All the World’s a Cage

The Lost Writings by Franz Kafka, Translated from german by Michael HofmanN; EDITED BY REINER STACH. New York: New Directions. 128 pages. $19.

The cover of The Lost Writings

IT IS CUSTOMARY TO START an essay about Kafka by emphasizing how impossible it is to write about Kafka, then apologizing for making a doomed attempt. This gimmick has a distinguished lineage. “How, after all, does one dare, how can one presume?” Cynthia Ozick asks in the New Republic before she presumes for several ravishing pages. In the Paris Review, Joshua Cohen insists that “being asked to write about Kafka is like being asked to describe the Great Wall of China by someone who’s standing just next to it. The only honest thing to do is point.” But far from pointing, he gestures for thousands of words.

It goes practically without saying that Kafka would have appreciated these squirming feats of self-flagellation. In an essay about the master, we must observe the degrading formalities and undergo the ritual debasements. How dare I, etc. In The Trial, Josef K.’s crowning shame is his inability to reprimand himself for his unspecified crime. Though he knows it is “his duty to seize the knife as it float[s] from hand to hand above him and plunge it into himself,” he lacks the strength to do so. Like Kafka’s most famous protagonist, the critic is convinced of her guilt yet incapable of submitting to her punishment. She apologizes for writing yet another essay about Kafka—sorry!—but still she does not twist the blade and shut up. And so she stands as irrevocably and irredeemably accused as one of Kafka’s harrowed characters.

“Why are you accusing me, you bad man. I don’t know you, I’ve never seen you before,” begins one of the fragments in The Lost Writings, a collection of seventy-four aphoristic morsels culled from Kafka’s thousand-page Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente (Posthumous Writings and Fragments) by his biographer Reiner Stach. Translated with characteristic verve by Michael Hofmann, the volume has just been published by New Directions. All of its contents are absent from Schocken’s 1971 Complete Stories, and two of the pieces have never appeared in English before. Like the found writings, The Lost Writings are defensive in posture. Their characters cower in strange prisons or find themselves hunted like animals. Everyone is trying to clamber in (to a fantastic circus, to a hotel with a shifting entrance, to a bar with beautiful music) or climb out (of cells, of thickets, of rooms that open onto walls of rock). Whether they want to get in or out, they very rarely succeed.

The critic who cannot proceed directly to Kafka—who must pass through the maze of mythologizations in biographies, monographs, and apologies-cum-articles—mirrors his characters’ futile movements. If his work teaches anything, it is that we must try to demonstrate our innocence to implacable judges, despite or perhaps because of the inevitability of our failure to exonerate ourselves—that we must approach even though we can never arrive.

This injunction may seem contradictory, and it is supposed to. In one of the Lost Writings, Kafka explains, “It is in my nature that the only mandate I can accept is one that no one has given me. It is in this contradiction, always in a contradiction, that I am able to live. But maybe it’s like that for everyone: dying we live, and living we die.” As we live, we perish. As we advance, we retreat. And as we conclude, we begin to come undone.

EVEN KAFKA’S LIFE was unfinished. Neurasthenic from the first, he died of tuberculosis when he was only forty. The details of his outwardly uneventful biography are by now familiar. He was born to a prosperous, assimilated Jewish family in Prague in 1883; he studied law (of course he did) and took a deadening day job at an insurance company; he was engaged three times to two different women but ultimately could not bring himself to marry; he published a scattering of stories and instructed his dearest friend, Max Brod, to burn his remaining work after his death, which occurred in 1924. Brod defied his request, and the rest is history. As Hannah Arendt once quipped, Kafka has since kept “generations of intellectuals both gainfully employed and well-fed.”

