Quiet Quitting

The Diaries of Franz Kafka translated from german by Ross Benjamin. New York: Schocken. 704 pages. $45.

The cover of The Diaries of Franz Kafka

FRANZ KAFKA’S LAST STORY was a fable about art and labor. “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” is a tale told by a mouse who, with marked erudition and fair-mindedness, reflects on an extraordinary community member, the singer Josephine. At times of danger or emergency, the news will spread that she plans to sing. The community assembles, and Josephine, delicate and frail, stands before them in song, her arms spread wide, her throat stretched high. The tones emanating from that delicate throat are, according to some, not singing at all but rather ordinary piping—if anything, weaker and thinner than the sounds all mice make. It is peculiar, the narrator considers, that “here is someone making a ceremonial performance out of doing the usual thing.” But her art has a strange hold on all who listen. It turns the ordinary materials of speech into something transcendent.

From the beginning of her artistic career, Josephine has made an unusual demand: to be excused from all daily work. The mice, a “race of workers,” deny her this privilege. Even their children scarcely get a chance to play before they are drafted into the “struggle for existence.” Josephine persists in her campaign. She makes shows of exhaustion, refusing her supporters’ pleas to perform. She limps, she weeps, she falters. At the story’s end, she vanishes entirely. This tale of a mouse diva, the last full expression of Kafka’s dying voice, frames the relationship between the artist and the community as a labor negotiation. Is it enough for the artist to make art? Or must she also contribute to her community’s more earthly needs?

This impasse between art and labor was, for Kafka, a perpetual torment. He worked in an office, and he did so diligently. But he knew what he was; by night, in solitude, he gave art his supreme allegiance. Riven in two between his day job as a lawyer for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute and his nights suspended in a trance at the writing desk, he came to see the office as a hell that drained his frail and overtaxed body of the vitality he needed to pursue his true vocation.

The complex nature of Kafka’s agony around work is made freshly discernible in Ross Benjamin’s new translation of the author’s diaries. By giving us a more bodily Kafka than has hitherto been available, Benjamin helps us sense the author’s pleasures and pains with greater clarity. As we turn the pages of the diary, we are reminded that the same man who professed that he was “made of literature . . . nothing else” also went swimming, took walks, visited brothels, and, when his digestive troubles lapsed, dreamed of forsaking his carefully masticated vegetarian diet to gorge himself on sausages and “eat dirty grocery stores completely empty.”

Kafka also looked at pornography, posed nude for another man’s sketch (“Exhibitionistic experience”), noted the “sizable member” bulging in a fellow train passenger’s trousers, and admired the long legs of two lovely Swedish boys, “so formed and taut that one could really only run one’s tongue along them.” These passages are all excluded from the sole previous English version of the diaries, a translation from 1948–49 based on a bowdlerized German edition prepared by Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod. By reinstating these squeamish deletions, Benjamin provides helpful context for other homoerotic passages, such as a pair of entries in which Kafka imagines his neighbor barging in each evening to wrestle with him. One night, the neighbor brings a girl to watch the combat. “Be quiet,” the neighbor whispers into the ear of his victim, who now realizes his opponent “would do whatever it took even use shameful holds to win in front of the girl and make himself shine.” The original translation offers, more tamely, “unfair holds.” Benjamin’s choice accents the passage’s eroticism. Whether the shame attaches to the unsportsmanlike neighbor or the story’s speaker, pinned and overpowered, is left open to interpretation.

Benjamin’s rendering not only gives us a more sensual and erotic Kafka; it also presents the diaries in a more unpolished voice. Benjamin resists the temptation to correct Kafka’s punctuation or smooth out his more contorted sentences, making the jottings feel immediate, sometimes breathless. And these are no ordinary diaries. We find little that is comparable to the anecdotal documentation of Samuel Pepys, the spiteful gossip of the Goncourt Brothers, or the careful literary-critical judgments of Virginia Woolf. Readers hoping to learn the facts of Kafka’s life will not encounter them here. While we get glimmers of Kafka’s milieu—the Jewish intellectuals of early twentieth-century Prague, the Yiddish theater troupe whose performances he attended faithfully—the diaries offer limited external detail. They place us, rather, in the often fantastical world inside Kafka’s head: descriptions of the theater, dreams, and dreams about the theater in which Kafka is irresistibly drawn to a woman wearing men’s clothing. The diaries record the fits and starts of one of the twentieth century’s most unusual imaginations. These are working notebooks dotted with pen-and-ink sketches and peppered with fragments, ideas, and parentheticals. It can be difficult to distinguish whether some entries are factual descriptions or fragments of stories, fantasies, or dreams. Casual observations mingle with reports of secret torment; world-historical events occur alongside mundane acts: “Germany has declared war on Russia.—Swimming school in the afternoon.”

The best entries are fictive, whether recording dreams or tales-in-embryo. Some of these unfinished stories are masterpieces in miniature, such as one about a group of laborers forced to break stones for miles to smooth the gliding of a great royal snake: “‘Prepare the way for the snake!’ came a shout.” And nearly every page offers evidence of Kafka’s gift for verbal pictures: the crumbling wall of a brothel, a girl’s half-turned neck, Max Brod straining to read Phaedra under a streetlamp and “ruining his eyes with the small print.” But more arresting than the imagery or the stories is Kafka’s unrelenting howl of self-reproach.

