Reviewed by Louis Begley
The New Republic Online
Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 into an assimilated German-speaking middleclass Jewish family. He died of tuberculosis of the larynx in 1924, just short of his forty-first birthday, in Kierling, a small resort north of Vienna. Except for six months at the very end, when he escaped to Berlin with Dora Diamant, a young Polish-Jewish woman, and some inconsequential vacations, a number of which he spent in sanatoriums, and business travel in Bohemia and adjoining Moravia on behalf of the insurance company for which he worked, Kafka lived out his humdrum life in Prague, proving true the prediction he made at nineteen in a letter to a school friend: "Prague doesn't let go. The old crone has claws. One has to yield."
The "old crone" was the capital of the former Kingdom of Bohemia, a Habsburg possession. After Vienna and Budapest, it ranked as the third most important city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The great majority of Bohemia's population were Czech-speaking ethnic Czechs. German was the language of government and instruction, and of the upper and middle classes; and it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that nationalist Czechs wrested from the Habsburg administration theoretically equal status for their language. The small but ascendant German-speaking minority consisted of ethnic Germans and assimilated Jews. A minority within a minority, the Jews were ringed by the hatred of nationalist Czechs for everything German and by their virulent anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was also commonplace among Christian Germans, but it was of the more "intelligent" sort that, unlike the Czech variety, did not break out in paroxysms of violence and destruction of property. After the defeat of the Central Powers in the fall of 1918, Bohemia became part of the newly independent Republic of Czechoslovakia, and from one day to the next the tables were turned on the German speakers in the land. They were no longer dominant in politics, and their language lost its official status.
Kafka's name is used in its adjectival form around the world by millions of people who have never read a line he wrote: "Kafkaesque" is the universal term for experiences of modern life that leave one anxious, disconcerted, and feeling helpless. It is an odd form of adulation that carries with it the potential for trivializing Kafka's work and its scope. But the grip of Kafka's fiction on readers of all ages seems undiminished and his appeal to scholars seems well nigh universal. His life and work continue to receive an extraordinary amount of attention from critics and literary theorists and historians, who have made the dissection of his texts the center of their careers.
Academic Kafka scholarship -- Kafkology, as Milan Kundera has called it -- would have never gotten off the ground, or would have run out of steam long ago, if Max Brod, Kafka's closest friend and de facto literary executor, had not chosen to disregard Kafka's last instructions, which were to burn, unread, his personal papers: all the manuscripts, diaries, notebooks, letters, and drawings -- he drew very well -- that came into Brod's possession or were in the hands of others. Kafka wanted only the works that were published in his lifetime, which were his only completed works, to stand as his surviving oeuvre. (From these he excluded Contemplation, a slim collection of prose poems published in January, 1913, which he disavowed. He did not wish to put Brod to the trouble of buying such copies of it as still existed and destroying them.) As for documents in the hands of others, he enjoined Brod to "ask for them in my name. Letters which they do not want to hand over to you, they should at least promise faithfully to burn them themselves."
But Brod believed that the "unpublished work contains the most wonderful treasures, and measured against his own work, the best things he has written," and so he decided to destroy nothing. Indeed, he set out to publish as expeditiously as possible the unfinished fiction. Overcoming obstacles that seemed insuperable -- the dire economic and (especially for Jews) political situation in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s -- he succeeded in arranging for the publication by 1937 of the great unfinished novels, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle, the unfinished stories, many of Kafka's letters to his family, friends, and editors, and excerpts from his diaries.
The open question was the fate of Kafka's letters to Felice Bauer, to whom he had been twice engaged, and to Milena Jesenska, his last great love. Not having pressed for their return in the months that followed Kafka's death or for their destruction, Brod lost control over this part of Kafka's estate. Milena died in a German concentration camp. The letters to her were published in Germany in 1952, by a friend to whom she had given them for safekeeping in 1939, just as the German army was entering Prague. Felice managed to escape Germany with her family, moving first to Switzerland and then to the United States. She had taken Kafka's letters with her and sold them in 1955 to Schocken Books, and Schocken published them in 1967. Given Brod's prodigious indiscretion, he too would have probably published both Felice's and Milena's letters. The postwar period saw also the publication by Brod of Kafka's complete diaries as well as the astonishing letter to his father, in its handwritten form more than one hundred pages long, that Kafka wrote in 1919 but never delivered to him.
