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The Diaries of Franz Kafka
translated by ross benjamin
schocken, 704 pages, $45

The job of a translator is both difficult and one of great responsibility. An author can be utterly misrepresented in a language that is not his own: ­David Magarshack, for example, who translated Chekhov’s plays, argued that the entire Western approach to Chekhov was grossly mistaken and based solely on mistranslations that, especially in English, falsely emphasized the melancholy aspect of his work.

There are few more distinctive or familiar openings of a twentieth-­century novel than that of Kafka’s The Trial. Here is the first English translation, by Willa and Edwin Muir, published in 1937, ten years after the book appeared in German:

Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

This is how David Wyllie translated it seventy years later:

Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.

These two versions obviously relate to the same original, but they are importantly different. There is nothing in the original about the state of Josef K.’s knowledge of any wrongdoing, and to be arrested knowing that one has done no wrong is different from being arrested while innocent in the opinion of an omniscient narrator.

I prefer the Muirs’ version. I think it reads better, though why they added fine to “one morning” I do not know—it is not in the original text—except that it emphasizes in advance the arbitrariness of the arrest.

If the translation of a single, not very complex sentence can give rise to such differences in meaning, imagine the cumulative effects of different translations over an entire book! When we say that something is Kafkaesque, do we refer to Kafka or to translations of Kafka—or, if they coincide sufficiently, to both? In his introduction to an edition of Metamorphosis, the novelist Adam Thirlwell suggests that we have misunderstood Kafka much as Magarshack said we had misunderstood Chekhov, and that Kafka is much more playful than we have hitherto given him credit for. But the now-­traditional view, that he is the prophet and poet of a nameless, shapeless, all-enveloping threat in modern life, seems to be borne out in this new translation of the author’s diaries:

Is it possible [he asks in the diary] that I at first discern the future in its cold outlines with understanding and desire and only when pulled and pushed by them gradually enter the reality of this same future?

This is vaguely, but also distinctly, ominous: a very Kafkaesque ­atmosphere.

The current volume is a translation based upon the first unexpurgated German edition of the diaries, free of Max Brod’s ­editorial influence or (to put it unkindly) his distortion and censorship. The diligence of the translator, Ross ­Benjamin, is above praise—or at any rate my praise as a general reader. The translation must have been a labor both of love and of Hercules. There are 1,403 endnotes for 564 ­pages of text—that is to say, 2.4836252 endnotes per page—to inform us of every literary allusion, and every geographical location mentioned, down to the number of a street: an admirable thoroughness that I should be tempted to call Teutonic if stereotyping were not so frowned upon these days. But when I say admirable, I mean precisely that, for who does not admire the cobbler who sticks so manfully to his last?

It pains me, however, to say that the ratio of enlightenment to the effort of reading these diaries is quite low. Again, I speak as a general reader, not as a scholar or specialist, for whom the edition will be invaluable. But it is less a journal in the strict sense than a disorderly mixture of diary proper, observations, criticism, notebooks, and stories, not in strict chronological order. Even when they touch on world events, they do so in a desultory manner. The commencement of the greatest cataclysm of modern European history, the First World War, is recorded as follows:

Germany has declared war on Russia.—Swimming school in the afternoon.

Was this juxtaposition ironic, or was it merely a failure to grasp that the two events—the First World War and swimming lessons—were matters of a rather different scale, by many orders of magnitude?

I could not help but compare these diaries with those of another Central European writer, the Hungarian Sándor Márai, which are (for me) incomparably more interesting than Kafka’s, because less ­fragmented, more sequential, and perhaps ­also rather less self-obsessed.

No doubt it will be said that ­Kafka was the more significant writer of the two. Indeed, when I was once asked by a literary editor to contribute to a survey of journalists on “the greatest novel of the twentieth century,” I chose The Trial. Telling of the arrest of a man, suitably anonymized to K., on a charge whose nature is never disclosed, it seemed to me prophetic of the bureaucratic takeover of the world: Even in free countries, that is to say those without the overt trappings of dictatorship, we are ruled by powers that we cannot see and subject to regulations that we cannot comply with or understand. This circumstance gives rise to a constant subliminal fear that we may be found guilty of some ­unintended infringement of a legal requirement, that we may find ourselves in the position of K.

It is commonly supposed that the more one knows about a major writer the better, and that therefore his every written word must be gathered, published, and read by those who would truly appreciate his work. I am not sure that this is so. Great letter-writer though Dickens was, I do not think it necessary to wade through the ten gargantuan volumes of his correspondence in order to enjoy at their true value Mr. Micawber’s or Mrs. Gummidge’s wonderful utterances.

