Kafka: oracle and artist

Franz Kafka, Der Denker

The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka, Reiner Stach (ed.), Shelley Frisch (trans.), Princeton University Press, 2022, hb, 230pp + XXII, 9 mono illus., £20/$24.95

Franz Kafka: The Drawings

Pavel Schmidt, Andreas Kilcher (ed.), Kurt Beals (trans.), Yale University Press, 2022, hb, 368pp, 240 col. illus., £35/$50
ALEXANDER ADAMS sees different sides to an arch-dystopian

While he was writing The Trial, a novel that remained unfinished and unpublished during the author’s lifetime, Franz Kafka would read aloud chapters to his friends. Closest friend and Kafka’s future biographer Max Brod recalled that as Kafka read, he would be convulsed with laughter. The novel commonly considered the epitome of existential despair and implacable authoritarianism, was viewed by its creator as a black comedy. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is seen as the prophet of the totalitarian modern society operating through a labyrinthine bureaucracy. It is easy to overlook Kafka’s sense of humour, penchant for absurdity and taste for farce. What continues to attract readers is the brilliance of his ideas and the visionary quality of images. Kafka’s fondness for the paradox and ironical gives even his bleakest work a touch of levity.

Two new books present Kafka at his most playful and wry – also at his most oracular and obscure. The Drawings reproduces all surviving drawings by the author. The Aphorisms publishes Kafka’s most impenetrable and oracular pronouncements.  

Kafka’s drawings have been one of the great unknowns of his output. Although a few (showing stylised, simplified single figures) had been reproduced in Brod’s biography and on the cover of a few editions of the 1950s, exactly how extensive and how various his drawings were was unclear. Not least, the obscurity came from the fact Kafka destroyed almost all his own drawings and only a few survived in letters and scraps that Brod preserved from the time they were law students together in Prague. Brod was enthusiastic about the drawings and attempted to interest publishers in hiring his friend as an illustrator, to no avail. After Kafka’s death, Brod published a few drawings then went cold on a proposed exhibition and substantial catalogue. The drawings disappeared into obscurity. Brod had given them to his partner-secretary, Esther Hoffe. After Brod’s death in 1968, the Kafka manuscripts and drawings were shuffled between a Zurich bank vault and Hoffe’s Tel Aviv apartment.

Publishers and scholars were antagonised by Hoffe’s unwillingness to make the manuscripts accessible. (In 1983, she would not let a publisher into her apartment, saying that it would cost him the equivalent of $150,000 even to see the drawings. The publisher demurred and departed. No book was published.) When her daughters continued the obstruction after her death, the Israeli state took legal action to claim possession of Kafka’s manuscripts. The state argued that the sheets were being kept in humid and dirty conditions and in danger of deteriorating; there was the threat of the works disappearing into hands of private collectors. In 2019 the state won, the Hoffe sisters lost possession of the manuscripts, and the National Library of Israel acquired relics of a Jewish titan of culture.

With the newly available originals accessible, plus all the other few Kafka drawings in other collections photographed, The Drawings presents all of Kafka’s surviving drawings. Essays cover aspects of Kafka’s drawing and the history of the manuscripts; a catalogue raisonné documents 163 pages of drawings.

Kafka took art classes, attended lectures on art history and visited museums. He personally knew some artists. Long after his university course on art history, he remained interested in differing art styles, including Renaissance art, Expressionism and Japanese colour wood-block prints. Kafka claimed that art education had ruined his ability to draw and that whatever he had done in terms of drawing had been achieved despite that constraint. Most of Kafka’s drawings are caricatures and fantasy cartoon figures, in exaggerated clothing and adopting parodic positions. On the evidence of comparative illustrations in The Drawings, it seems Kafka was an admirer of cartoons published in the German and Bohemian presses.

Around 1901, when Kafka was 18, he began a small sketchbook. He filled it with drawings, mainly of figures. As many of the personages are walking and seen in profile, they invite the comparison with a parade (or promenade) of eccentrics. There are curving jockeys riding improbable horses, angular men slumped at desks, striding gentlemen with walking sticks. Strong ink lines and solid black bodies are influenced by line-block illustrations, common to journals and books of that era. Kafka seems not have specific plans or projects in mind for his drawings; the figures are drawn at random on the pages, in every orientation, out of order and without accompanying writing.

There are similar ink figures in his letters, also reproduced. Figures appear in diary pages, often relating to the subjects of the day’s entry. On separate sheets of writing paper, portraits (including self-portraits) were drawn in pencil from life and photographs. These reveal Kafka’s art training. They are lightly worked fragments, with no settings indicated, but have realistic shading and the proportions are faithful to life, except where deliberately exaggerated. In artistic terms, they are slight and unfinished but the best of them have a magnetic pull to them – not least a self-portrait with haunted eyes. He did little drawing after 1908, with the majority of surviving drawings dating from his youth.

Kafka, Self-Portrait. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama. Wikimedia Commons

Did Kafka take his drawings seriously? Fairly so, on this evidence. Although he was self-effacing and reluctant to publish or exhibit them, Kafka took care over making them. He developed forceful images that were crisp and striking. Overall, in The Drawings we find Kafka at his most playful and relaxed; the best of the drawings are really fine and we might wish that more drawings of this type had been saved from Kafka’s wastepaper basket by Brod. Kafka might have been amused at a scholarly cataloguing of his drawings, doodles and elaborate crossings-out.

