If we were to say that Kafka was a short-fiction narrator we would be right and if we were to say that he was a novelist, we would be right too. The importance of Kafka´s body of work transcends genres as much as it transcends history and times. The stylistic approach of the author is just as impressively suffocating and astonishing regardless of the length, but the short stories have more of a take-no-prisoner feel that only briefness can give to any writing piece.
A Hunger Artist Is A Simple Story
The plot to this short story by Kafka is not difficult to understand, in fact, anyone can read the straight forward, plain facts narrated by him. But is A Hunger Artist really a simplistic narration of the life and death of the main character or like The Metamorphosis, it has many hidden symbols that open the door to a new way of seeing the world?
For starters, the piece was written in 1922, which means that Franz already knew he had tuberculosis and was very near to his death. In fact, most of the corrections to the manuscript to get it ready for publishing were made by him in his deathbed. Interestingly enough, the cause of death of Franz Kafka was actually starvation. His larynges were completely closed due to tuberculosis and he couldn´t ingest any food. This happened two years after writing the short story in 1924.
The story of an artist who’s art is hunger
There have been many interpretations of what the hunger means and what does the artist´s stoic position has to do with Kafka´s refusal to abandon his artistic life despite he was never given his deserved importance while he was alive. One of the most lucid things I read about this fact was by literary critic Maud Ellmann who said that the actual starvation that killed the starving artist had nothing to do with food, but in fact, it was related to the attention of the public. This is completely revealing if we think that Kafka´s writing was never really appreciated, and so, the big public eye was elusive to his stoic efforts to keep on writing and correcting while on his deathbed.
Another important line in the story that can be regarded as Kafkian for being typical of his writing style is the ending punch. This is, perhaps, the most important difference between his writing in short and long stories: the ability to turn the events and leave you wondering what you just read. When the artist says: “Because I have to fast, I can´t help it” we can think he is really saying that he has to continue writing and is Franz Kafka who is speaking to us. He goes on and says: “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” Is that Franz Kafka telling us that if he wouldn´t have had that amazing, tortuous inner world trying to come out of his brain in form of writing, he would have lived a normal life?
The importance of this last paragraph is crucial in understanding why the short story works in leaving us all in awe. He really does include another layer of meaning with just those last words. His approach to short stories varies in this sense from other, longer works, in that he applies all the meaning to a single line while in other writings, his efforts for creating a metaphor and explain the world through it have a central space in their writing. For example, The Metamorphosis and The Castle can be thought of a metaphor to explain certain aspects of life that stretches for the entire book, while The Starving Artist applies all the meaning to a single line.