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“What Excuse Do I Have for Having Written Nothing Yet Today? None.” Glimpses Into Kafka’s Workshop

Ross Benjamin on Translating Franz Kafka’s Diaries

Franz Kafka so enthralled the twentieth-century literary imagination that he came to be seen as the representative genius of the modern age. To this day an ever-expanding cosmos of secondary literature swirls around his work. At the same time, scholars have widely acknowledged that this work is too singular and elusive to be subject to any reductive interpretation. After all, how far can analytical methods be applied to fiction that borrows its logic from the liminal space between waking and dreaming?

Often writing deep into the night, Kafka explored this unstable and destabilizing terrain in stories that have long been enshrined in the pantheon of modern literature. Yet his vision, idiom, and sensibility did not appear fully formed from the outset. Rather they were wrought and wrestled into being in the same arena where many writers enact the drama of linguistic self-creation—in his notebooks.

Between 1909 and 1923, Kafka kept various notebooks that he called his Tagebücher, or “diaries.” In the pages of these notebooks, he inter­spersed many different kinds of writing: entries recording daily events, reflections, and observations; literary sketches; drafts of letters, reviews, and other texts; accounts of dreams; autobiographical recollections; impressions, synopses, and critical considerations of books, plays, and other cultural events and phenomena; descriptions of people with whom he was acquainted or crossed paths, particularly their physical appear­ances, gestures, clothing, habits of speech and communication; exami­nations of his own bodily states and symptoms, moods and perceptions, inner conflicts and predicaments; outbursts of anguish and bouts of self-torment; outlines for planned works; excerpts from his reading mate­rial; snapshots of his urban environment, his family and office spheres, and the social and cultural milieus in which he moved; sporadic jottings; enigmatic aphorisms; and all-but-finished prose pieces and stories.

In these disparate writings the line between life and literature can­not be sharply drawn. Often it cannot be determined in a given pas­sage whether Kafka is registering a private experience, crafting fiction, or transforming the one into the other. He worked on his diary entries with unvarying literary intensity, revising, adding, cutting, correcting. His impulse to give artistic shape to what he wrote apparently made no distinctions.

Kafka’s diaries therefore have far more than biographical value. While they illuminate a great deal about his world as a German-speaking Jewish writer in Prague—and as a son, a brother, a friend, a lover, an employee, a reader, a patron of theatrical and other cultural venues, a frequenter of coffeehouses and other establishments, an ob­server of and participant in contemporary trends and movements, an occasional traveler—they also go beyond our interest in the man and his time: On every page they reveal the writer at work.

My translation of Kafka’s diaries offers English-speaking readers for the first time the complete text on the basis of the German critical edi­tion published in 1990 by S. Fischer Verlag and edited by Hans-Gerd Koch. The sole previous English version, first published in 1948–49, is based on an outdated, bowdlerized German edition prepared by Kaf­ka’s literary executor Max Brod, who had been Kafka’s closest friend, had recognized and encouraged his gifts early on, and—since Brod was the more prolific, better-known, and better-connected writer of the two—had been instrumental in the publication and promotion of Kafka’s work during his lifetime. The critical edition not only restores the unexpurgated text of the diaries but also redresses other significant inadequacies, inaccuracies, and distortions of the Brod edition.

Besides omitting or altering the names of and details about people still living at the time of the book’s publication, Brod excised texts that could be considered literary works and indiscriminately suppressed pas­sages of a sexual nature. In particular, he removed anything with a tinge of homoeroticism. He also manipulated the diaries in several places that presumably seemed to him to reflect unfavorably on himself or Kafka. Recent scholarship, such as Saul Friedländer’s Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, has drawn on the deleted passages to explore new ave­nues of interpretation. The emergence of fresh, provocative research on writings nowhere to be found in English suggests that the translation of the uncensored diaries is overdue.

