Book Review

Kafka Agonistes

My life is the hesitation before birth.
—Franz Kafka, Diaries


Franz Kafka was a champion of defeat, but he was also critically alive in the struggle to become himself. A prolific writer, he is thought to have burned or otherwise destroyed much of his own production. When he knew he was dying of tuberculosis, he asked his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn the rest, excluding only the short stories that had already been published and had established his growing reputation. We can be grateful that Brod disobeyed his friend and saw to the publication of the unfinished novels, The Missing Person (as Amerika), The Trial, and The Castle. These books and assorted stories and fragments established Kafka posthumously as a singular genius, not only a great modernist, but a writer who transcended his time, dramatizing psychic battles between individuals and the savage powers of family, law, and the state. These are the very nets that Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus had wanted to fly past, and found he could not. Kafka’s fictions are not allegories, but dreams. Their absurdist logic is absolute and insane, sometimes hilarious, more often nightmarish. Yet they seem true to the world. Only a breathtakingly original artist could have devised them.

If we think of Kafka as a kind of purist or literary saint, our mistaken impression is due largely to Brod’s interference, his careful censorship of the diaries and other works, his regularizing of Kafka’s prose into a standard High German. He smoothed Kafka’s rough edges, rearranged his chronologies, narrowed the range of Kafka’s sensual fantasies, and omitted passages that might have raised questions about his own character. I remember, many years ago, standing at Kafka’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague, then turning around and seeing the memorial plaque to Max Brod and thinking the two writers were eternally linked. It was Brod who, escaping the Nazis in 1939, carried a suitcase full of Kafka’s manuscripts to Tel Aviv, thus preserving much of this legacy.

Gratitude to Brod has, since his death in 1968, been given a more complicated context. I have not read Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka, which has appeared in translation. But I have Stach’s edition of Kafka’s aphorisms, translated by Shelley Frisch,[1] including this resonant gem: “A cage went in search of a bird.” Stach’s introduction succinctly summarizes the struggles of Kafka’s life and art: “He did not belong to any literary circle or club, let alone to the group of ‘great minds’ whose conversations he listened to attentively without joining in.” Influenced by thinkers from the Kabbalists to Kierkegaard, Kafka’s aphorisms sketch “a kind of ideological blueprint with a theological underpinning, yet his concepts remain hazy, because the evolution of a given idea often adheres to a purely visual logic.” In other words, they’re like poetry.

Kafka’s fascination with theology and his Jewish identity is, for me, one of the surprises to be found in his Diaries, now restored to their original form and newly translated by Ross Benjamin.[2] Kafka was no withering aesthete. He was, in fact, a bit of a health nut, fascinated by diets and psychological trends, a devoted swimmer and (when he briefly lived in the country) capable gardener, as well as a lawyer who worked for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. He complained of many minor ailments before contracting the big one that killed him, but this sensitivity about his own body (reflected in Gregor Samsa’s transformation) is more than matched by his observations of the bodies of others. “The firm boundedness of human bodies is ghastly,” he wrote, yet he observed a stranger’s bulging crotch, made painterly descriptions of women in many positions and kinds of light. He had an active love life, both in reality and in his fantasies, and knew his way around a brothel. He was three times engaged to be married—twice to the same woman, Felice Bauer—and if sex gave him aftershocks of guilt, he nevertheless indulged when propriety or secrecy allowed. If many of his affairs appear to have been conducted with the exquisite pain of fantasy and dream, that does not make him unusual. What makes him unusual is his writing, which in Benjamin’s words “borrows its logic from the liminal space between waking and dreaming.”

Benjamin’s introduction argues for a more provisional, less authoritative Kafka, pointing out that the diaries, contained in twelve notebooks and assorted other papers, were his “workshop.” In these pages we find drafts of whole stories, including “The Judgment,” which Kafka completed in one night in 1912. He later writes, “the story came out of me like a veritable birth covered with filth and slime . . .” He then goes on to discourse upon its archetypal relations: father and son, absent friend and betrothed woman, the ongoing life of the city. He reveals his private system of naming—“Georg has the same number of letters as Franz,” etc.—leaving us no doubt that he was transmuting autobiography into dream. We also have a complete draft of “The Stoker,” which would become part of his novel The Missing Person. Again the weird system of human relations, the slapstick behaviors of people like something out of Chaplin or Keaton, the alternative universe in which America’s Statue of Liberty bears not a torch but a sword. There are fascinating notes for stories, false starts, fragments, possibilities, and statements that have the same plangent ambiguity as his aphorisms. I found myself reading with pencil in hand, accumulating my own anthology of quotes.