Julian Hoeber, Execution Changes #106 (CS, Q1, LMJ, DC, Q2, LLJ, DC, Q3, LLJ, DC, Q4, LMJ, DC), 2019, acrylic on linen over panel, 54 × 38 × 3".
Julian Hoeber, Execution Changes #106 (CS, Q1, LMJ, DC, Q2, LLJ, DC, Q3, LLJ, DC, Q4, LMJ, DC), 2019, acrylic on linen over panel, 54 × 38 × 3". © Julian Hoeber, Courtesy the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco

Many of these intellectuals (who are not, it turns out, all that gainfully employed) have remarked that many of Kafka’s works have an unfinished quality. The Castle, for instance, breaks off mid-sentence. And how else, really, could the novel end? Its protagonist, a surveyor who seeks to reach the book’s elusive namesake, can never achieve his goal: he can only confront an ever-multiplying series of bureaucratic barriers that extend the space between him and his destination, as in Zeno’s paradoxes. There is no logical end point to K.’s contortions. The path that appears to lead to the Castle only goes “close by, then veer[s] off as if on purpose, and though it [doesn’t] lead any farther from the Castle, it [doesn’t] get any closer either.” The surveyor’s chronicle must conclude arbitrarily or continue indefinitely, and, in effect, it does both: it ends without ending, concluding in a way that implies it goes on forever.

Much of Kafka’s writing is likewise laced with corridors that lengthen as we traverse them. Paradoxically—for as Kafka clarified, it was in contradiction that he was able to live—his most compressed stories often describe the most ruthlessly iterative configurations. “An Imperial Message,” one of the few parables Kafka published in his lifetime, is barely a page long, but it nonetheless bulges with distances. It is about a courier who cannot deliver a message from the emperor:

Still he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to be crossed . . .

And so on and on: by now, around a century later, the message is still in transit. In the indelible “Before the Law,” another fragment that Kafka lived to see printed, a guard prevents a man from passing through the doorway to the law itself. But beyond the initial door are more doors and more doorkeepers, “each more powerful than the last.” Power becomes power by dint of its very inaccessibility; no wonder, then, that we can only ever approach it asymptotically.

Short though they are, The Lost Writings also contain their fair share of intervals that expand like nightmarish accordions. In one, there is a caravansary layered with courtyards that open up onto further courtyards. You enter through “the outer courtyard, and from there two arches roughly ten yards apart” lead “into a second courtyard.” And yet far from progressing to the implied or imagined sanctum, you wander and waver until you find yourself back “in the second courtyard,” where you have to “ask for directions through a whole series of other courtyards before you [are] back in the original courtyard” again. In another, there is a hotel that is never in quite the same location and that must be entered by way of a restaurant. Once inside, the narrator is “put to the trouble of changing rooms almost every day.”

Like the hallways forever unfurling (and unfurling forever) in his stories, Kafka’s sentences grow longer and more unwieldy, sprouting clauses and asides. Some pieces in The Lost Writings consist of single sentences as overgrown as vines. Here is one of them in its entirety:

The city resembles the sun, all its light is concentrated into one dazzling central circle, you lose your way, you can’t find the street or building you’re looking for, once you’re in there you will never emerge; in a farther, much larger ring things are still compressed, but there is no longer uninterrupted radiation, there are little dark alleyways, discreet passages, even small squares that lie in dimness and cool; beyond, there is an even larger ring where the light is so diffuse that you have to look for it, great blocks of the town stand there in cold gray; and then at last you find yourself in the open country, matte, bare, late autumnal, shot through by the occasional lightning.

Like the dizzy inhabitants of the city that looks like the sun, Kafka’s readers struggle to find their way out of his wordy byways.

The Lost Writings are wreathed in elongations, but they are also dense with contractions and confinements. In three of them, characters are locked in prisons. In one, Red Peter, the civilized ape who appears in Kafka’s well-known “Report to an Academy,” complains of the cage he endured when he was first captured by humans. In another, the narrator becomes stuck in “an impenetrable thicket of thorns” as weedy as Kafka’s prose. These sorts of stories cannot end because we cannot escape them.

