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  • Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature
  • Clayton Koelb
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Theory and History of Literature 30. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. 104 pp. $25.00 cloth; pb. $10.95.

This brilliant, though also frustrating and at times misleading, study of Kafka as an exemplar of "minor literature" has been available in French for over a decade. The book deserves a wide readership, and the editors of the series "Theory and History of Literature" at Minnesota have done a service by offering an English translation. Like the original text, however, the translation requires a patient and at times forgiving reader. [End Page 376]

In an important way, the volume is not so much about Kafka as it is about Deleuze and Guattari's notion of a "minor literature." Let me quickly reassure those unfamiliar with the concept that, contrary to appearances, the adjective "minor" is meant in an entirely positive sense here. It is something "a minority constructs within a major language" and therefore represents a kind of subversive or revolutionary tendency within the body of a major literary tradition. "We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature." The authors' interest in Kafka therefore derives perhaps more from his sociopolitical position (as a Czech Jew) than from his newly won status as a modern classic. They see in this social-political fact a fundamental force shaping everything that is genuinely important about Kafka's writing. That writing, in turn, has its importance (in this book, at least) mainly as a paradigm for the general case of minor literature, which in its turn is significant in that it is "the revolutionary force for all literature" and therefore the impulse that keeps literature lively. "There is nothing that is major . . . except the minor."

The idea is a potent and timely one for current literary theory, which has become deeply concerned with political and social issues and particularly with the problem of marginality. Because the notion is so fertile, it does little harm to point out that Kafka is probably not a particularly apt example. Deleuze and Guattari have what seems to me an exaggerated notion of Kafka's cultural "minority." They see him as a speaker of a minority dialect, a "Prague German" full of "qualities of underdevelopment that it has tried to hide." But it is clear that whether at home, at school, or at the office, Kafka swam in a sea of standard "high" German that diverged only slightly from the "Bühnensprache" to which the cultured aspired. Kafka wrote in his mother tongue. It is perhaps curious, given his ethnic background, that his mother tongue should have been standard German, but it was. Other misperceptions about Kafka and his work play an important role in the argument, as when the authors repeatedly cite the "becoming-animal" leading to "a way out" as a standard pattern in Kafka's stories. This is, at best, a hasty generalization. The very basis of "Report to an Academy" is that becoming human, not the opposite process, provides the protagonist with a "way out."

At the same time, there are numerous brilliant observations about Kafka's mode of writing that quite overshadow the occasional lapses. The discussion of Kafka's letter-writing is both provocative and right on target. The critical vocabulary, borrowed from linguistics, that allows them to separate "the subject of enunciation" from the "subject of the statement" leads to important perceptions about the doubling of the self in Kafka's letters. The writer is split into two functions, one of which can remain at home while the epistolary "subject of the statement" flits about Europe in "an apparent movement, an unreal movement" brought about by the postman. Only space limitations prevent me from citing additional flashes of critical insight.

I am obliged to comment on one aspect of this translation, which in general seems reasonably adequate, that I find inexcusable. The translator, acting as if the works of Kafka were not already well known in English...


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