Have you ever used a word, assuming everyone knew what you meant and been shocked when they didn’t? I have. In all the many, many drafts of How To Climb The Eiffel Tower, Lara Blaine, the MC, describes the Ellery Cancer Center as ‘Kafkaesque’.
The main character’s use of the term ‘Kafkaesque’ in the first paragraph of the novel launched many a critique group argument. Some people felt it was too obscure a reference and would turn readers off. Others felt it was a word that Lara would use because she is exceedingly well-read and would definitely have read Franz Kafka’s work. At the beginning of the novel, Lara sees the world as a dark, hopeless place that acts upon her, rather than a place she can effectively act on. It felt natural to me for Lara to use the term when describing the hospital. At one point, I thought about taking the term out, along with some later references to Alice In Wonderland, until I ran into a writer I hadn’t seen in five or six years. He didn’t remember my name; he remembered my book and the character who thought a hospital was Kafkaesque. The word stayed.
Have you ever used a word in your writing that felt natural to you, but perplexed other people? What do you do when you encounter new words? Do you look them up or just read on?
In preparing this blog post, I did a little digging on the internet for a good definition of the term and found this wonderful description from Frederick R. Karl, author of an exhaustive critical biography of Franz Kafka. – “What’s Kafkaesque . . . is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.
You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don’t stand a chance. That’s Kafkaesque.” (source)