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The Office: Kafka Edition

A weeklong inquiry into how workaday fact inspired masterwork fiction

Joshua Cohen
December 01, 2008

A man knocks at the door to a flat and another man—let’s call him G.S.—opens it. Both men are dressed conservatively, in suit and tie, and, why not, in bowler hats.

G.S., because these are his rooms, says, “Good day, sir. What can I do for you?” He says this in German, or maybe in Czech; our setting is the Prague of Austro-Hungary.

The other man, slight and sharp, says, “I’m here about insurance, and do I have a deal for you!”

G.S. says,” Yes? Come to think of it, I’ve been considering a new life-insurance policy . . .”

“I don’t sell that type of insurance,” says the man. “I sell a different kind.” He takes a breath, begins: “I sell insurance against lengthy legal proceedings; I sell insurance against abuse for land surveyors; insurance against being used as a human bridge, and insurance against being turned into a giant insect . . .”

Needless to say, the man—perhaps he’s an angel—has the door slammed in his face.

What happens next?

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The first line of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

In the story’s modern rewrite, set in our world where all wrongs are rightable, and the law is always accountable, the unfortunate G.S. might not be turned back into a human, but—if a policy-holder—would certainly be compensated generously for this accident, with extra for “pain and suffering.”

* * *

Franz Kafka wrote as insurance against suffering the fates of his characters. It was as if every hour he spent writing, by candlelight and, later, by electric light, was an installment paid against darkness. He knew that with a stroke of the pen he could conceivably, at any time, have restored to Joseph K. his easy life before The Trial, and obtained for land surveyor K. a better position with a gentler Castle. But this is what makes Kafka the great writer of what has been called Modernity: That he stayed true to his fictions, and retained their tragedy.

“An original cylindrical safety shaft for wood-planing machines using the Schrader system, a product of the engineering works of Emil Mau und Co. in Dresden.”
Also, it should be said that no penstroke was ever that simple for Kafka, especially when it came to the writing he did at night. Kafka worked most days of his adult life as a lawyer in the insurance industry, and this in an age when what a lawyer did more than anything else was write: intra-office correspondence, reports, and official briefs. The only time Kafka wasn’t working, the only time he wasn’t writing for the workplace, he was on-leave, recovering from various ailments, including the tuberculosis that eventually killed him in 1924, at the age of 40. Those leaves—spent both in sanatoria and at home, where he lived with his parents—were also intended as opportunities for Kafka to labor on his fiction, especially on his novels, but paradoxically, or inevitably, most of those occasions were squandered, or uninspired, and Kafka would return to the office, and so to his office writing, not refreshed, but disappointed anew.

A selection of Kafka’s office writings has just been translated for the first time into English, and published by Princeton University Press as Office Writings, appended with the obligatory commentaries, charts, prefaces, and postfaces, by a triumvirate of scholars: two professional Kafkans, Stanley Corngold, and Benno Wagner, accompanied by Jack Greenberg, a law professor and civil rights attorney famed for his work in the desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education, whose Supreme Court ruling overturned the Kafkaesque logic of “separate but equal” in American schools.

This event—finally, the translation and publication of the last known scrap of Kafka’s work left untranslated, and unpublished—brings us to the subject of this series: how Kafka’s office writings influenced his fiction, and what that influence means. Kafka’s office writings, as presented here, cannot be read on their own (they are incomprehensibly boring) but, instead, must be read as companions, to demystify the three novels and stories (which are anything but boring). Taken together, though, both workaday fact and masterwork fiction create a network of connections that exposes not just the concerns of a single writer, but also that of a singular culture—the culture of the Office, which has imposed itself on what used to be our lives.

The four sections that follow, to be published over the next four days, proceed chronologically. On Tuesday, we’ll post Before Kafka, in which we’ll explore Kafka’s antecedents, and the societal girders and politics that were behind his workplace life. On Wednesday, in Kafka, we’ll read about the man himself, about his particular workplace, while addressing the office writings directly. On Thursday, in After Kafka, we’ll read about the culture of the workplace that burgeoned in the years after Kafka’s death, and examine parallels between Kafka’s bureaucracy, and that of the Third Reich. Then on Friday, we’ll conclude amid the pessimistic future of Office Life—and, exhausted, we’ll rest.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.