Writing as self-torture

January 3, 2020 0 Comments

In Prague Franz Kafka, then 28 years old, wrote this paragraph in his diary on 12 October 1911:

Yesterday at Max’s [Max Brod, K’s close friend] wrote in the Paris diary [K visited Paris in September 1911].  In the half-darkness of Rittergasse, in her autumn outfit, fat, warm R. whom we have known only in her summer blouse and thin, blue simmer jacket, in which a girl with a not entirely faultless appearance is, after all, worse than naked.  Then you really were able to see the large nose in her bloodless face and the cheeks to which you could have pressed your hands for a long time before any redness appeared, the heavy blonde down which heaped itself up on the cheek and upper lip, the railway dust which had strayed between the nose and cheek, and the sickly whiteness where her blouse was cut away.  Today, however, we ran after her respectfully, and when I had to make my farewells at the entrance to a house that went through to Ferdinandstrasse (I was unshaven and otherwise shabby in appearance), I afterward felt a few slight impulses of affection for her.  And when I considered why, I had to keep telling myself: because she was so warmly dressed.

As in many other entries in the diaries Kafka isn’t just making a throwaway note here of something he’s happened to see.  He’s carefully trying out his emerging literary craft.  Similar passages appear in the diaries in several succeeding drafts, and a version of this paragraph found its way into an early, unfinished novel, Richard and Samuel.  It bears the characteristic marks of Kafka the man and writer: extreme precision and complexity of language, pathological physical closeness, a disgust that barely disguises self-disgust, a deeply troubled attitude to women.  The piece itself troubled Kafka.  The next day, 13 October 1911, he returns to it in another entry:

I didn’t consider the description of R. good, but nevertheless it must have been better than I thought, or my impression of R. the day before yesterday must have been so incomplete that the description was adequate to it or even surpassed it.  For when I went home last night the description came to my mind for a moment, imperceptibly replaced the original impression and I felt that I had seen R. only yesterday, and indeed without Max, so that I prepared myself to tell him about her just as I have described her here for myself.

Max Brod

Writing transmutes its raw materials, even to the extent of cancelling them, or the memory of them.   The thought that the description might ‘surpass’ the original observation may be attractive, but it raises worrying questions.  And yet the writer needs to free himself from experience to achieve anything worthwhile in his writing.  On 20 October Kafka is back at Max’s and trying again to write about his Paris trip: ‘Wrote badly, without really arriving at that freedom of true description which releases one’s foot from the experience’.

When Kafka does succeed in completing a work, the only outcome is embarrassment and disappointment.  On 3 November he listens, horrified, as Max reads one of his stories:

The bitterness I felt yesterday evening when Max read my little motor-car story at Baum’s.  I was isolated from everyone and in the face of the story I kept my chin pressed against my breast, as it were.   The disordered sentences of this story with holes into which one could stick both hands; one sentence sounds high, one sentence sounds low, as the case may be, one sentence rubs against another like the tongue against a hollow or false tooth; one sentence comes marching up with so rough a start that the entire story falls into sulky amazement …

By the end of the year things are no better.  In a diary entry for 27 December Kafka is still worrying about how to match experience and creation:

My feeling when I write something that is wrong might be depicted as follows: in front of two holes in the ground a man is waiting for something to appear that can rise up only out of the hole on his right.   But while this hole remains covered over by a dimly visible lid, one thing after another rises up out of the hole on his left, keeps trying to attract his attention … How weak this picture is.  An incoherent assumption is thrust like a board between the actual feeling and the metaphor of the description.

Yet, over the next twelve years Kafka overcomes his writing demons enough to produce his masterworks, The trial, The castle, Metamorphosis, In the penal colony and many other classics of twentieth century literature – even if almost all of them had to wait for publication until Max Brod had ignored his deathbed order to burn the manuscripts.  By the time of the last diary entry, on 12 June 1923, Kafka is mortally ill with tuberculosis.  In it he returns to the horrors of putting pen to paper.  But the very last sentence seems, finally, to come as close as Kafka can to making a defiant defence of the writer’s art:

More and more fearful as I write.  It is understandable.  Every word, twisted in the hands of the spirits – this twist of the hand is their characteristic gesture – becomes a spear turned against the speaker.  Most especially a remark like this.  Ans so ad infinitum.  The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no.  Ans what you like is of infinitesimally little help.  More of a consolation is: you too have weapons.

Note  The diaries of Franz Kafka, edited by Max Brod and first published in 1948, are a painful but rewarding read.  They mix observations, reviews, drafts, aphorisms, travelogues, dreams, portraits, cartoons and self-analysis.  As a writer’s anguished self-portrait they are hard to beat.

Franz Kafka monument, Prague

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