Franz Kafka, the Ultimate Self-Doubting Writer
On the Emotional Resonance of Kafka's Diaries
One night not long ago, on the phone with a college friend, the conversation turned to what we’d been reading. He was cramming for an exam so hadn’t had much time, and I’d just finished the most recent of New York’s unspoken book club, when you and every third person on the subway seems to have gotten the same recommendation. Sprawled across my bed, I stared idly at the bookshelf and pulled down a beat-up volume I’d had since college, when my friend and I had shared a microwave: The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923.
Published in English by Schocken Books, now a Knopf imprint specializing in Jewish literature—my Diaries is a third printing, from 1971. The text was translated by Martin Greenberg with the aid of Hannah Arendt, of all people. (The diaries also exist online in the unabridged original German, from the comprehensive Kafka Project.) I’d picked it up at the Book Barn, a rambling used bookstore in Niantic, CT, a short drive from my campus apartment. I took a Kafka seminar one semester, and thought the Diaries might make an enlightening companion piece.
Kafka died on June 3, 1924, in a sanatorium outside Vienna, a month shy of his 41st birthday. He had been living with tuberculosis for nearly seven years, and by summer 1924 the state of his throat had made it too painful to eat or drink, sentencing him to death by starvation. According to Kafka’s friend and biographer Max Brod, at the time of his death Kafka was working on his short story, “A Hunger Artist,” about a man whose art form is starvation—one of the grimmest Kafka analogues, in a very competitive field.
Sitting up now, I flipped through and read selections from his diaries into the phone. “April 8, 1914: ‘Yesterday incapable of writing even one word. Today no better. Who will save me?’ … November 25, 1914: ‘Utter despair, impossible to pull myself together; only when I have become satisfied with my sufferings can I stop.’… July 1, 1914: ‘Too tired.’ (That’s the whole entry.) … September 22, 1917: ‘Nothing.’” We laughed at the total Kafka-ness of these entries, the “utter despair” that seemed such a predictably pervasive mood, even in private.
The “nothings” and “sufferings” are some of my favorite sections of the Diaries, but it isn’t schadenfreude; if anything, it’s a different German word, Einfühlung—empathy. I enjoy the Diaries because they contain emotions I’ve felt myself.
In college and in the years since, I’ve handled depression with varying success. After graduation, I spent a year unemployed and living at home, Millennially adrift to an almost cliché degree. I read David Foster Wallace and Catch-22 and a bunch of Camus, marinating in nihilism and then returning to Barnes & Noble to sit on the floor in front of the GRE prep books, dreaming up applications to graduate programs I would never apply to. I found it impossible to get through anything light or unserious without spiraling into comparative self-pity, but with nothing to do all day I tried to be at least somewhat mentally accountable. I managed a bit of Vonnegut, buoyed by his absurdism but disappointed by its ultimate hope. I found I couldn’t truly enjoy much of anything that didn’t have the unrelenting, pointless pain of living as a central theme.
The comfort I find in Kafka’s brand of weary defeatism is like the kindness of a friend who says, “That really sucks” instead of “Everything will be OK.” Because when everything sucks, cheerfulness sucks the most.
The pages of my own diary from this time share the hopelessness of Kafka’s, but what in my handwriting reads like empty self-pity is from Kafka somehow inspiring. Einfühlung and literary hindsight lighten the emotional load of his words, holding a mirror up to to my own self-doubt, anguish, and frustration.
Kafka’s self-doubt has long since been vindicated, due in no small part to the efforts of Max Brod, who published Kafka’s three novels, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika after Kafka’s death. (Kafka appointed Brod the executor of his will, and instructed him to burn everything. Brod didn’t, reportedly saying that if Kafka had truly wanted everything burned he should have appointed a different executor.) We have Brod to thank for the existence of the diaries, as well; originally spread across several volumes in a complexly disordered chronology, Brod untangled, reordered, and repackaged them for the purposes of publication. In a postscript, he describes the process:
The bulk of the diaries is contained in 13 notebooks of quarto size. The first, third, fourth, and fifth notebooks Kafka numbered himself, in Roman numerals (the second notebook bears no number). Pages are numbered consecutively throughout, although a second pagination, also by Kafka, makes for some confusion. There was further difficulty in arranging the material chronologically in the fact that Kafka would occasionally, in the same notebook, write from the last page backward as well as from the first page forward, so that the entries met in the middle.
Brod’s efforts at chronology were successful insofar as the entries are arranged in order, but a linear reading does the reader little good. The entries are erratic and inconsistent, including often-mundane daily records; notes on trips planned or avoided; doodles; painfully drawn-out vacillations over his on-again, off-again relationship with Felice Bauer; one lengthy and (to me) pointless exposition of a book about Napoleon’s military career; and sketches of short stories and other works that often continue for several pages before being broken by an unrelated thought or a new entry. Entire stretches of time are unrecorded in the Diaries—all of 1918, for instance—and some story fragments are so brief or undistinguished from the rest of the diary that they read like schizophrenic asides.
