In a letter to a friend, Kafka once wrote: “I believe that we should only read those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it? What we need are books that affect us like some really grievous misfortune, like the death of one whom we loved more than ourselves, as if we were banished to distant forests, away from everybody, like a suicide; a book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us” (qtd. in Koelb 72).
This quote is but one reason that I love teaching Kafka—no other author confounds, frustrates, and dazzles my students the way he does, whether it is with a tattoo machine that takes on a life of its own or a bucket that one can fly in desperate times, or a salesman that suddenly wakes up one day a “monstrous vermin.” And hidden within these fantastic tales are deeper issues about justice, faith, power dynamics, use value, and yes, even about writing itself. Take the tortuous machine in In the Penal Colony, which is rendered with such meticulous description while still defying reality. My students know the machine looks like, sort of. Same with the giant bug poor Gregor Samsa finds himself morphed into—my students have a hazy idea of what it looks like, but get them to draw it, and they find themselves at a loss (some just go for a standard cockroach to make it easy). This, to me, is the fantastic at its most powerful—it feels real on some level that we cannot rationalize.