At midnight on Christmas Day, 1910, a sleepless legal clerk of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague was chastising himself for the state of his writing desk. It was, he fumed, “a disorder without regularity and without any compatibility of the disordered things.” In the precise, dreamlike, self-lacerating style for which he would become renowned, he cataloged the mess, imagining his desk as a packed theater; one compartment, crammed with old wastepapers, loose buttons, broken pencils, and dull razor blades, was figured as a kind of balcony where “coarse fellows . . . let their feet hang down over the balcony railing, families with so many children that one takes only a brief glance without being able to count them introduce here the filth of poor nurseries.” In his hands, personal failing had the force of social parable.

Nothing good—no serious writing—could be done at such a desk: that was the point of his self-chastisement. Yet at this desk, and others like it (including one in Prague’s historic Alchemists’ Lane), Franz Kafka created a body of work rivaled in twentieth-century letters only by that of Samuel Beckett for scouring purity of vision and linguistic spareness. Few readers who know something of his achievement—whether through the stories and parables, the impassioned letters to Milena Jesenská, the raw-nerve diaries, the Kierkegaard-inflected aphorisms he wrote at Zürau, or the broken monuments of his fragmentary novels—have failed to detect the preternatural aspect of his gift. Though little of his mature work was published in his lifetime, the writing—and the self-chastisement—would continue almost unabated until his death from laryngeal tuberculosis in 1924. Erosive diary entries near the end (February 20, 1922: “Imperceptible life. Perceptible failure”) record what the effort cost him. He presents, as much as any secular writer can, a figure of hallowed suffering.

“The perpetually trembling boundary between ordinary life and the terror that is seemingly more real”: this, in his own words, is Kafka’s theme. Even those who have never read him have a sense of what he’s about: man at home neither in the world nor in himself, exposed to the eye of judgment like bacteria on a slide. A metaphysical pressure not reducible to a single plot point or turn of phrase permeates his writing, from the early expressionist prose to the late, lonely miracles of “Josephine the Singer” and “The Burrow.” Everywhere we find the primacy of the word in danger of falling off into silence:

Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.

His anxieties, his parables of inhumanity proved prophetic. As a Czech Jew, he found the German that was his literary tongue irreducibly foreign, almost a language of the enemy—as it would become for his fellow Jews. Kafka’s characteristic mode is rich in paradox and enigma, but not mystification. His uneasy dreams, we now recognize, anticipated Auschwitz.

Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, the eldest child of a middle-class Jewish family. Until 31, he lived with his parents—his father owned a dry-goods store—and, apart from a few significant vacations, work trips, and rest cures, he spent his entire life in Prague. At one point, he dreamed of running away to Berlin to be a freelance writer—a gambit familiar to any impecunious young person with literary ambitions who settles on journalism, as Kafka had it, as “a way of earning money that halfway suits me.” Instead, he put his impressive ratiocinative powers to work earning a law degree and serving as a legal advisor at the insurance institute. The work split him in two. There was the daytime doctor of law, preoccupied with factory conditions and industrial accidents; and there was the nocturnal writer of visionary fiction. The first great triumph of this second Kafka came on September 22, 1912, when he wrote “The Judgment” in a single eight-hour span, from 10 pm to 6 am, feeling “terrible strain and joy.” No sooner had he finished than he crept into his sisters’ room to read the story aloud.

So it went. Overworked, insomniac, neurasthenic—he did his life’s work in fugitive hours, when, conscious of his immense literary abilities, he felt capable of anything. At other times, he sank into suicidal despair. Despite rehearsing time and again in his diary the cost to his writing, physical health, and sanity of this “horrible double life,” he kept getting promoted at the office, even after being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917 and suffering a bout of Spanish flu the following year. “Why does my name appear on the first page of the enemy’s notes?” he asked himself. “I can’t say.” And he kept having breakdowns. His life reads like a parable by Kafka.

Yet it’s impossible to imagine one Kafka without the other. His training in law, which included a brief practice in the provincial high court and criminal court, his work at the insurance institute, his management of his brother-in-law’s financially troubled asbestos factory during the war—“Wretched factory,” he griped—inform the characters and situations of his fiction. Just as real legal terms are employed (and distorted) in The Trial, whole passages in The Castle can only be called bureaucratic farce. The dance of the files—a protracted scene in the corridor of an inn, where a pair of porters distribute documents from a cart to the officials residing there, who fight to take possession of the files without showing their faces, while the hapless protagonist, K. (having intruded on this private ritual), looks on in amazement, thereby breaking one of the cloistered society’s many taboos—is as tightly choreographed as any ballet. The verbal gusto of the sequence suggests Kafka’s transport while writing it. The farce is of a special kind, however, delightful to the reader but never to K., who finally is bounced out by the landlord and his wife. “But what had he done? Repeatedly K. asked, but for a long time he could not elicit an answer, because his guilt was all too self-evident to them, and so they never even remotely considered that he might have acted in good faith.”