By following the critical edition, my translation not only provides sub­stantial new content but also reproduces the form in which Kafka wrote the diary entries. Unlike the Brod edition, which imposed an artificial chronology on the entries, the critical edition retains the sequence as it appears in the notebooks, because Kafka went back and forth between several of them at the same time, without dating every piece of writing. With this translation, English-speaking readers thus have at their dis­posal a faithful reconstruction in printed form of Kafka’s handwritten diary entries, giving them insight into his praxis.

This sense of getting a glimpse into Kafka’s workshop is enhanced by certain rough edges in the original manuscripts that the critical edition deliberately refrains from smoothing out, including fragments, however truncated, cryptic, or seemingly marginal; nonstandard and omitted punctuation; orthographic errors, unorthodoxies, and inconsistencies; occasionally awkward, convoluted, and even mangled syntax; repeti­tions; abbreviations; contractions; regionalisms; slips of the pen; and other linguistic idiosyncrasies and departures from conventional High German. I have attempted to preserve such elements wherever possible in my translation in an effort to give English-speaking readers a feel for Kafka’s writing as he set it down on the page.

*

EXCERPT FROM FIRST NOTEBOOK

At last after five months of my life in which nothing I wrote could satisfy me and for which no power will compensate me, though all would be obligated to do so, it occurs to me to speak to myself once again. When I really asked myself a question, I still responded, here there was still some­thing to be wrested from me, from this heap of straw that I have been for five months and whose fate, it seems, is to be set alight in the summer and to burn away before the spectator can blink. If only that would hap­pen to me! And it should happen to me ten times over, for I don’t even regret the unhappy time. My condition is not unhappiness, but it’s not happiness either, not indifference not weakness, not fatigue, not interest in anything else, so what is it then? The fact that I don’t know is prob­ably connected with my inability to write. And this is something I think I understand without knowing its cause. For whatever things occur to me occur not from the root, but beginning somewhere toward their middle. Just let someone try to hold them, let someone try to hold and cling to a blade of grass that only starts growing from the middle. Perhaps some can, Japanese acrobats, for example, who climb a ladder that isn’t resting on the ground but on the upturned soles of a partner lying on his back and isn’t leaning against a wall but goes straight up into the air. This is more than I can manage, not to mention the fact that my ladder doesn’t have even those soles at its disposal. That’s not all, of course, and such a question still isn’t enough to make me speak. But each day at least one line should be pointed at me as people are now pointing telescopes at the comet. And if I would then appear once before that sentence, lured by that sentence, as I was last Christmas, for example, when I had gone so far that I could only barely contain myself and when I really seemed to be on the last rung of my ladder, which, however, stood steadily on the ground and against the wall. But what a ground! what a wall! And yet that ladder didn’t fall, so firmly did my feet press it against the ground, so firmly did my feet raise it against the wall.

 

Today, for example, I committed three impertinences, toward a conduc­tor, toward a superior of mine, well there were only 2, but they’re plagu­ing me like stomach pains. Coming from anyone they would have been impertinences, all the more so coming from me. Thus I went outside myself, fought in the air in the mist and worst of all no one noticed that I committed, had to commit, the impertinence as an impertinence toward my companions too, had to bear the right expression, the responsibility; but the most awful thing was when one of my acquaintances took this impertinence not as a sign of a certain character but as the character itself, called my attention to my impertinence and admired it. Why don’t I stay within myself? To be sure, I now tell myself: look, the world lets you strike it, the conductor and your superior remained calm as you left, the latter even said goodbye. But that means nothing. You can attain noth­ing when you abandon yourself, but what do you miss anyhow in your circle. To this speech I respond only: I too would rather receive a beating within the circle than myself give a beating outside it, but where the devil is this circle? For a while I did see it lying on the earth, as if sprayed there with lime, but now it just hovers around me, indeed doesn’t even hover.

*

EXCERPT FROM SECOND NOTEBOOK

16 (December 1910)    I will no longer abandon the diary. Here I must hold on, for only here can I.

