Elias Canetti

Kafka’s Other Trial

“I found these letters more gripping and absorbing than any literary work I have read for years past.”

In 1914 Franz Kafka faced a humiliating public trial when his finance broke their engagement. His letters show a man pained and powerless, manic with desire to rest, and yet, above all, creatively inspired. Kafka’s Other Trial is considerate analysis of these letters – and Kafka – by Elias Canetti (1905-1994), a Bulgarian/British writer and Noble Prize winner.

Franz Kafka meant a great deal to modern literature and to the literature of Eastern Europe, to writers like Canetti. Prague turns on the prime riverside placement of the Kafka Museum. A Romanian friend of mine described Ionesco as “our version of Kafka.”

Kafka’s writing was a touchstone of style and characters who were the embodiment of suffering. Failure wasn’t something that happened to him, it was him. Like Gregor in The Metamorphosis, who finds himself a beetle and surprisingly, accepts this state.

Canetti said Metamorphosis was the most perfect, poetic essay in the 20th century and about Kafka’s letters he wrote “they have penetrated me like an actual life.”

Kafka wrote at the intersection of pain, guilt, and self-awareness. Others have too. Pain had a compounding effect according to C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed: not only are we in pain, but we’re irrevocably aware of it. The mid-20th century poetry of American Beat poet Allen Ginsburg pivots between power (self-actualization) and powerlessness. Is pain something that happens to us, that we invite in? Or is it something of our own creation? And what power do we have against it?