Paul Greenberg

Franz Kafka is one of those authors whose name has become an adjective, as in Shakespearean or Faulknerian or this dictionary entry:

Kafka-esque -- adj., referring to the nightmarish, surreal, illogical quality Franz Kafka evoked in works like "The Metamorphosis," "The Castle" and "The Trial."

No wonder Franz Kafka was able to capture the maddeningly frustrating world of the modern bureaucrat so well. He was one. And a pretty good one, too: conscientious, adaptable, public-spirited and practical. At least to judge from the latest collection of his work, which is not a volume of short stories, but office memos and other working papers. Its title: "Franz Kafka: The Office Writings."

Who knew? The myth is that Kafka the artist was drained of time and energy by the demands of his day job in Prague as a government employee -- specifically, as a legal clerk at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute of the Kingdom of Bohemia.

A combination attorney, actuary and all-around bureaucrat, he seems to have carried out his duties with a combination of mitteleuropäisch flair and German efficiency. And even a sense of humor, no small feat in anyone with a thoroughly German education.

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You might even call Herr Kafka a hard-working, realistic reformer. His workaday world would seem the opposite of the nightmarish, surreal, illogical atmosphere he summoned up in his allegories about the individual trapped in a world beyond his comprehension, namely the modern bureaucratic state. Yet even this able administrator seemed to think his job was but drudgery, a drag on his calling as a writer. An artiste.

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A daydreamer, self-doubting and given to complaining, the sort of smart but uncollected type who's the despair of family and teachers, young Kafka finally managed to land a government job -- thanks to the connections of a friend's father.

Kafka started working at the Insurance Institute, a sort of early workmen's compensation bureau, in the golden peacetime year 1908 -- before the last century's World War in two acts put an end to much of Western civilization, including the airy assumption that man's progress was inevitable.

By 1911, Herr Kafka was a rising bureaucrat who, still complaining about the time his work at the office took from his after-hours writing career, could nevertheless write about his department's progress with pride, especially in light of the mess he'd found when he arrived there:

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.