Life & Culture

The Diaries by Franz Kafka review: Into Kafka’s workshop

New translation of the diary of a literary giant provides an insight into his unique artistry


The Diaries by Franz Kafka
Translated by Ross Benjamin
Shocken Books, $45.00

In 1911, a Polish-Yiddish theatre company visited Prague. In the audience was an aspiring writer named Franz Kafka, who became acquainted with the troupe, striking up a close friendship with the actor Yitzchak Löwy.

Löwy, a former yeshivah student, liked to relate fragments of Talmudic lore, including the following, which Kafka noted in his diary, as translated by Ross Benjamin: “A rabbi in the Talmud had the principle, in this case very pleasing to God, to accept nothing, not even a glass of water from anyone. But now it happened that the greatest rabbi of his time wanted to meet him and so invited him to a meal.

To decline the invitation of such a man, that wasn’t possible. The first rabbi therefore set off sadly. But because his principle was so strong, a mountain thrust itself between the two rabbis.

Talmud Tractate Chulin, chapter 7b is the source of this story, but it is hard to believe that Kafka has given a verbatim report of what he was told.

The preoccupations with alienation and disconnection, the undercurrent of melancholy, the beautiful timing of that surreal concluding image, all indicate that Kafka took whatever his friend related to him and made it his own.

Kafka’s surviving diaries cover the years 1910-23, the period in which he wrote all the works for which he is now known. An integral part of his writing, they give us an extraordinarily close view of the author’s creative practice.

At the same time, as the passage just quoted illustrates, they can help us understand the extent to which he was invested in Judaism and Jewish culture, a dimension of his work that is easily overshadowed by his posthumous reputation as a major figure of world literature.

When Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, posthumously published the Diaries, he not only ignored Kafka’s dying wish that they be destroyed, but he also drastically reshaped them with extensive cuts, emendations of the syntax and grammar, and an invented chronological ordering.

Basing his translation on Hans Gerd-Koch’s critical edition of the unexpurgated German original, Benjamin gives us something much closer to the notebooks Kafka handed over to Brod.

The text is less polished than Brod’s version, but it presents Kafka’s creativity more faithfully as he reworked passages, or made rough notes of his impressions, or composed fragments of larger, sometimes well-known works.

Benjamin’s description of the Diaries as Kafka’s “workshop” is well warranted. At the same time, the Diaries show that Kafka saw himself in important respects as a Jewish writer. He was deeply ambivalent about Jewish civilisation.

Benjamin and some other commentators have argued that Brod left out many passages that he thought presented Kafka in an unfavourable light, including supposed slurs on eastern European Jews.

In fact, Kafka was an unflinching observer of both the western and eastern communities, with a keen eye for the hypocrisies of the former and the material poverty common in the latter. Yet he noted in 1911 that “the [Jewish] people remain, and I cling to them”.

Nothing if not self-analytical, he could nevertheless respond warmly to sentimental Yiddish drama and worried about the generation for whom Jewish ritual was becoming “merely historical”.

He was not merely dependent on Löwy for occasional Talmudic titbits but read widely in Jewish history and literature, reflecting at length on the expressive possibilities for Jewish artists.

Benjamin makes an immense contribution by translating Gerd-Koch’s annotations (more than 1,400 in number) into English, giving Anglophone readers a detailed picture of Kafka’s many Jewish connections and his extensive reading of Jewish literature.

This new translation offers us an invaluable opportunity to become reacquainted with Kafka, providing insight into his unique artistry and setting him in his social and cultural context, of which Judaism was a central feature.

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