6. Franz Kafka – The Great Short Works (1925-1927)

One of the nice things about this project is that it lets me plug some of the gaps in my own reading.

Kafka is one of these. For some reason the only Kafka I’ve read previously is Amerika, which is an odd one to start with. It gave me a clear sense of Kafka’s dreamlike style, wandering the Earth being harassed by bullies and bureaucrats; a sort of persecuted picaro.

Kafka was one of Burroughs’ favourite authors, and a far more obvious inspiration than any so far written about. Reading Joachim Neugroschel’s translation of the “great short works” (including A Country Doctor, In the Penal Colony, and Metamorphosis) I was therefore expecting a lot of similarity, and so was perhaps more attuned to finding unexpected variance.

The transformation of Gregor Samsa into a bug (or “giant vermin”, as Neugroschel translates it) has obvious Burroughsian resonances. Burroughs usually prefers the many-limbed centipede to the hard-shelled, short-legged bug that Kafka describes, but still the transformations are there.

There are subtle differences though. Where Samsa retains much of his human mind post-tranformation, including human priorities like panicking about being late for work, Burroughs’ centipedes are monstrous from the moment they explode out of the flesh.

Burroughs’ horror is that human minds are, like their bodies, merely a front. A bestial horror lies deeper, just waiting to burst out.

Kafka, by comparison, is more humanist. Turning into a bug does not seem unpleasant at first. His horror lies in the way people react to Samsa-the-bug, and the slow encroachment of buglike ways of thinking into the otherwise still-present mind of Samsa-the-man.

Kafka fears the slow warping of the identity. Burroughs is more worried about external forces occupying the body and either controlling the self or discarding it altogether, like so much excess flesh.

In the Penal Colony is the most thematically Burroughsian. A proud officer describes the torture device left him by the old commander, and laments the way the new commander has let the machine fall into disrepair.

There’s a general lack of concern for death and pain, even from the intended victim, as well as a final promise that the old commander will return from the dead. All of this suggests the story is about hell.

Critics have pointed out that the obscene pleasure, the technological sadism of the torturers predicts Nazi atrocities to come.

As Thomas Antonic’s excellent recent book showed, Burroughs himself studied under Nazi doctors in Vienna, and very likely modelled his Dr Benway character on them. There could be biographical resonances here; Burroughs recognising the sadism of his tutors, the way their “scientific curiousity” took no account of human suffering, in the stories of Kafka.

If he was reading them at the time, they could have been the prompt he needed.

There are important differences again, however, in the way that Kafka imagines hell versus Burroughs’ rendering of it. Again Kafka opts for hell’s terrifying psychological impact. It is the obscene pride of the torturer that is awful, far more so than his device.

For Burroughs the evil is there in the blood and guts; the creativity shown around violence and disfigurement, murder and punishment. His is a bodily revulsion; a disgust. Kafka’s is psychological shock.

It is sex, now I think about it, that Kafka lacks. In his alienated world, love is either an impossible dream or a promise of redemption.

The obscenity of Burroughs lies in his refusal to view love this way. Instead, sexual pleasure appears to be driving the horrors themselves. Hellish lust. A thing Kafka’s claustrophobic world could not contain.

Finally, there were some unexpected connections found in Kafka’s less well known stories. “Jackals and Arabs,” in which a pack of wild dogs approach a European, convinced he is destined to destroy their hated Arab enemies for them; this is almost mystical, symbolic, and fits with Burroughs’ orientalism.

Another was a line about the Odradek, a purposeless object that is inexplicably living. “Can he die?” the speaker asks: “Everything that dies has had some kind of goal, some kind of activity, and they have worn it down”.

Death, Kafka suggests, is caused by purpose. Purposelessness is a route to immortality. There’s a curious Buddhist-ness to this attitude, but one updated for the machine age. Those with a function will be ground down like a part until the part no longer works, and is replaced. The functionless part survives.

In amongst the otherwise hardworking character of Kafka, we might see the Odradek, useless as it is, as a sort of perennial Beatnik.