Franz Kafka – The Hunger Artist

There’s always the danger that when an author becomes absorbed into the mainstream consciousness, they become a bit of a clichĂ©, and that’s certainly been the tendency with the work of Franz Kafka. We hear the phrase Kafkaesque bandied around all over the place, to describe the latest TV thriller or political chicanery, all of which tends to obscure the works themselves. Kafka died in 1924, but luckily for me a collection of four short works of his was published shortly after his death and so I’m able to squeeze one last read in to the 1924 Club! 🙂

complete kafka

“The Hunger Artist” was the last collection which Kafka himself prepared for publication, and he was actually able to correct the proofs during his final illness, with the book appearing several months after his death. It contains four stories – the title one, plus “First Sorrow”, “A Little Woman” and “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”. I confess that I didn’t mess about trying to find a copy of this collection; instead, I splashed out on a volume containing the complete short stories because I figured that I need to start reading Kafka again, and also that the book might come in handy for German Lit Month in November…

But back to Kafka. “First Sorrow” is a wonderfully strange little tale about a trapeze artist who decides he wants to get away from the world in a most unusual way. Is it an allegory about wanting to escape? Or about taking the pursuit of your art too far? Or maybe about a quest for identity? Certainly it contains an awful lot in its few pages. “A Little Woman” is again a strange one; the narrator is convinced that his very existence is an irritation to the woman of the title – and yet they are strangers! Is he unreliable? Is there a story here we’re not aware of? Again, there’s much hidden beneath the surface here.

The title story relates the story of an actual hunger artist (I had to search online to find out if they really existed and they did – people would travel around in shows, fasting for a set period and making a spectacle of themselves). Again, there’s a lot going on in this story. The craft of starvation seems to be going out of fashion and despite joining a circus, the hunger artist is sidelined; people are not interested in watching him go without food and he in his turn is repelled by the animals and the noise of the crowds. As he declines and fades away we are left to ponder just why he tried to earn a living this way. Certainly, he could be meant to represent the misunderstood artist or perhaps a religious figure, as he usually fasts for 40 days.


And finally, “Josephine the Singer”, an ambiguous little work. Josephine is the only one of the mouse folk who is able to sing, and the story tells of her life and her relationship with her audience. Capricious and demanding, while the other mice work, she entertains them – but the narrator is never clear as to whether Josephine really *can* sing or whether they’re all just fooled by the fact that she’s so convinced she can. In fact, it’s possible that she puts her people in danger by attracting attention with her singing, although she always manages to be whisked to safety. Oddly enough, it’s only the title that describes the people in the story as mice – despite references to fur, it isn’t explicitly made clear that these are real mice and they could just be a community of people with mice-like timidity and characteristics.

Quite clearly, there’s a running theme with Kafka, as his stories are laden with ambiguity and open to a variety of interpretations – which is half the fun of reading them! Kafka died young at the age of 40 and very few of his works had actually been published. It was only because of the diligence of his friend, Max Brod, who refused to burn Kafka’s manuscripts after his death, that the great works like “The Trial” and “The Castle” survived. However, “The Hunger Artist” is particularly interesting because it’s a work Kafka intended to see published; it’s an intriguing collection of stories and highly recommended!