kafka on Bed

Kafka’s Nonfiction

Franz Kafka: The Diaries 1910-1923

Translated by Joseph Kresh

Schocken, 1988, ISBN 0805209069; Paperback $15.00 [Browse/Purchase]

A compilation of observations, reflections, dreams, stories, and ideas for stories, Kafka’s diaries reflect a tentative, almost shaky reality, offering glimpses into what at times seems like an inexplicable inner world lit by occasional flashes of painful clarity. Begun in 1910 in order to jump-start his stalled creativity, Kafka’s diaries provided him a place to scribble his thoughts until 1923, when he abandoned them a year before his death. During this period, Kafka wrote all his major works, suffered three failed engagements, witnessed the First World War, and contracted the tuberculosis that would finally kill him. In his diaries, Kafka recorded many of his thoughts upon these subjects; thoughts that never made it into his letters and his fiction. In Kafka’s diaries, we see the person he preferred to hide from most people.
And yet, even this is just one side of Kafka, and a word of warning might be appropriate. When reading his diaries, it is tempting to see Kafka as profoundly depressed, permanently isolated, and constantly sick; not to mention terribly uncomfortable around all people everywhere at all times. While this may be accurate to a certain extent, the reader should keep in mind that these are, in the end, diaries – personal thoughts privately recorded, and not intended for wider exposure. As typical with such journals, moments of anxiety hold more sway than moments of joy, and private worries are given more prominence than public ones. It should come as no surprise that the end result is dark and gruesome – what else could be expected from someone who had to write in the dead silence of night? What is missing from these pages is the humorous and light-hearted Kafka, the man who walked around in the day and earned the respect, fondness, and love of his friends and coworkers. The diaries are a picture viewed from one angle. They do not capture the whole Kafka.
Still, the image of Kafka that is captured in the diaries is a complicated and compelling one, and reveals a man struggling with contradictory feelings about marriage, culture, and his identity as a writer. The fight between spirit and body carries on in full force, and temporary fixations fly back and forth. Certain people (like Napoleon and Goethe) appear often enough to raise an eyebrow, pointing to obsessions and literary influences less obvious in his fictional work. The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurry, and the diaries are filled with strange, idiosyncratic stories that emerge suddenly and frequently wither away. Even in the straight “journal” parts of the diaries, Kafka’s focus drifts in and out of his own distinct, dreamy perspective, and at times he expresses his thoughts in metaphors that range from the inexplicable to the sublime.

The Letters

Various Translators

Letters to Friends, Family and Editors
Schocken, 1990, ISBN 0805209492; Paperback, Out of print. [

Letters to Felice
Vintage, 1992, ISBN 0749399481; Paperback, Out of print. [

Letters to Ottla
Schocken, 1981, ISBN 0805233725; Paperback, Out of print. [

Letters to Milena
Random House, 1999, ISBN 0749399457; Paperback, Out of print. [

Making a thorough study of Kafka’s vast correspondence is a daunting task, but to anyone seriously interested in understanding Kafka as a writer and as a human being, it is well worth the effort. While the letters can, at times, appear to be an endless collection of mundane details, they also further illuminate the motivations, insecurities, and relationships that powered Kafka and his fiction. (They are also endlessly fascinating – just when you think you’ve read every insecurity the man could have possibly entertained, another one pops up.) Like the diaries, the letters offer a glimpse into Kafka’s mind; but here we are granted a number of different perspectives. Kafka’s published letters are typically divided into four categories: letters to Felice, letters to Milena, letters to his family, and letters to his friends and editors. Each individual collection is extensive (the letters to Milena, mostly written over a period of eight months, take up 250 pages), and taken together, they form a work of literature comparable in size to his fictional oeuvre – and this doesn’t include his work-related documents!
The letters to Felice emerge from Kafka’s long and clumsy relationship with Felice Bauer, an on-and-off-again affair that suffered through two broken engagements before Kafka’s illness finally brought it to a close. Although the Felice letters span such a long period of time that it would be foolish to reduce them to a single subject, one recurring topic is Kafka’s inability to marry – or even meet – his supposed fiancee. The Felice collection also includes Kafka’s letters to Grete Bloch. Felice’s close friend, Greta was often pressed into service as a go-between, and it’s possible that she and Kafka had carried on a brief affair. (One persistent but often debunked rumor contends that the affair produced an illegitimate child.)
The letters to Milena record Kafka’s shorter and more intimate relationship with Milena Jesenská, a Bohemian intellectual who translated some of Kafka’s works into Czech. Although her letters to him have not been preserved, it’s obvious from Kafka’s letters to Milena that she understood him as few others had, and her observations and comments are welcome insights into Kafka’s character. Shortly before his final descent into illness, Kafka turned over his diaries to her; and it was Milena that wrote the most insightful obituary of Kafka after his death.
The letters to his family are mostly addressed to Ottla, the youngest sister of the family, an independent spirit who formed a “conspiracy” of sorts with her older brother against their parents, particularly their autocratic father. Kafka’s letters to Ottla are mostly filled with brotherly advice, and those addressed to his parents read like periodical check-ups confirming that he’s still alive.
The letters to friends and editors feature a wide variety of subjects, concerning whatever topic Kafka was obsessed with at the time. There is a lot of material here, to say the least, and it takes a patient hand to keep from turning the pages too quickly. What they do confirm, however, is that Kafka was not merely the tortured caricature who wrote grim stories of alienation and despair. He happened to be human, too.

