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.
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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.