This is a remarkable book, a multi-faceted essay on the imagined world of Franz Kafka. It is not a biography of the author, or a conventional academic appraisal of his works: "K" sits outside the categories that much published writing takes place within. Actually, I have read very few works like this before: Samuel Beckett's book on Proust (Proust
), Jed Perl's book on Watteau (Antoine's Alphabet
) are the only two works that come to mind.
"K" is an appreciation of a writer by another writer, or rather, an appreciation of a writer's fictive world by another writer. By this I do not mean it is a critical appreciation. Instead, it is a creative appreciation. A writer who enjoys the wholely imaginary worlds invented by Kafka, writes in order to share his enjoyment, and shows us deeper things to enjoy when we ourselves read. It leads us to enter those works differently in a more imaginative alert manner.
Calasso digs into Kafka's works, finding points of correspondance and overlap: how characters behave, what they say or do not say to K, the actions of K or another central character in the stories. Calasso shows a remarkable consistency across Kafka's written corpus - the novels and short stories - how they revolve around certain events or issues that reappear, and which seemed incidental to the plot. Each chapter is an essay, or investigation, of an aspect of the world imagined by Kafka. It picks up some point from the "Trial", or the "Castle", or a short story, muses over it; then connects it to something seemingly unrelated in another work, showing how that is an aspect of the same thing. You finish each section realising just how labyrinthine and complexly patterned the overall corpus is.
Calasso is himself a great reader, an attentive reader, a devoted reader of Kafka. Which is why his book is hardly a primer for readers just encountering Kafka. It is for those of us who have been mesmerised by the novelist's imagined worlds for a long time (I have read through some sections of this book five times now, and still marvel at the fresh perspective he shows me in novels I was familiar with).
This is, in short, the very best thing ever written on Kafka - if you buy one work on this novelist, "K" has to be it.