Guilt in Kafka is always self-evident; the justice system is unjust, yet impossible to overthrow. The judge of “In the Penal Colony” has one guiding principle: “Guilt is never to be doubted.” It’s the logic of show trials, of “enemies of the people” (prosecuted under Article 58 of the Soviet criminal code), of the worst kinds of racial animus. Following anti-Semitic riots in November 1920, Kafka wrote to Jesenská, his Czech translator, who would later join the Czech resistance and die in a concentration camp:

I’ve been spending every afternoon outside on the streets, wallowing in anti-Semitic hate. The other day I heard someone call the Jews a “mangy race.” Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated? . . . The heroism of staying on is nonetheless merely the heroism of cockroaches which cannot be exterminated.

From an author famed for a story about a man transformed into a giant insect, the phrase “heroism of cockroaches” is telling. Gregor Samsa awakes to find that he is an ungeheueres Ungeziefer, pictured often as a kind of cockroach or beetle but with the adjective connoting something not only enormous or monstrous but also deeply unsettling—the inverse of geheuer, “comfortable” or “familiar.” These weren’t the first anti-Semitic riots in Kafka’s Prague. We frequently discover in his diaries a precise record of things he saw, people he encountered: the features of a face, details of dress and deportment. Discrete incidents gathered, in his sight, into a looming shadow. Kafka made up his fictive worlds not only out of inner anxieties but also out of acts of acute perception.

At his death, Kafka had only a small reputation, as a minor surrealist. Luckily for world literature, he had a bosom friend. Max Brod, as literary executor, could be counted on to violate the anguished Kafka’s request to burn, unread, all his private papers and manuscripts. Brod lost no time in getting his dead friend into print. By 1947, the adjective “Kafkaesque” had entered the English language.

The dead, as any antiquarian can tell you, make great nourishment. But Kafka? Thin, tubercular, diffident, breaker of three engagements, author of three unfinished novels, he seems unpromising fare. Death brings change, however, especially to genius. In 1946—the year before “Kafkaesque” was coined—Hannah Arendt wrote to the publisher Salman Schocken of Kafka’s nutritive value: “Though during his lifetime he could not make a decent living, he will now keep generations of intellectuals both gainfully employed and well fed.” The manuscript of The Castle lay protected for years in a Swiss vault. The manuscript of The Trial was auctioned in 1988 for a record sum by Sotheby’s. Like Samson scooping honey from the lion’s carcass, countless scholars, critics, editors, and translators have found their author surprisingly sweet.

Now comes a compelling new translation, by Ross Benjamin, of the complete, unexpurgated diaries, running to 670 pages (including endnotes and index) in a handsome Schocken hardcover. Reading the unfinished novels beside the Diaries is enlightening: they reveal how much in Kafka’s fiction derived from personal pain and how much goes beyond it, as the critic George Steiner explained in a 1963 essay:

Kafka’s nightmare-vision may well have derived from private hurt and neurosis. But that does not diminish its uncanny relevance, the proof it gives of the great artist’s possession of antennae which reach beyond the rim of the present and make darkness visible. The fantasy turned to concrete fact. Members of Kafka’s immediate family perished in the gas ovens. . . . The world of east and central European Judaism, in which Kafka’s genius is so deeply at home, was scattered to ash.

Afflicted with a fearful attunement to the shape of things to come, Kafka presents us with the spectacle of a man trying to claw his way inside his own life. No sooner is he in than he wants out again. He empathized with secondary characters in novels and plays, who fulfill their roles in the plot and then disappear. Tormented by loneliness, he found sociability difficult, even unbearable. (“In me myself without human connection there are no visible lies. The bounded circle is pure.”) As a child, he thought dolled-up streetwalkers the most beautiful of women. As a grown man, he visited brothels. “I estrange from her a little by getting so physically close to her,” he remarked of the woman to whom he would, on two separate occasions, become engaged. In Judaism, too, what appealed to him were partly the “beautiful strong separations. . . . One sees oneself better, one judges oneself better.”

