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22 May 2024

Inside the mind of Franz Kafka

A revelatory edition of his diaries and a new biography upend the simplified myth of the anguished writer.

By John Gray

The elegant old lady opposite me in the train compartment smiled, and we talked intermittently during our long journey through the central European night. She had come from Prague, she told me in charmingly old-fashioned English, and I mentioned I’d been reading Kafka. She smiled again, saying she knew the writer in her youth (our conversation was in the early Seventies) and how much he liked books printed in large type. I asked about Max Brod, Kafka’s closest friend, biographer and literary executor. “Ah, Brod,” she sighed, and said no more. It might be a trick of memory on my part, but I seem to remember a quizzical note in her voice.

I have not come across anything confirming that Kafka had a liking for large-print books, and it may have been a legend my fellow passenger was passing on. But for me her story illustrates how little we knew of Kafka. We are in Brod’s debt for refusing to follow his friend’s instruction to destroy his unpublished work after his death, but it was not only his writings that the faithful amanuensis edited. He also handed on a simplified and redacted view of the man. Our inheritance from Brod is a picture of the writer as a solitary, disembodied soul, a cipher of metaphysical anguish and existential dread who was only by accident a human being with formative social relationships and a specific place in history.

Freshly and vividly translated by Ross Benjamin with an illuminating introduction and more than 1,400 explanatory notes, this definitive edition of Kafka’s diaries, written between 1909 and the year before he died aged 40 from complications of tuberculosis in 1924, recovers Kafka’s authentic voice. Where Brod’s entries were polished artefacts, here they are like the life they record – disjointed, fragmentary and unfinished. As Benjamin puts it, the diaries are “a laboratory for Kafka’s literary production”. Text expurgated from Brod’s version is fully restored. In Benjamin’s historic edition, the shape of Kafka’s days can be seen for the first time.

These diaries are revelatory in at least two important respects. The first relates to Kafka’s sexuality. Everyone knows of his tortured relationship with Felice Bauer – “poor Felice”, as he calls her in a two-word diary entry. She was a distant relative of Brod’s, at whose home they met. Kafka formed “an unshakable judgement” about her, loving Bauer “as far as I’m capable of it”, but never overcoming “fear and self-reproaches” regarding his relationship with her. He seems to have had little hope of fulfilment in marriage: “If I should reach the age of 40, I will probably marry an old maid with protruding upper teeth somewhat exposed by the upper lip.”

Kafka had four significant relationships with women, casual affairs and regular sexual encounters in brothels throughout his life. He was also at times attracted erotically to males. During a stay at a nudist sanatorium, he writes of “two beautiful Swedish boys with long legs, which are so well formed and taut that one could really only run one’s tongue along them”. Explicit references to gay sex were tabooed at the time, but the complexities of sexual desire featured in the work of many writers, including Kafka’s near-contemporary, Proust. There was nothing peculiarly transgressive in any of this, nor is there any reason to suppose Kafka’s polymorphous impulses caused him any distress.

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Much of Kafka’s angst came from estrangement from his body, an abiding feeling that he was misshapen and ugly which spilled over into hypochondria and an obsessive interest in wellness cures. Afflicted with anxiety and headaches, he visited health resorts in order to treat what he regarded as his chronic condition of sickliness. Here, too, he was unexceptional. In early 20th-century central Europe, physical health was a cult in which he participated along with millions of others.

Kafka was like many of his class and time in experiencing the discontents that go with modern civilisation. (The late Habsburg empire, it is worth remembering, was – in its larger cities, at any rate – a very modern place.) He found the work he did for a living, as an employee in an insurance company, hateful. His fraught relations with his father, a strong-willed, overbearing and successful retailer who owned a wholesale store in the Prague ghetto, were of a kind common among the cultivated offspring of bourgeois families. The first revelation of the unabridged diaries is that Kafka’s was in many ways an unremarkable life.

The second is Kafka’s Jewishness. As has been often noted, the word “Jewish” does not appear in his published works, and in a famous line in the diaries he asks what he has in common with Jews, replying, “I have scarcely anything in common with myself.” Perhaps influenced by this remark, there are readings of Kafka in which his Jewish lineage features as little more than a footnote.

