Kafka revealed

Kafka, self portrait. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama. Wikimedia Commons

The Diaries

Franz Kafka, Ross Benjamin (trans.), Schocken/Penguin, 2023, hb., 670pp + xxiv, US$45
ALEXANDER ADAMS welcomes an overdue and sensitive English-language edition of Kafka’s journals

There could hardly be a better paradigm of existential modern man, locked within his psyche, struggling to making meaning of a brutal and mechanical world, than Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The most interior form of writing is the private diary. Thus, Kafka’s Diaries should be the epitome of angst – and indeed they are – and of self-conscious fashioning of literary forms – and that is also true. But they stubbornly explain little about what drove the writer.

In 1909 Kafka – doctor of law, employee of an insurance company, lifelong resident of Prague and aspirant writer – opened a quarto notebook and began writing a series of short entries before describing watching a Russian dancer who had recently performed in Prague. This was the beginning of a diary that he kept on and off until his death in 1924 from tuberculosis. The diaries would be his laboratory for writing. Aside from describing his day, notable events in his life and thoughts that had occurred to him, he would draft letters, test out poems, summarise plays he had seen and write fiction. He would also make some fetching faux-naïf drawings patterned on those in the German literary-satirical journal Simplicissimus (1896-1967).

This hybrid character proved an impediment to his editor and friend Max Brod, who took it upon himself to alter the diary text for the first edition, published in 1951. He tidied up the style into plain Hochdeutsch, removing Bohemian Germanicisms, and correcting slips. He cut all of the fiction published elsewhere in the novels and stories, which substantially shortened the text. He also sought to protect his friend’s reputation by removing critical remarks (including about Brod) and any mention of sex, pornography, and visits to brothels. This had the effect of making Kafka seem more unworldly and abstemious than he really was.

The new version translated by Ross Benjamin, based on the Fischer Verlag Critical Edition of Kafka’s complete works, removes these interventions. Reading this edition is not like reading a new book, it is reading a new book. The text has been radically altered, the character changed, and many new aspects have emerged, all of which make it feel fresh. Benjamin has been unable to render into English Bohemian German deviations from standard Hochdeutsch, wisely not trying, but the inclusion of slips in spelling (“Newyork”, “Newyort”) and capitalisation gives the text a much more fluid, impromptu character. We see a tired writer making mistakes and changing his mind as he wrote the only draft of this text. Included in this translation are the notations from the Fischer complete text, adding a great deal by way of context and identification.

Kafka (left) photographed at an amusement park ride

We encounter a handful of notable figures Kafka met personally – an audience with polymath eccentric Rudolf Steiner, a letter from novelist Robert Musil, a description of Alfred Kubin’s pornography collection. But Kafka’s diaries are not a glittering rollcall of intellectuals. Kafka lived in Prague rather than Vienna, after all. The few writers he knew well (Franz Werfel, Willy Haas, Brod) have all been eclipsed by Kafka himself.

The diaries dwell on Kafka’s fraught responses to his body. His vegetarianism and constipation were related to his fastidiousness. These were also a reaction against the gruff uncouthness of his portly father; it was a torment for Kafka to spend time with his family, especially his father. It must have been equally trying for his family in return. (For much of his adult life, Kafka lived with his parents.) The pathology of Kafka’s food obsession appears in the entry of 30 October 1911:

This longing I almost always have, once I feel my stomach is healthy, to heap up in myself fantasies of taking terrible risks with food. I satisfy this longing especially in front of smokehouses. If I see a sausage labeled as a an old hard Hauswurst, I bite into it in my imagination with all my teeth and swallow quickly, regularly and heedlessly like a machine. The despair that this act even in the imagination has as an immediate result increases my haste. I shove the long rinds of rib meat unbitten into my mouth and then pull them out again from behind tearing through my stomach and intestines. I eat dirty grocery stores completely empty. Fill myself with herrings, pickles and all the bad old sharp foods. Candies are poured into me like hail from their tin pots. In this way I enjoy not only my healthy condition, but also a suffering that is without pain and can pass immediately.[i]

On 13 August 1912, Kafka accompanied Brod on a social call, where he met a young woman. “Bony empty face, which wore its emptiness openly. Bare neck. Thrown-on blouse. […] Almost broken nose. Blond, somewhat stiff charmless hair, strong chin.”[ii] Not a flattering description of Felice Bauer, who would become his fiancée. Indeed, it turned out to be (how could it not?) a tortured relationship, which resulted to two breaking-offs of the engagement, and ultimate estrangement. Relatively little of Kafka’s doubts made it into the diary, at least, not directly. He did write a list of pros and cons of marriage, conceived in the abstract and somewhat detached from the specifics of Felice.

1) Inability to endure life alone […] 3) I must be alone a great deal. What I have achieved is only a result of being alone. 4) I hate everything that doesn’t relate to literature, it bores me to carry on conversations (even if they relate to literature) it bores me to pay visits, sorrows and joys of my relatives bore me to my soul. 5) The fear of connection, of flowing across. 7) Alone I could perhaps one day really give up my job. Married it will never be possible.[iii]

If she had seen the list, it would have filled her with foreboding. This mood would not have been leavened by another observation. “Coitus as punishment of the happiness of being together. To live as ascetically as possible, more ascetically than a bachelor, that’s the only way for me to endure marriage.”[iv]

To be fair, in his letters to Felice, Kafka did repeatedly write of his doubts about his suitability as a husband. It was not as if they were unprepared for Kafka’s fastidious selfishness – which did encompass concern regarding Felice’s marital happiness – to ultimately doom their plans. When a diagnosis of tuberculosis finally intervened (in 1915), it simply proved correct Kafka’s comment “I lack any propensity for family life except that of the observer at best.”[v] Fate had intervened to confirm the correctness of his path of literary solitude. In his last year, Kafka did wish to marry the teacher Dora Diamant, whom he would live with in Berlin, but let us overlook that untidy fact. The diaries end a month before Dora’s arrival in his life; or rather the notebooks mentioning her were later confiscated by the Gestapo and have never reappeared.  