A still from Orson Welles’s 1962 film version of The Trial, starring Anthony Perkins (Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

Little in Kafka remains constant, but always there is this separateness, this sense of leading an inner life totally distinct from that of his fellow human beings—who, therefore, can’t truly be called his fellows—together with the hope that his extreme alienation might contain its own antithesis; that outcasts like him might not only be welcomed into the bosom of the human family but that their outcast nature paradoxically might ensure no less. In a diary entry of 1911, he fancies that a Jewish couple he knows are “people who due to their separate status are particularly close to the center of the community’s life.” In time, Kafka got his wish: a deeply personal, almost hermetic corpus of fiction, written on the margins of a declining empire, now occupies a central place in twentieth-century letters. In his work—coterminous with his life—marginalization is a means of more clearly apprehending the heart of things. Distance guarantees intimacy or is a form of intimacy itself.

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” From the opening sentence of The Trial, Kafka registers the totalitarian state as rooted in falsehood, bent on turning neighbor against neighbor. Records scrutinized since the fall of the Soviet Union suggest that one in every three or four citizens of the USSR denounced someone to the regime. K. is “condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance,” for the specific charge against him is never stated.

But as the narrative develops, the terrible implication goes deeper. It is not merely that every one of the accused is prima facie guilty (the kangaroo nature of this strange parallel court system is clear enough) but rather that absolutely everyone in society stands accused; everyone is always potentially guilty. If some people walk around free, it’s only because the authorities haven’t yet gotten around to issuing warrants for their arrest. “Show me the man,” said Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s head of the secret police, “and I’ll show you the crime.” Real acquittal in this judicial system is a thing of folklore, myth.

Gradually, the hopelessness of Josef K.’s position is borne in upon him. Even those who seem to oppose the system, or to be impartial observers, are in fact its apologists and agents. Kafka captured for all time the nightmarish legalese of totalitarian bureaucracy, wherein meaning is not withheld so much as fuzzily diffused, in sublingual fashion, through the tissues and into the blood. “The only proper approach is to learn to accept existing conditions,” Josef K.’s lawyer tells him, excusing the court. One must take care “not to arouse the ire of the bureaucracy.” What bureaucracy, exactly? Without ever making its labyrinthine structure clear, Kafka is masterful in suggesting a shadowy court hierarchy, half-competent, cloaked in secrecy, and terrifyingly powerful—a court whose high-level decisions are never published or shared with defense counsel—receding ever further out of reach of the defendants and their attorneys, into some dark empyrean.

Slandered. Some translations say “telling lies about,” but “slandered” feels nearer to the bone. In July 1914, Kafka went to Berlin to end his engagement to Felice Bauer. “The tribunal in the hotel” is what he called the confrontation with his fiancée, her sister Erna, and their friends Ernst Weiss and Grete Bloch, with the last of whom Kafka had carried on an intense correspondence. (She was later murdered at Auschwitz.) What must Bauer’s family and friends have said about him? The ex-fiancée herself, on a carriage ride, let him have it, venting “well-thought-through, long-saved-up, hostile things.” Kafka, plagued with guilt, asked Bauer’s parents not to remember him unkindly. He told Bloch in a letter that, just as she had judged him on that day in the Hotel Askanischer Hof, now it was he who sat in judgment over himself.

What elevates to something like clairvoyance Kafka’s personal pathologies—one can only guess at how each twist of his shy, disturbed psyche would be medicalized today—is that the tortured isolation recorded in his diaries is precisely what the inhuman systems he apprehended want: for the individual, stripped of outside help or companionship, finally to stand naked before the machinery of the state, utterly at its mercy.

Didn’t a painstaking defense—and any other kind would be senseless—didn’t a painstaking defense simultaneously imply the necessity of cutting himself off as far as possible from everything else? Would he successfully survive that? . . .

While his trial rolled on, while the officials of the court were up there in the attic going over the trial documents, he was supposed to conduct bank business? Didn’t that seem like a form of torture, sanctioned by the court, a part of the trial itself, accompanying it?

Twentieth-century history is a house of horrors. To be haunted in a haunted house is no defect of character. In Spindelmühle, a resort Kafka visited in 1922 to convalesce, and where he began to write The Castle, the hotel miswrote his name as Josef K. Time had not lessened his feeling of being hunted or condemned. “Shall I enlighten them,” Kafka asks his diary, “or shall I let them enlighten me?” At last, the identification with his protagonist was complete.

Politically, Kafka sends us back to first principles. What is human subjectivity? What moral standing does the individual possessed of an inner life have in the face of tyranny or mechanized abjection? Granted that our fundamental rights are inalienable, what forces seek to alienate us from them? On what grounds do we guard our privacy—our dreams and aspirations, our cherished beliefs and disappointed hopes—from encroachment by an all-controlling state?

