I’m giving this book a certain score, but realize first and foremost that it is wildly inconsistent. There can be no doubt that “The Metamorphosis” and “In The Penal Colony” are masterpieces of short literature that rank with the highest of perhaps anything that’s been written in the form. The works that come close to those are “The Judgment” and “A Hunger Artist” which perhaps most merit the score I give. They’re very good achievements, but they don’t have a good connection to the hand that wrote “The Trial”, which is Kafka’s unfinished masterpiece.
The rest of this collection is somewhat similar to Typee from Herman Melville. The elements of good writing are present but they haven’t formed into that je ne sais quois that forms literature. These works can’t even be called Kafka-esque in the same way Typee can’t be considered Melvillean. Everyone will remember Melville for Moby Dick, a work that almost achieves the status of The Great American Novel, and similarly Kafka will be remembered for “The Trial” and the short stories for which this collection is partially named, but both authors must’ve not been able to feel their way out naturally since they both produce art that is wildly non-indicative.
It’s not so much that these other stories are bad, but in a collection like this they are indeed “other.” It’s too bad that Kafka was not as prolific as Melville, since Melville managed to pump out a good bevy of excellent short stories between Moby Dick and his final hurrah of “Billy Budd, Sailor.” This final stage of Melville’s life carries almost as much of his legacy as Moby Dick itself. Kafka, on the other hand couldn’t seem to decide what he wanted to produce in finality. Or else he could, but he still dotted it with less important work along the way.
I would suppose it were a blessing that Kafka couldn’t decide on his ultimate vision the way Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft could. After all, his vision was a lot more complicated. It encased the full experience of the 20th century man, parts of which were left out for Poe or Lovecraft- Poe being nevertheless a literary auteur of the strange, frightening, and imaginative. Kafka, in his few masterworks, reached into the soul of man and reflected it back to us in all of its stunning sadism and otherwise. His beautiful portraits of transformation and auto-mechanism should be familiar to all. We can learn the ways we shouldn’t treat each other in Kafka. If he only could’ve put together a couple of other stories on that par and collected them together under one binding.