Facsimile of the first page of the diaries.
The following is drawn from Ross Benjamin’s translation of the complete, uncensored diaries of Franz Kafka, to be published by Schocken Books in January 2023. Benjamin sought to preserve the diaries’ distinctive writing, including its rough edges and inconsistencies. This excerpt contains diary entries from late March to late September 1911.
Kafka returned to his diary in August shortly before a trip to Switzerland, northern Italy, and Paris with Max Brod, his fellow writer and intimate friend. He wrote his notes on that trip in a separate travel diary. After parting from Brod, Kafka stayed at the naturopathic sanatorium Erlenbach near Zurich. When he returned to Prague, Brod brought him together with the painter, graphic artist, and writer Alfred Kubin (1877–1959), probably on September 26, the day of Kafka’s entry recording this encounter.
My visit to Dr. Steiner.
A woman is already waiting (upstairs on the 3rd floor of the Viktoria Hotel on Jungmannsstrasse) but implores me to go in before her. We wait. The secretary comes and holds out hope to us. Glancing down a corridor, I see him. A moment later he comes toward us with arms half spread. The woman declares that I was here first. Now I walk behind him as he leads me into his room. His black frock coat, which on lecture evenings appears polished, (not polished, but only shiny due to its pure black) is now in the light of day (3 o’clock in the afternoon) dusty and even stained especially on the back and shoulders. In his room I try to show my humility, which I cannot feel, by looking for a ridiculous place for my hat; I put it on a small wooden stand for lacing boots. Table in the middle, I sit facing the window, he on the left side of the table. On the table some papers with a few drawings, which recall those from the lectures on occult physiology. A magazine Annalen für Naturphilosophie covers a small pile of books, which seem to be lying around elsewhere too. Only you can’t look around, because he keeps trying to hold you with his gaze. But whenever he doesn’t do so, you have to watch out for the return of the gaze. He begins with a few loose sentences: So you’re Dr. Kafka? Have you been interested in theosophy long? But I press forward with my prepared speech: I feel a large part of my being striving toward theosophy, but at the same time I have the utmost fear of it. I’m afraid, namely, that it will bring about a new confusion, which would be very bad for me since my present unhappiness itself consists of nothing but confusion. This confusion lies in the following: My happiness, my abilities and any possibility of being in some way useful have always resided in the literary realm. And here I have, to be sure, experienced states (not many) that are in my opinion very close to the clairvoyant states described by you Herr Doktor, in which I dwelled completely in every idea, but also filled every idea and in which I felt myself not only at my own limits, but at the limits of the human in general. Only the calm of enthusiasm, which is probably peculiar to the clairvoyant, was still missing from those states, even if not entirely. I conclude this from the fact that I have not written the best of my works in those states.—I cannot now devote myself fully to this literary realm, as would be necessary, and indeed for various reasons. Leaving aside my family circumstances, I couldn’t live off literature if for no other reason than the slow emergence of my works and their special character; moreover, my health and my character also hinder me from devoting myself to what is in the most favorable case an uncertain life. I have therefore become an official in a social insurance institute. Now these two professions could never tolerate each other and permit a shared happiness. The least happiness in one becomes a great unhappiness in the other. If I have written something good one evening, I am aflame the next day in the office and can accomplish nothing. This back-and-forth keeps getting worse. In the office I outwardly live up to my duties, but not my inner duties and every unfulfilled inner duty turns into an unhappiness that never leaves me. And to these two never-to-be-balanced endeavors am I now to add theosophy as a third? Won’t it disturb both sides and itself be disturbed by both? Will I, already at present such an unhappy person be able to bring the 3 to a conclusion? I have come Herr Doktor to ask you this, for I sense that, if you consider me capable of it, I could actually take it on.
He listened very attentively, without appearing to observe me at all, completely devoted to my words. He nodded from time to time, which he seems to consider an aid to strong concentration. At first a quiet head cold bothered him, his nose was running, he kept working the handkerchief deep into his nose, one finger at each nostril
Since in contemporary Western European Jewish stories the reader has grown accustomed to immediately seeking and finding under or over the story the solution to the Jewish question too, but in “Jüdinnen” such a solution is not shown or even presumed, it is possible that the reader will without further ado recognize in this a deficiency of “Jüdinnen,” and will look on only reluctantly if Jews are supposed to be walking around in the light of day without political encouragement from past or future. Here he must tell himself that, especially since the rise of Zionism, the possibilities for a solution are so clearly arrayed around the Jewish problem that in the end a turn of the writer’s body is all that’s required to find a particular solution appropriate to the part of the problem under consideration.