Kafka, whose own subjectivity was unstable, couldn’t stop imagining worlds—bordering on our own—where the individual is ground down or senselessly annihilated. One of the densest parts of The Castle is also the most moving: Olga’s story of her and her father’s tireless efforts to atone for an offense given to a Castle official.

For this slight, the entire family has been de-personed. Abandoned by his customers and neighbors, his business ruined, his health finally in shambles, Olga’s father ceaselessly petitions the Castle, but his entreaties are rebuffed:

What did he want? What had happened to him? What did he want to be pardoned for? When, and by whom, had a finger ever been raised against him at the Castle? He was indeed impoverished, having lost his customers and so on, but this had to do with everyday life, with trade matters and the marketplace, and was the Castle supposed to take care of everything? But in reality it did take care of everything, yet it couldn’t crudely intervene in developments for no reason other than to serve the interests of one individual. . . . What could one forgive him? At most that he was now senselessly pestering the offices, but that’s precisely what was so unforgivable.

Behind the Castle’s closed doors, remote from the life of the village they superintend, the officials are a bureaucratic class that wields power while escaping accountability. This is a stinging satire of Austro-Hungarian officialdom, but not only a satire.

Finally, Olga hits on the idea of enrolling her brother in the ranks of Castle servants. But even to enter the Castle service as a low-level employee—or an even lower-status “semi-probationer”—is an arduous process, fraught with hidden difficulties and contradictions. The good reputation of one’s family is of paramount importance; yet sometimes a disreputable candidate, through his sheer unsuitability, will arouse the interest of the officials. “But sometimes that doesn’t help the man gain admission but only endlessly prolongs the admission proceedings, which are not terminated but simply broken off after the man dies.”

Here, as elsewhere in Kafka, there is the sense of legal procedures unnaturally prolonged, even beyond death—a kind of modern harrowing of the corpse. The Trial ends with Josef K.’s execution: “It seemed as though the shame was to outlive him.” It is Olga’s vain hope that the invisible authorities who assign guilt may be propitiated; she hopes to enter the good graces of “whoever is observing me and my actions from up there.” Yet these mandarins, for all their frenetic activity and voluminous files, are strangely powerless: “For is an individual official capable of granting pardon? At best this might be a matter for the administration as a whole, but even it is incapable of granting forgiveness; it can only judge.”

“Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime,” said Lavrentiy Beria, chief of Joseph Stalin’s secret police. (Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo)

Kafka is a virtuoso of such paradoxes and subversions. “My prison cell—my fortress,” runs a late diary entry. An artist once asked him to pose nude as the model for a Saint Sebastian. It seems symbolically apt, Kafka standing in for the saint pierced with arrows—a figure of fascination for twentieth-century writers and artists, from T. S. Eliot to Yukio Mishima. In a note from 1914, it is his own hand that Kafka imagines pinning him to the wall. Later, he entertains the idea that man’s true original sin consists in his perpetually making the accusation that “the original sin was committed against him.”

For much of the twentieth century, Americans could absorb Kafka with more aplomb than could his European readers, for whom the disturbing stories had come true. “From the literal nightmare of The Metamorphosis came the knowledge that Ungeziefer (‘vermin’) was to be the designation of millions of men,” Steiner wrote. When German high civilization fell into depravity, Americans were shocked but not complicit. Rereading the novels now, the discovery is how timely they are. Kafka’s visions of men choking on red tape, of societies oppressed by a hypertrophied administrative class, have an uncanny relevance.

Post–Twitter Files, it is plain that our present regime has begun to resemble what Guy Davenport called “the kind of Orwellian liberalism that is teleologically indistinguishable from totalitarianism.” Note how, in the space of a single generation, activism on behalf of various identity groups has passed from pleas for tolerance, to demands for acceptance, to coercive mandates of affirmation. Orwellian liberalism in a democratic society emerges not as democracy’s obvious antipode but in the guise of democracy fulfilled, as a more perfect vehicle for the “will of the people.” This is the rationale by which progressives today agitate in favor of ending the Electoral College or packing the Supreme Court. This is also the rationale by which the FBI flags posts that it wants social-media platforms to remove. Twitter’s suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story, in the days before the 2020 presidential election, was widely seen as, and proclaimed by U.S. intelligence officials to be, not the election interference it manifestly was but a righteous effort to combat election interference. Checks and balances erode; an ethos of personal liberty and responsibility is supplanted by the administrative will to power. The call is coming from inside the Schloss.

