Stanley Corngold, Expeditions to Kafka: Selected Essays

Bloomsbury Academic, 336pp, £21.99, ISBN 9798765100448

reviewed by Meindert Peters

Be warned: you will not be able to escape Franz Kafka in 2024. After the centenary of Marcel Proust's death in 2022, with an exhibition in Paris and several new books, 2024 marks the centenary of Kafka's passing and this will not go unmarked either. The London Review of Books is publishing a special diary, filled with past Kafka criticism from their pages, by authors such as Elif Batuman, Anne Carson, and Colm Tóibín. Oxford scholar (and my colleague) Karolina Watroba will publish a new book on the Prague author entitled Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka, with an emphasis on Kafka's reception.

Exhibitions will be held in Marbach (The German Literature Archive), in Berlin (The Jewish Museum), in Jerusalem (The National Library of Israel), as well as in New York. Oxford, too, will organise an exhibition at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, centred around its safekeeping of most of Kafka’s original manuscripts. This exhibition will be accompanied by a large cultural programme including new adaptations of Kafka’s work. And Abacus is publishing a book of ten new Kafka-inspired short stories by authors such as Ali Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and Yiyun Li called A Cage Went in Search of a Bird. Those are just the projects I know of. Kafka, it appears, is still a literary and commercial powerhouse.
Early to the scene marking Kafka's death is Stanley Corngold's Expeditions to Kafka: Selected Essays. If other new Kafka projects are aimed at a broader audience, Corngold’s audience is decisively academic. It is a collection of thirteen essays and an introduction discussing Kafka’s writings but with ample reference to his diaries and letters. Despite the summary stating that it brings together essays that are ‘new, unpublished, and/or previously untranslated’, the acknowledgements tell us that ‘several of these pieces have previously been published, but [that] here they are revised and fitted into a new order of argument and reflection’. Indeed, the majority of these pieces were previously published elsewhere and in English, either in part or in their entirety. The writing that is revised and reorganised here goes as far back as 1999. This perhaps hardly matters but for that it can lead to curious statements, such as when Corngold uses a quote from 2014 about Kafka’s renewed relevance today. Much has happened since.

The collection consists of four parts. The first part, entitled ‘Individual Works’ consists of five essays, of which, unevenly, three focus on The Metamorphosis, leaving one chapter to cover The Castle and the other to cover the three unfinished novels (The Castle, The Trial, and The Man Who Disappeared). The chapters in the second part entitled ‘Kafka Generally’, while drawing on Kafka’s biography, discuss broader themes such as risk, myth, and cages. The third part brings Kafka into dialogue with Friedrich Nietzsche, Gershom Scholem, and Theodor Adorno. The final chapter in Part IV offers a reflection on ‘recent dominant critical approaches’ focusing, somewhat curiously, on deconstruction. Generally speaking, Corngold discusses classic themes – the law, the writerly life, Gnosticism – and (so) is drawn to the typical texts: The Metamorphosis, The Trial, The Castle, as well as other usual suspects such as the short stories ‘The Judgment’, ‘In the Penal Colony’, and ‘A Report to an Academy’. Selfishly, I wished to see Corngold’s incisive gaze projected onto other, smaller gems of stories, too often neglected in Kafka Studies, such as those in his first 1912 collection Meditation.

If I say it hardly matters that these aren’t new essays, it is because in Corngold’s hands, Kafka is in the best of them. Emeritus professor of German at Princeton, he is the author, editor, and translator of several books on and by Kafka (and other German-language modernist authors), as well as many articles, going back to his first reading of Kafka in the 1940s. Many people in the English-speaking world will have first encountered Kafka themselves through Corngold’s translation of The Metamorphosis. His work as editor of Franz Kafka: The Office Writings, the work Kafka did for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, shapes some of Corngold’s work in this volume, too.

Corngold’s style of writing can be electrifying. It often feels like the kind of probing writing that becomes rarer in academia. The kind that seems to mimic the movements of thinking rather than the clarity of a PowerPoint presentation. Corngold can take you by the hand, on an expedition perhaps, sensitively showing you how to look harder at Kafka even if the reader is not told where it is all leading. Chapter 3 — on The Metamorphosis, Goethe’s Werther, and The Bible — provides the kind of mixture of acuity and elocution that thrillingly marks the best of his essays. At times his writing also tramples — often freeingly so — academic conventions, as when he says that we should turn to another of his books ‘as supplying a proper conclusion to this essay’, or when a decisive phrase (‘iron cage’) is only mentioned in the subheading, or when he starts a chapter with five mottos.

But while his writing can feel like a scintillating tour de force, it can also become overwhelming. Corngold draws on psychoanalytic and deconstructionist traditions, not the easiest of them, and he often seems to presume his audience is well versed in them. That is, it can come to feel exactly like the kind of inside baseball that, as he relates in the book, he and his co-editor of Franz Kafka: The Office Writings got accused of in wanting to call the book Kafka before the Law. That is, one needs previous knowledge — in that case, of the story ‘Before the Law’, here of such things as the ‘Diltheyan “inner world”’ — to understand what is going on.

As Corngold’s book addresses an academic audience, it still surprises me, although it is by now a trend in academic publishing on German literature in the English-speaking world, that the German original of quotations is not included. Corngold often quotes at length. All the more reason for the German-reading audience to be allowed the pleasures of Kafka’s original prose. Kafka has always been a writer whose work is discussed far beyond the confines of German Studies but in a time where the academic discipline of modern languages is under threat, the importance of the original language should be promoted. The absence of German can also lead to confusion for the English-speaking audience. Discussing sex and literature, Corngold gives the final line of ‘The Judgment’ in which Kafka famously uses the word ‘Verkehr’ which can refer to both traffic and sexual relations. Although Corngold then quotes Kafka (via Max Brod) saying that he ‘had in mind a violent ejaculation’, the story’s last line itself, given in English only, is sanitised to mere ‘traffic’.

All in all, reading this book I am reminded of a line from a Dutch review of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street (1928). About the formally inventive text, he asks: ‘How could the new ever be wise?’ Here the opposite seems true. Corngold’s writing is wise, the result of a lifetime of reading, thinking, and writing about Kafka and his work; one feels the depth of knowledge. Corngold considers with renewed interest some of the topics that have shaped Kafka scholarship from its inception — topics that Corngold himself significantly helped shape. New directions in Kafka Studies, however, lie elsewhere: I think of Kata Gellen’s Sound Studies-approach in Kafka and Noise (Northwestern University Press, 2019); Mark Christian Thompson’s exploration of racial blackness in Kafka’s Blues (Northwestern, 2016); or Watroba’s forthcoming figuration of Kafka through reception and adaptation (Profile Books, 2024).

Corngold’s book is nevertheless relevant as it discusses well-trodden themes of Kafka — the law, bureaucracy, Gnosticism — with verve; themes that, in a world that often seems to be regressing, remain incredibly resonant. The person who is happy to read slowly, carefully, and repeatedly, will find here one of the most knowledgeable of Kafka readers thinking hard and freely. It is a timely untimely book.

Meindert Peters is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in German at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and a Junior Research Fellow at New College, both at the University of Oxford. His first monograph, Habituation in German Modernism, is forthcoming.