The Burrow by Franz Kafka review – a superb new translation

Ranging from a single paragraph to 40-odd pages, these stories of strange animals and clerks oppressed by bouncing balls are richly rewarding and thought-provoking

Or rather, “The Burrow” and other stories, newly translated by Michael Hofmann, and taken from the many stories that were published after Kafka’s death, despite his instructions to his friend and executor Max Brod to burn all his unpublished writing. This was a great act of literary disobedience, and we are grateful for it. Somewhere, possibly, there are also around 20 notebooks and a dozen letters confiscated by the Gestapo from his lover, Dora Diamant, in 1933. Oh, for those to turn up.

The stories here, including everything not in Penguin’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, have been arranged chronologically, or as near chronologically as possible, for Kafka often interrupted one story to write another. They are often incomplete, fragmentary or even, so to speak, radically unfinished: you can’t imagine them working any better if they had continued to a conclusion. The very lack of conclusion seems often to be the point. The first story, “In the City” from 1911, sees its feckless hero Oscar, an ageing student, suddenly having an idea that will convince his disappointed father that he is not the dissolute and useless son he is assumed to be. In the story’s five and a half pages we never find out what that idea is; we leave him waking up his friend Franz, probably about to tell him. “Perhaps you are a reliable person after all,” says Franz – but for no other reason than that Oscar has told him his collar and tie are on the armchair.

What can we read into this? The fight between the son and father feels very familiar from Kafka’s own life, as does Oscar’s sense of uselessness yet manic sudden feeling of purpose. One presumes this great idea is Kafka’s own literary project. But why is the friend given Kafka’s first name? Is this a simple misdirection? We don’t know.

As his fellow countryman Milan Kundera said: “It is very difficult to describe, to name the sort of imagination with which Kafka casts his spell over us.” The stories range from a short paragraph to 40-odd pages long, most of them at the shorter end, but take one of the longer stories, “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor”. It is about a long-serving clerk in a linen factory who comes home to find two rubber balls bouncing about in his bedsit, following him around like a retinue. It’s ridiculous and funny: “Too bad that Blumfeld isn’t a small boy, two balls like that would have been a wonderful surprise, whereas now the whole thing makes a faintly disagreeable impression on him.”

Again, one struggles to see what’s going on, even though it has been described meticulously. (Kafka usually gives very precise descriptions of the movements and gestures of his characters.) Compared to this, as an articulation of self-disgust, Metamorphosis is as clear as day. Is the subtext Freudian? We don’t know. (Kafka claimed in his famous letter to his father that marrying and raising children was supremely important, without doing so himself.) As for Blumfeld, he goes off to work after an uneasy night’s sleep, and we don’t see the balls again. Sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a pair of balls is just a pair of balls.

And what’s with the weird animals? The eponymous beast in “The Cross-Breed”, “an unusual animal, half pussy-cat, half lamb”, or the strange turquoise creature “about the size of a marten” that lives in the narrator’s synagogue? (The story “In Our Synagogue”, which apparently took two years to write, is four pages long.)

This is a superb translation. I checked against the German and other versions whenever something seemed slightly out of kilter, but each time Hofmann’s choice of words looked to be the best. His foreword is great, too, short but suggestive. It alerts us to the strangeness of Kafka’s world – often funnier or happier than we give it credit for – without using the word “Kafkaesque”, which should be retired as it now means little more than “frustratingly bureaucratic”. Kafka’s world is richer, and more rewarding than that.

The Burrow is published by Penguin Modern Classics. To order a copy for £8.49 (RRP £9.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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