Kafka Lives

A massive new collection of Franz Kafka’s diaries provides fresh insight into his visionary work

Franz Kafka is a writer who undergoes continual rebirth in the minds of readers, not as an insect but as a rare sort of visionary. His imagination is a gift that keeps on giving. Less than a year after Yale University Press’s release of a lavish volume of his drawings and sketches, Schocken has put out a new 670-page translation of Kafka’s diaries, containing some of the purest expressions of his subconscious. Its contents are as raw and vivid as many of the fictional works that Kafka told Max Brod to burn upon his death.

If the world owes a debt of gratitude to Brod for ignoring that request, Schocken also deserves thanks for saving the diaries from obscurity. Readers can take what they want from these twelve notebooks and four travel narratives. They might experience the visions and imaginings as the stuff of a dream state—and it’s a wild trip—or pursue a more formal exegesis and parse the texts for keys to the historical, social, cultural, and political meanings of Kafka’s novels and stories. Some will do both.

While the diaries are rich in their detailing of Kafka’s personal struggles, scholars will turn to this volume for years to come as an aid to understanding his perspective as a Czech writer at a certain moment in history.


Strange Affinities

Reading the entries, which range in length from a few words to several pages, the reader is apt to make spontaneous and surprising connections. A couple of sentences lying at random in the midst of dozens of other epigrams and musings, the reader realizes, help illuminate what Kafka was up to in an entry 500 pages before. But Kafka’s mind is too subtle to do anything grindingly obvious. Ambiguity and puzzles abound, along with cries of despair.

Accounts of Kafka’s daily doings appear alongside impressions of what he has been reading and philosophical and epistemological musings. In many of these entries, Kafka’s lack of regard for critical judgment, for what anyone may make of these diaries, is bracing. An entry for October 1921 reads, in its entirety, “The feeling of complete helplessness.” A bit later there is another five-word entry: “Suffered much in my thoughts.”

Further down the same page: “The grandfather laughing at his grandchild with a toothless mouth.” Perhaps the grandfather finds humor in the contemplation of life coming full circle: enter the world with the same number of teeth as when you leave it. Mordant humor is a leitmotif, as is the description of random action introduced without any preamble or explanation and paired with philosophical musings. “Seized by the collar, dragged through the streets, pushed into the door. Schematically it is like that, in reality there are counterforces, only a trifle—the life- and torment-sustaining trifle—less unbridled than those. I the victim of both,” Kafka writes.

It is a terse, caustic passage full of implications. In The Trial, Kafka went to some length to detail the ordeal of a man seized by infuriatingly aloof and impersonal forces and pushed into a confined space to await his fate. Near the end of the novel, Josef K. witnesses, in the form of a stranger looking out a window just as two men haul him off to face his sentence, that “life- and torment-sustaining trifle” that exists in the world but, here at least, proves unable to tip the balance in favor of the condemned. Kafka raises, but leaves up to the reader to try to answer, the question of whether it is man’s decency looking out that window or just an idealized vision of a force in the world that we have to believe exists to make it from one day to the next.


Observing the dialogue between the diaries and the novels and stories, the reader should not corral the former as a secondary literary form owing its thematic integrity to the latter. Throughout the diaries, Kafka has much to say about the juncture of European history and the unstable polity in which he lived.

A couple of the jottings from January 1922 convey a glaring need to feel grounded and to belong to a locale, a community, a milieu, a network of relations that affirm one’s sense of purpose and pride of place. “Without ancestors, without marriage, without descendants, with fierce desire for ancestors, marriage and descendants. All hold out their hand to me: ancestors, marriage and descendants, but too distant for me.”

These lines could have come only from the pen of a man who obsessed over and wrote unbelievable numbers of letters to a few women during his life but never married. The next entry reads, “For everything there is an artificial, pitiful substitute: for ancestors, marriage and descendants. One strains to create it and, if one has not already been destroyed by the strain, is destroyed by the hopelessness of the substitute.”

Wanting to feel grounded but coming up against substitutes whose falsity is not just noxious but lethal—here is the psychological mechanism underpinning many of the baroque and dreamy narratives that crowd the diaries.

Without a Home

One of the longest entries, near the start of the ninth notebook, begins as follows: “One summer I arrived toward evening in a village where I had never been before.” The roads are muddy and the next village far off. The narrator wants to find lodgings, but the people he runs into flit bizarrely between offering advice and encouragement and a suspicious and menacing mien.

An elderly couple tells him about an inn only a short distance away before warning him not to think of staying there because the owner keeps it in filthy condition and it is a disgrace to the town. If it’s such a repellent place, you might ask why they suggest it at all. Then the male member of the old couple says unkind things about the narrator, talking about him as if he is not right there. A young man sitting on a farm wall offers a room for rent, but the building where the narrator ends up staying is a surreal place full of children wandering around under a skylight with a view of the stars, and a woman writing at a desk by lamplight and giving commands to the children that go ignored.

