This particular piece never reappears, but many similar fragments are reworked and regurgitated with minor revisions, often in the course of several years. Six times Kafka fiddles with a sketch about the adverse effects of education, which he ultimately abandons. Occasionally, there are first drafts of full works, including “The Judgment,” the story that Kafka completed in a surge of ecstasy in a single night.
Aside from these forays into fiction, the diaries’ most arresting writing is clinically visual. Kafka’s many meticulous descriptions of acquaintances, strangers, and urban tableaux are as cruelly observant as a portrait by Lucian Freud. “Artless transition from the taut skin of my boss’s bald head to the delicate wrinkles of his forehead,” one reads. “An obvious, quite easily imitated failing of nature, bank notes should not be made in such a way.” A Yiddish actor reciting a monologue “clenches the skin of his forehead and of the root of his nose as one believes only hands can be clenched.” Kafka writes unsentimentally about his lovers, but he displays incongruous tenderness about striking scenes around the city: at one point, he effuses, “The sight of stairs moves me so much today.”
The myth of Kafka as an inveterate melancholic has not prepared us for his endearments toward stairs. From this master of self-flagellation we expect only litanies of miseries and maladies. And the diaries do include their share of obligatory despairing. Kafka takes evident pleasure in posturing as an incurable, and he is unfailingly dramatic about minor infirmities. When he has a headache, it is as if he has “two little boards screwed against my temples”; when he cannot sleep, he feels as if he has laid his head “in a false hole.” He was keenly sensitive to sound, and in a short piece later published in a magazine he whines that his bedroom is “the headquarters of the noise of the whole apartment.” His letters have much to say about his phobia of mice. As his biographer Reiner Stach so aptly puts it, “For this man absolutely anything could become a problem.”
Not that all of Kafka’s grievances were so trivial. He certainly had reason to rail against the monotony of his deadening office routine, and it is hard not to sympathize when he laments that his life “resembles the punishment in which the pupil has to write down the same sentence, senseless at least in its repetition, ten times, a hundred times or even more depending on his offense”—except in his case “it’s a punishment under the condition ‘as many times as you can stand it.’ ” There are periods when his depression darkens around him so densely that it blots out even the possibility of light: “Some deny the misery by pointing to the sun, he denies the sun by pointing to the misery.” The only thing that the dusk could not reach was his writing, or so he was convinced. “When it had become clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction of my being,” he confesses, “everything thronged there and left empty all the abilities that were directed toward the pleasures of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection music first and foremost. I wasted away in all these directions.” And yet even here, in this wail of anguish, he regards his writing as something writhing in his “organism,” in his viscera, not something anemic and apart.
Even the keenest torment can coexist comfortably with a robust appetite for living. Kafka was, like anyone else, a mass of contradictions, and both his letters and his diaries refute the caricature of the writer as a fleshless recluse. If anything, Kafka emerges in the diaries as a surprisingly functional person, subject to the usual vicissitudes of mood. Sometimes he denies the sun, but one day he exults for no apparent reason, “I would like to explain the feeling of happiness that I have within me from time to time as I do right now.”
In a letter to Felice, Kafka fantasizes about retreating to a cellar:
And yet the diaries reveal that Kafka made no effort to live ascetically. He is busy attending plays and lectures, and, in later years, the newfangled institution of the cinema. Nor was he ever the solitary hermit of his imaginings: “Wonderful evening yesterday with Max. If I love myself, I love him even more strongly.” In his notes from a 1911 trip to Paris that he took with Brod, he writes, “How easily grenadine with seltzer goes through one’s nose when one laughs.”
And Kafka was too devoted a Lebensreformer to remain sequestered in a lightless, airless basement. In the diaries, he waxes with uncharacteristic sentimentality after a stroll outside, “On the garden path the goddess of happiness drifts toward you.” In an entry from August, 1911, he reports that he does not regret spending the summer swimming rather than writing: “the time that has now gone by, in which I haven’t written a word, has been important for me because at the swimming schools in Prague, Königssaal and Czernoschitz I have stopped being ashamed of my body.”