I have only managed (or bothered) to read the Diaries from beginning to end once, and have instead come to see it as an ad hoc devotional, to be opened at random and savored in smaller bites.
For all Kafka’s apparent lassitude, Brod maintains in his postscript that there was to Kafka’s social presence “a gay ingenuousness one would scarcely credit to the author of the Diaries,” and that the entries therein “show up as the darkest band of the spectrum.” Moreover, he writes, “One must in general take into consideration the false impression that every diary unintentionally makes… Diaries resemble a kind of defective barometric curve that registers only the ‘lows,’ the hours of greatest depression, but not the ‘highs.’”
Anyone who has kept and reread a diary can attest to this, and to the strange experience of looking back at years that look sunny in recollection, only to find in their handwritten record a list of petty gripes and irritations that faded as quickly as the ink dried on the page, while triumphs and satisfactions exist nowhere but in unrecorded memory.
In one atypically meta entry on writing about depression while depressed, from September 19, 1917, Kafka writes:
Have never understood how it is possible for almost everyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them; thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness, in all likelihood with my head still smarting from unhappiness, sit down and write to someone: I am unhappy. Yes, I can even go beyond that and with as many flourishes as I have the talent for, all of which seem to have nothing to do with my unhappiness… And it is not a lie, and it does not still my pain; it is simply a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being and plainly exhausted all my strength.
Kafka’s “suffering” (Schmerz) is at times so extreme—whether brought on by noisy neighbors or an inability to work—that it seems almost solipsistically removed from the landscape of Eastern Europe in the nineteen-teens. An entry from August 2, 1914, reads: “Germany has declared war on Russia. –Swimming in the afternoon.”
But of course this is the nature of diaries. Few diarists set out to record history with the wide-angle lens of the everyman. A diary is history as solipsism, the minute concerns of the diary’s protagonist the only concerns of the narrative.
For this reason writers’ diaries are especially tantalizing, offering a view of history through the eyes of a revered thinker. As a writer, I read diaries of writers I admire with complete self-interest—Did this writer think the things I think? Did this writer ask the same questions I ask myself? Kafka’s diaries feel especially rewarding because of his obscurity, and his frustrations with writing itself are particularly resonant:
August 21, 1914: “Began with such hope and was then repulsed by all three stories; today more so than ever… I start The Trial again. –The effort wasn’t entirely without result.
August 29, 1914: “The end of one chapter a failure; another chapter, which began beautifully, I shall hardly—or rather certainly not—be able to continue as beautifully, while at the time, during the night, I should certainly have succeeded with it. But I must not forsake myself, I am entirely alone.
Reading entries like these about a work as formidable as The Trial is like watching a supermodel pop a zit—it hardly seems possible that the same crises of faith should afflict a genius and an amateur alike. On August 6 of the same year, Kafka writes predictively of his career:
What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me… Thus I waver, continually fly to the summit of the mountain, but then fall back in a moment. Others waver too, but in lower regions, with greater strength; if they are in danger of falling, they are caught up by the kinsman who walks behind them for that very purpose. But I waver on the heights; it is not death, alas, but the eternal torments of dying.
Passages like this are as bereft of hope as they are filled with beauty, and the effect can be heart-rending. Kafka had a circle of intellectual friends and other writers in Prague, Brod among them, but other than his diaries (and perhaps theirs), there is no other record of his daily life. The voyeur’s impulse is strong, begging entry to even the blandest recollections in hopes of accessing some secret door in Kafka’s mind, an understanding beyond the ken of ordinary readers.
These are diaries-as-decoder ring. But the decoder ring is warped, and doesn’t present a true picture of much of the author’s life. It may be authentic in its emotion, in its record of events and interactions, but it is mediated by the private and interior writing of an unreliable figure: the self-regarding self. A June 19, 1916, entry reads: “Forget everything. Open the windows. Clear the room. The wind blows through it. You see only its emptiness, you search in every corner and don’t find yourself.”
One of my favorite passages in Kafka’s Diaries has to do with this sort of reading, from May 4, 1915:
In a better state because I read Strindberg (Separated). I don’t read him to read him, but rather to lie on his breast. He holds me on his left arm like a child. I sit there like a man on a statue. Ten times I almost slip off, but at the eleventh attempt I sit there firmly, feel secure, and have a wide view.
This is much the same reason that I read and reread Kafka’s diaries—not to study the course of his life, or pore over intimate critiques of his peers, but to soak in the emotive weight of his prose, to “sit there firmly, and have a wide view.” Kafka’s Diaries are as informative as they are cohesive—that is, not very—but they exist as a record of something ineffable, an experience of life as psychic frustration.