Thus was constituted the trove of Kafka's painfully personal papers that has since been ransacked by scholars looking for the sources of his inspiration, for the materials that he put to use in his fiction. They have battened by preference on scraps of paper: unconnected pages in his notebooks, for example, of which there are many. Stanley Corngold, one of the editors of The Office Writings, repeats in his contribution to the volume, as though they were an incantation fraught with meaning, the words "You, I said...." taken from a jejune fragment transcribed in 1910 in Kafka's diary. Such Delphic pronouncements from the grave lend themselves with particular ease to fanciful, if not bizarre, interpretations. In the words of Reiner Stach, the author of the most recent comprehensive biography of Kafka, most of the published material resulting from such research "consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka's work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them....It seems like an industry that is an end unto itself...."
And a largely superfluous industry, when one recalls that Kafka was able to gain the admiration of early readers, including Rilke and Musil, Benjamin (perhaps the most astute critic of Kafka's work) and Thomas Mann, Auden and Camus, without any of them having had access to his personal papers, or being aware of more than the barest outline of his life story. The silver lining in this large dark cloud of advanced Kafka studies is that the more extreme conceits of the professors are so rebarbative that there is almost no risk of their coming to the attention of general readers, and thereby interfering with their response to Kafka's art.
Kafka was a lawyer, and his day job was at an insurance company. After receiving, in June 1906, a law degree from the German Ferdinand-Karls Universitat in Prague, he spent nine months as a clerk at the high court in Prague, and, in the spring of 1907, he went to work for the Prague branch of Assicurazioni Generali, a large international insurance company based in Trieste. Work conditions at Assicurazioni were egregiously unpleasant, and Kafka quit after less than a year, giving as his reason the poor state of his health. On July 30, 1908, he succeeded in obtaining a position in the technical department of the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague, having prepared for this job by attending from the beginning of February until the end of May evening courses on workmen's insurance offered at the Prague Academy of Commerce (Prager Handelsakademie).
The Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia was a semi-governmental institution, the most important and the largest of seven such entities in Austria, created pursuant to a law of 1887 that an imperial decree made effective in 1889. Owing to the rapidity and the success of Bohemia's industrialization -- the "Bohemian miracle" -- driven in large part by the talent and the capital of newly emancipated Bohemian Jews, the economy of Bohemia had considerable weight in the empire. In 1911, for example, the Prague Institute insured more than 720,000 workers, or about one-third of Austria's entire industrial capacity.
It was inevitable that the intense scholarly interest in every detail relating Kafka and his sources would extend to the legal documents on which he worked at the Institute. While the Institute's files seem to have survived both the destruction of World War II and the subsequent turmoil in Czechoslovakia and Austria, and are available in state archives in Prague and Vienna, it is not always evident whether Kafka was the author of a particular document. Some were signed by Kafka, but many texts believed to have been written by him were signed by his superiors, as would be normal in a large and rigidly hierarchical organization. Sometimes an attribution is possible because Kafka had referred to a particular document item in his correspondence or diary. In more ambiguous instances, scholars have relied instead on their sense that a particular legal document shows traces of Kafka's style.
Surely the validity of that latter method of attribution is questionable. The employees at the Prague office of the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia were, ironically enough, a rather literary group. Eugen Lederer, the director of the accident division, published poetry in Czech. Alois Gutling, who occupied an office adjoining Kafka's and over the course of several years helped him with technical and statistical calculations, published three volumes of poetry in German. The director, Robert Marschner, was passionate about Heine's poetry and was the author of prize-winning studies of Goethe also written in German. There were other highly literate employees of the Institute as well, and it is reasonable to suppose that they were all capable of writing decent German prose.