Although he never entirely exorcised his distaste for his gaunt physique, he remains so obsessively attentive to the ordeal of embodiment that it is hard to tell whether his form disgusts or delights him. Nowhere is it more apparent that hypochondria is a kind of perverse sensuality than in Kafka’s diaries. He wonders how he can “bear” his future “with this body pulled out of a junk room”—but he also marvels over his ear, which is “rough cool juicy to the touch like a leaf.” Even pain can be a delicacy: “The pleasure again in imagining a knife twisted in my heart.” Often, he thinks with a frisson of chopping and stabbing.
Kafka’s fiction is full of animals who resemble people and people who lapse into animality. In “The Metamorphosis,” the unfortunate Gregor Samsa regards his old furniture as a reminder of his erstwhile humanity, even in the wake of his transformation into a giant insect who can no longer sit in a chair; in “Investigations of a Dog,” the canine narrator endeavors to distinguish himself from the rest of his ravenous species by fasting. The Kafka of the diaries resembles these characters, alternately suppressing and succumbing to his overpowering appetites. Sometimes he is a human who yearns to become an animal, sometimes an animal straining to become a human. “This longing I almost always have, once I feel my stomach is healthy, to heap up in myself fantasies of taking terrible risks with food,” he writes hungrily:
He is no less avid for literature: “indubitable in me is the greed for books. . . . It’s as if this greed came from my stomach.”
Reading is also carnal, perhaps because Kafka so often spoke the lines of his work aloud, or had friends read them to him: after one such reading, he thinks, “one sentence rubs against the next like the tongue against a hollow or a false tooth.” Later, he reads sentences by Goethe “as if I were running along the stresses with my whole body.” Even abstractions take on a lush tangibility. Kafka’s gifts smart like injuries: he senses his “abilities, as if I were holding them in my hand; they tightened my chest, they inflamed my head.” When he squanders his talents on reports and memos at work, he regards the results “with a feeling of disgust and shame as if it were raw meat, cut out of my own flesh.”
Manifestly, writing was not an intellectual exercise for Kafka; it was a somatic shiver. Sometimes it was a spawning: “The Judgment” came out “like a veritable birth covered with filth and slime.” Sometimes it was a wounding: “I will jump into my novella even if it should cut up my face.” In one of the most often quoted passages of his letters, he compares great writing to a weapon smashing us open, insisting that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” These are gloriously mixed metaphors, always muscling their way from one image to the next. “I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else” can mean that life is subordinate to literature—but it can also mean that literature is coaxed to breathe and bleed.
Biography bursts into Kafka’s art at the level of content. “The Castle” and “The Trial” are full of the sorts of files and bureaucratic inanities that he would have encountered daily at the Accident Insurance Institute, and the workplace inspections that Vice-Secretary Kafka had to conduct probably inspired a bustling hotel scene in his first novel, “The Man Who Disappeared.”
But life also bursts into literature at the level of form, and in Kafka’s diaries even the words are acrobatic. As Ross Benjamin notes in the thoughtful introduction to his new translation, his aim is to capture the extent to which the diaries were a “laboratory for Kafka’s literary production” and thereby catch the author “in the act of writing.” He has succeeded. Everything in the diaries thrashes. From one draft to the next, characters squirm into new shapes. Phrases are mutilated and mangled back together.
One of the most harrowing stories in Kafka’s œuvre, “In the Penal Colony,” envisions a device that carves the text of broken laws into offenders’ skin. The image is brutal but strangely consoling, a dream of wholeness in which there is no distance between description and its object. The victims suffer for hours, but a “look of transfiguration” eventually dawns on each penitent’s face. At last, the mute body has been transmogrified into language. The diaries are not unlike Kafka’s sinister apparatus. They, too, serve not to disembody life but to embody literature: they are the intimate incisions of an author who could write only by etching words into the flesh. ♦