Review: Excavating Kafka – James Hawes

I started to read the books of Franz Kafka as a young man and found them remarkably relevant to me at the time, describing as they do a sense of alienation from mainstream society which so fitted in with 1960/70s counter-culture.

Working in my first boring office job, the thought of waking up as a beetle (Metamorphosis) did not seem too unlikely a possibility, and the thought of being pursued for having committed some unknown crime (The Trial) was all part and parcel of hanging around with people who had radical political ideas.  The fact that no-one in suburban London cared tuppence what a group of long-haired young men were talking about in the pub was neither here nor there – perhaps we just wanted to be in Kafka’s world, and it certainly felt good to have one of Penguin’s Kafka paperbacks sticking out of your jacket pocket.

James Hawes is passionate about Kafka but believes that the bulk of modern scholarship is misguided in painting him as a lonely, heroic figure, bullied by his overbearing father,  ignored in his lifetime – a “fair unsullied soul” almost saintly in his appeal.  Excavating Kafka is his attempt expose the “K Myth” and to inject a note of reality into the study of Kafka, a man of his times who as we might expect had all the usual foibles and failings as the rest of us – and a few unique to himself  for good measure.

The first thing to say about this book, is apart from the writer’s attempt to correct other Kafka scholars, its actually a very readable biography of Franz Kafka, written in an amusing style and imparting vast amounts of information in a relatively compact package.  I think you’d have to read a substantial biography and then a couple of books of literary criticism to get quite as much information (unless of course you favour the cartoon approach!).

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Review: Introducing Kafka – Mairowitz and Crumb

I’ve seen Icon Books Introducing series in the bookshops but it was only when confronted by a long train journey with my current novel finished that I finally dived in and bought one.  I don’t think I’ve read a graphic book before and I was suprised by how much I enjoyed reading Introducing Kafka with illustrations by Robert Crumb (who will be well known to readers of The Guardian).

Kafka has always interested me, but I’m not a great one for biographies so this seemed a good way of learning more about this favorite writer than I would glean from a Wikipedia article or some-such.  In any case I was on my way home after a visit to the Tate Gallery, so was in the mood for more visuals rather than immediately descending down into pages of text.

I think the first thing to say is that the book is a work of art in its own right.  The design of the volume is immediately attractive, and when you open it up, the eye is drawn into a fascinating and complex set of images, showing Crumb’s interpretation of life in early 20th century Prague.

Take this illustration of Kafka’s home life for example, where poor Georg has to look after his elderly (but still tyrannical) father.

Crumb’s larger than life images somehow portray the essence of the father son relationship.  I am not saying that words could not provide a more accurate “picture” of the realities of the situation, but for a quick impression, Crumb and writer David Zane Mairowitz do a pretty good job.

Its a little like seeing a film of Kafka’s life, but more than that, because Crumb adds his own unique and definitely eccentric perspective.  There must be a whole set of people who would baulk at a full-scale written account of Kafka’s life who might glean quite a lot from this graphic novel format.

Perhaps the book should just be seen as entertainment in its own right, but at least its entertainment which very successfully communicates a lot of information.

I enjoyed this book and wouldn’t hesitate to try some more titles from this useful series.