This may be a dream, but it is one that manifests that lack of belonging, of feeling grounded in a network of blood and kin, that Kafka describes in those brief entries of January 1922. It is hard to imagine one that evokes more powerfully what it is like to wander about and face something like xenophobia in one’s own land. These experiences would not happen among people who trusted each other. The reader of this entry knows what it is to pursue an unmoored existence amid suspicions and animosities that fly so many different ways, as indeed they did in one of the thorniest chapters of modern history.

The Czechoslovakia that came into being in 1918 was a patchwork of nations, regions, communities, towns, and neighborhoods with languages, cultures, and customs whose uneasy coexistence the Nazi leaders came to exploit in their efforts to pit Sudeten Germans against Czechs, absorb the former into the Reich, quell all that was authentically Czech, and make a people feel like strangers in their own land.

Passengers in Motion

The texts are so thematically rich that random readings of extracts separated by hundreds of pages will suggest themes. One leitmotif is the image of travel, often involving public or mass transport, from riding the metro to setting sail across an ocean in a huge ship. In one of the entries from 1912, Kafka describes a young man sitting in a corner of a tram in Prague and staring out the window. He has just gotten engaged and is unable to think of anything else. When the conductor comes to give him a ticket, he takes a coin from his pocket, hands it over, and grabs the ticket in a robotic manner. Kafka stresses the utter lack of connection between the fiancé and his surroundings. The reader may wonder why Kafka has set down this random observation and why it would be of interest to readers.

But it may not be random at all. One of the later entries for the same year is an early draft of a passage that went into Kafka’s novel Amerika, which appeared in 1927, after his death, and tells the story of Karl Rossmann, who travels by ship to New York and has all manner of misadventures, including taking a subway from Manhattan to Oklahoma near the end.

In the passage Kafka set down in his diary, Karl engages in a bit of vulgar stereotyping of Irish Americans, worrying about what they may do to him when he arrives in York, and other characters we meet present Kafka’s notions of national types. The vessel has reached New York and passengers are eager to disembark, but Karl realizes that he left his umbrella down in the bowels of the ship and sets off to find it. In one of the cabins down there is a German who does not take well to the sight of Karl darting around with a searching manner. After affirming to Karl that he is a German, the first thing this stranger tells him is that he cannot stand it when people passing by in the hall look in at him. “Everyone runs by here and looks in, I’d like to see anyone bear it.”

Contrast the manner of this German with that of the Czech who cannot notice what others do because his personal affairs, or interiority, are what define him. The German looks outward and does not take well to people of other nationalities encroaching on what he considers his private space and moving freely on his borders, so to speak. The exteriority is the manifestation of a national character that Kafka, a Czech writing in the 1910s and 1920s and acutely aware of territorial struggles and shifting boundaries, imputes to a German.

Kafka saw which way the wind was blowing and his writings allude to trends that came into hideous bloom in the 1930s and 1940s, as Nazi Germany repeatedly threatened the sovereignty of, and then occupied, his homeland. The Germans of that era did not take well to a flourishing Czech identity on their borders, and one of the first things they set about doing was to squelch the possibility of any non-Germanic culture looking in at the Reich from the outside. As Chad Bryant describes it in Prague in Black: Nazi Rule and Czech Nationalism, the occupiers waged a merciless campaign to eradicate any vestiges of a national character independent of the larger country.

“Czech economic dominance had been eroded, business and industry either controlled, if not owned outright, by Germans. Meanwhile, a thin membrane of Nazi rulers and officials held tight a population of Czech laborers who—cowed, coordinated, and sometimes worse—continued to work for the Reich,” Bryant writes.

On the cultural front, it was not a good time for anyone who dared to express or produce anything not in keeping with the total Germanization of the land. “Public displays of national loyalty were few. Dvořak and Smetana concerts continued to draw crowds, as did other performances in ‘houses of culture’ throughout the Protectorate, but little of valued appeared in newspapers and magazines,” Bryant continues. “Troublesome Czechs—and Jews and Protectorate Germans—could, without a trial, be arrested, deported, and executed. Gestapo and Intelligence Service agents continued to hound members of the so-called intelligentsia, and resistance organizations continually lost members to arrest.”

In the face of all the terror and repression, a pair of brave paratroopers dispatched by the Czech government in exile in London pulled off a coup with the fatal wounding of the brutal Reinhard Heydrich as he rode down a street in a Prague suburb one day in May 1942. The consequences for Czech civilians, of course, were ghastly.

It is the task of scholars to analyze how Kafka, the lonely modernist, inspires readers to retain their interiority while harnessing it and focusing it outward, whether that means orchestrating the assassination of a Nazi thug, or mounting a campaign of resistance to the repressive creeds, systems, and bureaucracies of our own time.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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