I have a theory about Franz Kafka. His work — those magnificently angular parables and fictions — are not so much sui generis as they are representative. I think of Jonathan Franzen, who in his essay “On Autobiographical Fiction” identified Kafka’s writing, “which grows out of the nighttime dreamworld in Kafka’s brain,” as “more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experiences … could have been.” Franzen is both right and wrong; yes, the work is autobiographical in the sense that it emerges out of Kafka’s psyche, but it is also the case that Kafka is tracing a peculiarly modern sort of alienation, in which we are separated, in the degradations required by our waking lives, from our most essential selves. Thus, Gregor Samsa, in The Metamorphosis, is transformed into a giant insect because, as William Gass has observed, he “was treated by my parents and my sister like a bug” … a self-fulfilling prophecy. And yet, Gass insists, this also bestows an unlikely power, since through the process of his conversion, Gregor changes everything. No longer is he small, taken for granted. Rather, he has moved out of the dreamworld and into the center of his family, which has no choice any longer but to acknowledge — indeed, to accommodate — his monstrosity. Paradox? Yes, but paradox is key in Kafka. For this reason, writers and artists including Gass, as well as T.C. Boyle, R. Crumb, Philip Roth, and Haruki Murakami, have been inspired to riff on his creations: the idiosyncratic yielding to the archetypal and back again.
A similar balance, between the individual and the universal, sits at the heart of Peter Kuper’s Kafkaesque, a collection of Kafka stories rendered in graphic form. This is not new territory for Kuper, who has been drawing Kafka since 1988, when he translated the author’s story “A Fratricide” into images. Translated is the operative word here because Kuper’s project is less about adaptation than re-rendering, a way to remake Kafka’s work for the visual realm. “The moment I committed pen to paper,” he recalls in a preface titled, cheekily, “Kuperesque,” “I discovered comics were ideally suited to illuminate what Kafka called his ‘scribbling.’ I found the stories inspired surprising visual interpretations that pushed my work in new directions. With Kafka’s texts serving as an anchor, I could stretch and bend my panel and page designs without losing readability.”
What Kuper is describing is collaboration — a seemingly strange lens through which to frame the interaction of a living artist with one who has been dead for nearly a hundred years. At the same time, it makes sense, for Kafka comes to us from a territory between past and present, with one foot (so to speak) in the nineteenth century and one in the Holocaust. “What have I in common with Jews?” he wrote. “I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.” The issue is less a religious than an existential one. That Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, nine years before the rise of Hitler, is the sort of bitter irony — or better yet, complicity — that we discover in the author’s fiction; his characters are often guilty even as they are innocent. Had he lived, he would have almost certainly been a victim of the Nazis, as were all three of his sisters, along with many friends and associates. His work predicts the brutality of the twentieth century … and, by extension, of the twenty-first. That’s an idea Kuper makes explicit in his style of drawing, which involves using scratch board, “a chalk-covered paper that can be inked and scratched to approximate woodcuts.” The effect is that of a Mitteleuropean etching interposed within a comic, time-bound and contemporary at once. The sensibilities, in other words, are not so different. “[P]erhaps, as Kafka’s disciple Gustav Janouch suggested,” Kuper tells us, “his writings are ‘a mirror of tomorrow.’ They belong here and now.”
In that light Kafkaesque reads as a creative conversation, Kuper and Kafka communicating through the medium of narrative. The stories include “The Helmsman,” “Coal Bucket Rider,” “Before the Law,” and (yes) “A Fratricide,” that initial adaptation of three decades ago. Indeed, of these fourteen pieces gathered here, nine originally appeared in Give It Up!, Kuper’s first collection of Kafka, which came out in 1995. (In 2003, he also published an astonishing reworking of The Metamorphosis, where, at times, language itself becomes part of the visual vernacular, trailing across the page in jagged arabesques, like the pattern of an insect’s crawl.) Now, he has updated those older efforts with new translations, incorporating tough, sinewy language. “Alas, every passing day, the world becomes narrower,” begins “A Little Fable,” in which a mouse (or is it a human being?) finds himself trapped in a maze. Salvation is offered by the cat who tells the mouse to change direction, only to eat him when he complies. It’s a brutal outcome but also one that’s starkly funny, in the sense that all of Kafka’s stories represent an expression of, or an engagement with, the absurd. Take “A Hunger Artist,” with its famous line, “I always wanted you to admire my fasting” — a plea for recognition that Kafka deconstructs two sentences (in this version, two panels) later, when the title character admits his essential motivation: “I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had, I should have stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” Kuper highlights the intimacy of this revelation by making his drawings narrower and narrower, as if the images themselves are being starved.
It’s fascinating to revisit these renderings once more, to see the subtle shifts in language on the page. But Kafkaesque is no mere reclamation project. In the years since Give It Up!, Kuper has learned to tell a longer story: The Metamorphosis is a case in point. In that regard, the most revelatory work here is the most complex: “The Burrow,” with its portrayal of a creature that cannot make itself safe in a world without pity, or “In the Penal Colony,” with its vivid explication of the Harrow, an “apparatus” designed to execute prisoners by inscribing their sentence on their bodies with a latticework of blades. “Here’s the situation,” the chief officer tells a visitor: “I have been appointed as judge in this penal colony, with one guiding principle: Guilt is never in doubt.” Complicity again, or complication — a contradiction that only grows more treacherous after the chief officer commits himself to the device. “His expression was as it had been in life: there was no sign of any enlightenment,” Kafka writes, over a full-page image of the man’s face and body streaked with blood. “Whatever redemption others may have found in the machine, the officer had failed to find for himself.”
This notion of redemption — or our inability to find it — is central to Kafka. We are bound (how can we not be?) by our certainties and obsessions, like the chief officer or the Hunger Artist. “I know I am vulnerable,” declares the creature in “The Burrow,” even as he sequesters himself from the world. We are alone and there is nothing that will save us, even (or especially) ourselves. Instead, we have only the knowledge of our incongruities, which both is and can never be enough. “I’ve harmed no one and nobody’s done me any harm … But nobody helps me either. A pack of nobodies,” Kafka writes in “Trip into the Mountains.” That Kuper illustrates the story with images of cavemen only makes us feel the isolation more.
Still, there’s also humor, the bleak wit that first attracted Kuper; “Hearing the absurd circumstances Kafka placed his characters into and their deadpan responses, I found myself guffawing,” he recalls. Kafka, it has been said, used to do the same when he read his work aloud. Here again, we see the affinity between artists, the conversation undertaken across a century. Here again, we see the translation, the riffing, one artist not just reading but inhabiting the other’s work. “What kind of people are these?” Kafka wonders, with grim satisfaction. “Do they ever think, or do they merely shuffle pointlessly across the earth?” He is, of course, referring to himself and also Kuper – as well as every one of us.