The Aphorisms collects 108 statements by Kafka, written over the winter of 1917-8, which he copied out into two small exercise books. At the time he was staying with his sister Ottilie in a village called Zürau. On sick leave from his office job, he was attempting to stem the progress of pulmonary tuberculosis by escaping the smoke of Prague, eating well and doing some farm work for exercise.

Part religious parables, part philosophical propositions, part distilled observations, entirely literature, the aphorisms still baffle even the most serious readers of Kafka. “From a certain point on, there is no turning back. This is the point that needs to be reached.” “Like a path in autumn: no sooner has it been swept clean than it is once more covered with dry leaves.” The most famous is, “A cage went in search of a bird.” These are the shortest, but none run longer than half a page. The final sentence of the collection is unusually pungent and vivid. “The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it cannot do otherwise; it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

The aphorisms are gnomic and elusive. The reader gets the impression that he is being told something true and important, but also something unclear, even deliberately obscured. Although these sayings have been published before (sometimes incorporated into collections of short stories), they are the probably the least read of his works. As the editor notes,

In comparison with Kafka’s other writings, his aphorisms have been overlooked by researchers and even more by his general readership. The aphorisms, like everything Kafka wrote, require interpretation, but in contrast to his fictional prose, for example The Trial, they do not reward the reader with the sensory and aesthetic pleasure of a story.

This new edition supplies commentary written by Reiner Stach (author of an excellent recent biography), with English translation by Shelley Frisch, who did a fine job on Stach’s biography. There has been no shortage of complicated interpretations of the aphorisms; wisely, Stach avoids committing himself. Commentaries include Kafka’s original draft, so we can note the revisions and follow the author’s thinking a little. Rather than offer explanations, Stach’s commentaries relate the aphorisms to comparable phrases or ideas from writings by Kafka and mention what he was known to have read at the time.

The aphorisms are as tricky to decipher as anything Kafka wrote. If you fancy giving yourself food for thought, then The Aphorisms are ideal. If you prefer something playful, then The Drawings is for you. Both publications serve to broaden our knowledge of one the greatest authors of European literature. What would expand that knowledge even more would be a first translation of the new German editions of Kafka’s letters, including texts inaccessible to non-German readers. When will Princeton University Press commission Shelley Frisch to translate Kafka’s letters into English?

The Deadlift & Towards the Pebbled Shore

MICHAEL YOST is an essayist and poet living in rural New Hampshire with his wife and children. His essays and poems can be read at Crisis Magazine, Dappled Things, the St. Austin Review and Hearth and Field, as well as at his website, poetryofmichaelyost.com.  

The Deadlift

The name rings hollow: pig-iron

In gravity’s deep wallow.

The unpoetic callus 

On each palm’s pad too hard 

To feel the microscopic knurl

Packed white with chalk, the burnished steel

Bar like some eel of river shining

Yet stippled still with the pock of rust. 

The body, braced against itself feels fear

For its own softness, singing for sweet rest. 

The plates all packed like brothers on the bar, 

Their edges sharp from the white hot lip of the mold. 

Then suddenly, the mind resolves itself to mass,

White pylons of tense bone, and round well fatted muscle, 

Presses itself in feet and shin through concrete ground

And grinning, pulls through gravity like broken glass. 

And there they hang, the bar and plate, all clattering in air, 

Yet shaking violently as if they cannot stay, like leaves

or bells quite badly made, to ring the chimes and iron hours

Of body’s powers, pains, and passing finally away. 

Towards the Pebbled Shore

My Papa took me out the day before

to sit outside the ancient red barn’s door, 

All painted black, and sliding back to shut. 

He told me I was helping him out, but 

I couldn’t help but feel he wanted me 

To witness something. I was there to see. 

The barn’s inside was dim, and cellar-cool. 

Its walls were lined with seed-bag, wire and tool;

The floorboards wide, unvarnished, roofbeams barked.

One long swift century had weathered, marked

It for its own. The sun outside showed all 

The colors of the world there were. The ball

I played with sat still in the north field’s green

Long blades, bright rubber blue. The sheen

Of light struck firmly off each branch and stone

And gave each thing a presence all its own, 

And lit the rock wall flaming low with moss,

As coals flame low and heavy in the loss

Of fire in evening. Papa loped out, took

The cockerel by his claws, and with a look

Of concentration laid him down upon 

A stump, quite still. A stroke: the head was gone. 

It fell down flat, heraldic, violently;

Beak parted, tongue out, crowing silently. 

One eye looked up; alone, to watch the sky, 

The other gazed at earth. The pool and dye 

Of blood, much brighter red than you would think

Dripped down the empty ruff, in squib and plink

Into the metal bucket, drops of jewels 

Upon a field. Invert, above these pools, 

The bag of muscles twitched just where it was. 

The dead bird’s gray pin feathers and gray fuzz

Soon littered all the lawn. The entrails out, 

The feet off, Papa turned the bird about

And carved at each distinct and white-pink joint. 

I stood and shuffled, looking at one point

At ground and sky, and back again as well,

Made nervous by the casual, wholesome smell

Of cockerel’s blood and feathers in the air. 

I grabbed a quill, and put it in my hair.

At that age, I could barely think or talk;

But still some thing as round and firm as rock,

And yet as broad and moving as the gust

Of wind that blew that day came as it must;

Yet everything retained its form and color

And multiplied its mass; no shade was duller.

I knew myself as something with a shore, 

Where water laps and freely spills. Before

I thought myself the world, some kind of all

Without circumference, gravity, or fall.