It has been a century since Franz Kafka was born, and well over half a century since he died and his work began to slip into the mainstream of literature. It is an oddity of his reputation that among all the great modernists of fiction to appear during the first half of this century, Franz Kafka—mute, modest latecomer—came into his greatness, as it were, last. He lived and wrote during modernism’s high halcyon decades, outliving Proust by only a little over two years; he was being read with interest in Germany before Ulysses had been published in the United States, and, in fact, much of his greatest work had already been written while Joyce and Proust were still in the early stages of their art.

Yet the true emergence of Franz Kafka—outside Germany, at least, and to a certain degree within it—is an essentially postwar development. An entire generation of English-speaking readers had long since...