- Secrecy and BetrayalOn Kafka and Welles
Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.—Pulp Fiction
In a review of Max Brod’s biography of Kafka (1937), which remained unpublished because of Brod’s virtually unchallenged authority at the time as trustee of a work he had no less than saved and discovered to the world, Walter Benjamin denounced immediately its limits: on the one hand, it presents itself unabashedly as hagiography; on the other, it betrays an intimacy that is incompatible with the alleged holiness of its subject (Benjamin 1972, 526–29). Brod has remained a target of choice for many later Kafka interpreters, up to the merciless indictment of Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed (1996), but he could at least boast of a friendship that, as Benjamin aptly remarks, remains one of the great “enigmas” (Rätsel) of Kafka’s life (Benjamin 1972, 529). In the case of a book such as Roberto Calasso’s K., however, which I [End Page 91] take as representative of a mushrooming new genre of Kafka’s essayistic biographies, intimacy is a privilege that the author claims for himself without anything to show for it, and the inevitable outcome is a perfect case of kitsch—a label that Calasso himself applies to Brod in the last pages of his book (Calasso 2002, 294), thus giving away, unwillingly, the secret of its title. Discretion, the virtue sine qua non of the secretary1 (as the shared etymology of the two words also suggests) implies the capability to keep a secret “in the way of the ancient Mysteries,” to use Calasso’s own words (2002, 38), and undoubtedly Kafka’s work, like all great writers’, hides a secret that each sensitive reader is called to safeguard.2 From its very title, however, Calasso’s book exhibits the secret that it intends to reveal: the name of the protagonists of Kafka’s two unfinished masterpieces, The Trial and The Castle, and he does not hesitate to let us in on it as soon as he can. Calasso’s betrayal, however, condemns his book to irrelevance. If I may be granted a hyperbolic comparison, it is Liù’s death—suffered as the price of not betraying the “mystery” of Calaf’s identity—that confers sublimity on his otherwise puerile incognito. And, as Turandot teaches us, the knowledge of the name is precious little when compared to the love that ought to replace it.3 Calasso, for his part, has no doubts that the abbreviation stands for “Kafka” and makes no mystery of his certainty, though at his own risk. Perhaps the most telling example of how misleading his reading may be is the paralogism that he formulates in reference to the family of the messenger Barnabas: “if K. [the protagonist of The Castle] notices a family resemblance in that family, it’s because their implicit hopes and relentless fears are much the same as those of Hermann [Franz’s father] Kafka’s family” (Calasso 2002, 86), where the conclusion, obviously false, is reached on the basis of the silent premise that “K.” stands for “Kafka.” Such an assumption, however, cannot be taken for granted in a reading of Kafka’s work that aspires to be up to its model4—and the standard is set once and for all, as Benjamin cautioned, by the interpretation of the parable “Before the Law” in The Trial (Benjamin 1999, 804).
Indiscretion is thus the literary form of Calasso’s book, which wants the readers to believe they are gaining access to an esoteric knowledge and promises on every page to initiate them into the secrets of Kafka’s work; under his hands, however, initiation turns into a purely voyeuristic exercise, rather than [End Page 92] the experience of a real transformation. Calasso sticks, for the most part, to the principle that Elias Canetti stated fittingly (but one would have liked Calasso not to forget to apply this principle, with more consistency, to his own work), according to which “there are writers, admittedly only a few, who are so entirely themselves that any utterance one might presume...