Moreover, insurance company documents, including those that are known to have been written by Kafka, are of a mind-numbing dullness, a characteristic they share with most legal texts on insurance law and its application. The documents composed by Kafka show certainly that he knew how to marshal and to organize facts, to present arguments, and, within the limits of the particular assignment, to write effectively and clearly about his subject. Given his high intelligence and his mastery of German prose, how could it have been otherwise? But to say that these tedious writings bear the mark of a great master is far-fetched. Indeed, given Kafka's enormous subtlety and skill in expression, he surely found it appropriate, and perhaps even amusing, to conform to the Institute's "house style." Some of the time he was, in effect, writing pastiches.
An introduction to Kafka's office writings has been available to general readers brave enough to wade through opaque legal verbiage since the appearance in 1958 of Klaus Wagenbach's biography of young Kafka, Franz Kafka: Eine Biographie seiner Jugend (1883-1912), or Franz Kafka: a Biography of his Youth (1883-1912), which has appended to it three of Kafka's contributions to the Institute's annual reports and an article on workmen's compensation issues that he published in a provincial newspaper. An ample selection of his professional papers can be found in the late Klaus Hermsdorf's German edition of the office writings, which appeared in 1984. Included in it are the heartbreaking letters written by Kafka in the years 1918-1924, requesting ever-longer sick leaves and, in the end, the right to retire by reason of disability. Among other memorabilia of interest are Kafka's university transcript showing the courses he attended, and a detailed tabulation of his promotions and compensation through the last change of status, his retirement. The addressee of the first of the letters occasioned by the progress of his illness is his friend and direct superior Eugen Pfohl, to whom Kafka always referred as his chief. It is dated November 25, 1918. Then, practically overnight, Pfohl and the poetry-loving director of the Institute, Robert Marschner, with whom Kafka used to read Heine, disappeared. They were dismissed from the Institute by the new ethnic Czech majority of the board of directors, and replaced by ethnic Czechs.
All the subsequent letters are in Czech. Although Kafka wrote Czech well, he had these documents reviewed, and sometimes written from scratch, by his ethnic Czech brother-in-law in order to avoid mistakes that might have offended his new superiors who prided themselves on the purity of their Czech.
Hermsdorf's book should serve as a model for such works. His long essay introducing the professional papers is enlightening, modest, refreshingly free of jargon and literary theory, and sensitive to the beauty of Kafka's work. An enlarged and gussied-up critical edition of Amtliche Schriften appeared in 2004, with Hermsdorf and Benno Wagner as co-editors. None of these works has been translated into English, and the excellent Wagenbach biography is out of print. But now eighteen of Kafka's professional papers are available in English as The Office Writings, a smaller selection than Hermsdorf's, put together by Stanley Corngold, Benno Wagner, and Jack Greenberg, and competently translated by Eric Patton with Ruth Hein. It is at least theoretically possible that a non-professional reader unversed in Kafka's biography may stumble on this work and read it. For this reason, some background information about Kafka and his experience of office life may be useful to such a reader as a vaccine against the claims to be encountered in this book.
Kafka did not become a lawyer because the study of law interested him, or because he had any intention of practicing law. He went to the university because young men of his milieu were expected to get a degree unless they were going into the family business. The latter solution was impossible: as Kafka wrote in his Letter to His Father, the result of his father's method of upbringing "was that I fled everything that even remotely reminded me of you." Government service or an academic career were out of the question, because Jews were excluded from them. Medicine was a frequent solution, but Kafka had no talent for the sciences. The fallback career, then as now, was law, and Kafka decided to pursue it, although his lack of enthusiasm continued undiminished. In fact, he suffered his first nervous breakdown after cramming for a final examination in Roman law. And, when he obtained his doctorate, the next step was to find a dignified and secure occupation that would leave him enough time for writing. The job at the Institute met Kafka's conditions, above all because it was on the single shift system: work began at eight and ended at two, leaving what he had hoped would be sufficient time in the afternoon and evening for his true work.
