ning and run­ning, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have nar­rowed so quick­ly that I am in the last cham­ber already, and there in the cor­ner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direc­tion,” said the cat, and ate it up.

He also men­tions that he’d already giv­en up teach­ing the sto­ry in lit­er­a­ture class­es (one of whose syl­labi we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured), which leads him to explain the “sig­nal frus­tra­tion in try­ing to read Kaf­ka with col­lege stu­dents,” that “it is next to impos­si­ble to get them to see that Kaf­ka is fun­ny… nor to appre­ci­ate the way fun­ni­ness is bound up with the extra­or­di­nary pow­er of his sto­ries.” Part of the prob­lem aris­es from the fact that “Kafka’s humor has almost none of the par­tic­u­lar forms and codes of con­tem­po­rary U.S. amuse­ment,” espe­cial­ly to “chil­dren whom our cul­ture has trained to see jokes as enter­tain­ment and enter­tain­ment as reas­sur­ance.” So what kind of jokes can we find in Kafka’s sto­ries, if we know how to get them?

There­in, Wal­lace argues, lies anoth­er part of the prob­lem: “It’s not that stu­dents don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them that humor is some­thing you get — the same way we’ve taught them that a self is some­thing you just have,” all of which gets in the way of per­ceiv­ing “the real­ly cen­tral Kaf­ka joke — that the hor­rif­ic strug­gle to estab­lish a human self results in a self whose human­i­ty is insep­a­ra­ble from that hor­rif­ic strug­gle.” Of course, as Wal­lace adds in one of his sig­na­ture foot­notes, since “most of us Amer­i­cans come to art essen­tial­ly to for­get our­selves — to pre­tend for a while that we’re not mice and all walls are par­al­lel and the cat can be out­run — it’s no acci­dent that we’re going to see ‘A Lit­tle Fable’ as not all that fun­ny.” But read enough Kaf­ka, prefer­ably out­side the walls of a class­room, and you’ll get a much more expan­sive sense of humor itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus

Four Franz Kaf­ka Ani­ma­tions: Enjoy Cre­ative Ani­mat­ed Shorts from Poland, Japan, Rus­sia & Cana­da

Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Let­ters

Vladimir Nabokov Makes Edi­to­r­i­al Tweaks to Franz Kafka’s Novel­la The Meta­mor­pho­sis

Franz Kaf­ka Says the Insect in The Meta­mor­pho­sis Should Nev­er Be Drawn; Vladimir Nabokov Draws It Any­way

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Won­der­ful Life: The Oscar-Win­ning Film About Kaf­ka Writ­ing The Meta­mor­pho­sis

The Art of Franz Kaf­ka: Draw­ings from 1907–1917

The Ani­mat­ed Franz Kaf­ka Rock Opera

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Michele Harrison says:

    Kaf­ka was not, how­ev­er, an ‘Aus­tro-Hun­gary’ born writer, he was born in Prague, in Bohemia (at the time). His father came from a small town in south­ern Bohemia. This descrip­tion sub­sumes this region into the iden­ti­ties of the rulers of Hab­s­burg Empire, as if there were no oth­er nation­al­i­ties. The fam­i­ly were both Czech and Ger­man speak­ing.

  • Max Jackson says:

    It would be nice if the vague­ly vis­i­ble video were syn­chro­nised to the audio.

  • Kristen says:

    In this speech DFW is empha­siz­ing that *US* col­lege stu­dents don’t get Kafka’s humor because of the “ado­les­cent” nature of US culture/humor, but the way it’s framed here elides this cen­tral point.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.