The Kafka You Never Knew

THE DIARIES OF FRANZ KAFKA | Translated by Ross Benjamin

Martin Heidegger was recorded to have laughed only once, according to the historian Paul Johnson. It happened at a picnic in the Harz Mountains with Ernst Jünger, who “leaned over to pick up a sauerkraut and sausage roll, and his lederhosen split with a tremendous crack.”

Like Heidegger, Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was not known for his lightness of spirit. He was, in novels and stories like “The Trial,” “The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist,” the visionary 20th-century distiller of guilt and shame, ill defined and thus quintessentially modern.

In the spirit of Johnson’s anecdote about Heidegger, I’ve often recalled that, in his diaries, Kafka reports sitting in a bar in Prague with his friend Max Brod after they’d left an opera. Brod accidentally sprayed soda water all over Kafka, who laughed so hard that seltzer and grenadine shot out of his nose.

The cheerful moments of gloomy men. Do they matter? In Kafka’s case, one could argue that they do. He kept his diaries from 1909 to 1923; they end not long before he died in obscurity, at 40, from tuberculosis. Into them he stuffed all manner of things: letters, drafts of stories, aphorisms, dreams, snatches of observation.

Kafka did not intend for these diaries to be published; he ordered Brod to burn them unread. As he did with so much of Kafka’s work, Brod, certain of his friend’s genius, published them anyway. Literature owes Brod a debt, even if, as John Updike wrote, Kafka would come to have this in common with Shakespeare: “Their reputations rest principally on texts they never approved or proofread.”

Brod heavily buffed Kafka’s diaries before they saw print. He made them seem more coherent than they were. He pared away the flyspecks and stray hairs and human impulses. He excised passages that appear to express homoeroticism, for example. Gone or disguised, too, were passages about Kafka’s visits to prostitutes.

A new, unexpurgated and essential edition of Kafka’s diaries has finally been published in English, more than three decades after this complete text appeared in German. The sole previous English edition, with Brod’s edits, was issued in the late 1940s.

The new volume, in a sensitive and briskly idiomatic translation by Ross Benjamin, offers revelation upon revelation. It’s an invaluable addition to Kafka’s oeuvre.

Where Brod strove to clean Kafka up and foster a sense that he was, in Benjamin’s words, a “saintly, prophetic genius, whose purity places him at an elevated remove from the world,” this edition scuffs him up and returns him to earth, in an intimate manner that does no injury to our sense of his suffering, or his profound and original gifts.

These diaries are choppy; Benjamin compares them to studio outtakes. They often read like poetry. Here’s one entry in its entirety, in lines Rilke or Havel or Milosz would envy:

Brod’s many elisions, Saul Friedlander wrote in his 2013 biography of Kafka, were responsible for “leading an entire generation of commentators astray.” The issues that most tortured Kafka, except for his writing, tended to be sexual in nature.

The passages that express his physical interest in men matter because they help tap into some of the sources of his alienation. Brod cut a line in which Kafka notices a “large bulge” in another man’s pants on a train, for example. He ended this sentence at its comma: “2 beautiful Swedish boys with long legs, which are so formed and taut that one could really only run one’s tongue along them.”

Kafka’s diaries, as is well known, are punishing in their sense of isolation and torment. These traits take on a grainier quality here. Kafka frequently felt, as an artist, “the imminent possibility of great states that would tear me open and make me capable of anything,” but these states were frustrated, again and again, by his day job, by the confusions of family and female companionship, and by physical frailty compounded by sleeplessness and constipation. He secreted his work slowly, as an oyster does its shell. He was not made for his times — or for any times, really.

Yet more conviviality sneaks into these complete diaries. Kafka spent so many nights at the theater (he admired the way Goethe kept supplies of wine and cold food in his box), and was so opinionated about what he saw, that he might have moonlighted as a theater critic.

He befriended members of struggling troupes and developed crushes on some of the actresses. He was perceptive about why even cheap theater so moved him:

During his lifetime, Kafka published six slim books but was essentially unknown. He expressed no sense of occasion upon their release; fame seemed to interest him not at all. He did often read his work aloud to friends, laughing as he went along.

These diaries are perhaps most interesting for including, as Brod did not, Kafka’s rough drafts and false starts on his stories. You watch his voice develop in something like real time.

Kafka witnesses his nephew’s circumcision. He goes sledding. (In photographs, you can see through Kafka to the little boy he used to be.) He weeps at the movies. He contemplates suicide.

He feasts his eyes on beautiful women, sometimes quite young ones, only to find he’s been caught staring. He reports his dreams; even Kafka cannot make his dreams interesting. Tragedy and forms of comedy don’t just coexist in these diaries but feed each other. He was not, at every moment, unhappy about being unhappy.

This review began with Kafka and his nose. It was Gogol, of course, and not Kafka who wrote the absurdist short story “The Nose,” about a man whose nose leaves his face and takes on a life of its own. It was likely an inspiration for Kafka’s story about the man who becomes a bug.

Someday a young scholar will do the hard thinking about Kafka and noses. He was obsessed with them — he saw them as windows into the soul — and descriptions of them, and observations about them, are a throughline in these diaries. They were the handles he used to pick up a personality.

Circumcisers have red noses and bad breath, he wrote. Does youth end at the tip of the nose, he wondered while staring at a woman on a train, “and does death begin there?”One man has a thick nose “from whose nostrils a strong wind can blow as through horses’ muzzles.” One poor little girl, in his estimation, “has a nose without a future.”

Olfaction is among the senses that seem refreshed in this resonant new edition of Kafka’s diaries, which offer the rewards and the challenges of reading his prose. They provide a rich impression of what he called “the tremendous world I have in my head.”

THE DIARIES OF FRANZ KAFKA | Translated by Ross Benjamin | 670 pp. | Schocken Books | $45

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