Franz Kafka belongs with the great diarists: Samuel Pepys, James Boswell, Goethe, Virginia Woolf, Anne Frank and Sylvia Plath. His Diaries (Schocken, $45/£38), newly and expertly translated by Ross Benjamin, provide the deepest insights into his tormented character and complex fiction. Benjamin notes that the surviving diaries consist of “twelve quarto notebooks and two bundles of loose paper filled with dense handwriting, crossings-out, corrections, and insertions squeezed in wherever possible.” Kafka wrote, “an advantage of keeping a diary consists in the fact that one becomes aware with reassuring clarity of the transformations one incessantly undergoes.” Yet his diary both confirms his existence and undermines his confidence: “I’m moved by reading the diary. Is the reason for it that now in the present I no longer have the slightest certainty?”
Virgil had asked friends to destroy his unfinished poetry, Auden had asked friends to destroy his private letters, and their wishes, like Kafka’s, were wisely ignored. But Kafka’s reputation is not based on what he actually wrote. Max Brod, his closest friend, was more famous than Kafka in their lifetime, but is now largely forgotten except for his role in rescuing, editing, distorting, rewriting and publishing Kafka’s work.
For example, Brod not only deleted Kafka’s statement that Franz Werfel was a far more significant writer than Brod, but also struck out any hint of homoeroticism: “His apparently sizeable member makes a large bulge in his pants” and “2 beautiful Swedish boys with long legs, which are so formed and taut that one could really only run one’s tongue along them.” Benjamin’s edition corrects Brod’s distortions and restores the original text. Though Benjamin does not translate German titles, quotations and poems, nor provide a useful glossary of the main characters, his explanatory notes are useful and he’s tracked down the most obscure references.
Kafka’s main subjects are his oppressive father, poor health, sexual frustration, agonising relations with his fiancée Felice Bauer, comic scenes, embryonic stories, inability to write, extreme misery, fears of torture and execution, and longing for death. He lived in the cultured city of Prague and was bilingual in German and Czech. He was well educated and did important work as an expert lawyer in an insurance company. Handsome and amusing, popular with men and attractive to women, he led a comfortable life in his parents’ middle-class home, and was adored by his mother and sisters. But he also suffered intensely from noise at home and in the street; from constipation, headaches, insomnia and depression; from his father, office work and duties in the unhealthy family asbestos factory that kept him from writing; from impossibly high literary standards that he could not meet—and from his own tortured personality.
He does not mention (as one might expect) Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mann or Rilke. He has enticingly brief references to the perfectionist Flaubert and to the emotional extremists he most admired. Here is Kierkegaard: “As I suspected, despite essential differences his case is very similar to mine at least he is on the same side of the world. He confirms me like a friend.” And Dostoyevsky: “so reminiscent of my unhappiness. . . . His designation of mental illness is nothing but a means of characterisation. The Karamazov father is by no means a fool but rather a very clever, albeit wicked man who is almost Ivan’s equal.”
Kafka includes almost nothing on music and art, but he attends many lectures and is very keen on Yiddish theatre. Always self-absorbed, he’s strangely indifferent to the outbreak in August 1914 of the Great War that would destroy the Austro-Hungarian Empire: “Germany has declared war on Russia.—Swimming school in the afternoon. . . . To those who are fighting, I passionately wish all evil.” In December he laconically adds: “The defeats in Serbia, the senseless leadership.”
Kafka often writes about not writing instead of writing what he wanted to write. One entry reads: “Wrote nothing.” He had to suffer in order to create, but couldn’t always suffer enough. His stories describe bursts of irrational behavior that were forbidden in his strict hierarchical society. His minutely detailed observations are modelled on the logical deductions of Sherlock Holmes. Kafka’s style is exact, precise, incisive; his clarity is pristine, his meaning obscure.
