March 27, 2019

Sitting on Kafka’s Left Arm: A Journey Through the Diaries

By Stuart Mitchner

Say you’re on a dream tour of literary capitals. Instead of London, you get off the train in the ramshackle world of Dickens. Instead of Paris, you disembark in the swarming, exciting metropolis of Balzac. Each time your expectations will be satsfied and exceeded by a variety of metropolitan possibilities. But if the train stops at Kafka, it’s another, darker story. The skies will be grey, if not drizzling, the wind will be stiff and harsh, the station will have a dreary, haunted look, and two men in overcoats will intercept you before you have a chance to get your bearings. They want your papers, only you have the wrong papers it seems. But who’s complaining? This is  the scene the guidebook promised. It’s only a dream, so enjoy your stay in Kafka, even if you don’t get out alive or in your right mind.

But imagine arriving in the sunlit splendor of another city with the same name, the station lined with smiling booksellers whose carts are stocked with volumes rich and strange. The station master not only shakes your hand, he gives you a hug. Everyone’s glad to see you. The girl driving the cab that takes you to your hotel is unthinkably charming, speaks English with an adorable accent, and offers to show you around town (by now the rain is gently falling), no strings attached, no design on your wallet. Would you be disappointed? Ask for your money back? Well, maybe.

Inspired by a Mistake

Just putting Kafka’s name at the top of this column is the equivalent of saying, “Close the curtains and prepare to be unnerved.” And it’s true that I’m returning to what might be called the scene of the crime, since a mistake is what set everything in motion. In my March 13 piece on Stanley Corngold’s new book Walter Kaufmann:Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic, I incorrectly attributed a quotation from Kafka to the “Letter to His Father” when in fact, the passage comes from Dearest Father (1953), a collection of writings centered on that famously unsent letter.

My atonement has been to read around in Kafka’s short fiction, sample some chapters from Amerika, his unfinished first novel (as are they all), and, in particular, plunge at random into The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923, edited by his close friend  and executor Max Brod. As with the diary entries, I found the quotation in question at random, as if by accident, in the notes at the back of Corngold’s book. Here it is again: “I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me. But if, for instance, I read a good book, say, an account of travels, it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me….From a certain stage of knowledge on, weariness, insufficiency, constriction, self-contempt must all vanish: namely at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature what previously was something alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.”

What struck me about the passage was how open and responsive Kafka seems even as he speaks of eternity, constriction and self-contempt. He appears to be a most likeable fellow, maybe not “the most happy,” but interesting, complicated, and worth getting to know outside the boundaries of his fiction. That’s the appeal of the Diaries, the “thirteen quarto notebooks” Max Brod describes in his postscript. While I’m doing my best to avoid comparing the experience to a trip (nothing psychedelic intended), in a way that’s what it’s like and that may be why I began with the imaginary train ride. As Brod points out, in the travel entries “a relatively brighter mood prevails,” and “occurences and experiences are noted in bare matter-of-fact fashion … just as a tourist would do.” It’s necessary for Brod to add, “Of course, this tourist is Franz Kafka, and though his manner of observing things seems thoroughly natural, in a mysterious way it departs from everything customary.”

Here’s an example of how it is if you’re on board with the diaries. On Feb. 2, 1922, after referring to an imminent “decision between insanity and security,” Kafka makes note of the “happiness of being with people,” and sets the sentence off, all by itself. In the next entry, Feb. 3: “Almost impossible to sleep; plagued by dreams, as if they were being scratched on me, on a stubborn material.” (If you’ve just been reading “In the Penal Colony,” it’s almost a given that you’re going to envision the marathon execution in which the needles of the harrow finish “the first draft of the inscription” on the condemned man’s back.)

Kafka’s thinking of people again two days later: “Escape them. Any kind of nimble leap. At home beside the lamp in the silent room. Incautious to say this. It calls them out of the woods as if one had lit the lamp to help them find the way.”

Imagine that beautifully phrased moment in Kafka’s private life being consigned to flames, never to be read by people in the 21st or any other century but for Brod’s refusal to obey his friend’s death-bed decree to destroy all his writings.

The Red Cross Nurse

One night before I went to sleep I read and reread this entry referring to a late April 1915 journey by train to Vienna and Budapest: “Red Cross nurse. Very certain and determined. Traveled as if she were a whole family sufficient to itself. She smoked cigarettes and walked up and down the corridor like a father; like a boy she jumped up on the seat to get something out of her knapsack; like a mother she carefully  sliced the meat, the bread, the orange; like a flirtatious girl — what she really was — she showed off her pretty little feet, her yellow boots and the yellow stockings on her trim legs against the opposite seat.” Though he can see she “would have no objection to being spoken to,” Kafka is reluctant to ask her questions (“as she expected me to”), in spite of the fact that he “rather liked her.” There it is, people come and go, people he rather likes (his sister didn’t like her at all), and when he  finally speaks, it’s “a stupid remark, but one very characteristic of me — servile, sly, irrelevant, impersonal, unsympathetic, untrue, fetched from far off, from some ultimate diseased tendency.” The nurse “did not hear the remark, or ignored it. My sister naturally understood it quite in the sense in which I made it, and by laughing made it her own.”

That night I had pleasant dreams for the first time in months, the last time having been after reading Blake’s Songs of Innocence at bedtime. Otherwise the dreams have all been about small frustrations and misconceptions, all in the shadow of the abiding frustration, the Great Mistake of Election Night 2016.

On Strindberg’s Breast

I thought again of Kafka’s words about how a good book rouses, satisfies, and suffices him when reading two entries from early May 1915. On May 3, writing of Strindberg’s book Separated (presumably one of the autobiographical works said to have had an influence on Kafka): “what he calls beautiful, when I relate it to myself, disgusts me.” On May 4, still about Strindberg: “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.”

So here we sit on Kafka’s left arm, like children, close to but never quite slipping off.

The Great Mistake

Given what’s been going on in the so-called real world since Sunday’s bombshell, I’m thinking of a political parable that might begin “Once upon a time a Great Mistake was Made,” then maybe something about the nation anxiously awaiting a Great Correction in the form of a Report that, if the author of The Trial were writing it, would never be delivered, or else would be unintelligible or inconclusive or put in the hands of an official hired to further amplify the mistake.

In Diaries 1914-1923, among the alternate endings for “In the Penal Colony,” this is what Kafka jotted down on August 8, 1917, an entry that has resonance in the interminable aftermath of November 2016: “Had something been forgotten? A word? A turn? An adjustment? Very likely. Very probably. A gross error in the calculation, a fundamental misconception, the whole thing is going wrong. But who will set it right? Where is the man who will set it right?”