Or that was the theory; but in reality Kafka never stopped believing, with the greatest strength of conviction, that the Institute robbed him of the time that he imperiously required if he was to give his full measure as a writer. On December 15, 1910, after a short visit to Berlin, he wrote to Brod: "Not until last night did I begin to dread the office, although then the dread hit me so hard that I felt like hiding under the table." This was not a pose: he genuinely felt trapped. One month later, at the beginning of his third year of work, he wrote to his boss Eugen Pfohl:
When I wanted to get out of bed this morning I simply folded up. This has a simple cause, I am completely overworked. Not by the office but by my other work. The office has an innocent share in it only to the extent that, if I did not have to go there, I could live calmly for my own work and should not have to waste these six hours a day which have tormented me to a degree that you cannot imagine, especially on Friday and Saturday, because I was full of my own things ... for me it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no escape but insanity. I write this in the good light of the morning and would certainly not write it if it were not so true and if I did not love you like a son.
The situation was no better the following year. In October, he was dictating a report to the district chief of police, and for a while he froze: "Finally I have the word 'stigmatize' and the appropriate sentence, but still hold it all in my mouth with disgust and a sense of shame as though it were raw meat, cut out of me (such effort it has cost me)." One month later, reflecting bitterly about the inadequacy of a little story of his that Brod had read aloud at a gathering of friends, he explained the reason: "I have too little time and quiet to draw out of me all the possibilities of my talent. For that reason it is only disconnected starts that make an appearance...." Kafka knew that "writing was the most productive direction for my being to take, everything rushed in that direction, and left empty all those abilities which were directed toward the joys of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection, and above all music."
In a sober and even ascetic vein, Kafka wrote to Felice in 1913: "There is never enough time at one's disposal, for the roads are long and it is easy to go astray.... I have often thought that the best mode of life for me would be to sit in the innermost room of a spacious locked cellar with my writing things and a lamp.... And how I would write! From what depths I would drag it up! Without effort! For extreme concentration knows no effort...." In a letter written the same year to Felice's father, he confessed that "my whole being is directed toward literature; I have followed this direction unswervingly until my 30th year, and the moment I abandon it I cease to live." One can cull similar examples from his diary and his letters in the four years that remained until illness progressively made him unable to continue his work at the office.
Set against this heartbreaking reality, the riffs on Kafka's insurance office "as a conduit of contemporary experience -- and hence as an indispensable basis for the dreamlike transmutations of his art," or as a "ministry" that Corngold, in one of his frequent spells of free association, connects with the use of that word by Wordsworth in The Prelude, "a work exemplary in the English Romantic tradition not unknown to Kafka," come across as nonsense. This is all the more deplorable because Professor Corngold knows better. He goes on to explain that the word "ministry" in the context of Kafka and Wordsworth is "a doublet of ideas: it defines poetic existence as a passionate reading of signs and connects it, in a certain atmosphere of anxiety, to a powerful social-political agency -- indeed, considers poetic existence literally as cooperation with this social-political agency." A little later, on the same page, he continues his commentary:
Note the fragments of the discourse of work and employment even in this pristine natural scene of reading. Here the word "ministry" chiefly adverts to the idea of precapitalist agencies benevolently -- but also threateningly -- "administering" lessons through signs made manifest by the cooperation of psychic "faculties." In his 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear, Greene restores to Wordsworth's "ministry" its menacing, bureaucratic sense.... Vogl's discussion of Kafka's political grotesque is also apt to Wordsworth here: Kafka's work is "less a disenchantment of the world than a bureaucratization of the heavens."
Kafka was well known for his irrepressible sense of humor, and Brod recalled him laughing so much when he read aloud the first chapter of The Trial "that there were moments when he couldn't read any further." One can imagine him guffawing were he to read the passage just quoted.
The same comic muse presides over much of the Corngold, Greenberg, and Wagner volume. No one in Kafka's lifetime, and none of Kafka's biographers, has suggested that, until his health broke down, Kafka was anything but a thoroughly conscientious and productive employee. He was liked by his colleagues and his superiors, and there is no reason to doubt that he knew that his work for the Institute was valued. Thus, in the fall of 1912, at the beginning of his relationship with Felice, he wrote to correct her mis-impression: "We haven't got seventy departments; rather, in the department I am in there are seventy clerks. The head of this department has three assistants, and one of these, unfortunately the one who deals with the most important or rather the most unpleasant matters, is myself."
