Kafka’s Last Wish, Brod’s First Betrayal
On the (Non) Burning of the Manuscript
On his deathbed, emaciated and robbed of strength, almost unable to speak or swallow, his breaths short and percussive as he coughed his life away, Kafka communicated with Dora Diamant and his doctors by scribbling notes on slips of paper. “Usually these notes were mere hints,” Max Brod said. “His friends guessed the rest.”
As his energies ebbed, Kafka reviewed the proofs of his last and starkest short story collection, A Hunger Artist. Brod had urged the publisher to rush the volume into print. In the title story, Kafka’s gaunt protagonist fasts himself to death in a circus cage, unnoticed and unappreciated.
“Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the staff the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist.
Kafka’s lover and Czech translator Milena Jesenská had once written to Brod that Kafka’s “asceticism is altogether unheroic—and by that very fact all the greater and more sublime.”
Kafka had years earlier confided to Brod that he saw his lung hemorrhages as both punishment and liberation. “My attitude to tuberculosis today,” he wrote Brod in 1917, “is like that of a child clinging to its mother’s skirts.” Describing Kafka’s illness, Brod noted in his diary: “Kafka sees it as psychogenic, his salvation from marriage.” “You are happy in your unhappiness,” Brod said when Kafka disclosed the diagnosis. It was Brod who had consulted doctors behind Kafka’s back, who had insisted that Kafka see laryngological specialists, and who had accompanied him to their waiting rooms. Speaking of himself in the third person, Kafka had admitted his fear of death to Max Brod. “He has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived.”
Kafka, convinced to the end of the insufficiency of his writing, was not granted the time to say all that he had in him. He died just short of his 41st birthday in a private 12-room sanatorium outside Vienna. He was buried a week later, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon of Wednesday, June 11, 1924, in a modest ceremony at Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery.
Even in life, there seemed to have been something posthumous about him. In his journals, he dwelled often on death and on “casting off the self” (Selbstabschüttelung). The Prague-born author Franz Werfel wrote in November 1915: “Dear Kafka, you are so pure, new, independent, and perfect that one ought to treat you as if you were already dead and immortal.” When she heard of his death, Milena Jesenská remarked that Kafka was “a man who beheld the world with such excessive lucidity that he could no longer bear it.”
Kafka’s writing had afforded him no fame, no literary prizes; public recognition had eluded him, as had any expectation that posterity would be more appreciative than his contemporaries. Unheralded, he hadn’t completed a single novel. The little that had been published was passed over without wide acclaim. His second collection of stories, for instance, A Country Doctor (published by Kurt Wolff in 1920), was mentioned by only a single reviewer. To the chagrin of both his publishers and his impresario Brod, Kafka had not bothered to change this state of affairs. In November 1921, Kurt Wolff wrote to Kafka:
None of the authors with whom we are connected comes to us with wishes or questions so seldom as you do, and with none of them do we have the feeling that the outward fate of their published books is a matter of such indifference as it is with you . . . If over the course of time you could give us, in addition to collections of short prose pieces, a longer, extended story or a novel—since I know from you and from Max Brod how many manuscripts of this kind are nearly finished or even completed—we would be especially grateful.
Kafka never replied to the letter.
Brod described Kafka’s untimely death as a “catastrophe.” His twenty- two- year friendship with the man he called a “Diesseitswunder”— an earthly miracle—had been “the mainstay of my whole existence.” At the graveside, he eulogized Kafka as a prophet in whom “the splendor of the Shekhina [divine presence] shone.” When he returned from the funeral to the town center, Brod reports, the medieval clock on the southern wall of Old Town Hall—flanked by the figures of Vanity, Greed, Lust, and Death—had stopped at 4 pm: “its hands were still pointing to that hour.”
After the funeral, Kafka’s parents Hermann and Julie asked Brod over to their apartment on the top floor of the Oppelt House to go through their son’s desk. According to biographer Reiner Stach, Hermann Kafka “signed a contract giving Brod the right to publish Franz’s works posthumously.” Beneath the clutter of pencils with broken points, collar buttons, and a paperweight from Karlsbad, Brod discovered a voluminous archive of Kafka’s unpublished notebooks, unfinished drafts, and diaries.
As he spilled these papers out of the drawers, Brod also found two undated notes—one in pen and the other penciled—instructing him to burn Kafka’s remaining papers. The first note reads:
My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s, sketches and so on, is to be burned unread and to the last page, as well as all writings of mine or notes which either you may have or other people, from whom you are to beg them in my name. Letters which are not handed over to you should at least be faithfully burned by those who have them.
Yours, Franz Kafka
The second note, in pencil, which Brod believed preceded the first, reads:
Perhaps this time I shan’t recover after all. Pneumonia after a whole month’s pulmonary fever is all too likely; and not even writing this down can avert it, although there is a certain power in that. For this eventuality therefore, here is my last will concerning everything I have written: Of all my writings the only books that can stand are these: “The Judgment,” “The Stoker,” “Metamorphosis,” “Penal Colony,” “Country Doctor,” and the short story “Hunger Artist” . . . But everything else of mine which is extant . . . all these things without exception are to be burned, and I beg you to do this as soon as possible.
Brod could not summon much surprise at this instruction. He knew all too well that Kafka did not think highly of what he called his “scribbling.” Kafka’s diaries are steeped both in the preoccupation with what he calls Schriftstellersein, being-a-writer, and in self-slandering laments at how “dead” and “inert” he found what he terms his “feeble literary work.” Take, for example, his diary entry of March 13, 1915:
Lack of appetite, fear of getting back late in the evening; but above all the thought that I wrote nothing yesterday, that I keep getting farther and farther from it, and am in danger of losing everything I have laboriously achieved these past six months. Provided proof of this by writing one and a half wretched pages of a new story that I have already decided to discard . . .