Which does not mean that the diaries make easy reading. They are dense with allusion to literatures I know little about, including the Yiddish theatre of the time. The bulk of the diaries recount the years 1911 to 1913, when a Yiddish theatre troupe took up residence in Prague and Kafka became obsessed with a married actress, Mania Tschisik. He describes her every performance in what appear to be mediocre plays and every encounter with her backstage or in the street: “Then, as I was speaking with Frau T., I realized that my love had not actually seized her, but only flew around her, now closer, now farther. Indeed it cannot find peace.” He seems to have preferred it that way. He’s not Eliot’s young man carbuncular whose roving hands encounter no defense, but a man living at a pitch of imaginative irresolution, a man who rather enjoys being neither here nor there. Yet even from these encounters he extracts lessons about art and life: “Schiller somewhere: The main thing is (or something like that) ‘to transform affect into character.’”

It’s almost a point of honor that Kafka positions himself between all the demands of a busy life, choosing none of them—true only to art, to literature and his late-night writing. Even during World War I, he seems not to share his compatriots’ obsessions with the news from the front but instead spends several pages outlining the failures of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Kafka notes the onset of war as if it were one of his social engagements: “(August 1914) Germany has declared war on Russia.—Swimming school in the afternoon.” He does recount violent details when he hears them, and the violence in his fiction, from the bizarre Rube Goldberg execution machine of “In the Penal Colony” to Josef K.’s death by stabbing in The Trial, suggests that all the slaughter rubbed off on him.

His vacillation ends, or partly ends, with his own fatal diagnosis. On August 11, 1917, he suffered his first pulmonary hemorrhage. He was 34 and would live about seven more years—the diaries break off a year before his death in June 1924, exactly one month before his 41st birthday. While the writing of the diaries begins to thin out—one senses he might be trying to finish his novels—the rest of his life appears more open to resolution. Stach’s introduction to the aphorisms puts it this way: “For years—since his first encounter with Felice Bauer—he had been draining himself in a battle between the calling of marriage and the calling of writing, his longing for intimacy with a woman and his equally deep longing for the rapture of production, and this battle was still being waged.” But in a meeting referred to as a “tribunal,” he ended his engagement. His last year was spent in a possibly platonic union with another woman, Dora Diamant, a relationship the diaries never touch upon.



The diaries are full of little revelations that would intrigue a novelist. For example, an artist named Ernst Ascher once asked Kafka to pose nude for a painting of Saint Sebastian. Such bleakly comic details could have arisen in his own imagination. The suffering artist pierced by arrows! What if the painting were actually completed, discovered some day in a Czech or German or Israeli attic? Would anyone recognize the model? A decade after Ascher’s request, Kafka would write “A Hunger Artist,” about a man whose art is to starve, and who starves because he cannot do anything else. The artist dies and is buried in obscurity, his cage given over to a panther that, even in captivity, exhibits a more powerful vitality. While it is easy to anchor this image of the martyred artist in Kafka’s own life, he wrote the story with a far more haunting and universal intent. You can paraphrase his stories without beginning to touch their disturbing power.

The diaries give us little of the gossip and professional vicissitudes that occupy the minds of other writers. They really are a workshop in which the personal intrudes only in glimpses. He was more loyal to his diaries than to most of the people he knew:


In the diary one finds proof that, even in conditions that today seem unbearable, one lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand thus moved as it does today, when the possibility of surveying our condition at that time does make us wiser, but we therefore must recognize all the more the undauntedness of our striving at that time, which in sheer ignorance nonetheless sustained itself.


There’s a bit of strain, even contortion, in the prose, suggesting a mind trying to think clearly through the clutter of his day. His sometimes ecstatic reading occupies more pages: “I dream melodic rise and fall, I read sentences by Goethe as if I were running along the stresses with my whole body.” And in the next entry:


Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t give up! Even if no salvation comes, I want to be worthy of it at every moment. This evening I spent in complete indifference at the family table, my right hand on the back of the chair in which my sister was playing cards next to me, my left weak in my lap. From time to time I tried to become aware of my unhappiness, I barely succeeded.—


That unhappiness arose from a problem common to many people, the difficulty of reconciling their inner life with the attachments and responsibilities of work, family, and society. Kafka lived in his parents’ apartment until he was 31. We know from the stories as well as the letters and diaries that he found his father brutal and uncomprehending. He could also write about family with affection and humor:


10 Dec. (1911) Sun. I must go visit my sister and her little boy. When my mother returned from my sister the day before yesterday at 1 o’clock at night with the news of the boy’s birth, my father moved through the apartment in his nightshirt, opened all the doors, woke me the maid and my sisters and announced the birth in such a way as if the baby had not only been born but had also already led an honorable life and had its funeral.


The scene is gently comic, but the image of that “honorable life” was a torment to Kafka. His parents’ desires for him, their only surviving son, were immense. When he joined his brother-in-law to co-found an asbestos factory, his father came aboard as an investor and took every opportunity to point out that Kafka was not sufficiently focused on the business. Asbestos, for God’s sake! How can we grapple with such compounded aspiration and damage?

He did pay attention to the factory, though not perhaps as his father would have wished:


Yesterday at the factory. The girls in their clothes that are in themselves unbearably dirty and ragged, with their hair disheveled as if they had just woken up, with their facial expression fixed by the incessant noise of the transmissions and by the individual machine, which, though automatic, halts unpredictably, are not human beings, one doesn’t greet them, one doesn’t apologize when one jostles them, if one summons them for a small task, then they carry it out but immediately return to the machine, with a head movement one shows them where they are needed, they stand there in underskirts, they’re at the mercy of the slightest power and don’t even have enough calm understanding to recognize and propitiate this power with glances and bows. But when it’s six o’clock and they shout it to each other, when they untie the scarves from their necks and hair, when they dust themselves off with a brush that is passed around the hall and is shouted for by impatient ones, when they pull the skirts over their heads and when they clean their hands as well as possible, then they are, in the end, women after all, can smile despite pallor and bad teeth, shake their stiffened bodies, one can no longer jostle them, stare at them or overlook them, one squeezes oneself against the greasy crates to clear the way for them, keeps one’s hat in one’s hand when they say good evening and doesn’t know how to take it when one of them holds our winter coat for us to put on.


It’s a vivid paragraph, made out of sentence practice as well as close observation.

And he must have been very good at his insurance job. When he received his tuberculosis diagnosis, he sought early retirement, partly by lying that he was considering enlisting in the military—another improbable image, as weird in its own way as Saint Sebastian. Instead, he got three months off to convalesce, time he spent in the country village of Zürau, where his favorite younger sister, Ottla, maintained the family’s properties. There he gardened and immersed himself in Hebrew studies, and there he composed his first aphorisms. He had lived for the previous two years in his own rented flat and would never again live under the same roof with his parents. Kafka was becoming himself.

He still had, until December 1917, the torture of his engagement to Felice Bauer, who was not entirely settled on him, either. When in 1913 he had made a “Compilation of all the arguments for and against my marriage,” the case against clearly won the day. Here are a few outtakes from the list (the punctuation, except for the ellipses, is his):


1) Inability to endure life alone, not inability to live, on the
contrary, it’s even improbable that I know how to live with someone,
but the onslaught of my own life, the demands I make on myself, the
attack of time and age, the vague surge of desire to write, the sleeplessness,
the nearness of insanity—all this I’m unable to endure
alone. . . .

2. Everything immediately gives me pause . . .

3 I must be alone a great deal. What I have achieved is only a result
of being alone.

4 I hate everything that doesn’t relate to literature, it bores me to
carry on conversations (even if they relate to literature) it bores me
to pay visits, sorrows and joys of my relatives bore me to my soul. . . .

5 The fear of connection, of flowing across. Then I’ll never be
alone again.

6 In front of my sisters, especially in the past it was so, I have often
been a completely different person than in front of other people.
Fearless, exposed, powerful, surprising, moved as otherwise only
while writing. . . .

