Samuel Earle: Locking down with Kafka

Kafka’s characters are almost always trapped – in a cage, a court case, an insect’s body, a false identity – and they share a feeling that the walls are closing in, and that a door, once there, is disappearing into the distance. This existential claustrophobia, at once vague and intense, resonates today, particularly under lockdown.   In A Report to an Academy, a short story published by Franz Kafka in 1919, an ape named Red Peter gives a lecture to a scientific conference, recalling how he was hunted in the jungle and then awoke one day in a cage, unable to return to the old way of life he had loved. 

“For the first time in my life I could see no way out,” the ape says of his captivity. “Hopelessly sobbing, painfully hunting for fleas, apathetically licking a coconut, beating my skull against the locker, sticking out my tongue at anyone who came near me – that was how I filled in time in my new life. But over and above it all only the one feeling: no way out.”

In our time of plague, a quasi-official cast of oracles has emerged: Albert Camus, Daniel Defoe, Susan Sontag, José Saramago – writers whose novels and essays on infectious disease have acquired a new ­pertinence and reached new audiences. ­Kafka is nowhere to be found on such lists, yet in his life and writing we encounter a different kind of relevance: less literal and more ambient. He is a writer who inhabited a similar nest of neuroses to those presented by a pandemic, and who made this nest his home….

More posts on Franz Kafka

The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay

A Report to an Academy : Esteemed Gentlemen of the Academy!  I feel honored by your invitation to present the academy with a report on my former life as an ape...

Kafka: An End or a Beginning?

Books reviewed - Lost in Transformation: biographies of Franz Kafka

'Before the Law' - a parable by Franz Kafka

Ilya Erenburg: The Thaw (Novyi mir Spring 1954)

A Hunger Artist - by Franz Kafka (1922)

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