I would like to explain the feeling of happiness that I have within me from time to time as I do right now. It’s really something effervescent that fills me completely with a slight pleasant tremor and that persuades me of abilities of whose nonexistence I can convince myself with abso­lute certainty at any moment even now.

___________

Hebbel praises Justinus Kerner “Reiseschatten”

“And a book like this scarcely exists, no one knows it”

___________

Die Strasse der Verlassenheit by W. Fred. How are such books written? A man who on a small scale achieves something capable here stretches his talent into the large scale of a novel in so pitiful a way that one becomes ill even if one doesn’t forget to admire the energy in the mistreatment of his own talent.

___________

This pursuit of secondary characters I read about in novels, plays, etc. This sense of belonging together I then have! In the “Jungfern von Bischofsberg” (is that what it’s called?) there’s mention of two seam­stresses who make the linen for the one bride in the play. How are these 2 girls doing? Where do they live? What have they done that they are not permitted to come along into the play but veritably drowning in the downpours outside Noah’s Ark are permitted only to press their faces one last time against a cabin window so that the patron in the orchestra sees something dark there for a moment.

___________

17 (December 1910)    Zeno answered an urgent question as to whether nothing ever rests: Yes the flying arrow rests

___________

If the French by their nature were Germans, how much more they would then be admired by the Germans.

___________

That I’ve put aside and crossed out so much, indeed almost every­thing I’ve written this year, that definitely also hinders me a great deal from writing. Indeed it’s a mountain, it’s 5 times as much as I have ever written and by its mass alone it pulls everything I write away from under my pen to itself

___________

18 (December 1910)    If it weren’t beyond doubt that the reason I leave letters (even those expected to contain nothing of significance, like one right now) unopened for a while is only weakness and cowardice, which hesitate to open a letter just as they would hesitate to open the door of a room in which a person, perhaps impatient by now, is waiting for me, then one could explain this leaving unopened of letters much better still by thoroughness. That is, assuming I am a thorough person, then I must try to prolong as far as possible everything concerning the letter, thus open it slowly, read it slowly and many times, think about it for a long time, prepare the clean copy with many drafts and finally hesitate even to send it off. All this lies in my power, only the sudden receipt of the letter itself cannot be avoided. Well I slow down even that in an artificial way, I don’t open it for a long time, it lies on the table in front of me, it constantly offers itself to me, I constantly receive it, but don’t take it.

___________

Aesthete

___________

evening ½ past 11.     That I, as long as I am not freed from my office, am simply lost, that is clear to me above all, it’s only a matter of holding my head as long as possible high enough that I don’t drown. How hard that will be, what powers it will have to draw out of me is apparent in the mere fact that today I didn’t adhere to my new schedule, to be at my desk from 8–11 in the evening, that at present I don’t even regard this as such a great misfortune, that I have only hastily jotted down these few lines in order to get into bed.

19 (December 1910)     Began to work in the office. Afternoon at Max’s.

Read Goethe’s diaries a little. The distance captures this life already calmed, these diaries set fire to it. The clarity of all the events makes them mysterious, just as a park fence gives the eye rest in contemplation of vast fields of grass and yet inspires our inferior respect.

Just now my married sister is coming to visit us for the first time.

20 (December 1910)    What excuse do I have for yesterday’s remark on Goethe (which is almost as untrue as the feeling described by it, for the real one was driven away by my sister)? None. What excuse do I have for having written nothing yet today? None. Especially since my disposition isn’t the worst. I constantly have an invocation in my ear: “If you would come, invisible tribunal!”

___________

So that these false passages, which won’t leave the story at any price, finally give me peace I write two here:

“His breaths were loud like sighs over a dream in which unhappiness is easier to bear than in our world, so that simple breaths are already sufficient sighing.”

___________

“Now I surveyed him as unhindered as one surveys a small puzzle game about which one says to oneself: “What does it matter that I can’t get the little balls into their hollows, everything belongs to me, after all, the glass, the frame, the little balls and whatever else there is; this whole contrivance I can simply stick in my pocket.”

