Franz Kafka, Born to Tweet?

A new translation of Kafka’s century-old diaries nails our current age of anxiety and irony. 


“In the diary one finds proof that, even in conditions that today seem unbearable, one lived, looked around and wrote down observations,” noted Franz Kafka, reflecting back on the series of journals he began in 1912 and continued through 1922. These diaries document a period in which he wrote all of his major works, punched the clock at his much-hated job, and broke off an engagement. Released in January, Ross Benjamin’s new translation, the first in 75 years, has relevance extending beyond the rarified air of Kafka scholarship. Benjamin has restored Kafka’s diaries to their messy original format, undoing virtually every editorial decision of Kafka’s longtime friend, executor, and biographer, Max Brod — Brod’s biography of Kafka is comparable in veracity to his speculative books on the lives of Tycho Brahe, the 16th-century astronomer, and Jesus Christ, the 1st-century messiah. Where Brod tried to clean up Kafka’s diaries for academics, Benjamin has recreated the thrill of discovering Kafka’s diaries for anyone interested in snooping. The new translation is as close to notebook form as possible: The chronological organization is gone (Kafka kept his diary in several notebooks at once, causing, for example, the second half of an early draft of “The Stoker” to precede the first), and Benjamin has restored mistakes in spelling and grammar, unfinished sentences, one-word entries, salacious gossip, randy thoughts, and drafts of several stories — not to mention adding 80 new pages of notes and a brief introduction.

Although the work of diarists, from Samuel Pepys to Anne Frank, has been warmly received over the years, the form presents challenges for the reader. Kafka, reflecting on Goethe’s diary, once wrote: “A person who has no diary is in a false position in the face of a diary.” After all, how can you properly appreciate the lulls and swells in the diary of another if you have never kept a diary of your own? Kafka’s diaries span a decade. There are frequent gaps and uneventful days. They are poorly organized. (One section bears the charmingly self-explanatory title “Bundles of Paper.”) Many entries are redundant, and two of Kafka’s favorite topics, contemporary Jewish theater and the wistful contemplation of suicide, are addressed again and again. Still, plenty of non-diarists will be tempted to sift through Kafka’s diaries, maybe skimming for hints about the true meaning of his other, more deliberate work. For example, there is a scintillating suggestion that Kafka once intended Amerika and The Trial as parallel stories of innocence and guilt, along the lines of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and Crime and Punishment. Or perhaps digging for  autobiographical details — some, about his sexuality, have already generated considerable interest. (Kafka meets a thin man who he deems “what is known as a windbag,” then dutifully notes the “large bulge in his pants” made by the man’s “apparently sizable member.”) Or possibly simply searching for entries that resemble his fiction — an endeavor that Benjamin has made more tempting by restoring several story drafts. 


As Joyce Carol Oates put it: “Sometimes I’m surprised by the high, poetic quality of Twitter — it lends itself to a surreal sort of self-expression.” It is exactly this kind of surreal description of the mundane that fills Kafka’s diaries. 


You can get plenty out of reading Kafka’s diaries in any of these ways; one of their richest joys is watching his life seep into his writing, and vice versa. There are plenty of motifs for readers to pick up on. On a day when Kafka “wrote nothing,” he inspected the engine room of the “wretched factory” he owned with his brother-in-law, and met a stoker. Within a year, the first chapter of his novel Amerika was published, under the title “The Stoker.” Balls, frequently bouncing, make appearances in Kafka’s diaries, beginning with the second entry, when he compares them to a wrongly stressed syllable in a mispronounced word —“‘Whenever he ahsks me’ the ah broken free from the sentence flew away like a ball in a meadow” — and continuing for years after. Eventually, this fascination would coalesce into the story Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor, wherein Blumfeld arrives home one day to find two bouncing balls he can’t rid himself of. The story was abandoned, but a savvy reader might find the spirit of the balls bouncing on in the two bothersome assistants from The Castle. (His own worst critic, Kafka calls Blumfeld “wicked” and compares it to “an only barely breathing fish on a sandbank.” The pivot to extreme derision is characteristic: Even Kafka’s most gentle and charming flights of fancy, like Blumfeld, were allowed only so much airtime before his self-hatred would clip their wings.) Perhaps most tellingly, Kafka uses the word “empty” repeatedly to describe his appearance and life. For example: “Am completely empty and insensible, the passing tram had more lively feeling.” It is a clear personal favorite. So when he meets Felice Bauer, who would be his fiance for many years, and notes her “bony empty face, which wore its emptiness openly,” it is hardly surprising that he follows with “immediately reconciled myself to her.” 


