The Poet Speaks #14: Kafka Tries Again & Again

Here are some bits from Kafka’s Diaries, trying & failing to harmonize his writing life with his family and work life. All writers have been to some version of this, but few things are as heartbreaking as reading Kafka’s version of it. The first entry is one of the few moments of real elation he was able to document, one of the few times it actually all worked:

23 September [1912]. This story, “The Judgment,” I wrote at one sitting during the night of the 22nd-23rd, from ten o’clock at night to six o’clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water. Several times during this night I heaved my own weight on my back. How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again. How it turned blue outside the window. A wagon rolled by. Two men walked across the bridge. At two I looked at the clock for the last time. As the maid walked through the anteroom for the first time I wrote the last sentence. Turning out the light and the light of day. The slight pains around my heart. The weariness that disappeared in the middle of the night. The trembling entrance into my sisters’ room. Reading aloud. Before that, stretching in the presence of the maid and saying, “I’ve been writing until now.”  The appearance of the undisturbed bed, as though it had just been brought in. The conviction verified that with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing. Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.


When I began to write after a rather long interval, I draw the words as if out of the empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone and all the toil must begin anew.


The end of one chapter a failure; another chapter, which began beautifully, I shall hardly—or rather certainly not—be able to continue as beautifully, while at the time, during the night, I should certainly have succeeded with it. But I must not forsake myself, I am entirely alone.


I believe this sleeplessness comes only because I write. For no matter how little and how badly I write, I am still made sensitive by these minor shocks, feel, especially towards evening and even more in the morning, the approaching, the imminent possibility of great moments which would tear me open, which could make me capable of anything, and in the general uproar that is within  me and which I have no time to command, find no rest. In the end this uproar is only a suppressed, restrained harmony, which, left free, would fill me completely, which could even widen me and yet still fill me. But now such a moment arouses only feeble hopes and does me harm, for my being does not have sufficient strength of the capacity to hold the present mixture, during the day the visible word helps me, during the night it cuts me to pieces unhindered.


My job is unbearable to me because it conflicts with my only desire and my only calling, which is literature. Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me, it may, however, shatter me completely, and this is by no means a remote possibility. Nervous states of the worst sort control me without pause, and this year of worry and torment about my and your daughter’s future has revealed to the full my inability to resist. You might ask why I do not give up this job and—I have no money—do not try to support myself by literary work. To this I can make only the miserable reply that I don’t have the strength for it, and that, as far as I can see, I shall instead be destroyed by this job, and destroyed quickly.


Conclusions can at least be drawn from the sort of life I lead at home.  Well, I live in my family, among the best and most lovable people, more strange than a stranger.  I have not spoken an average of twenty words a day to my mother these last years, hardly ever said more than hello to my father.  I do not speak at all to my married sisters and my brothers-in-law, and not because I have anything against them.  The reason for it is simply this, that I have not the slightest thing to talk to them about.  Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it, for it disturbs me or delays me, if only because I think it does.  I lack all aptitude for family life except, at best, as an observer.  I have no family feeling and visitors make me almost feel as though I were maliciously being attacked. A marriage could not change me, just as my job cannot change me.

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