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Kafka in Pieces

A new collection defamiliarizes the author we think we know

The Lost Writings by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann. New Directions, 128 pages.

The unfinished draft of The Castle, Franz Kafka’s third and final novel, ends mid-sentence. But when the manuscript made its initial entree into the world, the text had been edited into completion. Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, who prepared the original 1926 edition, later reflected that his “aim was to present in accessible form an unconventional, disturbing work which had not been quite finished: thus every effort was made to avoid anything that might have emphasized its fragmentary state.” To accomplish this obfuscation of the novel’s incomplete form, Brod redacted nearly a fifth of the text. He eventually thought better of the choice, and in the second edition restored most of what he’d cut—but by then, his success at attracting interest in Kafka’s work had led to its placement on the Nazis’ “List of Harmful and Undesirable Literature.” This prevented the more faithful edition from reaching a wide German audience until the fall of the Reich. Meanwhile, Kafka’s readership grew abroad thanks to the 1930 English translations by Willa and Edwin Muir, who based their rendering of The Castle on Brod’s original edition—presenting the novel not as a fragment, but as a completed whole.

The state in which Kafka left The Castle is representative of the condition of his entire oeuvre. During his life, he published a few stories in periodicals, released one collection of fiction, and prepared another that appeared only posthumously. But he left behind the vast majority of his work incomplete—infamously, with a note beseeching Brod to burn every word. Brod approached the other novels he declined to destroy much as he did The Castle, omitting unfinished chapters from The Trial and altering the ending of Kafka’s first novel, The Man Who Disappeared, which he renamed Amerika. As for the reams of stories and aphorisms, Brod bestowed titles on many pieces that lacked them and amended aborted conclusions.

Over the intervening decades, generations of scholars and translators have contested the comparatively polished Kafka that Brod constructed. The centrality of fragmentation to Kafka’s work was clear at least as early as 1949, when the theorist Maurice Blanchot observed in his book The Work of Fire (later translated by Charlotte Mandell) that “Kafka’s main stories are fragments, and the totality of the work is a fragment.” But in the Anglophone literary world, this revision has been most meaningfully advanced in the last twenty-odd years: for instance, in Mark Harman’s translation of The Castle (1998) and Breon Mitchell’s of The Trial (1999). Poet and translator Michael Hofmann has been another advocate of the rougher-edged Kafka, through his version of Kafka’s first novel, given the compromise title Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared (2004); a collection of Kafka’s stories, Investigations of a Dog: And Other Creatures (2017); and now The Lost Writings.

The state in which Kafka left The Castle is representative of the condition of his entire oeuvre.

This new volume collects seventy-four short pieces—few longer than two pages, many unconcluded—curated by Reiner Stach, author of the definitive three-volume biography of Kafka. In his afterword, Stach argues that, though “the fragile, fragmentary quality” of Kafka’s work has been extremely influential, even “caus[ing] us to begin to take the literary fragment seriously,” the writer’s most fragmentary material has remained hidden from view: rarely translated, often out of print, barely read, and thus, even if not completely absent, still fundamentally “lost.” Stach’s claim that we owe our interest in the literary fragment as such to Kafka is a bit bombastically overstated, ignoring a long history from Sappho to Virgil to early literary-philosophical modernists like Kierkegaard; nearly a century before Kafka’s birth, the philosopher Friedrich Schlegel quipped, “Many of the works of the ancients have become fragments. Many modern works are fragments as soon as they are written.” But it’s certainly true that Kafka has been essential to the modernist and postmodernist appreciation of the fragment. Given the lamentable obscurity of so many of his most fragmentary texts, Stach’s and Hofmann’s task is a significant one: to bring an assortment of these pieces, which form what Stach calls the “gigantic base” of the “iceberg” of Kafka’s oeuvre, to the surface.

