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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