Simple, yet Sophisticated
You won't have to dive into your SAT vocabulary flashcards to get through "A Hunger Artist." The style and language is simple and clear, and it is easy to follow the action. You do have to be on your toes, since the stylistic sophistication of Kafka's writing lies in this very simplicity. A typical Kafka sentence starts off on one topic, but ends up, after heaping up clause after clause, in a totally unexpected place.
Trying to explain how Kafka's sentences work is a bit like explaining a joke: once you explain a joke, the joke isn't funny anymore. But we'll try with an example in the second paragraph. The sentence begins:
Nothing tormented the starvation artist more than such watchmen…
At this point in the sentence, we expect the rest of the sentence to explain what "such" watchmen do to torment the artist. And so we read on:
…they made him melancholy; they made his starving terribly difficult; sometimes during the hours of the watch…
Again, at this point in the sentence, Kafka gives us what the beginning of the sentence promised: an explanation of what the watchmen do to torment the artist. We learn that they make starving "difficult" for the artist. But then, as we read on this long, long sentence:
…overcoming his weakness, he sang…
What the…? At this point in the sentence, Kafka throws us a curveball. Why is the hunger artist singing? And where does he get the energy to sing?
…for as long as he could so as to show these people how unjust their suspicions were.
At the end of this long sentence, we may feel cheated. How can singing dispel the watchmen's suspicions that he's sneaking in food? The next sentence gives us the punch line:
But that ploy helped little; they were merely amazed at his dexterity in managing to eat even while singing.
Okay, you laughed right? Maybe just a tiny snort, but you caught the humor. The convoluted logic that inspires the artist's singing and the watchmen's refusal to believe that he is actually starving is pushed here to absurd limits.