Kafka shrugged.

March 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Kafka’s writing had already resulted in unpleasant surprises for Brod. It was easy to communicate with Kafka about models: Goethe’s prolific universality and Flaubert’s sophisticated simplicity, that was the measure of all things, and one could expand the canon to other authors who merited study: Kleist, Hebbel, Grillparzer, Dostoevsky, Strindberg . . . not to mention a phenomenon like Werfel, who overwhelmed both Kafka and Brod.

But what purpose did these models serve? Kafka did  not want to set the bar low, yet he saw possibilities in the most unlikely places; he could wax as enthusiastic about a third-rate journalist’s apt metaphor as about one precise sentence in a story that otherwise failed to hold his attention. It seemed a miracle to Kafka that there were authors who always had an “inner truth” at hand. But they were not the only ones who achieved this truth, hence it did not matter to him what one was supposed to have read and what level of public recognition an author happened to enjoy at any given moment.

He viewed his own attempts at writing literature, his own work, in the same light. Sometimes he would write two or three pages with verve, only to discover that just a single sentence could hold its own because it conveyed “inner truth,” which was, after all, the aim of literature. Innumerable fragments originated in this way, including attempts that Kafka broke off even before he had reached the end of a sentence. Sometimes he would pull out a piece of paper during one of the weekly get-togethers at Oskar Baum’s apartment and read aloud a short piece of prose in which the words were as carefully composed as musical notes.

The process satisfied neither Kafka nor his friends, and Kafka was probably chided for failing to measure up to his potential. How could a “work” be measured in this way? Kafka shrugged. He knew that his inconsistency and vulnerability to the vagaries of mood had caused him to leave “Description of a Struggle” unfinished after years of effort. He looked to Brod’s work method as a model. Brod could produce presentable prose under the most inauspicious conditions — he once wrote a story while Kafka lay on the sofa next to him. It was amazing, but not what Kafka aspired to. He sought perfection. He wondered whether Brod was frittering away his talent by not making more deliberate use of his time and energy and by failing to adopt a more critical stance to what he wrote.

— Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years

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§ One Response to Kafka shrugged.

  • dylan says:

    In his diaries he is constantly looking for lines with some life in them. Here is a great and explicit example:

    10 March. Sunday.
    He seduced a girl in a small place in the Iser mountains where he spent a summer to restore his delicate lungs. After a brief effort to persuade her, incomprehensibly, the way lung cases sometimes act, he threw the girl—his landlord’s daughter, who liked to walk with him in the evening after work—down in the grass on the river bank and took her as she lay there unconscious with fright. Later he had to carry water from the river in his cupped hands and pour it over the girl’s face to restore her. “Julie, but Julie,” he said countless times, bending over her. He was ready to accept complete responsibility for his offense and was only making an effort to make himself realize how serious his situation was. Without thinking about it he could not have realized it. The simple girl who lay before him, now breathing regularly again, her eyes still closed because of fear and embarrassment, could make no difficulty for him; with the tip of his toe, he, the great, strong person, could push the girl aside. She was weak and plain, could what had happened to her have any significance that would last even until tomorrow? Would not anyone who compared the two of them have to come to this conclusion? The river stretched calmly between the meadows and fields to the distant hills. There was still sunshine only on the slope of the opposite shore. The last clouds were drifting out of that clear evening sky.

    Nothing, nothing. This is the way I raise up ghosts before me. I was involved, even if only superficially, only in the passage, “Later he had….” mostly in the “pour.” For a moment I thought I saw something real in the description of the landscape.

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