I sensed at the sight of him what pains he had taken for my sake, which now—perhaps only because he was weary—gave him this certainty. Wouldn’t another little exertion have sufficed and the deception would have worked, perhaps worked even now. Did I defend myself, then? I did stand stubbornly here outside the house, but just as stubbornly I hesitated to go up. Was I waiting until the guests would come, singing, to fetch me?
15 August 1911 The time that has now gone by, in which I haven’t written a word, has been important for me because at the swimming schools in Prague, Königssaal and Czernoschitz I have stopped being ashamed of my body. How late I catch up on my education now at the age of 28, it would be called a delayed start in a race. And perhaps the harm of such a misfortune consists not in the fact that you don’t win; that is actually only the still visible, clear, sound kernel of the misfortune, which goes on to blur and become boundless, driving you, who should run around the circle, into the interior of the circle. Aside from that I have also noticed many other things about myself in this time, which has to a small extent also been happy, and will try to write them down in the next few days.
20 VIII 11
I have the unhappy belief that I don’t have time for the slightest good work, for I really don’t have time to spread myself out in all directions for a story, as I would have to. But then I believe again that my trip will turn out better, that I will take things in better, if I’m loosened up by a little writing and so I try again.
I sensed at the sight of him what pains he had taken for my sake, which now, perhaps only because he was weary, gave him this certainty. Wouldn’t another little exertion have sufficed and the deception would have worked, perhaps worked even now. Did I defend myself, then? I did stand stubbornly here outside the house, but just as stubbornly I hesitated to go up. Was I waiting until the guests came, singing, to fetch me?
I have been reading about Dickens. Is it so hard and can an outsider comprehend that one experiences a story in oneself from its beginning from the distant point to the approaching locomotive of steel, coal and steam, even now does not abandon it but wants to be chased by it and, having time for this, is chased by it and runs in front of it by one’s own impetus wherever it thrusts and wherever one lures it.
I can’t understand and can’t even believe it. I live only here and there in a little word, in whose vowel (“thrusts” above), for example, I lose my useless head for a moment. First and last letter are beginning and end of my fishlike feeling.
24 August 1911
Sitting with acquaintances outdoors at a coffeehouse table and looking at a woman at the next table who has just arrived, breathes heavily under large breasts and with a heated shiny brownish face sits down. She leans her head back, a heavy down becomes visible, she turns her eyes upward, almost in the way she might sometimes look at her husband, who is now reading an illustrated paper next to her. If only one could persuade her that next to one’s wife in a coffeehouse one is permitted to read at most a newspaper but never a magazine. A moment makes her aware of her corpulence and she moves away from the table a little.
26 Aug. (1911) Tomorrow I’m supposed to leave for Italy. This evening my father was so agitated that he couldn’t fall asleep, because he was completely stricken with worry about the shop and with his thereby awakened illness. A wet cloth on his heart, nausea, shortness of breath, sighing while walking back and forth. My mother in her fear finds new consolation. He has always been so energetic, he has always gotten over everything and now—I say that the misery with the shop could last only another ¼ year, then everything should be all right. He walks up and down sighing and shaking his head. It’s clear that from his point of view his worries are not taken off his shoulders or so much as lightened by us, but even from our point of view they are not, even in our best intentions there’s some conviction, however sad, that he must provide for his family.—Later I thought, he is lying beside my mother, let him press himself against her, close kindred flesh must be soothing.—With his frequent yawning or his incidentally not unappetizing reaching into his nose, my father produces a slight scarcely perceptible reassurance about his condition, although when he is well he in general doesn’t do this. Ottla has confirmed this for me.—My poor mother wants to go to the landlord tomorrow to beg.
