Ear­li­er this week, James Patrick Kel­ly and John Kessel wrote about a man as puz­zling as his sto­ries, Kaf­ka and the para­ble, and Tamar Yellin’s Kaf­ka in Bron­te­land.” Today, Kessel exam­ines the Kafkaesque structure.

One of the influ­ences of Kaf­ka over lat­er writ­ers is not so much in the con­tent of his work as in its form. The con­ven­tion­al Aris­totelian plot pro­ceeds by means of a pro­tag­o­nist, an antag­o­nist, and a series of events com­pris­ing a ris­ing action, cli­max and denoue­ment. It involves iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the read­er with the pro­tag­o­nist and vic­ar­i­ous engage­ment with his or her predica­ment (even when, as in say,Mac­beth, the pro­tag­o­nist is the vil­lain). One event caus­es the next event, and so on, like a row of falling domi­noes. This struc­ture has stood sto­ry­tellers in good stead for a few thou­sand years.

But Kafka’s sto­ries do not fall eas­i­ly into this pat­tern—The Tri­al at least seems to begin in this way, though it nev­er ful­fills it. Per­haps that is one rea­son why Kaf­ka had so much dif­fi­cul­ty fin­ish­ing his nov­els — a nov­el demands some struc­ture of this type, and Kaf­ka was not able to pro­duce such a struc­ture. In Kafka’s uni­verse, cause and effect are not so sure as oth­er forces.

Rather, what Kaf­ka gives us— and if he is not the orig­i­na­tor of it, he brings it to a remark­able per­fec­tion— is the sto­ry that begins with a premise, often a bald asser­tion of a fact in con­tra­dic­tion to real­i­ty (“As Gre­gor Sam­sa awoke one morn­ing from uneasy dreams he found him­self trans­formed in his bed into a gigan­tic insect.”). The sto­ry then pro­gress­es not as a series of cause-and-effect links, but as elaboration/​qualification/​evolution from that asser­tion. We can see this in The Great Wall of Chi­na,” in A Hunger Artist,” in the long descrip­tion of the exe­cu­tion machine that com­pris­es most of In the Penal Colony,” in The Bur­row.” These sto­ries are not so much nar­ra­tives as expla­na­tions of the world, a world that is fun­da­men­tal­ly inexplicable.

Jorge Luis Borges said that Kafka’s sto­ries pre­sup­pose a reli­gious con­science, specif­i­cal­ly a Jew­ish con­science; for­mal imi­ta­tion of Kaf­ka in anoth­er con­text would be unin­tel­li­gi­ble.” But in anoth­er time and place, Borges also said that, I felt that I owed so much to Kaf­ka that I real­ly didn’t need to exist.” Whether or not for­mal imi­ta­tion of Kaf­ka was his intent, in fact we can see pre­cise­ly the Kafkaesque struc­ture put to use in many of Borges’ great­est sto­ries, such as The Library of Babel,” The Lot­tery in Baby­lon,” Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Ter­tius,” or Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Through Borges, Kafka’s influ­ence has spread to sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of lat­er writ­ers. And it does seem to me that many late mod­ernist and post­mod­ernist sto­ries owe their struc­ture, if not their very exis­tence, to this tradition. 

James Patrick Kel­ly and John Kessel’s anthol­o­gy, Kafkaesque: Sto­ries Inspired by Franz Kaf­ka, is now avail­able. They have been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.