Grandin's topic is without doubt one of the perennial favorites among those acquainted with the works of Kleist and Kafka. It is almost impossible not to be struck by the uncanny similarities between the lives and concerns of the two writers, and indeed Kafka himself appears to have noticed and perhaps even cultivated a few such similarities. I confess that I, too, was bitten by this bug already as an undergraduate and went so far as to offer as my bachelor's thesis a comparison of the two writers. It was certainly an overly ambitious project for a college senior, and I was lucky to escape with my degree; it merits instead the full-scale treatment it gets in Grandin's book. Unfortunately, the difficulties of such an enterprise are as great as its allure.
Grandin is clearly aware of the difficulties, but he is not able to overcome them. He realizes that the question of demonstrable "influence" is a sticky one, and he acknowledges at the outset that "final questions of influence will often remain at the level of speculation and thus never be ultimately answered." He proposes instead to intepret Kafka "through Kleistian eyes" and—certainly the more controversial notion—to show that "some Kleist stories may be more fully appreciated through a reading from the more modern Kafka perspective." This would certainly be a worthwhile enterprise and, if successful, extremely significant. But Grandin has no theoretical framework from which to approach the inherently complicated matter of interpreting an earlier author according to the "perspective" of a later one. Instead, he returns, although hesitantly, to the speculative sort of influence-hunting he seemed to be dismissing. He even concludes his first chapter with this announcement of "our questions": "Are the likenesses in Kafka and Kleist significant enough to posit a dialogue in the mind of Kafka with respect to Kleist? If so at what points might this dialogue have taken place and to what degree may we speak of an influence on Kafka?"
But this is precisely the question Grandin's book cannot answer, and he is reduced to offering a set of hedged-about speculations. "The conclusion is inevitable," he says, "that Kafka must have used a Kleist-related style in some cases and yet, [sic] not in others." The phrase "Kleist-related style" is too vague to be helpful, and the sentence boils down to the contention that Kafka's style was sometimes something like Kleist's, sometimes not. We learn that "both authors [End Page 716] concentrate on moments of crisis and decision in their works," which only puts them in solidarity with most other successful writers of fiction. Kleist's style, we learn, was "a point of reference for Kafka," which I believe to be quite true but which nonetheless claims far less than Grandin seems to think. Ultimately, Grandin can assert no more than that "Kleist did become a point of reference for Kafka."
Perhaps indeed no more than this can be asserted, and the reader's disappointment should be directed against the intractable nature of the topic rather than against this careful and well-intentioned scholar. The book is useful in that it brings up almost every possible issue relevant to the Kleist-Kafka connection, and maybe that degree of usefulness should suffice.