[lit-ideas] Was Kafka a major writer?

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 17 Oct 2006 14:43:49 -0700

I just finished Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle, a Study of the Imaginative
Literature of 1870-1930.   Wilson is impressive.  The Symbolists he
discusses are Yeats, Valery, Eliot, Proust, Joyce and Stein.  I wondered why
he didn't mention Kafka.  Surely something of Kafka's was available to
Wilson by the time he wrote (1931), but perhaps not the novels.  I remember
that Kafka had difficulty finishing novels and Max Brod published many
things after Kafka's death.  Well all right, what was Wilson's opinion about
Kafka later on?


I checked Google and found the answer in a couple of places.  The following
is an NYROB article from 2005:  <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17911>


The article is a debate between Crews and Corngold/Wagner.  Corngold wrote a
couple of books on Kafka and Crews reviewed them negatively.  The debate
isn't very edifying.  Crews review is quibbled with by Corngold and Wagner.
But the part I was looking for is as follows.  Crews writes:


"Regarding the value of Kafka's writings, I differ from Crews fundamentally,
and I cannot guess what he means by comparing Kafka to Mel Brooks. Nor do I
share his satisfaction with Edmund Wilson's view that it is impossible 'to
take [Kafka] seriously as a major writer.'"


In http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/vermeer/287/interpretations.htm  is
the Wilson quote    But with much admiration for Kafka, I find it impossible
to take him seriously as a major writer and have never ceased to be amazed
at the number of people who can...To compare Kafka...with Joyce and Proust
and even with Dante...is obviously quite absurd...putting K beside writers
with whom he may properly be compared, he still seems rather
unsatisfactory...I do not see how one can possibly take him for either a
great artist or a moral guide.  -Edmund Wilson, "A Dissenting Opinion on


I'm not sure I'm sufficiently interested to buy Kafka: A Collection of
Critical Essays in order to read Wilson's essay.  Perhaps Kafka doesn't
measure up to Joyce, Proust or Dante, but Wilson included Gertrude Stein in
Axel's Castle.  He swallowed her without a burp even though the only work he
appreciated was her Three Lives.   He was very critical of all her other
works.  Does he think Stein a major writer?  If she is there because of her
influence, surely Kafka has been more influential than Stein -- not in 1931
perhaps, but later on. 


But aside from that, what does it mean to question whether Kafka is a "major
writer"?    Can one call Gerard Manly Hopkins a Major Poet?  His production
is slim and yet many of his poems are first rate, better (in my opinion)
than anything Eliot wrote, and more original as well, but Wilson would call
Eliot a Major Poet or Writer.  He likes his Prufrock but doesn't think his
Wasteland or Ash Wednesday quite measure up, and while he doesn't really
agree with Eliot's criticism he grants it a major influence.  Why not grant
Kafka a major influence?  


Maybe I should reread some Kafka. :-(



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