Kafka is especially interesting to many of us, perhaps, because he is, par excellence, the writer of ­neurosis—and to be neurotic these days is to be in a state of grace, for persons who are not neurotic must be complacent and therefore insensitive to the world’s woes. Of course, Kafka was born in 1883 in a harlequin empire with no ideological justification beyond dynastic continuity, and he belonged to a recently and uncertainly liberated minority, the Jews. As the succeeding century was to demonstrate, there were ample grounds for anxiety (­Kafka’s three sisters were murdered in the Holocaust), but the world into which he was born was also that of the halcyon days of Stefan Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday. Setting aside his chronic ill health and the condition of Central Europe in the days before the First World War, one suspects that Kafka would have been highly neurotic in any ­circumstances, a prophet and exemplar of a psychological tendency, so powerfully stimulated by Freud, to make mountains out of molehills. Do events such as the Great War cause neurosis, or does neurosis cause events? Was the Great War the result of the spiritual sickness that preceded it, Kafka having suffered from it very acutely?

On every few pages of the diaries, one reads such entries as:

Longing for a deeper sleep that dissolves more. Uncertainty, dryness, peace, in these everything will pass. Senselessness of youth. Fear of youth, fear of senselessness, of the senseless ascent of human life. Inability in every respect and complete. To have to bear and cause such woes.

Desperate to be a writer, Kafka was plagued by self-doubt; in a man who was already sick for much of his life, this combination was quite naturally transmuted into symptomatology.

One possible interpretation of Kafka’s almost permanent state of self-doubt, such that he was reluctant to publish, destroyed much of what he wrote, and directed his executor to destroy what remained of his papers after his death, is that it was a contorted form of the sin of pride. To imagine that so much hangs on the worth or perfection of one’s work is to put it at a very high level of importance. Thus, self-deprecation becomes its opposite, a form of grandiosity. Of all the sins, pride is the most difficult to escape or overcome.

Kafka was not merely egoistic, however, and not many egoists have so powerful a view of the world about them. Kafka seemed to be a man whose nerves were exposed raw to the world but who also possessed X-ray powers to detect what lay below the surface, so that everything was evidence of something else, usually sinister:

Everything; even the most ordinary things, such as being served in a restaurant[,] . . . must [be attained] by force with the help of the police. This deprives life of all comfort.

This reminds me rather of Orwell’s assertion that coal is the foundation of our civilization. Orwell had coal-miners, Kafka had policemen. But there is such a thing as being oversensitive rather than insensitive to what allegedly lies below the surface of things, and it is as much a deformation to take nothing, even the most ordinary things, for granted as to take everything for granted. Freud himself once said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Kafka was born in an age when society, perhaps for the first time, had grown to such a scale that no one could fully understand its workings; in addition, everyone had begun to make everyday use of technologies whose mechanisms he did not understand. This gave to the world an alien feeling, a suspicion that one was being manipulated by forces one could not comprehend or even discern. Far from being graspable, as it had once seemed (without actually being so), the world had become absurd and even menacing. In such an era, to have worked for a bureaucracy (in Kafka’s case, an insurance company) in which procedure must often have outweighed purpose, would only have heightened one’s sense of absurdity.

The world grows ever more Kafkaesque, even as it supposedly advances in rationality. Yesterday, for example, I received a communication from my bank. “Please get in touch,” it said, “Otherwise we [unidentifiable of course] might have to close your account.” Perhaps someone had been telling lies about me, just as they must have done about Josef K.

I called the bank as directed. “I need to ask you some security questions,” said the man from the bank. “Surely it is the other way round,” I said, “because you know who I am, but I don’t know who you are.” “You need to answer some security questions,” came the response. Finally, there was a question to which the bank did not know the answer: my mother-in-law’s maiden name. “How will knowing my mother-in-law’s maiden name help you combat money-laundering?” I asked. “You need to tell us your mother-in-law’s maiden name,” was the reply. It was a perfect Kafkaesque cameo.

We live, then, in a Kafkaesque world, though it is increasingly Orwellian as well. Whether this hefty volume will add much to anyone’s appreciation of the world’s Kafkaesque nature, I somewhat doubt. The novels and the stories are enough. Much of the diary might not have been published if it had not been by Kafka—in other words, most readers would want it edited rather than whole. Scholars, of course, have different priorities.

The translator’s introduction partakes of the modern trend to criticize Max Brod, the first editor of the diaries; indeed, it is relentlessly negative about him. I think it might have been worth a mention that without Brod, who resisted Kafka’s instruction to burn all his manuscripts after his death, the novels that are his main claim to fame and to academic interest might never have seen the light of day, and certainly not the diaries here translated.

Theodore Dalrymple is the author of These Spindrift Pages.

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