The history of his promotions is sufficient proof that his work was appreciated. He started out as a temporary employee (Aushilfsbeamter) in the summer of 1908, and fourteen months later his employment was made permanent. In 1910, he became a Concipist, an untranslatable title signifying that he was an employee with legal training who could draft legal documents and had moved one rung higher on the career ladder. In 1913, he was promoted to the position of vice secretary (Vizesekretar) and, in 1920, to that of secretary (Anstaltssekretar). Then astonishingly, in 1922, before he was pensioned off for medical reasons, he was made a senior secretary (Obersekretar), a sign of favor that ignored his increasingly frequent and prolonged absences on medical leave.
These "secretary" titles, literal and correct translations from German, are unavoidably misleading. Kafka and his fellow "secretaries" at the Insurance Institute had none of the responsibilities of the secretary of an American or British company. They were legally trained officials -- we would call them in-house lawyers -- handling such matters as the evaluation and disposal of claims, and certain kinds of litigation. To proclaim, in opposition to Miosz's beautiful formulation, which anoints Kafka "the secretary of the invisible," that "for us [Corngold, Greenberg, and Wagner] he is just as centrally the Chief Legal Secretary of the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague" is fatuous -- Kafka was given that position in February 1922 and retired on July 1, and he was one of several officials with that title -- and tone deaf.
The hype continues with talk of Kafka's "most remarkable professional career, " and references to him as a "special agent" for Dr. Marschner's "reform projects," and praise for his volunteering for military service in 1915 "as "a heroic option." We are told that "during the war years [Kafka] was [the Institute's] virtual CEO." A virtual CEO, indeed: he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown most of 1915, and, after the hemorrhage he suffered in August 1917, was more often absent from the Institute than present at his desk. In fact, in October or November 1917 (the letter has not been dated more precisely), he wrote to his friend Oskar Baum refusing to recommend the claims of a blinded veteran to the Insurance Institute: "I simply cannot write to Director Marschner. It's been more than three months since he has heard a peep from me; he enters my life only as a kind Providence, endlessly forbearing and patient and paying the bill."
As the documents collected in The Office Writings show, Kafka worked on a broad variety of matters. There is a panegyric welcoming Robert Marschner as the new director of the Institute; long sections of annual reports of the Institute; polemical memoranda concerning such matters as the scope of compulsory insurance for building trades, the fixing of insurance premiums, and the inclusion of private automobiles in the category of enterprises that require insurance; his well-known paper on preventing accidents in the use of wood-planing machinery; memoranda in a couple of interminable contested cases; the jubilee report for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Institute; and appeals for the creation of a public psychiatric hospital in wartime Bohemia and aid to disabled veterans. The encomium to Marschner, written in 1909, when the twenty-five-year-old Kafka was a new employee, surprises one by the flat-footed and quite embarrassing piling-on of flatteries. It makes for strange reading when one remembers how Kafka burst into laughter as he listened to a speech eulogizing Dr. Otto Pibram, his school friend's father, through whose influence he was hired by the Institute. He would have laughed even harder at Corngold, Greenberg, and Wagner's assessment of the value of this early effort:
This short laudatio suggests the importance of Kafka's professional work as a reservoir of poetic ideas. The constellations of individuals, machines, and institutions organizing most of his narratives are, in many instances, prefigured in his office writings. This inaugural speech, for example, contains a core model of the constellation Kafka con- structs in In the Penal Colony of 1914. The New Commandant, who is trying to run the colony more rationally and efficiently than had the Old Commandant, occupies the position of Robert Marschner, who is taking pains, on a broad canvas, to change the old ways of his predecessor ... Egon [sic in the text, Pfohl's name was Eugen] Pfohl, head of the Insti- tute's operations department and Kafka's immediate superior [to whom Kafka wrote that he loved him like a son], who had begun his career in the Austrian army, resembles the officer trying to keep the machine -- that is: the Institute -- running as it used to.... Marschner's opponents, who existed as an unlikely possibility, anticipates [sic!] that sorry lot of phantasmatic opponents of the New Commandant, who carry the officer's vain hopes for a return of the old regime.