26 Sept. 1911 The artist Kubin recommends Regulin as a laxative, a crushed seaweed that swells in the intestine makes it tremble, thus acts mechanically in contrast to the unhealthy chemical effect of other laxatives, which merely tear through the feces thus leave them clinging to the intestinal walls.—He met Hamsun at Langen’s. He smirks for no reason. During the conversation, without interrupting it, he lifted his foot onto his knee, took a large pair of paper scissors from the table and cut off the fringes of his pants all around. Shabbily dressed with some more valuable detail such as a tie.—Stories of an artists’ boardinghouse in Munich where painters and veterinarians lived (the school for the latter was nearby) and where things were so dissolute that the windows of the house across the street, from where there was a good view were rented out. To satisfy these spectators, a boarder would sometimes jump onto the windowsill and spoon up his soup pot in a monkey posture.—A maker of false antiques who made them look weathered by riddling them with shot and who said of a table: Now we have to drink coffee on it three more times, then it can be sent off to the Innsbruck museum.—Kubin himself: very strong, but somewhat uniform movement of his face, with the same muscle tension he describes the most varied things. Looks different in age, size and strength depending on whether he is sitting, standing up, has on just a suit or an overcoat
Thurs 27 IX 11 Yesterday on Wenzelsplatz encountered 2 girls, kept my eyes too long on one of them, while it was the other who, as became apparent too late, was wearing a wide brown pleated coat as soft as household attire and a little open in front, had a delicate neck and delicate nose. Her hair was in an already forgotten way beautiful.—Old man with loosely hanging pants on the Belvedere. He whistles; when I look at him, he stops; if I look away, he begins again; finally he whistles even when I look at him.—The beautiful large button beautifully attached at the bottom of the sleeve of a girl’s dress. The dress worn beautifully too floating over American boots. How rarely I achieve something beautiful and this unnoticed button and its unknowing dressmaker achieve it.—The storyteller on the way to the Belvedere, whose lively eyes independent of the words she was saying at the moment contentedly surveyed her story to its end—Powerful half turn of the neck of a strong girl,
29 IX 11 Goethe’s diaries: A person who has no diary is in a false position in the face of a diary. When, for example, he reads in Goethe’s diaries “11 I 1797 busy at home all day with various arrangements” it seems to him as if he himself had never done so little in a day.—Goethe’s travel observations different from today’s, because made from a mail coach with the slow changes of the terrain they develop more simply and can be followed much more easily even by someone who doesn’t know those regions. A calm positively scenic thinking sets in. Since the region presents itself unharmed in its native character to the passenger in the carriage and the country roads too cut through the country much more naturally than the railroad tracks, to which they perhaps stand in the same relation as rivers to canals, no violence is required from the viewer either and without great effort he can see systematically. Hence there are few momentary observations, mostly only indoors where certain people immediately surge up boundlessly before one’s eyes, such as Austrian officers in Heidelberg, on the other hand the passage about the men in Wiesenheim is closer to the landscape “they wear blue coats and white vests adorned with woven flowers” (quoted from memory). Wrote down a lot about the Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen in the middle in larger letters “Excited ideas”
Cabaret Lucerna. Lucie König displays photographs with old hairstyles. Worn face. Sometimes she achieves something with her nose thrust high, with her arm upraised and a turn of all her fingers. Flabby face.—Longhen (painter Pittermann) comic facial expressions. A performance that is obviously without enthusiasm and yet cannot be thought so listless, because then it couldn’t be carried out every evening, especially since even when it was invented it was so listless that no satisfactory schema arose that would make the quite frequent appearance of the whole person unnecessary. Pretty clown-jump over a chair into the emptiness of the wings. The whole thing is reminiscent of a presentation in private company where one applauds an arduous insignificant performance with particular vigor out of social necessity, to ensure that the minus of the performance is evenly rounded off by the plus of the applause.—Singer Vašata. So bad that one loses oneself in the sight of him. But because he is a strong person, he still keeps the audience’s attention halfway concentrated with an animal power undoubtedly perceived only by me.—Grünbaum is effective with the supposedly only apparent hopelessness of his existence.—Odys dancer. Stiff hips. Real fleshlessness. To me red knees suit the dance “Frühlingsstimmung.”
Ross Benjamin’s translations include Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion, Joseph Roth’s Job, and Daniel Kehlmann’s You Should Have Left and Tyll. He was awarded the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for his rendering of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov, and he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on Franz Kafka’s diaries.
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