The inclusion of drafts of Kafka’s fiction transforms the nature of the diaries. No longer a ‘pure’ journal, it comes the laboratory and workbook for a writer always looking to turn observation into fiction. There are versions of stories “The Judgment”, “Memories of the Kalda Railway”, “Wedding Preparations in the Country” and short pieces from his first book of short pieces Betrachtung (Meditation) (1913), as well as sections of his three novels The Man Who Disappeared (1911-4), The Trial (1914-5) and The Castle (1922). There is an aborted opening to The Trial, in which Josef K. is accused of theft, which he has committed unconsciously. “’Thief!’ he shouted and sprang out of the office. ‘I haven’t stolen anything’ was the first thing I said, but the five-gulden bill was in my hand and the till was open.”[vi] (Tellingly, Kafka thought of Karl Rossmann (protagonist of The Man Who Disappeared) as innocent, and Josef K. (of The Trial) as guilty.[vii]) There are attempts at story beginnings that never developed and patient rewritings of texts that never took on independent life. Some paragraphs were reworked although they never seem to amount to more than asides, without potential for publication. This is Kafka testing the veracity of his thoughts, clarifying his expression, practising his craft.

Letters loom large in Kafka’s thoughts. He frets over letters unsent and ones he cannot reply to. He drafts letters to Felice and his publisher. Letters to Milena and Felice are at first lifelines, then they constrict him, binding him into relationships and promises that impede him, that force him to compromise his work and deplete his time. Another drain on his attention – his work duties – does not come up much, other than as passing observations on colleagues. As the Office Writings revealed, his work life was actually very varied and meaningful; it took him across Bohemia as he attended conferences and inspected factories. Far from being a lowly clerk, as we sometimes casually imagine him to be, Dr Kafka was a serious and respected professional. We lose out from not hearing more about this part of his day, although one can hardly blame him for wishing to escape into literature when free.

Metamorfosis, 2013. Wikimedia Commons

As so often observed, acting as places of emotional expression without the speaker encountering moderation, reproof or reason, diaries frequently become repositories for anger and private score-settling. They can be ugly places, where we see a person at their most selfish and unbalanced. One can hardly blame an editor, especially one such as Brod, who knew the author, for taking off the edges. The diaries lack continuity, with breaks of many months, and suffer as a narrative from having figures mentioned only fleetingly. We do not get a feeling for recurring characters. As expected, Kafka explains little, as he was writing for himself.

We might ponder on the ethics of publishing not only anything by Kafka, bearing in mind his instructions to Brod to destroy all his writings, but particularly this journal. Ultimately, if an author is great enough and demand great enough, then everything will be published and gathered into complete editions. Kafka is no exception. He read such editions; he read the letters and journals of the Russian novelists, German Romantics and Gustave Flaubert. He would have understood the impulse to publish everything available and knew that everything he had not personally destroyed was liable to reach the public to some extent. He himself had committed to flames unsuccessful work. (March 1912: “Today burned many old disgusting papers.”[viii])

Do not think that the Diaries are tough reading. Although there is plenty of despair – at his writer’s block, his family, his inability to escape the office – Kafka’s humour flashes through most poignantly when he makes fun of himself.

When the Doktor, reading the contract aloud, came to a passage that dealt with my possible future wife and possible children I noticed opposite me a table with two large chairs and a smaller one around it. At the thought that I would never be capable of filling these or any 3 chairs with me, my wife and my child, I was overcome by a longing for this happiness so desperate from the very start that in this agitated state I asked the Doktor my only remaining question during the long reading, which immediately exposed my complete misunderstanding of an extensive section of the contract that had just been read.[ix]

As tuberculosis made inroads into Kafka’s stamina and expectations, the entries do grow tersely short. Sometimes they are little more than the name of a person or book or the recording of the temperature of a fever bout. What the diaries (dwelling as they do on inactivity, dissatisfaction and anxiety) fail to convey is how much Kafka did achieve despite the demands on his time: three unfinished novels, a body of brilliant short stories, some parables and a large quantity of letters, aside from the diaries themselves. This does not include lost or destroyed papers nor the technical reports written for work, which cannot be counted as creative work, despite its value and quality.

The Diaries are an essential addition to the Kafka canon in English, but we still await two major additions: The Fragments (a group of unfinished stories, parables and dialogues) and the collected correspondence. Both contain many texts that have never appeared in English. Those Anglophones who love Kafka cannot rest easy until these two bodies of work are added to the already translated critical editions of the novels, stories, parables and (now) diaries.

[i] P. 107

[ii] P. 226

[iii] P. 298

[iv] P. 301

[v] P. 304

[vi] P. 351

[vii] P. 400

[viii] P. 209

[ix] P. 121

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?