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Reviewed by:
  • Franz Kafka: Narration, Rhetoric, and Reading ed. by Jakob Lothe, Beatrice Sandberg, Ronald Speirs
  • Doreen Densky
Franz Kafka: Narration, Rhetoric, and Reading. Edited by Jakob Lothe, Beatrice Sandberg, and Ronald Speirs. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2011. 251 pages. $21.95.

Combining the distinct nature of Franz Kafka’s modernist fiction with the complexity of narrative theory is a task most fruitfully approached by a range of critical voices, scholarly angles, and thematic emphases; Franz Kafka: Narration, Rhetoric, and Reading demonstrates a genuine collaboration to this end. Based on a 2006 symposium that brought together both renowned Kafka scholars and narratologists (several of whom were members of the hosting research group in Narrative Theory and Analysis in Oslo), the collection is a strong contribution to the flourishing field of Kafka studies and offers suggestive insights for narratology.

In the introduction, Jakob Lothe, Beatrice Sandberg, and Ronald Speirs cogently set the keynote of the volume’s ten essays. While it is common and appropriate to begin any discussion of Kafka’s narrative style by referring to and deviating from Friedrich Beißner’s groundbreaking 1952 claim that Kafka always narrates “einsinnig”/“from a single perspective” (3), it is rarely presented with such clarity or with the added attention to the author’s own contradictory notes concerning his writing that the editors here display. As a theoretical anchor point and for pragmatic purposes, they adopt James Phelan’s conception of narrative in general “as a rhetorical act” and of fictional narrative as a doubled rhetorical act, in which “the narrator tells her story to her narratee for her purposes, while the author communicates to her audience for her own purposes both that story and the narrator’s telling of it” (2, quoted from Experiencing Fiction, Columbus 2007).

The acts of communication directed to the implied reader or authorial audience, whose purposes in much of Kafka’s fiction are by design kept opaque, are essential themes of the first three essays. Phelan employs and extends his rhetorical theory alongside “Das Urteil” to expound the interlaced textual and readerly dynamics, i.e., the narrative progression and shifting speed of the story in their interaction with the interpretive, ethical, and aesthetic judgments of the authorial audience. Anniken Greve traces the obstacle courses with which the reader is confronted when approaching “Die Verwandlung” either at face value or allegorically. The deliberate “ontological fuzziness” (44) surrounding the metamorphosis creates a narrative that invites the (inclined) reader “to experience the connection between the thesis of dualism and the ontological-existential anguish of the Samsa family” (55). Advocating a historical and contemporary cultural approach to literary scholarship, Benno Wagner offers a rich analysis of Kafka’s multi-vocal texts involving the Chinese Empire. He elucidates how these narratives from the war year 1917 serve “as Kafka’s reaction to and intervention in political discourse by the aesthetic means of narration” (64)—an involvement intended to counteract the propaganda-based rhetoric of the day. [End Page 153]

Three contributors devote attention to the novel fragments Der Verschollene (Gerhard Neumann and Gerhard Kurz) and Das Schloß (J. Hillis Miller). In different ways, they foreground the twin difficulties of communication and “a potentially endless variation on the theme of failed ‘attempts at passage’” (120), as Miller aptly states of Kafka’s final novel project. Gerhard Neumann compellingly argues that the lack of an orchestrating authorial narrator in “Der Heizer,” hinted at by the abandoned writing desk Karl Roßmann passes by, enables an experiment with metanarrative strategies across several discursive fields. Narrative agency is moving non-hierarchically between the elusive narrator and the characters who retell, correct, or vicariously narrate the stories of others. Ultimately, “Der Heizer” as projected first novel chapter (and as published novella subtitled “Ein Fragment”) questions, according to Neumann, if originary scenes and individual uniqueness can still be narrated in the vacillation between the demand that “stories be told” and “the rejection or refusal of narrative” (84).

Beatrice Sandberg and Jakob Lothe also examine facets of Kafka’s intricate narrative beginnings and underline their often-noted tendency to start in the middle or near the end. While Sandberg surveys some of Kafka’s frustrations about...