Kafka reserves his harshest self-flagellation for his failures to realize his literary gifts. Absolutely certain that writing is “the most productive direction of my being,” he was equally sure that his talent was being squandered. His daily obligations to the insurance office (which he carried out ably) and his family’s asbestos factory (which he shirked) were part of the problem. But what really racked him was his own pitiful negligence. The lament “wrote nothing” recurs as a sad refrain. “What excuse do I have for having written nothing yet today? None,” he sighs. He ruefully takes account of his weakness: “And now complete failure in my work. . . . I see the task and the way to it, I would only have to push through some thin obstacles and can’t do it.” Exhausted and trembling, he lashes himself on: “Go on working under any circumstances, it must be possible despite sleeplessness and the office.” And, perpetually, the complaint: “Wrote nothing.” “Wrote nothing.” “Have written nothing for so long.”

Of course, other writers have entrusted similar self-recriminations to their private notebooks. George Gissing’s journals, to pick just one example, show the gloomy critic of Grub Street restlessly quantifying his literary production or lack thereof: “Black, black; another hideous day. Not a line of writing. Too horrible to speak of.” But Kafka’s blunt declarations do more than bemoan his lapses in progress. They also express, with melodramatic flair, his feelings of entrapment. The days spent on the fourth floor of the insurance institute, the evenings spent burning with pen in hand: “These two professions could never tolerate each other.” After a good night of writing, he was “aflame” in the office the next day and could accomplish nothing. The pressure of his real (literary) work, pursued in desperate bouts of nocturnal imagining, taxed him to the point of physical collapse. He saw himself condemned to “a horrible double life from which insanity is probably the only way out.” Such lamentations achieve a queasy comedy. Kafka’s insistence on presenting an ordinary predicament in inflated, hyperbolic terms is at once amusing and endearing. Yet the reader’s smile may falter when one considers that Kafka’s grasp of the situation was arguably correct: a literary genius fated for a short life was frittering away his talents in an office.

This problem could not be solved by a prudent divvying up of hours. Literature requires regular sojourns into the world of the spirits, demanding from the author “a lostness in himself out of which it is difficult to step into the air of the ordinary day.” The office hauls one back from this realm of transcendence. The working world, for Kafka, was not merely mundane; it was also debasing, an arena of punishment and subordination. One entry, for instance, takes us inside a workshop plunged in darkness. The craftsperson can see nothing, yet “for every bad stitch one received a blow from the master.” In labor, one submits to the demands of others. The community for which one works may be hostile or indifferent; it exacts, nonetheless, its due measure of toil.

The writing desk emerges not so much as a reprieve but as a new scene of torment. The forces unleashed by literary creation were, Kafka imagined, powerful enough to crumple and rend his body. “I will jump into my novella even if it should cut up my face,” he resolves, mustering more courage than the task might seem to require. His vision of writing is corporeal, often violent, expressing both fear of and a wish for the body’s dissolution: “The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces.” He curses his delicate constitution, “this body pulled out of a junk room,” as insufficient to withstand literature’s elemental blast.

Throughout the diaries, Kafka cannot escape the body. “He has the feeling that by being alive he blocks his own way,” one entry reads. “From this obstruction he then in turn derives the proof that he is alive.” A variation on Descartes: I obstruct myself, therefore I am. This conclusion soon gives way to a more violent expression of self-hindering: “His own forehead bone bars his way (against his own forehead he beats his forehead bloody).”

This image of a forehead beaten bloody resurfaces in “The Burrow,” one of Kafka’s final stories, about a badger-like creature who has constructed an elaborate underground labyrinth. To create this “beautifully vaulted chamber,” the animal used the only tool available—his forehead—to pound the sandy soil into shape. “I was glad when the blood came,” he affirms, “for that was a proof that the walls were beginning to harden.” Out of this arduous toil, the animal secures his refuge: a lair where he is entirely isolated, self-sufficient, and safe from the predatory world.

Or so he thinks. But the burrow, we learn, breeds endless dissatisfaction. In attempting to modify his home, the animal disfigures it, scratching holes in the walls and blocking his own way with heaps of dirt. This artificial structure requires constant revision. Such revisions create, in turn, new tasks in a Sisyphean cycle from which there appears to be no exit. Meanwhile, the animal’s paranoia mounts. He wonders if another creature is closing in. His secret sanctum, to which he devoted all the labor of his mind and body, may turn out to be no more than an enormous tomb.

With this new rendition of Kafka’s diaries, Benjamin escorts us inside the burrow, showing us the artist at work. At once disturbing and humanizing, these unexpurgated notebooks remind us that the achievements of this singular writer were unlikely, precarious, and paid for with great pain.

Charlie Tyson is a writer from North Carolina. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Yale Review, and The Baffler, among other publications. He’s currently writing a book about idleness for Pantheon.