Kafka regarded the ending of “The Metamorphosis,” to take another example, as “imperfect almost to its very marrow.” On the one hand, Kafka was aware of “the enormous world I have inside my head.” On the other, he recognized that “the inner world can only be lived, not described.” (“I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable,” he wrote.) “Almost every word I wrote jars against the next,” he noted in 1910. “My doubts stand in a circle around every word.”
In 1917, when Brod had asked him to supply something for a reading in Frankfurt, Kafka replied: “The pieces I could send really mean nothing at all to me; I respect only the moments at which I wrote them.” Later, Max’s wife Elsa had also asked Kafka for something she could read in public. “Why resuscitate old labors?” he answers. “Only because I haven’t burnt them yet? . . . What’s the point of preserving such miscarried works, even if the miscarriage was artistic?”
In the last months of his life, Dora Diamant said, “he wanted to burn everything that he had written in order to free his soul from these ‘ghosts.’ I respected his wish, and when he lay ill, I burnt things of his before his eyes.”
Kafka here tempts us to speculation: can his last instruction to Brod be understood as a characteristic gesture of a literary artist whose life was a judgment against itself? As a self-condemnation, with Kafka acting as both judge and the accused?
In the final scene of The Trial, Joseph K. is tempted “to seize the knife himself . . . and plunge it into his own body.” In the end, he cannot bring himself to carry out his own execution. “He could not completely rise to the occasion, he could not relieve the officials of all their tasks; the responsibility for this last failure of his lay with him who had not left him the remnant of strength necessary for the deed.” Like Joseph K., Kafka lacked the strength to carry out his own last sentence: the destruction of his writings both personal (letters and diaries) and literary (unfinished stories). It was as though even in self-renunciation Kafka was beset by indecision. He left the execution to Brod, the very man who since the beginnings of their friendship felt that Kafka’s self-condemnation was several shades too harsh.
Immediately after Kafka’s death, Brod set out to write what he called “a living work of art” to resurrect his beloved friend. “Above all,” he said of his next novel, “I wanted to bring him to life for myself in this new way. So long as I lived in this book, in working at it, he was not dead, he still lived with me.”
In the novel, a roman à clef called The Kingdom of Love (Zauberreich der Liebe, 1928, English edition 1930), Kafka appears in the thin disguise of Richard Garta, a tall, delicate man who wished to live “in complete austerity.” Garta radiated both a “delicate sadness” and “a powerful, imperceptible, but irresistible force,” Brod writes. “He did not speak to disciples, to the people, like Buddha, Jesus, or Moses. He remained shut within himself. But that was perhaps because he saw further into the great secret than they had done.”
Garta, this “saint of our time,” has died of consumption before the plot begins. Yet he is constantly present in the memories of his friend, 34-year-old narrator Christof Nowy, a man who feels that to have a woman in his arms is “a kind of deliverance.” As students, Garta and Nowy had developed “the most charming fellowship, untainted by the slightest touch of vanity or pretense.” “They had no secrets from each other.” Some in their circle murmured that Garta was the genius, and Nowy the mediocrity. “It was a verdict with which Christof would have heartily agreed; but he did not understand why he should be compared or contrasted with the friend he so loved and admired.” Garta, given to flashes of irony, offered Nowy a source of steadiness and consolation. Garta made him feel that “he could look calmly on the tumult of the world.” “His whole behavior,” Nowy says of Garta, “down to the smallest detail, even if you only watch the way he brushes his hair, is based on the belief that there is . . . a mode of life which is right, thorough, clean, and unshakably natural.”
Nowy cannot reconcile himself to Garta’s death. “His utter integrity,” Nowy says, “marvelous as it was, led to nothing. I warned him, I struggled to save him. There is no doubt—he died of his devotion to perfection.” Nowy “had taken charge of all Garta’s literary remains, as, indeed, Garta had requested him to do, with the proviso that they should all be destroyed.”
Nowy, like his author, defies the request, “in view of the inestimable value he attached to Garta’s writings.” Nowy says that Garta “made the ultimate demands on himself; as he had failed, his writings, that were but steps that exalted height, had no value for him. He, indeed, but he alone, had the right to despise them in this way.” Nowy decides to keep Garta’s papers in his safe, having concluded “that in our time the Saint could only show himself thus incompletely.”
Unable to save his friend in life, Nowy endeavors to save Garta in death. To orchestrate the “fight for the spiritual legacy of his dead friend,” he boards a steamer to Palestine to find Garta’s younger brother, a pioneer living in a Communist settlement in the Jezreel Valley near Mount Gilboa, “a noble example of that integrity which Garta had so worshiped.” (“Kafka’s fundamental attitude,” Brod writes elsewhere, “was that of the chalutz, the pioneer.” In 1918, Kafka had sketched his vision of frugal life in a socialist kibbutz in a piece called “Workers without Possessions,” envisioning a diet of bread, water, and dates. “Any existing possessions should be given to the state for the construction of hospitals [and] homes,” Kafka wrote.)
In the novel’s closing scene, the brother reveals that Garta had not only confessed the desire to settle in Palestine (a Zionist who never physically made it to Zion), but had left at his death a mass of manuscripts in Hebrew—“as much as in German.” Nowy resolves to return to Europe to edit his friend’s posthumous papers.
Beset by a guilty conscience, Brod used his fiction to seek Kafka’s blessing from beyond the grave.
Adapted from Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy by Benjamin Balint. Copyright © 2018 by Benjamin Balint. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.