The facts speak otherwise. Kafka’s three sisters were murdered in the Holocaust. Dora Diamant, the Polish-Jewish worker with whom he spent much of the last year of his life, escaped almost certain death only by leaving for the Soviet Union in 1936, and then travelling to Britain on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. Brod fled Prague for British Palestine carrying a suitcase of Kafka’s papers as the Nazis were entering the city. Differing interpretations of the meaning of Jewishness figured in a protracted legal dispute over the ownership of some of these manuscripts, which ended in their being deposited in the National Library of Israel in 2019. It is impossible to understand Kafka’s life and afterlife without understanding his identity as a Jew.

As Benjamin shows, Kafka was deeply engaged in his heritage. His recurring interest in Zionism led him to learn Hebrew, and he was fascinated and delighted by a Yiddish theatre troupe, whose director and performers he came to know well. Brod wrote of The Castle, in which the protagonist K struggles vainly to gain permission to settle in a village governed from an impenetrable fortress, as capturing the situation of Jewry better than any academic treatise. Publishing the uncompleted novel after Kafka’s death, he recalled that Kafka intended it to end with K losing hope, succumbing to exhaustion and receiving a permit on his deathbed.

Karolina Watroba’s Metamorphoses, a study of the writer’s posthumous lives, will be an indispensable companion for any student of Kafka. Complementing the monumental three-book biography by Reiner Stach, her slim volume explores the central paradox of Kafka’s reception: how a writer formed by the cultural particularities of early 20th-century central Europe could have a universal human appeal. Watroba traces Kafka through Oxford, Berlin, Prague and Jerusalem, tracking the ways in which he has helped form a questioning modern sensibility across the world. An enlightening section details Kafka’s popularity in East Asia. Translations of his short stories appeared in Japan in 1933 and in Korea in 1955. The contemporary Korean author Bae Suah interweaves her search for the roots of Korean shamanism in Mongolia with references to Kafka’s writings.

In the course of her survey, Watroba documents some of the more parochial uses to which his work has been put. In a six-page section curiously entitled “Kafka and Brexit”, she cites Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach (2019) as “one of the best case studies we have” of “why Kafka still matters today”, commenting that its picture of the serving British prime minster as a slimy beetle displays McEwan’s “elegant satiric style”. Later she acknowledges that some may have found this imagery uncomfortable. I would be more positive. One cannot help but marvel at the vigour and fluency with which McEwan deploys the dehumanising language of interwar central Europe to vilify politicians – and, presumably, voters – of whom he disapproves. In this regard, his novella is genuinely Kafkaesque. The author of The Metamorphosis would have smiled.

How a Czech-speaking Bohemian Jew who wrote in German became a global literary icon remains an unanswered question. One reason may be Kafka’s neglected sense of humour. Watroba recalls a guest at a college dinner, whose family had been relatives of the writer’s, insisting that she bring out in her book “how funny Kafka is”. It was good advice. Kafka is close to us because, through all the tragedies we suffer or witness, we cannot banish the impression that the human world is the scene of an absurd comedy. His writings contain no final statement, but if they suggest any penultimate truth, suspected by people everywhere, this is it.

When asking Felice Bauer’s father for permission to marry her, Kafka wrote that “I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else… Everything that isn’t literature bores me and I hate it, for it disturbs me or hinders me.” For Kafka writing was a refuge from living. His nature and his genius were in his art, and here there is another affinity with Proust. But while Proust attempted to eternalise fugitive moments in memories that seem immune to time and chance, Kafka contemplated life in its inscrutable transience. His gaze is unsparing. What he perceives is disturbing, and at the same time liberating. Relieving us from the burden of seeing our lives as acts in any drama, this dark humorist will be read for as long as there are human beings who can find freedom in accepting absurdity.

The Diaries of Franz Kafka
Translated by Ross Benjamin
Penguin Classics, 704pp, £24

Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka
Karolina Watroba
Profile Books, 256pp, £18.99

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[See also: Colm Tóibín’s genre trouble]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024