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A Kafka for Our Times

A new completist edition of Kafka’s diaries lures readers into the Kafkaesque experience of seeing the author dissolve into an auto-fictional scrapheap

Marco Roth
January 17, 2023
A Wandering Jew
Marco Roth on literature and culture in exile.
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Cristi Croitoru/Alamy
The contemporary Kafka has been reinterpreted according to the middlebrow progressive narrative of our eraCristi Croitoru/Alamy
Cristi Croitoru/Alamy
The contemporary Kafka has been reinterpreted according to the middlebrow progressive narrative of our eraCristi Croitoru/Alamy

My first copy of Kafka’s diaries was salvaged from a crowded shelf in Bookleaves, a secondhand shop on New York’s West Fourth Street. I paid $2 for each volume—the price marked in pencil on the overleaf. Two standard-size (8-inch-by-5.25-inch) paperbacks slid easily into the side pockets of the overcoat I’d thrifted from my father’s closet. By that point, my senior year of high school, my father had lost so much weight from his illness that the coat no longer warmed him. Although the garment always remained too big, it was plenty warm for me, and I never then doubted I’d eventually fill it.

What I didn’t realize was that I was also buying a souvenir of the old West Village as it was crumbling around me, that place and time where “Kafka was the Rage”—in Anatole Broyard’s memorably cynical summation of a moment when New York’s bohemians tried to fashion their lives into works of art. Bookleaves is now Cafe St. Tropez, offering a different type of aspirational elsewhereness for people trying to fashion their lives into nonfungible tokens. Like the protagonist of Kafka’s parable “Departure,” the neighborhood and those in it only want to be something other than themselves: “Away from here, that’s my goal!” The diary editions I picked up were also a souvenir of a different idea of what a “democratic publishing culture” should look like. In this now-vanished world, so-called “highbrow” or difficult literature was offered to the “masses” for self-improvement and what would now be called “self-realization” in the “middlebrow” form of inexpensive, portable, and readable paperback editions.

The diaries that came to keep me company on city buses, subway rides, and walks turned out to be only partially the work of “Kafka.” First there was Max Brod, originator and custodian of the Kafka myth, who’d produced a heavily circumscribed version of the diaries in German. This text served in turn as the template for translators Joseph Kresh—whose fate is lost to the internet—and Martin Greenberg, the multifaceted poet, translator, editor, and critic whose versatility ensured that he remained less known than his single-minded older art critic brother, Clement. Hannah Arendt added some 20 entries Brod had left out. She was then the editorial director of Schocken Books—unthinkable now even in these times of greater diversity to “empower” an actual intellectual at a publishing house.

A product of autres temps, autres moeurs, also of other desires, the books reached out to me—a teenager in 1992—thanks to their intriguing cover art—an almost abstract photograph of the Karluv Most in Prague—wide margins hospitable to scribbling, the full-page black-and-white reproductions of Kafka’s line drawings, and a neat, easily navigable table of contents furnished with intriguing subtitles meant to lure the curious browser: “My education has done me great harm,” “The Yiddish theater troupe,” “The literature of small peoples,” “He seduced a girl,” “New York harbor—a dream.”

Here I’d found my own version of “the axe to break the frozen sea within us”—as Kafka wrote to Oskar Pollack after reading the entirety of 19th-century poet Christian Friedrich Hebbel’s diaries in two weeks, “like a caveman who, initially as a joke and out of boredom, rolls a block in front of the entrance to his cave.” While my high school peers were discovering all the varieties of grass available in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, here was my true drug, modernist literature, which I would consume in solitude.

The cliché about Kafka, which, like all clichés, contains some truth, is that he’s the great prose poet of a particular kind of adolescent estrangement, often but not necessarily male: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K ...” “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams to find he’d been transformed ...” “Injustice has been done to you more than anyone on the ship. Why are you putting up with everything!”

No one transformed ordinary human misery into cosmic unhappiness like Kafka.

No one transformed ordinary human misery into cosmic unhappiness like Kafka. The world inhabited by his characters is arbitrary and capricious. Agency counts for little. The protagonist undergoes, submits, endures, responding instead of acting, making, or influencing. Decisions, when they come, as when K in The Castle seduces Frieda, Klamm’s mistress, or Karl Rossmann stands up to his uncle and patron, only open the way to more unintended consequences and changes of state. The stories already felt like my life, so I hoped the diaries would provide me with some clues, some equipment for surviving it.