The Blue Octavo Notebooks

Translated by Eithne Wilkins

Exact Change, 1991, ISBN 1878972049; Paperback $15.00, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

The title sounds imposing. “Octavo” is such a mysterious word, and there are countless symbolic possibilities for the color blue – but don’t take the title too seriously. The Blue Octavo Notebooks, sometimes known as the “Eight Octavo Notebooks,” are simply a collection of notebooks Max Brod discovered after Kafka’s death. Smaller than the quarto-sized copybooks which he generally used for his diaries, Kafka used these blue “vocabulary notebooks” to record his various musings during the time he stopped writing in his diary, from November 1917 to June 1919 (after publication of A Country Doctor but before the writing of The Castle). As with everything discovered by Max Brod, he eventually had them published.
Similar to the diaries, The Blue Octavo Notebooks are basically a collection of Kafka’s scribblings. Autobiographical and fictional material are swirled together until it’s hard to know if Kafka is recording his feelings or creating a kind of literary Impressionism. However, as a general rule, the diaries are more personal in nature, while the notebooks contain more aphorisms, fictional fragments, and ideas for stories.
Frankly, some of these “fictional” pieces are better than others, and many of them are quite perplexing, especially if we are looking for hints about Kafka’s intentions. For instance, what do we make of “The Brotherhood of Poor Workers?” Like most of the Notebooks’ contents, this selection runs no longer than a page. It is a small blueprint for a community of workers, a set of rules for a utopian vision. It is to have a maximum of 500 people, there is to be no money, and life will be “a matter of conscience and a matter of faith in one’s fellow men.” There is nothing particularly original about this scheme, and Kafka never tried to follow it through, so we may ask: did he seriously contemplate this program? Or was he setting up something he could ridicule later? Was it a thought-experiment, a passing whim, or the seed of a possible story?
Other fragments run entirely contrary to the idealism expressed in “Brotherhood.” There is a small unfinished story about a man who posts a manifesto on a door, and everyone in the apartment is absolutely certain that no one will read the manifesto. Sometimes, all the notebooks offer is a single sentence. “Running, running. Glance from a side street. High buildings, a church even higher still.”
Needless to say, setting out on a page-by-page reading of the Blue Octavio Notebooks can be a frustrating experience. They are filled with unresolved contradictions, impenetrable musings, and unfinished thoughts. Although every now and then something leaps out, overall there isn’t much worth remembering. At best, they serve as a collection of thoughts Kafka felt compelled to write down; a somewhat random testimony to his obsessions, his often chaotic imagination, and his ever-present compulsion to write.

Go To:

Main Works Page – Returns you to the Main Works page and the Quick Reference Card of titles.

Novels – Kafka’s three novels: Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.

Novellas – Kafka’s two novellas: The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony.

–Jeff Nowak
26 June 2004

These letters do nothing but cause anguish, and if they don’t cause any anguish it’s even worse – Send email to Das Schloss’ Jeff Nowak and the Great Quail – comments, suggestions, corrections, criticisms, submissions . . . all are welcome!

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