Kafka's other mask: our image of him always at the abyss is distorted
A boyhood friend, recollecting Franz Kafka years later, remembered him characteristically in a state of grand amusement: His rather thin mouth opened slightly while the eyes narrowed to bright slits. His head was thrown back as if turning to the sun.
It is not the face commonly associated with Kafka in this centennial year of his birth. Readers have been trained to see him - and to read him - as the expression of his tormented image on dust jackets. His eyes are haunted, as if visualizing his doom. His lips are pressed tightly, as if in resignation to it. He seems to be portraying one of his own characters, Joseph K. perhaps, in ''The Trial,'' who never learned what he was charged with, but, of course, felt guilty anyway.
Whatever became of the laughing Kafka? Did he perish with boyhood?
Not really. Kafka's friend, Max Brod, described Kafka laughing till the tears streamed as he read his stories aloud to a circle of friends. The letters and post cards to his younger sister are delicious reminders of his playful side. Furthermore, the Kafka-with-head-thrown-back grew up to be a Charlie Chaplin fan.
It is worth recalling, too, that Kafka's original literary model was the greatest comic novelist in the English language, Charles Dickens. If Dickens revisionists can reinterpret him as also wearing a tragic mask, it may be time - 100 years after his student's birth, 50 years after his translation into English - for the comic mask of Kafka to be appreciated.
His story ''The Great Wall of China'' is nothing if it is not a masterpiece of a joke. Absolutely deadpan, the scholarly narrator fusses to separate history from legend in order to explain why the Emperor wanted the wall built in the first place - and ends his inquiry by doubting the existence of the Emperor.
With most Kafka stories (a new centennial edition, ''The Complete Stories,'' by Franz Kafka, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer with a foreword by John Updike, has been issued by Schocken Books in New York), it is not a matter of now-he's-being-funny, now-he's-being-sad. The neglected comedy lies in the tilt. If Chaplin (or even Woody Allen) were playing the role, how funny-sad all those Kafka anti-heroes would appear as they stand in line waiting for an unseen bureaucrat to validate a document, the contents of which nobody understands, but without which one cannot be quite sure one is certifiably alive.
Kafka was fascinated by parables, a genre not usually suspected of comedy. But the parable, in fact, is often religion's outlet for humor, and Kafka not only wrote funny parables but was funny on the subject itself, as when a character complains that parables are no use in daily life. Kafka has a second character cleverly argue that if one obeyed a parable, one would, in effect, become a parable, thus solving all of one's everyday problems: ''I bet that's also a parable,'' the grumbler says.
''You have won,'' his friend says. ''But,'' the second man laments, ''only in parable.''
This is the kind of wit, and even mischief, that conventional readers miss by restricting Kafka to the stereotype of the modern artist, obsessed by his father , neurotically incapable of marrying his fiancee - barely escaping self-destruction by concocting stories about victims and executioners dangling over the abyss of despair. No reader of stories like ''In the Penal Colony'' would argue for a Kafka without tears. But a Kafka without laughter, as he has too often been presented, is equally unjust. Perhaps a better-balanced, a more centering artist and man, can be found in the Kafka who believed that the profoundest desire of a human being is to surrender self - the problem being, for Kafka and other moderns: To what, to whom, does one surrender?
Naturally, Kafka saw the comedy as well as the tragedy in this dilemma. But his final summary sings with a lyricism that transcends both. ''Art and prayer, '' he concluded, ''are hands outstretched in the dark. People beg to give themselves away.''