He gets annoyed when his father boasts about his own childhood suffering: “For years, due to insufficient winter clothing, he had open sores on his legs, he often went hungry, when he was only ten years old he had to push a cart through the villages even in winter. . . . The fact that I haven’t suffered all this permits not the slightest conclusion that I have been happier than he, that those sores on his legs entitle him to be arrogant.” His father wounded him out of love and intensified Kafka’s guilt. In his forties, he still feared his father and skipped dinners to avoid confronting him.
The Diaries include his entire story “The Judgment”, in which a father’s accusations drive his son to commit suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. Other entries suggest “the only solution is a leap out the window” or a soft-landing: “jump down from the high window, but onto the rain-soaked ground, where the impact won’t be deadly.” Kafka describes the difficult parturition of this story as “a veritable birth covered with filth and slime”. When he read the story to friends, “my hand moved around uncontrollably and genuinely before my face. I had tears in my eyes.”
Even before he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, the hypochondriac Kafka despaired about his body and associated it with shame and misfortune, with ugliness, dishonour and sadness: “There’s no doubt that a main obstacle to my progress is my physical condition. With such a body nothing can be achieved. I will have to get used to its perpetual failure.” He experienced psychological as well as physical pain and displayed his sores like a leper: “my eyelashes trembled in my face, in the left corner of my forehead I felt a tension as from a painless gunshot. . . . The tension that often lies over the left half of my skull feels like an inner leprosy.” Always sensitive to disease, while travelling in Italy in September 1911 he noticed the cholera epidemic that killed the hero of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice that year.
The severe coughing fits that made Kafka double up with pain and his first tubercular haemorrhage in July 1919 forced him to confront reality and retreat to a sanatorium. But he distrusted the incompetent and infuriating doctors, who were “so ignorant of healing that they stand like schoolboys before the sickbeds”. There was no cure for his disease until the 1940s, and the serums, vaccinations and operations were worthless and even dangerous. He grimly concluded, “I cannot count the doctor as a humanly personal helper.”
So he desperately and rather pathetically turned to naturopathy, which included nudity, air baths and vegetarianism. His mother whimpered like a cat when he didn’t eat enough and he raged against her intolerable nagging. A picky eater among the greedy German-Slavic Wurst-Fresser, he was disgusted by raw meat, as if it were cut out of his own flesh, yet perversely craved the very thing he loathed and wanted to devour it like an animal: “If I see a sausage labeled as an old hard Hauswurst, I bite into it in my imagination with all my teeth and swallow quickly, regularly and heedlessly like a machine.” A slab of Wurst made him ecstatic and he dreamed of “the biting into and simultaneous licking of the unpeeled salami stump.”
Most of Kafka’s sexual descriptions are squalid. But one saucy wench flattered him as if he were a cute girl: “Oh, if only I could see you naked one day then you must be especially pretty and kissable.” He was impressed by the potency of a man who told him “how he must slowly stuff his large member into the woman. His trick in earlier days was to exhaust the women until they couldn’t go on. Then they were without a soul, animals”—completely passive and subject to his will. Kafka’s curious friend questioned a woman in the same way the priest had questioned Molly Bloom to get vicarious pleasure in Ulysses: “How was it? I want to know down to the last detail. Did he only kiss you? How often? Where? Didn’t he lie on you? Did he touch you? Did he want to take off your clothes?”
In the bordello he notes intimate and crude details: “Hair runs thickly from her navel to her private (or not so private) parts.” He’s fascinated by the brusque behavior of a repulsive but serviceable whore: “The only woman suitable for him is the dirty, oldish complete stranger with wrinkled thighs, who extracts his semen in an instant, puts the money in her pocket and hurries into the next room.” In a passage from America, a graphic moment of aggressive foreplay disgusts the protagonist, Karl: “she shook him, listened to his heart, offered her breast for him to listen to hers, but couldn’t get Karl to do so, pressed her naked belly against his body, searched with her hand, so disgustingly between his legs, then thrust her belly against him several times, he felt as if she were part of him and perhaps for that reason a terrible helplessness had seized him.” Venereal disease always threatened to punish the fornicator: “Fear of infection, he kissed her down below, even now he sees himself decaying.”
