In English for the first time, the author’s journals in their original, unexpurgated state.
The Diaries of Franz Kafka, by Franz Kafka, translated by Ross Benjamin, Schocken Books, 670 pages, $45
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Until now, the version of Franz Kafka’s diaries available to English-speaking readers was a translation that his best friend and executor, Max Brod, composed from hundreds of pages of notes he had found in twelve journals, which was published in 1948, twenty-four years after the author’s death. And I say “composed” because, out of these disordered fragments, Brod extracted a more or less continuous discourse from which emerged the well-defined image of a writer consumed by the conflict between the demands of his social environment and the desire to devote himself to writing with a superhuman exclusivity and intensity. Thanks to a new translation by Ross Benjamin of the German critical edition (1990) that faithfully transcribes the contents of these twelve journals, we now have access to the disorder itself: Kafka’s reflections on his life and descriptions of this or that evening spent at the theater, a lecture, or a brothel, plus dreams described with singular fierceness, peek out from a much larger mass of incomplete sketches of stories and chapters of novels, which Brod had streamlined. What do we gain and lose in the passage from one version to the other?
The old diaries were one weapon in Brod’s campaign to raise Kafka’s work to the highest rungs of the modern literary canon. Along with them, his arsenal contained three novels (which he found in different stages of completion) and numerous shorter narratives. Brod also offered a general framework of interpretation of the corpus in a peculiarly hagiographic biography. The campaign triumphed; as the twentieth century progressed, Kafka took his place in the pantheon that includes James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust. In Argentina, where I read Kafka for the first time, his name was at the pinnacle (thanks in part to the ardor of Jorge Luis Borges). Every young Argentine intellectual’s library was centered around his books, placed alongside those of Jean-Paul Sartre, another acolyte of Kafka’s work. Brod erected an image of the writer as a quasi-religious figure: a lay saint whose exclusive aim was to immolate himself at his desk so that his martyrdom would release amounts of literary energy such as the world had never seen. In this depiction of Kafka, the mystique of the modern artist reached its apogee.
As the translator of the new version of the diaries tells us in his introduction, the price of Brod’s operation was a mutilation of those elements that did not fit neatly into the myth. Now the mutilated parts have been restored, and the result is a text more faithful to Kafka’s handwriting but also more difficult to read. This is due not to Benjamin’s prose, which is consistently elegant and precise, but to the nature of the edition. The translator notes that Brod had expurgated some sentences where Kafka expressed ambivalence about the Jewish community, as well as others that may suggest a more complex and fluid sexuality than Brod’s biography would lead us to assume, but the restitution of these sentences is not the main concern here. More importantly, Benjamin presents the notebooks as they were written, with the repetitions, opacities, and grammatical errors that are characteristic of the drafts of even the most skilled of writers, and the fragments belong to such a wide range of types that they require a constant readjustment of framework on the part of the reader.
I have not the slightest doubt that this is the edition that should be used in classes where Kafka is taught, and its excellent apparatus of notes will illuminate references that otherwise would be completely illegible. As for the reader looking for pleasure, the decision seems to me a harder one. The tolerance for the provisional, the repetitive, the incomplete that the new diaries demand is an acquired disposition, common among academics and writers but much rarer among nonspecialists, who would likely find it tedious to explore the laboratory of the writing. We will never know what fate would have befallen Kafka’s work had Brod adopted the criteria of fidelity that this translation, justifiably, professes, but it is highly probable that such a strategy would have been far less successful.
Is Brod’s image of Kafka false? Not entirely. In both versions of the notebooks we find a man convinced that his only hope for happiness lies in total servitude to his writing. His conviction is reaffirmed by experiencing states of euphoria and exaltation far superior to those he could obtain from a social and romantic life for which he feels very poorly endowed. Writing is a bit of a drug, or perhaps a practice analogous to meditation, where the subject aims to reach a state of undisturbed attention on his object. And the realization that this ideal is unattainable, except on certain rare occasions, is the reason for the lament one finds all the time in the notebooks: the promise of the ecstasy achieved by the practice of literature, alone in one’s own cabinet, is rarely consummated—but it can be consummated, nonetheless.
Benjamin is aware that Brod once faced a considerable ethical dilemma: his friend entrusted his papers to him with the explicit injunction that Brod should destroy them. Brod always maintained that he had just as explicitly told Kafka he would do no such thing, yet Kafka bequeathed him the papers anyway, in a gesture thus charged with such ambivalence that the executor may well have suspected that the deceased would have, if not approved, at least tolerated the publication of his more-or-less complete narratives. I see no reason to suppose that Kafka would have been particularly happy about the dissemination of the diaries, but I can’t decide which of the two versions would have caused him more horror. Brod’s turns the heterogeneous papers he found into something akin to a finished literary work; the new edition gives us the papers in their very heterogeneity, a collection of traces left behind from a practice conducted with the utmost passion and rigor. It is highly probable that Kafka would have seen both as different betrayals. And in any case, should we care what he may have thought? The answer exceeds the size of a review. Let me just state that from now on, when the desire to read this or that passage of Kafka’s notebooks arises, I will resort to Benjamin’s translation—but I’m glad that my first introduction to them as an adolescent was through Max Brod.
Reinaldo Laddaga is an Argentine writer based in New York. The author of numerous books of narrative and criticism, he taught for many years in the Romance Language Department of the University of Pennsylvania. His latest works are Los hombres de Rusia (The Men from Russia), a novel, and Atlas del eclipse (Atlas of the Eclipse), a book about walking in New York at the height of the COVID crisis.