‘A Tested Man’: Franz Kafka, Inside Out

Kafka's troubled connection with Judaism

schets van Kafka met rechts een vrouw en links twee mannen

“Why don’t I stay within myself?” Franz Kafka wrote in his diary in May of 1910 in a fit of self-recrimination after committing “impertinences” toward a train conductor and one of his employers. He was referring to his inability to conceal his irritation and anger at a world that seemed designed to torture him.

The question also applies to his writing, and if there’s an answer, it’s to be found at last, unabridged and unexpurgated, in The Diaries of Franz Kafka, translated from German into English by Ross Benjamin and published last year. More than three decades after they appeared in a critical edition in German, Kafka’s most private musings are finally available in a full, lucid, sensitive translation, with almost 100 pages of helpful and fascinating notes. It’s a confounding, astounding achievement.

Max Brod’s Kafka

Until now our Kafka has always been Max Brod’s Kafka. Kafka destroyed almost everything he wrote before his death and instructed Brod, his best friend, to burn the rest, unread. Instead, Brod, who spirited away whatever remained on the last train out of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and who settled in Israel, in an act of loving betrayal published it all, or so he had us believe. In fact, Kafka’s works came out piecemeal and fatally distorted, dismembered, and disrespected in the decades that followed. 

After Brod’s death in 1968, his secretary and lover, Esther Hoffe, inherited the manuscripts, and after her death in 2017, they passed on to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth, whose treatment of the archive made Brod’s activities seem exemplary. When it became clear that the manuscripts were being auctioned off one by one, or they might be sold to an archive in Germany, or even worse, were being used to essentially line the cat litter box in Eva’s Tel Aviv apartment, the lawyers moved in, beginning a series of legal proceedings that resembled Kafka’s own dystopian novel The Trial.

Israeli judge

The German Literature Archive in Marbach had the advantage of a high bid and much better facilities for the preservation of the materials, and it was already the home to the papers of a number of major works by major Modernist authors (including Kafka’s original manuscript of The Trial, which Eva Hoffe sold to them for almost $2 million in 1988. But Marbach had the disadvantage in the eyes of many of Kafka’s readers as being, well, in Germany. An Israeli judge made sure the manuscripts ended up in Israel to stay, and since then, little by little, Kafka is finally coming out of Brod’s shadow. (Those interested in the Kafkaesque situation regarding Kafka’s manuscripts – though it seems more like something out of Dickens’s Bleak House – would do well to turn to Elif Batuman’s 2010 article Kafka’s Last Trial, published in the New York Times in 2010, or to Benjamin Balint’s 2018 book of the same name.) 

Kafka tekening, man met zwart hoofd
Drawing Franz Kafka in Zeichnungen

Brod turned a dangerous wilderness into a quiet menagerie

This new edition of the diaries is a revelation, the only other English version of the diaries having been published in the late 1940s by Martin Greenberg (the brother of the art critic Clement Greenberg), and Joseph Kresh, assisted by Hannah Arendt, a version that, because it relied on Brod’s scandalous German-language version of the diaries, is in retrospect simply scandalous. Brod compared his role to that of a surgeon on the battlefield, unsentimental by necessity. Unsentimental, yes, unstrategic, no. Brod “corrected” Kafka’s punctuation, spelling, and style, turning a messy, inconsistent, discontinuous, and unpredictable literary adventure, part diary, part workshop, part laboratory, part confessional, into a well-behaved and shapely chronological endeavor. The short story “The Judgement” appears fully formed, apparently written in one sleepless night, but in general Brod turned a teeming, dangerous wilderness into a quiet, polite menagerie.

The fine line between fact and fiction that Kafka drew in his private notebooks, which contain not only recollections of events but fragments of poetry, short stories, aphorisms, dreams, and plenty of material that is simply uncategorizable, became in Brod’s a wall, high and thick. Brod spared the reader passages that revealed Kafka’s flirtation with homosexuality and his visits to brothels (for more on this topic, see Saul Friedlander’s Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt). 

It was hardly necessary for Brod to elide Kafka’s thoughts about his relations with Felice Bauer, Julie Wohryzek, Milena Jesenská, or Dora Diamant, because the diaries say little about them–and his occasionally less than flattering remarks about Brod himself. From two sheaves of paper and twelve bound notebooks, plus four travel diaries, Brod fashioned a maddeningly discreet, coherent book. The new translation returns the text to its modern, fragmented, halting, incomplete, inconsistent form. It’s not easy to read, but then again, neither was its author. 

Woke up, slept, woke up, miserable life

Brod was less interested in myth-making, it seems, than deification, but one thing the new edition of the diaries makes clear is that we’ll never have much clarity about who exactly Kafka was. No one will be surprised to find the diaries full of boredom, despair, terror, dissatisfaction, anger, frustration, and restlessness.  Kafka, a champion hypochondriac, makes much of his sleeplessness, headaches, indigestion, rashes, fatigue, and nausea. He repeatedly and ironically bemoans his lack of productivity: “Woke up, slept, woke up, miserable life,” he writes.

