Not that long ago The Atlantic published an attack by Joseph Epstein on Kafka. It seemed so silly I wondered if Epstein had actually read Kafka. Now in the same magazine we've got a piece on Modernism that starts thus:
Beckett wrote “unenjoyable” books, says Martin Amis. Paulo Coelho believes Joyce’s Ulysses caused “great harm,” while Roddy Doyle doubts any readers are “really moved by it.” “Shabby chic” is the Financial Times’ verdict on modernist architecture. You hear it often these days, this grousing about difficult, pretentious modernism: Woolf, Kafka, Stein, and Picasso come in for it too. The emperor has no clothes.
The author of the piece, Michael Levenson, may not agree with such sentiments, but I want to know who are these people calling Kafka difficult and pretentious? He may be deep but he's not difficult. And he's not pretentious either, though people who talk about him, and use words like Kafkaesque, may be.
What makes Kafka special is how he can write about the specific and the concrete and yet create a world that seems ineffable, just beyond our grasp. And his language (though I admit I read him in translation) isn't high-flown, or confusing, but matter-of-fact in describing astonishing things. It's also perfectly clear and beautiful at the same time. In addition, Kafka is often quite funny.
I don't think I need to defend Kafka. He's a classic. But I sometimes think he may be getting a reputation that might keep readers away. Too bad. They're missing a lot.