7. Alone I could perhaps one day really give up my job. Married it
will never be possible.


Most artists, if not all of them, are happiest when practicing their art, even if they find that art to be a kind of exquisite torture. Kafka’s dilemma, like the dilemma of the hunger artist, has a universal resonance: how can he live as a person and still endure the arduousness of creation? One wonders whether he could have aged into happiness, but no one in his family was given that privilege. All three of his sisters died in the Shoah. Ottla’s story is particularly heartbreaking. She had been sent to the model camp at Terezin and might have survived her internment there. But when a group of children was shipped to Auschwitz in 1943, she volunteered to accompany them. They were all gassed on arrival.



We should be grateful for all the new strides in Kafka scholarship. An edition of his drawings has been published, demonstrating yet another of his talents. Ross Benjamin’s translation of the diaries offers us a sense of the unpolished, the unfinished, which seems entirely appropriate to the kind of writer Kafka became. After all, a fairly large number of literary masterpieces are known only in fragments—fragmentation being an aspect of their aesthetic vision. In Kafka we often have much more than fragments.

Early in the war he wrote in his diary,


6 (August 1914) From the perspective of literature my fate is very simple. The penchant for depicting my dreamlike inner life has pushed everything else aside and all this has atrophied in a terrible way and doesn’t cease to atrophy. Nothing else can ever satisfy me. But now my strength for that depiction is quite incalculable, perhaps it has vanished forever, perhaps it will come over me again, the circumstances of my life are certainly not favorable to it. Thus I waver, fly incessantly to the peak of the mountain, but can keep myself up there for scarcely a moment. Others waver too, but in lower regions, with stronger powers; if they are in danger of falling, they are caught by the relative who walks beside them for that purpose. I, however, waver up there, it is, alas, not death, but the eternal torments of dying.


Not quite born and not quite dying, he was suspended there for much of his short life. Yet in more than 1400 scholarly notes to this edition, Benjamin demonstrates that Kakfa’s life was active, a veritable hive of mental and physical activity, with an impressive range of intellectual and literary referents.

What interests me in the passage above is his accurate sense of the “dreamlike inner life” of the fictions. The diaries sometimes exhibit intense visual and auditory hallucinations akin to the stories. He attends Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on Theosophy and mysticism. He is visited by an angel that descends through his dissolving ceiling. He immerses himself in Judaism, follows the Zionist cause, and even considers emigration to Palestine. The life in these diaries is polyphonic, polyamorous, and multidimensional, surprisingly contained in that tall, thin body (unlike his father’s thicker one), in photographs so conventionally attired.

Unlike John Keats, he did not immediately assume that his tuberculosis would be fatal, writing, “You have as far as this chance exists at all, the chance to make a beginning. Do not waste it. You won’t be able to avoid the filth that wells up out of you, if you want to penetrate. But don’t wallow in it. If the lung wound is only a symbol, as you claim, symbol of the wound the inflammation of which is called Felice and the depth of which justification, if this is so, then the medical advice too (light air sun rest) is symbol. Take hold of this symbol.” Wrong in a medical sense, he was right to see his illness as a chance to seize his own life and live it in his terms. He survived a bout of the Spanish flu. He continued living, writing, and working. He became engaged briefly to another woman, Julie Wohryzek (who would also, like so many connected to Kafka, die in the Shoah). He visited spas for his health, and while the diaries become thinner, they lose none of their interest.

The mind of the early diaries delights in uncanny images: “To achieve a good conversation one must positively slide one’s hand more deeply, more lightly, more sleepily under the subject to be dealt with, then one lifts it astonishingly. Otherwise one bends back one’s fingers and thinks of nothing but the pain.” The same surrealist mind works in the shorter notations of 1922: “The attacks, the fear. Rats that tear at me and that I multiply with my gaze.” Or this Heraclitean note occurring by itself: “In the stream. . . .” He had always felt himself “Incapable of living or speaking with people,” yet he died with two friends at his side, Dora Diamant and Robert Klopstock.

As for Max Brod, he is a constant presence in the diaries, clearly Kafka’s best friend, a curious figure with a bit of the dilettante about him, convinced he is a composer as well as a writer. I cannot judge Brod’s productions, knowing nothing about them, but I can continue to be grateful for the Kafka he preserved for us, just as I am grateful for more recent corrections. Like so much else, it could all have been consigned to the flames.


[1] The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, ed. by Reiner Stach, trans. by Shelley Frisch (Princeton, 2022).

[2] THE DIARIES, by Franz Kafka, trans. by Ross Benjamin. Schocken Books. $45.00.