Though Stach does admit to certain Brodian concessions—he writes that the “selection seeks above all to be accessible,” presenting “highly approachable, ‘readable’ pieces”—The Lost Writings thrillingly foregoes any organizational infrastructure that might help us orient ourselves, from titles to sections to a table of contents. Besides the selections themselves and the afterword, there is only an index of first lines. This minimalist approach submerges readers immediately into Kafka’s world. The very first page fixes us in one of his classic traps: “I lay on the ground at the foot of a wall, writhing in agony, trying to burrow down into the damp earth.”

We might divide the pieces collected in The Lost Writings into gems and shards—the former seemingly conceptually complete, the latter obviously broken-off—each with their own particular kinds of obscurity. Within that scheme, this first text would be a gem; the few sentences that comprise the rest of the tale briefly sketch the scene, unfurling the plight contained in the opening. There’s the narrator as prey, a coach equipped with a driver and dogs already bored with the kill, and a hunter “greedily pinching [the narrator’s] calves.” Most startlingly, there is also a brutal expression of desire thwarted: “athirst, with open mouth, I breathed in clouds of dust.”

This opening parable of doomed impotence stutters into the next—another gem, in which the circumstances and mode are completely transformed, but the essential dynamics of predator and prey are unchanged. Here the narrator assumes the cruel, empowered position occupied by the hunter’s retinue in the first piece. He addresses the ensnared:

So, you want to leave me? Well, one decision is as good as another. Where will you go? Where is away-from-me? The moon? Not even that is far enough, and you’ll never get there. So why the fuss? Wouldn’t you rather sit down in a corner somewhere, quietly? Wouldn’t that be an improvement? A warm, dark corner? Aren’t you listening? You’re feeling for the door. Well, where is it? So far as I remember, this room doesn’t have one.

Absent exits recur throughout the collection, as do impassable doorways, the portal’s useless presence only heightening the atmosphere of entrapment. In a later fragment, a shard, a pack of beasts return home from stealing a drink of water from a pond, only to be chased by punishers wielding whips into “the ancestral gallery, where the door was slammed shut, and we were left alone.” In another, a gem, the narrator inexplicably paces “an averagely large hall softly lit by electric light.” “The room had doors,” he reports, “but if you opened them, you found yourself facing a dark wall of sheer rock barely a hand’s breadth from the threshold, and running straight up to either side, as far as one could see. There was no way out there.”

This same quietly suffocating phrase, “no way out”—a Kafkan fragment in itself—appears in another text, a dialogue between an unnamed interlocutor and a chimpanzee named Red Peter who has been seized from his jungle home by humans and eventually learns to behave like one. The ape is also the narrator of “A Report to an Academy,” one of the few stories Kafka finished and published in his lifetime. In the full story, Red Peter expresses his desire for a “way out” and devotes some time to glossing the meaning of the phrase: “I fear that perhaps you do not quite understand what I mean by ‘way out,’” he tells his audience in Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation. “I use the expression in its fullest and most popular sense. I deliberately do not use the word ‘freedom.’ I do not mean the spacious feeling of freedom on all sides”—leaving us to deduce what sort of comparatively inhibited liberty he seeks instead. In the version in The Lost Writings, a dejected Red Peter recounts the story of his capture, before which, he says, he “hadn’t known what that means: to have no way out.” He goes on to explain that he was contained not in “a four-sided cage with bars”; rather, “there were only three walls, and they were made fast to a chest, the chest constituted the fourth wall.” Everything hinges, it seems, on this fourth wall. In the Kafkan cosmology, three walls are presumed. The frightening tragedy is the way one’s own existence constitutes the final barrier.

The specter of this absent fourth wall haunts The Lost Writings. It returns explicitly in one other fragment, in which the narrator describes the space in which he’s held captive. “It was no prison cell, because the fourth wall was completely open,” he tells us in the first line. Here self-obstruction is expressed not in the character’s actual physical predicament, but in his interpretation of it: the fourth wall’s openness serves only to accentuate that he doesn’t even attempt to break free. In fact, the narrator says it’s for the best that his nudity prevents him from fashioning an escape rope out of garments; given the possible “catastrophic results,” it’s “better to have nothing and do nothing.”

