Kafka was a complex man whose genius is inseparable from his huge neuroses. So is Robert Crumb. Put the two together, as this book does, and the upshot is a book in which the distinction between author Crumb and subject Kafka tends to dissolve. The book is just as much about the one as the other. It's no mistake that Crumb is drawn (sorry for the bad pun) to Kafka.
At one level, the book is a primer on the life and work of Franz Kafka, with Crumb lavishly illustrating David Zane Mairowitz's text (warning: the text is strangely loaded with typos). The highlights of Kafka's life, including his stormy relationship with his father, his alienation from Prague, the city in which he spent most of his life, his difficulties with sexual intimacy, his self-loathing, his work at an insurance agency, and his struggle with tuberculosis, are all chronicled. Moreover, synapses of some of his best work--"The Judgment," "The Metamorphosis," "The Burrow," "In the Penal Colony," "A Hunger Artist," "Letter to His Father," The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika--are provided. Someone who knows nothing or little about Kafka will get a good orientation from reading this book.
But it's Crumb's pen-and-ink illustrations that make the book. They're eerie, dark, and at times actually frightening: perfect glimpses of Kafka's demons as well as Crumb's. In fact, Crumb and Kafka share many of the same demons: an intense need for comfort by women, but a deep-seated hostility to them; an equally intense need for public approval, coupled with an intense contempt for the crowd; a fascination with the usually unnoticed weirdness of the ordinary; a competing attraction and repulsion to the artistic, bohemian crowd; seething but repressed sexuality; a periodic yearning to disappear, to be punished, to be redeemed and reborn through suffering; an alternately bewildered and enraged dislike of Nietzschean proportions of the way in which popular culture cheapens existence (Crumb & Mairowitz's take on touristy Prague, pp. 174-75, is priceless); and a need to confess some of their darkest secrets, through their art, to the very public they disdain. In many ways, both Crumb and Kafka are hunger artists: they refuse to partake of the status quo not necessarily because they're ascetics, but simply because they don't find anything in it that whets their appetites. In gazing at Crumb's brilliant illustrations of Kafka, one can't help but think that this work, like so much of what Crumb does, is autobiographical.
Is it intentionally so? Does Crumb understand the deep connection between himself and Kafka? Is the book intended, at least on one level, as a gag: a book about Crumbka? I dunno, although I suspect that Crumb knows exactly what he's doing. But what I do know is that Kafka is about more than just Kafka. And that's what makes doubly intriguing.