21 (December 1910)   Oddities from “The Exploits of Alexander the Great” by Mikhail Kuzmin:

“Child whose upper half was dead, lower alive,” “child’s corpse with moving little red legs”

“the impure kings Gog and Magog, who fed on worms and flies, he drove into cracked cliffs and sealed them in until the end of the world with the seal of Solomon”

“stone rivers, where instead of water stones rolled with a roar, past the sand brooks that flow for 3 days toward the south and for 3 days toward the north”

Amazons, women with burnt-off right breasts, short hair, men’s footgear

Crocodiles that burned down trees with their urine

___________

Was at Baum’s, heard such beautiful things. I frail as before and always. To have the feeling of being bound and at the same time the other, that if one were unbound it would be even worse.

22 (December 1910)    Today I don’t even dare reproach myself. Shouted into this empty day it would have a disgusting echo.

___________

24 (December 1910)    Now I have taken a closer look at my desk and real­ized that nothing good can be done on it. There’s so much lying around here, forming a disorder without regularity and without any compat­ibility of the disordered things, which otherwise makes every disorder bearable. Let there be whatever disorder there may on the green cloth, the same was allowed in the orchestra of old theaters. But the fact that from the standing room

25 (December 1910)     from the open compartment under the upper part of the desk there are brochures, old newspapers, catalogues picture post­cards, letters, all partly torn, partly opened coming out in the form of a staircase, this undignified state spoils everything. Individual relatively huge things in the orchestra appear in the greatest possible activity, as if it were permitted in the auditorium of the theater for the merchant to put his account books in order, the carpenter to hammer, the officer to brandish his saber, the priest to speak to the heart, the scholar to the intellect, the politician to the public spirit, for lovers not to restrain them­selves, etc. Only on my desk the shaving mirror stands upright, the way one needs it for shaving, the clothes brush lies with its bristle surface on the cloth, the wallet lies open in case I want to pay, from the key ring a key sticks out ready for work and the tie is still partly looped around the taken-off collar. The next higher open compartment, already hemmed in by the small closed side drawers, is nothing but a junk room, as if the low balcony of the auditorium, basically the most visible part of the the­ater were reserved for the most vulgar people for old bon vivants, among whom the filth gradually comes from the inside to the outside, coarse fellows who let their feet hang down over the balcony railing, families with so many children that one takes only a brief glance without being able to count them introduce here the filth of poor nurseries (indeed there’s already a trickling in the orchestra) in the dark background sit incurably sick people, fortunately one sees them only when one shines a light in, etc. In this compartment lie old papers I would have long since thrown away if I had a wastepaper basket, pencils with broken points, an empty matchbox, a paperweight from Karlsbad, a ruler with an edge the bumpiness of which would be too awful for a country road, many collar buttons, dull razorblades (for them there is no place in the world), tie clips and another heavy iron paperweight. In the compartment above—

Wretched, wretched and yet well meant. Yes, it’s midnight, but since I’ve slept very well, that is an excuse only insofar as during the day I would have written nothing at all. The burning electric light, the silent apartment, the darkness outside, the last waking moments they give me the right to write and be it even the most wretched things. And this right I use hastily. So that’s who I am.

___________

26 (December 1910)     two ½ days I was—though not completely—alone and already I am, if not transformed, nonetheless on the way. Being alone has a power over me that never fails. My interior loosens (for the time being only superficially) and is ready to let something deeper emerge. A slight order of my interior begins to establish itself and I need nothing more, for disorder in the case of small abilities is the worst.

27 (December 1910)    I don’t have enough strength for another sentence. Yes, if it were a matter of words, if it sufficed to set down a word and one could turn away in the calm consciousness of having filled this word completely with oneself.

___________

I slept part of the afternoon away, while I was awake I lay on the sofa, thought about some love experiences from my youth, lingered with annoyance over a missed opportunity (at the time I was lying in bed with a slight cold and my governess read me “The Kreuzer Sonata,” knowing how to enjoy my excitement), imagined the vegetarian supper, was satisfied with my digestion and worried about whether my eyesight would suffice for my whole life.