Kafka’s love for Felice Bauer, a successful Berlin businesswoman whom he met in Prague, was also a symptom of his disease. The promessi sposi were engaged and disengaged in 1914, and repeated this wretched pattern in 1917. The first impression of his heart’s desire was quite negative: she actually seemed repulsive. She looked like a maidservant, had a bony empty face, an almost broken nose and stiff charmless hair. She had the gall to correct his Austrian German and rudely called his sisters “shallow.” He never experienced with her, as he had with other women, the sweetness of a beloved, “only boundless admiration, subservience, sympathy, despair and self-contempt”—all lethally combined with what he considered her fear of and disgust for him.
The unsuitable suitor Felice was a withdrawn, taciturn, dissatisfied person, horrified by the idea of happiness, who foresaw only lasting and hopeless misery. He was unable to force her to accept his abysmal opinion of himself, felt guilty about his inability to marry her and the unhappy years she’d suffered on his account. He confessed, “I have done the wrong for which she is being tortured and moreover wield the torture instrument.”
Striving to be logical rather than emotional, he compiled a list of arguments against marriage. He had to spend most of his time alone; he could not live with anyone; he feared a wifely connection would swallow him up; the sight of nightshirts on his parents’ bed suggested sickening sex; he hated everything (including Felice) that didn’t relate to literature; marriage would prevent him from giving up his office job and devoting himself entirely to writing.
Even if she loved him—and did she?—he didn’t deserve her devotion. He confessed, “I love her, as far as I am capable of it, but this love lies buried to the point of suffocation under fears and self-reproaches.” In a self-condemnation that denied the Joy of Sex, he famously declared, “Coitus as punishment of the happiness of being together.” One escape route was suicide, though he wouldn’t blame her even if “the apparent immediate cause of it should be F.’s behavior.” Finally, and most cruelly, he compared Felice to his fatal bacilli: “the lung wound is the symbol of the inflammation which is called Felice.”
Unlike most lovers, Felice inhibited rather than inspired Kafka’s writing. Despite her distractions, he tried to recapture his dreamlike inner life and strived for the clarity that made ordinary events seem mysterious. Writing for Kafka was both a liberation and a punishment that made him feel as if a wild beast were waiting to devour him: “I will jump into my novella even if it should cut up my face. . . . [There’s] the tremendous world I have in my head. But how [can I] free myself and free it without being torn to pieces?” When he finally managed to complete a work he immediately saw its imperfections, its stunted and irremediable defects. He read “In a Penal Colony” aloud and was “not completely dissatisfied, but for the blatant ineffaceable flaws.”
Yet surrealistic comedy often burst through and relieved his pervasive gloom. He delighted in real weird names: Tschisik, Utitiz, Shhite. He wanted to ascend a flight of stairs with somersaults. An old wooden ruler had the same edge as a bumpy country road. A moment of intimacy was interrupted by fear of vermin: “May Bettina rest her head on your arm? If Bettina has no lice.” Diners who carelessly ate a finely prepared roast cat began to meow after the meal. During a deadly reading of inferior stories, “people kept leaving one by one as if another reading were being given next door.”
The writer provoked a stampede by threatening to read yet another story and announcing a five-minute intermission. He then “read a fairy tale that would have entitled anyone to run from the farthest point of the hall straight through and over all the listeners.” Kafka’s excited family announced the birth of a grandson “as if the baby had not only been born but had already led an honourable life and had its funeral.” But mirth could not move a soul in agony.
Kafka includes long excerpts from his unfinished novel America and records many themes that evolve in his fiction. Like the character in the story “A Hunger Artist”, a man “is constantly starved, only the moment belongs to him, the perpetually continued moment of torment.” Like the underground man in “A Burrow,” he burrowed away in his shelter, “dug a hollow in the sand in which he felt quite comfortable. . . . But all the preparations he was making to secure the hut against the animals and keep himself safe for the winter had to be abandoned.” Like the parable “Before the Law,” “It had been impossible for him to enter the house, for he had heard a voice saying to him, ‘Wait until I lead you.’ ” He foreshadows “The Metamorphosis” with this: “I myself have a strong capacity for transformation, which no one notices” and “can only creep onward no better than an insect.”