The Kafka who’d been created by Max Brod’s selection from the diaries was both intimidating and familiar: He spent his time with friends in cafés discussing literature and the fate of the Jewish people, he went to plays, he traveled, he yearned, particularly after unobtainable women. There was the perpetual struggle to find time to write: “Awful. Wrote nothing today. No time tomorrow.” (June 7, 1912) The struggle to write within the few hours he found: “Complete standstill. Endless torments.” (Feb. 7, 1915) But then the stark differences! It seemed he’d written all of The Judgment (the story about a young man sentenced to death by his own father) in one intense session, “on the night of the 22 to the 23 from 10 o’clock in the evening until 6 o’clock in the morning. My legs had grown so stiff from sitting that I could hardly pull them out from under the desk. The terrible strain and joy ...” (Sept. 23, 1912). He possessed an ascetic’s nobility, determination, and also an electric prose style. What was not to like?

My aunt, the first writer I’d met in real life, once tried warning against the tendency toward Kafkaism that she’d sensed growing within me—the idea, as she thought of it, that true literature and art were only born from suffering and that writers were required to lead desperate, unhappy lives. It was an outmoded idea, she said, European rather than American. You could, as she’d done, find fulfillment in marriage, enjoy one’s children and the fruits of one’s labor. That she delivered this advice poolside at the Amagansett house that she and her psychoanalyst husband had bought in the early 1990s might have proved her point. But it also proved my silent counterargument: If I had to share literature with these well-off, well-adjusted people, what would I be left with that I could truly call my own except my unhappiness? That unhappiness only made sense if the world I moved through was, like Kafka’s own, a broken or distorted one. “Kafka’s prose sides with the outcasts,” as Adorno wrote.

As it turned out, the best cure for my Kafkaism would have been more Kafka, especially in the form of Schocken’s new translation of the complete and unexpurgated diaries and notebooks. The Kafka who emerges from these pages is somehow a smaller man, even if there is altogether more of him. Readers of Kafka’s famous “Letter to his Father” will be familiar with this strategy of diminishment through the bigging up of an object. Exaggeration isn’t required so much as a shift in scale. No longer a prodigy, this Kafka is merely prodigious. The new edition works this magic through a stubborn fidelity to approximating a totality of the available information.

For the first time in English, readers can now read all 12 of Kafka’s notebooks, from 1910-23, in the very order (or disorder) in which they were written, along with assorted travel journals and various “Bundles of Paper”—so named in the new stark table of contents, contained within a single door-stopper of a volume. The intention, in the original German, was a critical edition for scholars, but the effect in translation has been to produce neither a work of scholarship nor of literature, but a massive mess.

The mess is partly by design. In his preface, Ross Benjamin, the heroic and gifted translator, explains that he was aiming for “a glimpse into Kafka’s workshop.” This he obtains by “deliberately translating fragments, however truncated, cryptic, or seemingly marginal; nonstandard and omitted punctuation; orthographic errors, unorthodoxies, and inconsistencies; occasionally awkward, convoluted, and even mangled syntax; repetitions, abbreviations; contractions; regionalisms; slips of the pen ...”

The same originalist and completist approach governs the arrangement of the text. A careful bureaucrat by day, Kafka eschewed standardization in his notebooks: Undated entries are just that; others alternate between Roman numerals for the year and Arabic for the month and date; sometimes he can’t be bothered to write the year; the “Stoker” sequence that became the opening of Amerika began in the fifth notebook, mainly covering the year 1912, but was continued back in the second notebook, covering both 1911 and 1912, and appears earlier in the book. The reader must stumble on the second half first, without benefit of footnotes or an index entry.

Readers looking for Kafka’s response to the outbreak of World War I have a slightly easier task. Kafka’s well-known laconic entry of Aug. 2, 1914, “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming school in the afternoon” floats in the seventh notebook and is properly indexed, but the more trenchant observation a few pages later about patriotic parades organized by Jewish merchants—“One of the most disgusting symptoms of the war”—has escaped the indexer’s notice. The essay made famous by Deleuze and Guattari as “Toward a Minor Literature” and translated in the Arendt/Greenberg/Kresh version under the title “The Literature of Small Peoples” is dispersed into the several fragments in which Kafka orginally wrote it, without a title or index entry.

The preface also makes much of the rounder and more embodied Kafka that appears in this complete form, “[his] complex sexuality and all-too-human impulses, ambivalences and shortcomings. ”Again, the critical apparatus of this “critical edition” lets the reader down: There are no entries for circumcision, gonorrhea, prostitution, sex work, or tuberculosis (the disease that killed him), although Kafka indeed recounts his observations, fears, and experiences with all of these, along with what we’d today call “an eating disorder.” The only way to find something is to stop looking for it and read on.

The joke is too obvious: The experience of reading this new edition is Kafkaesque.

