New Harper's: Gass as Kafka

The August 2006 Harper’s, which arrived today, includes “Half a Man, Half a Metaphor: The unknown Kafka,” by William H. Gass. In the massive essay, ostensibly a reaction to Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Decisive Years, Gass writes as Kafka himself:

Of course I was so much more than they imagined, for when people treat you within the habitual range of their emotions, they leave reality out. I was a bug to them, but not with a firm shell, not with thorny legs or with furry feelers, no, I was a man, a son, a day-old-breadwinner, who was, despite being poorly outfitted for it, just a bug, indeterminate as to species, and I lived an unimportant, mostly invisible life, and survived on leftovers, crumbs, windfalls, hand-me-downs, spills. I dwelt with my parents of course, though they depended on my salary and should by rights have been the bugs. I had a small town with three doors and a view of the rain.


Consider your own life and imagine how you would feel if the way you ate were an issue, if every weakened purpose you took to work were written up, every deception documented, the interrogations you mimic’d and mocked carried on into your afterlife (“Was Franz Kafka a real man?”), and every letter you ever wrote, even those you never sent, were to be prominently printed in a learned book. Unless, of course, you had already cut yourself like a coroner into three enigmatic egos – the overburdened and suffering son, called Dr. Kafka at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute on account of his law degree; the epistler and unhappy lover who signs himself “Franz” and begs for an immediate reply; the sensitive artist, diarist, and tormented perfectionist who stays awake to fashion nightmares for a sleeping world – while planning very carefully (though not all that consciously) for the immortality of each of them.