I once swapped phone numbers with an intern in the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs. Her business card, long out of date, has served for years as a bookmark in my old paperback edition of Kafka’s Diaries, page 301: it is August 2, 1914, and the Great War has just begun. Freud, when he hears the news, is almost hysterical with delight. The 25-year-old Wittgenstein dutifully enlists as an infantryman and is eventually awarded two medals for valor; the knowledge of the unsayable that he will carry out of no man’s land will inform the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his first major work. Kafka in his diary is terse, even blasé, as if this most suicidal of wars were a horror foretold: “Germany has declared war on Russia.—Swimming in the afternoon.” (In Benjamin’s version, “Swimming” is given as “Swimming school,” somewhat marring the pithiness of the remark.)

Kafka wanted to join the war effort and was fit enough but was exempted, at his employer’s request. So he sat out of it, preoccupied with his “dreamlike inner life,” while the new century exploded in what the scholar Hugh Kenner termed “the first European war to be planned by typewriter.” (The torture device of “In the Penal Colony,” significantly, is also a kind of writing machine.) When Kafka did bear direct witness to history, the run-in was almost a premonition. An air show at Brescia in 1909 (Blériot aloft and Puccini in the stands) furnished the budding writer with the subject of his first published work. Scarcely two years later, an Italian pilot tossed grenades from the cockpit of his Blériot XI monoplane onto Turkish troops in Libya—the first aerial bombardment in history.

At times, I prefer the original Diaries, published in the late 1940s, with translations based on Brod’s bowdlerized German version. In many ways, however, the new Diaries outdoes the old. It is not only that Benjamin restores the formerly redacted names of people still living at the time of the original publication, or that he rescues certain passages that Brod, trying to establish his friend’s reputation, thought indecent or otherwise inadvisable. (“His apparently sizable member makes a large bulge in his pants,” Kafka observes of a fellow train passenger.) Of greater interest is the more faithful rendering of the author’s idiosyncratic prose. Entries break off abruptly. Disparate ideas are linked by commas only, as though set down in tearing haste. Strings of adjectives go by with no commas at all. Grammar, under the weight of profound emotion, buckles. “Wherever possible, I tried to preserve the unpolished elements of the text, like fragments, non-standard punctuation, inconsistencies, mangled syntax, and many other departures from traditional German,” Benjamin told Asymptote Journal. His aim: to present readers with a “less sanctified” literary figure.

An illustration of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (© 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /Bildrecht, Vienna/Bridgeman Images)

The presentation of a warts-and-all Kafka is in keeping with the spirit of our age, which is intolerant of saints. But less polished, in this case, is hardly less profound. Brod knew what he was safeguarding when, on March 14, 1939, with his friend’s manuscripts stashed in a rucksack, he and his wife, Elsa, fled by night train—the last train that would cross the Polish border before the Nazis marched into Prague—to the edge of the Black Sea. There they booked passage on the liner Bessarabia; en route to Tel Aviv, they stopped in Istanbul, Athens, Crete, and Alexandria, as though opening the way for Kafka’s writings to capture the imagination of the world. “One unfolds in one’s nature only after death,” he had written.

Dead at 40, an age he had hardly expected to reach, Kafka was fated to give us the language, as well as the mood, by which we could approach a century of bureaucratic and mechanistic horrors—a century that may yet prove, in the West, to be the last literate century, in the sense of the written word structuring, as it once did, our modes of understanding. The emphatic hold over us that acts of eloquence had in the past has weakened considerably. No longer does language seem to encompass the full measure of present reality. Much in our picture of the world is now literally pictorial; and where the younger generation has embraced the spoken word, instead of literature, by way of podcasts and short-form videos, it is often a kind of dog English they speak—steeped, at one end of the spectrum, in the jargon of critical theory and, at the other, in subliterate slang. “A book,” the 20-year-old Kafka declared, “must be an ice-ax to break the sea frozen inside us.” Will we find in years to come that other tools serve just as well? The evidence so far is not encouraging.

Kafka practiced to the end what he called the “strange, mysterious, perhaps dangerous, perhaps saving consolation of writing.” Just as his example can chasten and inspire, so his corpus may serve as a redoubt from which to mount a principled resistance. If humane culture is to survive by way of language, if hard-won individual freedoms are to win out over central planning, there are dropped threads in his work which American writers today would be wise to pick up. Or, as the author himself remarked, “The hollow burned into our surroundings by the work of genius is a good place to put in one’s little light.”

Top Photo: A statue of Franz Kafka in Prague (Milos Ruml/CTK Images/AP Photo)


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