BOOK REVIEW: The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Essential Stories

By Franz Kafka

It seems a Terrible Thing to stay single for good, to become an old man who, if he wants to spend the evening with other people, has to stand on his dignity and ask someone for an invitation…

UNHAPPINESS BEING SINGLE MANThere are to date 87 titles in the quirkily designed Pushkin Collection Series, of which The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man (along with The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice by Georg Simmel) is the most recent addition – due for publication in 2019.

It is a compilation of Franz Kafka’s lesser-known stories, the frontispiece showing him with a dog, circa 1905, and the blurb describing it as containing all the “wit and the grit; the horror and the humour; the longing and the laughing” of his “genius”.

Kafka (1883–1924) was, of course, a major figure of early 20th century literature; a German-speaking Bohemian Jew whose fiction commingled elements of realism and fantasy to create a unique world that reflected conventional, middle-class life, but intermixed it with something contemptible and grotesque.

The stories aren’t in chronological order and apparently “only the best” have been selected for inclusion. They are of mixed length, with tales like ‘A Short Fable’ being barely more than a paragraph, while those such as ‘In the Penal Colony’ and ‘Give Up!’ are closer to forty pages.

In the Translator’s Preface, Alexander Starritt remarks that “Kafka’s work is respected far more than it is loved”, which, in my opinion, is a truth no more apparent than in this collection. Whilst he is of the opinion these stories are “the best thing Kafka ever wrote” and they form the “core” of all his works, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed, greatly preferring his more familiar works such as the novella, The Metamorphosis. This lack of connection with Kafka’s short fiction is undoubtedly a deficiency on my part, and I’m aware my viewpoint isn’t widely shared, but regrettably I found myself losing concentration on several occasions, especially when reading the longer narratives.

I can nevertheless own to appreciating his sardonic humour and the sheer ingenious depth of this collection. It is brimming with typically Kafkaesque neurosis and symbolism and, in the words of Starritt, is: “quick, funny, strange and sad.”

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for providing an advance review copy of this title.


NB German Literature Month is an annual book blogging event in which participants are encouraged to read and review “works originally written in German” throughout the month of November. It is hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Categories: Translated Literature

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21 replies

  1. The “respected far more than is loved” comment is so true, and yet so many authors I’ve seen interviewed over the years say that they do love Kafka’s short stories, whereas they (like me) can’t stand his novels. I don’t (yet) have this collection, but I will get to it one day. I have read In The Penal Colony though – once read, never forgotten!

    Thank you for joining #germanlitmonth.

    • I’m sorry I wasn’t able to join in the fun any earlier – I made it with just hours to spare. Re. Kafka, I’m sure it’s just me. Perhaps it was the wrong time and I should try again at a later date. I will certainly try The Penal Colony again now you’ve mentioned it! 😊

  2. I read his collected stories ages ago and remember many shorter ones that were so absurd I couldn’t fully appreciate them back then. I think you need to know something about his life fir it to make sense.

  3. I’ve read very few of Kafka’s shorter works, just his novels – but that was an awful long time ago. I’d like to try him again, and I think I have a collected volume somewhere. It’s just finding the reading space to do so…. I suspect my reaction would be very different from that of my 20-odd year old self!

  4. Thoughtful review, Paula. I’ve only read a handful of Kafka’s stories, but something about his style leaves me feeling cold and unable to love his work as so many others do. He has such a great reputation, though, so I might revisit his fiction someday and will keep this in mind.

  5. I’ve read a good few of Kafka’s longer works, but none of his short stories. This sounds like a good place to start.

  6. Was The Men Running Past within this collection?

  7. I’ve not read any of Kafka’s short stories. This does sound interesting, but I know what you mean about short stories sometimes being hard to connect with – it’s a real art, drawing the reader in quickly and keeping them engaged.

    • I normally enjoy a good short story collection and read several every year. However, I completely agree that it’s a ‘real art’ – some of the best novelists struggle with the form – but something didn’t click for me with Kafka’s short fiction. Odd, because I’ve enjoyed his novellas. I will try again at some point and hope it was merely me being in the wrong frame of mind!

  8. That Pushkin series looks wonderful! Can’t believe I’m only just discovering it. Thanks so much, Paula 🙂

  9. Oh oh oh a german writer! This is perhaps a rather unfitting thought about the matter so forgive me but I must to quote him here: Wilhelm Busch!

    Klagelied eines Junggesellen/ Lament of the Bachelor

    Mir fehlt etwas, mir ist nicht recht,
    Doch wüßt’ ich wohl, was ich wohl möcht’,
    Ich möchte was und weiß warum,
    Das geht mir so im Kopf herum.
    Heut sprangen mir von meiner Hos
    Schon wieder mal zwei Knöpfe los;
    Da setzt’ ich mich und näht’ herum
    Wohl eine Stund, bis ich ganz krumm,

    Bin dann zu Probsten hingerennt.
    Zu schlürfen, was man Kaffee nennt.
    Da fühlt ich wieder mal so recht,
    Daß mir was fehlt, was ich wohl möcht’.

    Ein Gast, ein traurig schmerzensvoller,
    Saß ich zu Mittag dann beim Koller.
    Die Serviette war beschmutzt,
    Die Gabel war nicht abgeputzt,
    Kurzum, ich fühlte da so recht,
    Daß mir was fehlt, was ich wohl möcht’.

    Und abends in der Dämmerfrist,
    Wenn man so ganz alleinig ist,
    Da möcht’ ich wohl so dann und wann
    Etwas zu titscheln=tatscheln ha’n.
    Jedoch – da fühlte ich so recht,
    Daß mir was fehlt, was ich wohl möcht’.

    Was soll der Mensch des Abends tun?
    Ich denk’, zum Kappler geh’ ich nun;
    Da sitz’ ich so bei meinem Bier
    Als wie ein rechtes Murmeltier
    Und fühle wieder mal so recht,
    Daß mir was fehlt, was ich wohl möcht’.

    Nun tönt die Glocke zwölf vom Turm,
    Ich muß nach Haus, ich armes Wurm.
    Es fällt der Schnee, der Wind geht kühl,
    Daß ich’s durch Hemd und Hosen fühl’,
    Und komm’ ich endlich dann nach Haus
    Und zieh’ mich zähneklappernd aus
    Und steig ins Bett – so fühl’ ich recht,
    Daß mir was fehlt, was ich wohl möcht’.

    There was no worthy Translation I could come up with and I apologize deeply for any frustration it might cause but maybe the rhyme can cross the langugae borders.

    All the best and happy Kafka


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