Or would he have had his best laugh hearing how "more than once in this collection of official documents ... the narrative voices of Kafka the clerk and Kafka the writer intersect, or, indeed, merge"?
The Corngold, Greenberg, and Wagner volume is a sottisier of such richness that the temptation to hold up for view its gems, one by one, is difficult to resist. A word must be said, however, about the overall quality of the office writings assembled here. The weightiest of them, for instance the interminable speech that Kafka appears to have written for delivery by Dr. Marschner at the Second International Congress on Accident Prevention and First Aid held in Vienna in the summer of 1913 -- the proceedings bored Kafka to tears -- show a fine ability to organize and to present large bodies of tedious information. The other side of that coin is that each of his papers is about three times as long as it should be in order to achieve the most effective exposition and advocacy.
Does Kafka's genius shine through these papers? Certainly not. How could it? But there are moments of strange, otherworldly naivete, as when Kafka, in a paper on setting insurance premiums and the need to convince employers of the Institute's prudence, opines that "a handsome sum is certainly appropriate as compensation for accidents that have serious consequences, and no employer will even consider advocating parsimony in such cases."
More important perhaps than any of the defects so far alluded to is the editors' reductionist lack of understanding of the creative process, a failing that is in odd contrast with their wild flights of fancy and free association. For instance: Kafka worked on prevention of accidents in quarries. Aha! say the editors: here is the birth of the last scene of The Trial, in which the executioners place Joseph K. on a loose stone before thrusting the butcher's knife into his heart. Really? What about the innumerable paintings of the sacrifice of Isaac, and indeed the Biblical text of this shattering episode, in which the boy is laid across a boulder? And what about Kafka's personal obsession with knife thrusts and butchering?
Or Kafka's writings on problems of automobile insurance. Aha! say the editors: here is the genesis of the traffic jam in Amerika. But what about the Skoda factory that was manufacturing cars which were the pride of Bohemia, or the description in Kafka's travel diary of the traffic on a Paris boulevard including an accident that involved an automobile and a tricycle, or the fascination that the automobile held for young men of that era? Or again: Kafka owned a book about trench warfare. Aha! Here is the material he used in "The Burrow," the brilliant story of the perhaps paranoid animal maintaining his underground keep, and waiting apprehensively for the enemy.
One can readily stipulate, to use a lawyer's word, that the experiences, direct and vicarious, that Kafka stored up during his work for the Institute nourished his fiction. How could it be otherwise? He wrote out of his life. But Kafka was a writer of genius, with an almost inconceivable plenitude of imagination. It is simplistic, to put it mildly, to reduce his literary astonishments to his work as an insurance lawyer.
Still, there is something to be said for this book -- a contribution to knowledge beyond its playful puns, such as calling what was probably a slip of the pen in a petition drafted by a provincial Austrian lawyer (he had written Gesetzt or set down, instead of Gesetz, or the law) a Derridean rather than a Freudian mistake. Or informing the reader that "if Michel Foucault has read Flaubert's oeuvre as a 'fantastic library' -- writing spurred not by the author's imagination but by knowledge stored in libraries and archives and bent, thereafter, on reorganizing this knowledge into a surface of literary images -- then Kafka's work can be read as a 'fantastic' office." One of the editors is Jack Greenberg, a law professor at Columbia and a very distinguished civil rights lawyer, He is not a Kafka scholar. As he engagingly confesses in his acknowledgments, he has "of course, depended on Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner, as should anyone who seeks to understand Kafka's writings and life.... I liberally cribbed from their writings...." But Greenberg's independent research has produced a set of diverting statistics that confirm one's worst fears: the word "Kafkaesque" is in wide use by American judges. It has appeared in 240 lower court opinions; five times in opinions of justices of the Supreme Court; and, in other contexts, 455 to 669 times per year between 2002 and 2006. This, too, is a joke that Kafka would have enjoyed.
Books mentioned in this post