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An erudite analysis of the critical and subversive dimensions of Kafka’s writings

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Franz Kafka: Subversive Dreamer is an attempt to identify and properly contextualize the social critique in Kafka’s biography and work that links father-son antagonisms, heterodox Jewish religious thinking, and anti-authoritarian or anarchist protest against the rising power of bureaucratic modernity. The book proceeds chronologically, starting with biographical facts often neglected or denied relating to Kafka’s relations with the Anarchist circles in Prague, followed by an analysis of the three great unfinished novels—Amerika, The Trial, The Castle—as well as some of his most important short stories. Fragments, parables, correspondence, and his diaries are also used in order to better understand the major literary works. Löwy’s book grapples with the critical and subversive dimension of Kafka’s writings, which is often hidden or masked by the fabulistic character of the work. Löwy’s reading has already generated controversy because of its distance from the usual canon of literary criticism about the Prague writer, but the book has been well received in its original French edition and has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, and Turkish.

Michael Löwy is Emeritus Research Director in Social Sciences at the CNRS (French National Center of Scientific Research) and lectures at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS; Paris, France).
Inez Hedges is Professor of French, German, and Cinema Studies at the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Northeastern University, Boston.

“This reading of Kafka—so thorough, consistent, and inspired—can surprise, but it convinces; not by the aggressive assertion of a thesis, but by the quality of information, the rigor and finesse of listening; in short, by knowledge.”
—Guy Petitdemange, Etudes, July 2004

In his life and writing, Kafka (1883–1924) struggled against patriarchy and anarchy. Yet, as critic Walter Benjamin once remarked, Kafka “took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.” Löwy is circumspect and cautious in leading the reader through Kafka’s biography and opus, linking father-son antagonism and heterodox Jewish thought and anarchic protest against modernity to offer new insights. Löwy starts by analyzing Kafka's early anti-authoritarianism and in chapter 2 scours work that illustrates patriarchal autocracy (The SonsLetter to My FatherThe TrialMetamorphosis, and Amerika). Löwy devotes the remaining chapters to The Trial, with its uncomplaining hero caught in a bureaucratic, nefarious machine; whether Kafka was religious or secular (Löwy concludes he was in no–man’s–land); The Castle and its bureaucratic despotism and voluntary servitude; the modern state as hierarchical, impersonal, and alienating; and the “Kafkaesque,” which in more than 100 languages signals inhumanity and absurdity and means the irredeemable contamination of bureaucracy. Hedges's translation from the original French (published in 2004) is excellent, and the endnotes (which serve as bibliography) are thorough.
--L. J. Rippley, St. Olaf College

- LJ Rippley

"A conceptually razor-sharp work, as historically engaging as it is pressingly relevant. In fact, it is a book that feels like a window thrown open; not just a rendition that is helpful but also one that is transformative in the sense that one’s experience of reading Kafka may never again be the same."

- Alan Wald