The self-consciousness, self-loathing, and self-torment is simply heart-breaking. He writes in 1911 of the comfort of “imagining a knife twisted in my heart.”  He wrote to a prospective father-in-law: “I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else.” But Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” was only drawn only in part from real life, and it was a very full life. He was, also, we learn, a very funny and social fellow, who very much enjoyed swimming (at least once naked), hiking, gardening, sledding, going to the movies, and drinking beer with friends. Clearly, Kafka was no van Gogh or Emily Dickinson. Instead, this was a convivial and ambitious writer who showed up for work every day, spent his evenings at the theater with friends, and went home to stay up all night and read Goethe or Dickens or Dostoevsky and write the six books or dozens of articles that were published in his lifetime. Still, instead of a Kafka with rough edges, we now know what we suspected all along: Kafka was nothing but rough edges. 

Yiddish theater in Prague

Much has been made of how devoted Kafka was to the theater, in particular to a Polish troupe that performed in Yiddish in Prague – he saw them no fewer than 20 times and became good friends with the troupe’s director and star actor, Jizchak Löwy, who at times seems to rival Brod as Kafka’s closest friend. Kafka even arranged opportunities for Löwy to tell his stories on stage, performances that Kafka, whom we otherwise know as a world-class wallflower, introduced in Yiddish!

But it is Kafka’s Judaism, mediated in an important sense through Löwy, that perhaps more than any other element of his life gives shape to the diaries. It was an obsession that was deeply conflicted, carried out under the sign of his brutally assimilationist, almost anti-semitic father, who saw Yiddish and the world of Yiddishkeit as unacceptably backwards, improper, and embarrassing. That seems to be the source of some of Judeophobic diary entries that Brod excised.

Kafka’s Zionism

As much as Brod wanted Kafka to make aliyah, he also wanted his best friend to transcend the world of Jewish writing. Brod’s heavy hand as an editor resulted not simply in the elision of much of what Kafka had to say about Judaism, but the substantial rewriting of many passages, especially those that concerned Zionism, about which Kafka was definitely of two minds. “I admire Zionism and am appalled by it,” he writes. No wonder a 1922 list of activities that he failed at included both Zionism and anti-Zionism.

Kafka famously denied any sort of organic and untroubled connection with Judaism. What could he have in common with the Jews, he claimed, when he had hardly anything in common with himself? But it’s not clear whether what we called his “we-weakness” indicated an inability to identify along tribal lines or a tendency to do so.  In the end, if Kafka wasn’t quite German and he wasn’t quite Czech, he wasn’t quite Jewish either, which perhaps makes him more Jewish after all. For Kafka, to be outside the outsider wasn’t being an insider.

We tend to see Kafka as our model not only for the modernist fictional character, but, even more than with Proust or Joyce, for the modernist artist who seeks to escape not only religion, but family, and nation. The diaries make clear that we were wrong: Kafka wasn’t representative of anything, not even himself: He defied his father by embracing Judaism, however unsuccessfully and partially. 


The language in which Kafka lived (like Dutch) has no word of its own for “privacy.” Rather, it borrows (like Dutch) from English, which itself uses a word borrowed from French, which derives from the Latin “privatus,” or “set apart,” which we might associate with “kadosh,” the Hebrew for “holy.” Or we can trace things back even further to the Latin verb “privare,” meaning to “release,” “deliver,” even “liberate.” We associate freedom with wide open spaces, but Kafka seems to have sought his deliverance in the tormented private confines of his notebooks. 

book cover Franz Kafka: The Diaries, trans. Ross Benjamin. Schocken, 2022

Privacy is of course the watchword of our time. We’ve never been so obsessed with it, even as we have enjoy less and less of it, and in this sense, as in so many others, Kafka got there before us. For someone who wanted to disappear, Kafka spent most of his time and effort, it seems, making sure he would be ubiquitous and immortal and totally unpredictable, just like you know who.

Further revelation

This new edition of Kafka’s private musings has been celebrated as a revelation, and rightly so. But we expect revelations to simplify things, and with this edition of Kafka’s diaries, we have no final truths about the man and his work, but an invitation to further revelation, much like the endlessly receding doorways in his parable “Before the Law.” This has as much to do with the nature of modern man as it does with this one particular modern man, perhaps the most modern of them all, whose alienation would be understandable, if he had something to be alienated from, hence the passage in which he mourns “the feeling of falseness I have when writing.” 

Sometimes, there’s nothing as true as one of Kafka’s lies.

Postscript: Two weeks ago I incorrectly described in this article in De Vrijdagavond the history of the publication, or accurately the almost total absence thereof, of Kafka’s artwork. I’m grateful to Emmy van Swaaij for pointing me toward the 2003 publication of Einmal ein grosser Zeichner: Franz Kafka als beeldende kunstenaar, edited by Niels Bokhoven and Marijke van Dorst, published in 2007 in English as A Great Artist One Day: Franz Kafka as a Pictorial Artist  

Franz Kafka: The Diaries, trans. Ross Benjamin. Schocken, 2022

Images: ©The National Library of Israel

Over Jonathan Gill 12 Artikelen
Jonathan Gill received his PhD from Columbia University in American literature and has taught literature, history, and writing at Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Fordham University, the City College of New York, and Amsterdam University College. He specialises in post-World War II art, film and literature, African-American history and culture, experimental and vernacular musics, the counterculture of the 1960s, the literature of immigration and the cultures of intolerance. He has also taught Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam, and has written and lectured widely on Judaism and Jewish culture. His book "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America" (Grove/Atlantic 2011), has been a New York Times best-seller. In 2020 he published "Hollywood Double Agent" (Abrams, hardcover 9781419740091) on espionage in Hollywood during the Cold War.

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