___________

28 (December 1910)     When I have behaved humanly for a few hours, as today with Max and later at Baum’s, it’s enough to make me haughty before bedtime

3 I11

“You” I said and then gave him a little push with my knee. “I want to say goodbye.” With this sudden burst of speech some saliva flew out of my mouth as a bad omen.

“But you’ve been considering that for a long time” he said stepped away from the wall and stretched.

No. I haven’t been considering it at all.

Then what have you been thinking about?

I’ve been preparing myself for the last time for the social gathering. However hard you try, you won’t understand it. I, just some man from the provinces, whom one can exchange at any moment for one of those people standing together by the hundreds in front of railroad stations after particular trains

4 I 11    “Glaube und Heimat” by Schönherr.

The wet fingers of the gallery patrons below me, who wipe their eyes.

6 I 11

“You” I said, aimed and gave him a little push with my knee, but now I’m going. If you want to see it happen, open your eyes

So you’re going after all? he asked, looking at me with wide-open eyes, his gaze direct but nonetheless so weak that I could have fended it off with a wave of my arm. So you are. What am I supposed to do? I can’t stop you. And even if I could, I don’t want to. By which I only want to set you straight about your feeling that you could still be held back by me. And immediately he put on the face of low servants with which they are permitted in an otherwise regulated state to make the master’s children obedient or afraid

7 I 11     Max’s sister, who is so in love with her groom that she tries to arrange things so as to speak with each visitor individually, since one can better express and repeat oneself about one’s love to an individual

7 I 11    As if by magic, for neither external nor internal circumstances, which are now more congenial than they have been for a year hindered me, I was kept from writing all through the free day, it’s a Sunday.—Some new insights into the creature of unhappiness that I am have con­solingly dawned on me.

___________

You I said, aimed and gave him a little push with my knee, open your eyes, I want to say goodbye. With this sudden burst of speech some saliva flew out of my mouth as a bad omen.

So you’re going after all he said and looked at me with a gaze that ran over my face several times but seemed to meet me only by chance, since I could have fended it off with a wave of my arm.

12 I 11    I haven’t written much about myself in recent days, partly out of laziness (I now sleep so much and so soundly during the day, I have a greater weight while asleep) but also partly out of fear of betraying my self-knowledge. This fear is justified, for one’s self-knowledge should be fixed once and for all in writing only when this could be done in the greatest completeness extending to all incidental consequences as well as with total truthfulness. For if this is not done—and I’m certainly not capable of it—then what has been written down, in accordance with its own intention and with the superior power of what has been fixed, replaces what has been merely generally felt only in such a way that the real feeling fades, while the worthlessness of what has been noted down is recognized too late.

__________________________

Franz Kafka, tr. Ross Benjamin, The Diaries of Franz Kafka

Excerpted from The Diaries of Franz Kafka, by Franz Kafka; Translated by Ross Benjamin. Copyright © 2023 by Franz Kafka; Translated by Ross Benjamin. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Ross Benjamin
Ross Benjamin
Ross Benjamin’s translations include Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion (Archipelago Books, 2008), Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew (Melville House, 2008), Joseph Roth’s Job (Archipelago, 2010), Clemens J. Setz’s Indigo (Liveright, 2014), Daniel Kehlmann’s You Should Have Left (Pantheon, 2017) and Tyll (Pantheon, 2020), and Franz Kafka’s Diaries (Schocken, 2023). He is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow. His translation of Tyll was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker International Prize. He was awarded the 2010 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize for his rendering of Michael Maar's Speak, Nabokov (Verso Books, 2009), a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship to translate Clemens J. Setz's The Frequencies, and a commendation from the judges of the 2012 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for his translation of Thomas Pletzinger's Funeral for a Dog (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011). His literary criticism has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The Nation, and other publications.





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