Begley on Kafka: The Art is in the Work

“Read Kafka without trying to find ‘meaning’,” said novelist Louis Begley to the packed house at Canio’s Books, Saturday night, July 26. “There is no ‘lesson’ to be drawn,” he continued. “The ‘lesson’ is they [Kafka’s stories] work on your heart and mind….” Begley said, quoting the master himself, “‘like an ax to break the frozen ice within us.'” Louis Begley’s new non -fiction work The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay was the subject of his talk.

His most recent novel, now out in paperback is Matters of Honor about young Harvard law school students in the 1950s. Begley’s previous works include About Schmidt, which was made into a film, Mistler’s Exit and Wartime Lies among others.

Begley described a particular and immediate understanding of Kafka. Fom the first sentence of “The Trial,” he felt Kafka was writing directly to him. Begley and his mother experienced the oppressive intimacy of family pensions, the places Kafka writers about, first hand. Begley soon became devoted to Kafka. He finally agreed to write about the master after publisher James Atlas had asked him for years for such a work. The task was daunting, Begley admitted, since there has been so much written about Kafka. Yet he feels a lot of what has been written is wrong-headed in its approach. Because so much of Kafka’s private papers are available to the public, it is hard to resist delving into the details of those letters and diaries never intended for publication for “clues.”

But the meaning of Kafka’s work will not be found there, Begley insists. Kafka was not a conceptual thinker, he explained. He worked in images and waves of feeling. HIs novels are more open-ended than neatly resolved. The writing is exceedingly direct. Sure it is important to know about the context in which a writer writes, and that can be enriching, but it is not essential for an understanding of the work. To know and appreciate Kafka, one must simply and directly read him. “The tremendous world I have inside my head, but how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces,” Kafka writes in Amerika. Begley may have given us a way. Signed copies of works by Louis Begley are available at Canio’s Books.

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