The fragmentary elegance of the midcentury diaries has been transformed into something weird, inexplicable, and monstrous: A hypertrophied collector’s item adorned with a single art deco hieroglyph. Ross Benjamin faults Brod for having “presented the diaries to the extent possible in the guise of a Werk, a cohesive and fixed work, rather than Schrift, writing as a fluid ongoing goalless activity.” But the paradox of schriftiness is that when it’s bound up and published as a book, it is transformed into Werk. Plus, anyone with a scholarly interest in Kafka would be able to read him in the original German.

If the earlier sin of middlebrow Kafka reception was making him out as just another existentialist author (“He is assimilated into an established trend of thought while little attention is paid to those aspects of his work which resist such assimilation,” sniffed Adorno), the contemporary Kafka, nearing the centenary of his death, has been reinterpreted according to the middlebrow progressive narrative of our era: Kafka is a “workshopping” auto-fictionist from the wrong place at the wrong time! This is not the Kafka whose work Walter Benjamin appreciated as “a sickness of tradition”—both of European literature and Jewish mysticism—but merely a less fortunate forerunner of a tendency accomplished most recently in Karl Ove Knausgaard and Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux. The diaries are the place where fiction and reality sit literally side by side, bleed into each other, and are largely indistinguishable; all is resolved into text. Kafka comes back into domesticated view as a kind of late avant-garde conceptualist before it was cool, the writer committed to a mystical biological process—the act of writing. Actually, this vision isn’t so far from the earlier middlebrow existential Kafka: i.e., writing being simply what the writer does, whether it’s an enumeration of bowel complaints, the account of a doomed flirtation with a married actress, four versions of an opening to what will eventually become an unfinished story, or a relatively clean draft of the opening chapter of the novel The Missing Person that the now much maligned Brod had the genius to market to the world as Amerika.

Here indeed is a Kafka for our time. The author who imagined himself a circus freak displayed in a cage for all the world to see in The Hunger Artist and as a speaking ape in Report to an Academy was only unfortunate to have died before the advent of “Authortube” videos in which “the artist” cheerily narrates her “writing process” as she turns out another neatly tuned piece of genre fiction for Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing algorithm in the hopes of one day landing a contract with Schocken’s parent company.

But “process,” as reading Kafka always reminds us, also has another meaning in German: trial. We cannot banish the artist’s suffering by reframing him or her, nor can that suffering be redeemed by the ritual of exhuming Kafka only to rebury him with full honors inside a leaden, coffinlike box of a book.

Despite all its unintentional distortions in the name of completeness, the new Kafka diaries, just like the older ones, offer plenty of reminders of the author’s true gifts. Kafka’s genius doesn’t lie in his unhappiness and alienation—my aunt was right about that part. What stands out about Kafka is his aliveness on the page, an aliveness achieved by very few writers before or since. The key to that aliveness comes from his devotion to gesture, to bodies in motion and at rest, and it derives from his love of the theater, extensively chronicled in the earliest notebooks. Here are the first three entries: “The spectators stiffen when the train passes,” “‘Whenever he ahsks me’ the ah broken free from the sentence flew away like a ball in the meadow.” “His seriousness is killing me. His head in his collar, his hair arranged immovably around his skull, the muscles at the bottom of his cheeks tensed in place.” Whether it’s stiffening, flying, or tensing, every sentence quivers.

When this observation of gestures and bodies matures, it produces writing that even animates mental activity, like this later entry from 1914 on reading Strindberg, “I don’t read him to read him, but rather to lie on his breast. He holds me on his left arm like a child. I sit there like a man on a statue. Ten times I almost slip off, but on the eleventh attempt I sit there firmly, feel secure, and have a wide view.”

Is this a parable? A metaphor? One might as well ask that question about a modern dance. Every page of Kafka, whether edited and arranged by Brod, or Ross Benjamin, or filtered through squadrons of translators, offers these irrepressible glimpses of action. On watching a bad play: “All that remains of the 2nd act is the delicate neck of a girl which is stretched and tensed from shoulders clad in reddish brown between puggy sleeves to the small head.” From there, it’s a quick jump to the concluding sentence of “The Metamorphosis,” when Gregor Samsa’s sister finally leaves their cursed apartment, boards a tram, springs to her feet and “stretches her young body.”

With the intuition of the best critics, Walter Benjamin understood this immersion in movement to be the signature of Kafka’s style, the essence of the writer, without ever even having laid eyes on the diaries or read his gossipy entries on his friendship with Max Brod. “Each gesture is an event, one might even say a drama in itself. The gesture remains the decisive thing, the center of the event.” And, later, “Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever changing contexts and experimental groupings.” It’s in this restless, vivid experimentation that Kafka continues to speak to us, transcending and resisting each and all of the avant-garde and philosophical movements he was adjacent with and later assimilated into: surrealism, expressionism, existentialism, theosophy, Jewish mysticism, and now, the latest of these and probably not the last, post-literary auto-fictional conceptualism.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.