Wednesday, 05 November 2008

"I have no literary interests; something else: I am made of literature." So wrote Kafka on LF 304 and BrF 444. No, I don’t know what those mean either. Princeton only posted Stanley Corngold’s introduction to Franz Kafka: The Office Writings, so the citations function as cryptic references to private files collected, collated, duplicated and made available to people in the employ of a vast bureaucracy.* (Apt, ain’t it?) Corngold likes to pair the titular quotation with nonce word from Br 384 and L 333: Schriftstellersein, which he translates here as “the being of a writer,” but elsewhere [.pdf] as “the condition of being a writer."** His intention, here as at that elsewhere, is to create a continuum between Kafka’s Schriftstellersein and his Beamtensein, or “official self,” that is, between the literature he scratched out between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. and the sanctioned documents he produced at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. Intuitively, this seems as sound as “Petition of the Toy Producers’ Association” sounds like it could adorn one of his short stories. There’s a catch: Kafka didn’t write “Petition of the Toy Producers’ Association,” but “Petition of the Toy Producers’ Association in Katharinaberg, Erzgebirge,” a title whose specificity ruins its effect. It’s a document Kafka never distilled, never labored over as he did his literary work. Not that he wasn’t an able lawyer: on 26 November 1912, he won a settlement of 4,500 kronen on behalf of the Institute, but he did so on a “maddening trip to Kratzau” (LF 64). Why “maddening”? Because it’d interrupted the proper composition of “The Metamorphosis”: This kind of story should be written with no more than one interruption, in two ten-hour sessions; then it would have its natural spontaneous flow . . . . But I haven’t got twice ten hours at my disposal. So one has to try to do the best one can, since the very best has been denied to one. (LF 64) Obviously, Kafka’s emphasis is formal, not rhetorical here--the flow of the story shaped by experience of its composition--but that’s my point: when Kafka stood before the District Court of Kratzau in November 1912, he read a document he’d written to persuade the Court to settle in his favor. It’s no more literary than the fifty-three letters he’d written Felice Bauer in November and December 1912 to persuade her that he would visit, couldn’t visit, wouldn’t visit, must visit, will visit never mind won’t visit her that Christmas. (That’s undecidability in action, folks.***) Not that it isn’t important. As an historicist, I value the documents in the same way I value the letters. But I don’t understand the desire for equivalence here. Kafka may’ve written about and on behalf of bureaucracies, and there’s no small amount of interest in the intersection, but that’s no reason to collapse one into the other. This isn’t like David Foster Wallace’s notes for The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, which are aimed at writers composed in his signature stylistic quirk. Or is it? Talk me down, people,...

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