Yet, this reading of the diaries, alternately academic and salacious, precludes their full appreciation. Kafka’s diaries are not simple false starts, autobiographical tidbits, and throat-clearing. They document Kafka’s creation of a new kind of sentence-level writing, an innovation just as important to modernity as Joyce’s mythic parallelism, Woolf’s or Faulkner’s stream of consciousness, or the Proustian rush of memories. The diaries comprise an endeavor in short-form writing that can stand on its own artistic merit. Arguably, it already has: Starting last February and progressively gaining momentum, a Twitter account dedicated to spreading “The Sunny Side of Franz Kafka” began posting the late Bohemian at his funniest. The account churns out snippets of Kafka’s diaries and letters; a recent post reads: “I dined on roast veal with potatoes & bilberries followed by an omelet & along with it and after it drank a small bottle of cider. Meanwhile I used all the meat, which as you know I cannot properly chew, partly to feed a cat, partly just to mess up the floor.” Given his longstanding proto-Orwellian reputation as a predictor of bureaucratic nightmares, these humorous pieces can come as a shock. It is strange to imagine the man who conceived of Gregor Samsa then going on to record, The glow of which I begin to see on waking Monday morning.” Yet, he did. But once the initial surprise is overcome, these softer touches are splendid. Kafka delights in dragonflies. Kafka drinks milk. Kafka tells you he loves you. It’s nice.  

 While this openly one- (sunny) sided stream of positivity is likely helping to balance out Kafka in people’s minds, it might be throwing them off about his diaries. Reading only the out-of-context excerpts on Twitter risks reducing them to a curio, a melange of kitsch charm from a writer known for addressing major problems of modernity: alienation, bureaucracy, and existential dread. This would be an injustice to the diaries: They are not to The Trial what, for example, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is to The Wasteland. But just as it risks dismissing them, the resonance of the diaries on Twitter can also help explain their literary value. The 280-character limit imposed by Twitter has honed its users’ taste in pithy constructions. Rhythm, diction, and syntax rule on the platform, while features of longer writing (such as theme or narrative) have fallen away. The writing that emerges is often strange. As Joyce Carol Oates put it: “Sometimes I’m surprised by the high, poetic quality of Twitter — it lends itself to a surreal sort of self-expression.” It is exactly this kind of surreal description of the mundane that fills Kafka’s diaries. His most famous works are known for their sophisticated themes and compelling storytelling, but his reputation as a modernist innovator rests on his sentence-level writing. Hannah Arendt, who contributed English translations to the prior edition of the diaries, expands on this aspect of his reputation in her essay Franz Kafka: A Revaluation: “Kafka — in striking contrast with other favorite authors of the intelligentsia — engaged in no technical experiments whatsoever; without in any way changing the German language, he stripped it of its involved constructions until it became clear and simple, like everyday speech purified of slang and negligence.” Or, as Kafka says in the diaries, “When I write down a sentence at random, for example, He looked out the window it is already perfect.” (The humorous failure of punctuation is his own.) Kafka’s prose style, which both deprives readers of specificity and inflates seemingly insignificant details to the point of absurdity, giving it first the fanciful then the macabre feel of a folk tale — interrupted by dull thuds of reality — produces the full effect of his work, whether the humor of the diaries or the nightmares of the novels.

Today, with the heightened profile of Kafka’s short writings, both on Twitter and in recent collections of his stories (edited by Pulitzer Prize–winner Joshua Cohen and Kafka biographer Reiner Stach), people are more and more enthusiastic about his lighter side. One recent date of mine spoke highly of a Kafka anecdote about the difficulties of peach eating, which she had seen on Twitter, while another disparaged The Trial. This is a reversal in acclaim, but hardly a surprising one: Kafka’s dark theatrical side is an acquired taste, whereas the diaries are breezy and hilarious. Who could fail to smile at the following sentence: “This evening out of boredom washed my hands three times in succession in the bathroom”? Or when, absorbed in a reading of Kierkegaard’s diaries, Kafka writes that the gloomy Dane “Confirms me like a friend.” Today, many seem to be finding a friend in Kafka. It’s touching when he works himself up to ask his buddies if they could hang out twice a week instead of only once, and when, to his dismay, they suggest that the extra meeting could be used to learn Italian. Or when he is unable to present a bouquet to his beloved Frau Tschissik, and complains, “I had hoped to satisfy my love for her a little with the bouquet, it was completely useless. It’s possible only through literature or sleeping together.” There is something life-affirming about knowing that, days after jilting his fiance, Kafka attempted to submit to a collection called Essays against Monogamy. For all his genius, he was not so different from the rest of us. But is that the real scoop? Is the takeaway from Kafka’s diaries that he was this silly little guy, so small and so fragile that the delusional shadowplay of his addled mind gave his minor problems the contours of a nightmare and his small happinesses the flicker of a fairy tale, but who was, underneath the overreaction, an Everyman? No. Kafka the man, a true idiosyncrat, whose writing has defied categorization for a century, is at risk of being demoted to Kafka the meme. A close reading of the diaries, now restored to their messy entirety, can serve up a more accurate (over-easy?) Kafka. Dig in.   ❖

Gideon Leek is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.



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