Passages foreshadowing The Trial emphasize Kafka’s feeling of complete helplessness as if he were imprisoned behind locked doors. He fears “we are outside the law, no one knows it and yet everyone treats us accordingly.” Though weak, he must defend himself against the prevailing injustice. A harsh verdict is handed down, “but one should still keep in mind that the first judgment always stands on shaky ground and that one should not let it perhaps muddle all future judgments.” Nevertheless, the strange but severe penalty is carried out: “the man condemned to death is stabbed there in his room by the executioner without the presence of other people.”
Kafka experienced both a demonic need to create with an inability to write, and expertly analyses his sterility without finding a solution to his dilemma. Goethe’s great achievement, instead of liberating him, “permeates me and keeps me from doing any writing.” Anxious and restrained, he lacks sufficient time, is always under pressure, rarely starts anything and finishes nothing. When he manages to write, his sentences are dry, broken off and unusable. Everything is fragmentary and worthless, and he feels “condemned to this inferiority by the circumstances of his life.” He crosses out most of his work and puts it aside for a more propitious time that never comes. As “a screeching ink-spraying [not-ink-flowing] stroke goes through the whole thing,” the tubercular compares his “wicked, pedantic, mechanical [stories] to an only barely breathing fish on a sandbank”—destined for a slow and painful death.
For Kafka, a specialist in self-torment, life was a perpetual Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement. Open his heart and you would see ’graved inside there Misery. The perpetual alien is a Jew among gentiles, a German among Czechs, a tubercular among the healthy, an outsider even in his own family. He whimpers like a sick cat, wants to be dissatisfied, can’t resist the tiniest worries and “nervous states of the worst sorts dominate him without cease.” All his undertakings end in misfortune, and he’s trapped as his wretched life “flashes before his open eyes with steel colours, with taut steel bars and airy darkness between them!” Echoing Christ’s last words on the Cross, he laments “the pain over my forsakenness that came into me so piercingly and forcefully.”
As his via dolorosa continues, Kafka finds it impossible to sleep, remain awake or endure life. He suffers weakness, longs for self-annihilation and feels the “tip of the flame of hell penetrating the floor” and ready to thrust him among the eternally damned. He feels a strange dissociation between his external self and his real creative being, “the terrible uncertainty of my inner existence.” His most famous aphorism doubts his essential identity and recalls Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” (I is someone else): “What do I have in common with Jews? I have scarcely anything in common with myself and should stand completely silent in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
Suffused with a permanent agony that verges on the comic, Kafka assumes vicarious power and punishes his guilt as both torturer and victim: “A large old knight’s sword with a cross-shaped hilt was stuck in my back to its handle” and “a spike crookedly jutted out of my shattered forehead.” The coup de grace, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is self-created: “rats that tear at me and that I multiply with my gaze.” The torments continue as he’s pulled through the “window of a house by a rope around the neck and yanked up, bleeding and tattered, through all the ceilings.” Gagged, bound and tortured, he’s finally “stabbed deeply with something sharp, surprisingly here and there, wherever their whim prompted.” The masochistic Kafka enjoys the self-inflicted punishment for his indelible guilt: “the pleasure again in imagining a knife twisted in my heart.”
The only escapes from these endless torments are insanity, suicide or death. He could never hope to do what he believed he was required to do and, feeling quite worthless, was prepared to die at any moment: “Dying would mean nothing but sacrificing a nothingness to nothingness.” He’d nearly obliterated himself while still alive, and told Max Brod that “on my deathbed, provided the pains are not too great, I will be very content.” As Kafka lay dying, he told his last doctor, “Kill me, or else you are a murderer!”
Jeffrey Meyers will publish James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist on February 7, 2024 and Parallel Lives: From Freud and Mann to Arbus and Plath in August or September 2024, both with Louisiana State University Press.
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