Still, many of the slivers and shards in The Lost Writings are unfinished in a less satisfyingly dissatisfying way. They are not like The Castle, which was developed to incompletable maturity and broken off in what strikes me as apt desperation. Nor are they as self-contained as Kafka’s endless yet economical parables. Instead, they often seem like musings that someone abandoned in a fit of disinterest or distraction. The caravansary full of courtyards has an intriguing gate: “perhaps it was a question of . . . ,” the fragment finishes. “But . . . ,” concludes a lively proto-story about two childhood friends who play chess perched by a windowsill. The piece that begins with an accusation does not get very far, either: we learn only that the narrator is alleged to have taken money he or she was supposed to spend on confectionary, and that his or her accuser does not plan to go to the police about the offense. These stories do not end without ending: they simply do not end.

DEFLATING ENDINGS NOTWITHSTANDING, Kafka excels at beginnings. His openings burst through our expectations like bombs. Need I repeat them? How could I presume? Still, who could resist the urge to recall Josef K. discovering that he is under arrest, or, best of all, poor Gregor Samsa wriggling awake to find he is the sort of creature that wriggles? In The Lost Writings, there are many first lines so good that no ending could really match them:

Some people approached me and asked me to build them a city. I said there were not nearly enough of them, they could fit into a single house, why should I build them a city.

Let me say it unambiguously: everything that is said about me is false that has as its starting point the canard that I was the first human being to befriend a horse.

When I got home at night, I found in the middle of the room a good-sized, really an outsize egg.

And even when these beginnings give way to full-fledged stories, they often proceed to undo themselves, gleefully dismantling whatever fragile edifices they have half-erected. Reading them, I thought of one of Kafka’s greatest heirs, the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms. In one of his most famous poems, Kharms writes, “There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears. / Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically.” Moreover, “he couldn’t speak, since he didn’t have a mouth.” Kharms strips more and more away until we discover that the red-haired man had “nothing at all! / Therefore there’s no knowing whom we are even talking about. / In fact it’s better that we don’t say any more about him.” Kafka performs a series of similar negations in a story that begins when its narrator returns “from the Olympics in the city of X, where [he] had obtained a world record in swimming.” He stands, triumphant, at the station in his “native town.” But at his celebratory reception, he confesses:

It may have come to your attention that I hold a world record, but if you were to ask me how I came by it, I would have no satisfactory reply. You see, I can’t really swim at all. I always wanted to learn, but I never had an occasion to. So how come I was sent by my country to participate in the Olympic Games? A question that preoccupies me too. To begin with, I must tell you that this is not my fatherland, and try as I may, I cannot understand a word of what is spoken here.

In an earlier story, another swimmer (or is he a nonswimmer?) explains,

I can swim as well as the others, 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.

Kafka himself stays well enough afloat. Even when he fumbles, he never falls wholly flat: at his worst, he is provocative yet provisional. But at his best, he is hilarious and mordant, mired in the impossibilities that he could neither live with nor without.

THE ONLY RESPITE from a contradiction comes in the form of miraculous reconciliation. Kafka denied his Jewishness, yet he was messianic despite himself. (He was everything despite himself.) He kept scrambling toward the Castle, and a few of the sketches in The Lost Writings are improbably hopeful. In one, someone waiting by a road sees “the unchanging dark horizon from which nothing can come except, on one single occasion, the wagon, coming trundling up to you, looming ever larger, and at the moment it reaches you it fills the whole world.” In another, Kafka entreats you to “stay at your desk and listen. Or don’t even listen, wait for it to bother you. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it cannot do otherwise, it will writhe in front of you in ecstasies.” In both fragments, we are instructed to keep still and patient until we are privy to something as momentous as revelation.

Maybe if we could manage to stop moving, we could coax the destinations toward us. At last, we would grasp the law; perhaps we would even be pardoned. But we are perverse and paradoxical. The swimmer who can’t swim splashes into the water; the courier who advances falls farther and farther back. And we, who cannot capture Kafka, also cannot keep quiet about him. We cannot stop pointing or presuming, cannot stop apologizing or agonizing, cannot fall silent, cannot keep talking, cannot continue and cannot conclude, cannot . . .

Becca Rothfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard.