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Kafka and Dickens: A Case Study

By Alex Andriesse.

In literary criticism at least the wish to attain completeness is more often than not a will o’ the wisp which lures one past the occasional ideas which may perhaps have truth in them towards an unreal symmetry which has none.
—Virginia Woolf

On the night of October 8, 1917, Franz Kafka wrote an entry in his diary that would occupy literary critics for decades to come:

Dickens’s Copperfield. “The Stoker” a sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel [Amerika] even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labour, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al., but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel.

The first critic to fall under the spell of this entry was a Czech-born professor named Rudolf Vasata, whose article “Amerika and Charles Dickens” appeared in an anthology entitled The Kafka Problem (1946). Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Vasata’s article — as E. W. Tedlock, Jr. would point out nine years later, in “Kafka’s Imitation of David Copperfield” — is that Vasata hardly mentions Amerika or David Copperfield at all. Instead, he declares Kafka’s diary entry a “frank admission of indebtedness to Dickens” and then proceeds to discuss the similarities between The Trial and Bleak House, with special attention paid to the ways both novels pillory oppressive social systems.

E. W. Tedlock, Jr., for his part, finds such discussion interesting as far as it goes, but feels obliged to point out, with reference to the original diary entry, that it “was the method, or technique, of David Copperfield that Kafka wished to imitate,” rather than Copperfield’s public-spirited themes. For this reason, he proposes to “reapproach the problem of a Kafka–Dickens relationship by examining point by point the relevance of the two novels to the evidence Kafka gives us in his diary” (i.e., “the story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labour, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al.”) in an effort to expose the two novels’ common architecture.

In the years following the publication of “Kafka’s Imitation of David Copperfield,” a Brown University professor named Mark Spilka became so enamored of Tedlock, Jr.’s findings he undertook a book-length study titled Dickens and Kafka: A Mutual Interpretation (1963). According to Spilka, the trouble with earlier critics’ interpretations of Kafka and Dickens was that they too narrowly confined themselves to examining specific links between one or two books by each author, when it could clearly be seen that “Amerika is strongly based on Copperfield; that The Trial may derive from the legal metaphor in Bleak House; that The Castle recalls the bureaucracy in Little Dorrit; and that The Metamorphosis suggests the exclusion scene in Copperfield (the scene where young David is locked away for five days as punishment for biting Mr. Murdstone’s hand), plus incidents from Forster’s Life of Dickens.”

Thanks to Spilka’s assiduity, all four of Kafka’s major works (Amerika, The Trial, The Castle, The Metamorphosis) had now been identified with a corresponding novel by Dickens. But with orthodoxy comes dissent, and Kafka/Dickens studies of the 1970s would be marked by two bold objections to the system Spilka put in place. Eleanor Tate, in “Kafka’s The Castle: Another Dickens Novel?” (1974), pays her respects to Spilka (saying he “convincingly argues that Amerika is really a rewriting of David Copperfield and The Trial of Bleak House”), but she passes over the links he establishes between Copperfield and The Metamorphosis in suspicious silence and outright debunks his theory that The Castle is a recasting of Little Dorrit: The Castle, she argues, is rather a wholesale rewriting of Great Expectations. Deborah Heller Roazen, likewise, in “A Peculiar Attraction: Bleak House, Der Prozess, and the Law” (1978), grants that Spilka offers “many illuminating insights” — and even agrees with him that The Trial (Der Prozess) is a reply to Bleak House — but she cannot help observing that his comparative analysis of the two novels overlooks their “most interesting common ground,” whose mapping, it will come as no surprise, is the task that Heller Roazen sets herself.

Whatever we make of these squabbles among scholars, one thing is abundantly clear. The links between Kafka and Dickens are more extensive than Kafka’s diary entry at first indicates. The appropriate image for the subterranean relationship between these two authors would perhaps be arboreal (the network of roots shared by two trees, whose branches are likewise interlaced) or geological (the mountain range that seems to vanish for hundreds or thousands of miles only to reappear in a totally disparate locale, the way the Appalachians, after traveling subaqueously across the Atlantic, rear their heads again in the Scottish Highlands). In any case, we must understand that Kafka and Dickens are two sides of the same Janus-faced coin.

It may even be that the two men known as Franz Kafka and Charles Dickens were one man, just as Kafka’s work has been shown by the experts to be Dickens’s work rewritten in a different language, at a different time, in a different place, by a different hand. Though it is true that a little more than thirteen years passed between Dickens’s death at Gads Hill and Kafka’s birth in Prague, the exact operations involved in the transmigration of souls remain obscure to us. The possibility of reincarnation should not be ruled out.

I am convinced, however, that there is a simpler explanation. Some readers will recall Borges’s essay on Kafka, in which Borges, citing Kafkaesque passages in the works of Han Yu, Kierkegaard, Léon Bloy, and Lord Dunsany, illustrates the way in which “every writer creates his own precursors.” Some readers will also recall that Kafka, an office worker by day, “developed a strange counter-cyclical schedule” (as Robert Minto puts it), writing most of his fiction at night while his family slept in the neighboring bedrooms. His first story, “The Judgement,” was composed in one long uninterrupted burst during the period of darkness between September 22 and 23, 1912, in a state of self-abandonment he himself described as “an absolute opening of body and soul.”

Dickens, on the other hand, was a diurnal worker. “No city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he,” his son Charles remembered. “At something before ten he would sit down — every day with very, very rare exceptions…and would there remain until lunch time — sometimes, if he were much engrossed with any particular point or had something in hand which he was very anxious to finish there and then, until later,” though never later than the moment when the dinner bell rang, at six p.m.

Yet it is difficult to believe that Dickens — whose imagination was so prodigious it could hardly have been turned off like a spigot by a few glasses of sherry and some bloody roast beef — ever stopped composing fiction, even in his sleep. It was very likely then, as he rolled about in bed beside Catherine Hogarth or Ellen Ternan, that he dreamed the stories later given shape by Kafka. During the night, characters and images that had come to him that morning or afternoon were transformed by Dickens’s unconscious brain and, by some as yet inexplicable trick of oneiric time and space, conveyed to the insomniac writing in spidery German beneath the lamp light of his room in Prague or Zürau, Spindlermühle or Berlin.

To be clear, I am not implying that Dickens composed all of Kafka’s fiction, or that Kafka in any sense plagiarized Dickens, whose work, as we know from his diaries and letters, he read with pleasure and recommended to lovers and friends. But the evidence compiled by my predecessors suggests a connection between the authors that goes well beyond the horizon of literary criticism. In my opinion, the case of Kafka and Dickens presents an unprecedented opportunity for interdisciplinary study, incorporating fields as diverse as neuroscience, neurobiology, necromancy, and lycanthropy. Making full use of the expertise now available to us, we may be able to reconcile the superficial differences between their works and at last definitively come to understand what Kafka was trying to communicate on the night of October 8, 1917.



Alex Andriesse‘s writing has appeared in Granta, The Quarterly Review, and The Millions. His translation of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave is published by NYRB Classics and a translation of Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text is out now on Dalkey Archive Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 20th, 2019.