Elsewhere, Kafka finds other ways to represent the structure of self-defeat. In one fragment, the narrator tells of being mysteriously unable to stay with a girl he loves. “It was as though she was surrounded by a ring of armed men who held out their lances in all directions,” he claims at first, but then revises this account: “I too was ringed by armed men, though they pointed their lances backward, in my direction. As I moved toward the girl, I was immediately caught in the lances of my own men and could make no further progress.” Another piece draws the self-abnegation deeper into the speaker, and exhilaratingly accelerates the velocity of its expression. “I can swim as well as the others,” the narrator says, “only I have a better memory than they do, so I have been unable to forget my formerly not being able to swim. Since I have been unable to forget it, being able to swim doesn’t help me, and I can’t swim after all.”

In the Kafkan cosmology, three walls are presumed. The frightening tragedy is the way one’s own existence constitutes the final barrier.

For the most part, the pieces making up The Lost Writings do not offer a new or more richly understood Kafka so much as a concentrated expression of the same dynamics, motifs, and obsessions that occupy his longer and more familiar works. Compressed and largely stripped of the intricacy that distinguishes the latter, these fragments help us appreciate how much of what makes a piece of writing Kafka’s lives at the level of the voice, the situation, the posture, the incident, the line. They also illuminate the fragmentary features of the less fragmented writings. It’s striking how, read one after another, the fractured forms assembled here come to feel not unlike, say, “The Metamorphosis” or The Trial, which, despite their comparative unity and narrative dynamism, follow the same structure as the assemblage that makes up The Lost Writings: each is an episodic progression of predicaments, a succession of foiled aspirations, terrible and sublime.

Appropriately enough, though it goes tactfully unacknowledged in the afterword, the collection is itself a thwarted project. The Lost Writings was originally billed as a collection of pieces all previously untranslated into English, a claim that was revised when other versions in out-of-print volumes came to light. Now the jacket copy modestly asserts that two of the seventy-four pieces have never appeared in English. The shift is likely disappointing for the publisher, and perhaps for readers drawn to novelty and grandeur—but then, Kafka devotees should understand the attraction of botched hopes and modest claims, the shadowy resplendence of an expectation left unfulfilled.

Ultimately, this almost invisible debacle underlines the aura of uncertainty that surrounds Kafka’s work, from the obscurity of its meaning to its erratic publication history. Decades ago, Blanchot glimpsed something of this state of affairs. He opens The Work of Fire by frenetically musing:

Perhaps Kafka wanted to destroy his works, since they seemed to him condemned to increase universal misunderstanding. When we see the disorder in which this work reaches us—what is made known to us, what is hidden, the fragmentary light thrown on this or that piece, the scattering of the texts themselves, unfinished to begin with and split up even more . . . when we see his silent work invaded by the chatter of commentaries, these unpublishable books made the subject of endless publications . . . we begin to ask ourselves if Kafka himself had foreseen such a disaster in such a triumph.

If The Lost Writings has contributed to this legacy of Kafkan confusion, it also serves a powerful clarifying function by defamiliarizing the Kafka we think we know. So much of the past century of Kafka scholarship has been consumed with debates about what to make of his desperate, wounded vision—yearning for an absent God, wrestling with the contradictions of modern Jewishness, cowering in fear of the father or a lover, despairing amid an inscrutable bureaucracy, foretelling the approach of totalitarianism—that it can be easy to take for granted the work’s austere strangeness, as if we’ve already understood the experience of awed impotence Kafka conjures. The journey through The Lost Writings unsettles this confidence not only by introducing us to new or less recognizable expressions of his project, but also by putting us into repeated, immediate contact with Kafka’s own self-doubt, which gleams in every bracketed ellipsis, here placed at the end of each piece that cuts off before the final sentence ends. These marks make visible the fourth wall that is implicit in each work Kafka left in some way unfinished, and even in those whose publication he permitted. It’s not only the characters, but Kafka himself who could find no way out. The Lost Writings helps us linger with him, in his impassable doorways.