What more can really be said about Kafka’s writing? I feel almost embarrassed to share my thoughts about this new volume of translations by Michael Hofmann; there will be nothing new or earthshattering here, but I am hoping that fellow Kafka lovers will at least be happy to stumble across another devotee. Please go easy on me as I offer my humble observations on this collection!
One of the descriptions about Kafka that I have found most fascinating is that of his writing schedule. Since he was an office worker at an insurance agency for most of his adult life, he was limited to writing at night and, as a result, got very little sleep. It seems he truly suffered and sacrificed in order to do the one task in the world that he loved. In a letter to Felice dated November 1, 1912, Kafka describes his daily routine which includes work, exercise, walks with his friend Max, and writing from 10:30 p.m. until 1, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. How can one not have the utmost admiration for the work ethic of such a man? Unfortunately for Felice, however, nothing and no one in his life would ever be as important as Kafka’s writing. In the introduction to his new translations of Kafka’s short prose, Hofmann writes about the author’s daily habits: “He devised for himself a life that was largely disagreeable, inflexible, and inescapable, and tried to make it productive.”
Many of the stories in this collection feel as if Kafka wrote for as long as could into the early hours of the morning and due to tiredness or further lack of inspiration he stopped working and never returned to finish them. Although Kafka’s short prose included in this volume are likely beginnings of stories or parts of what would have been longer pieces, the writing is creative, profound and philosophical. A few of the stories were particularly dark and melancholy and left me desperately wanting more. For instance, in “Blumfeld The Elderly Bachelor,” the story starts simply and humorously with a man returning to his flat after work, alone and wishing he had some kind of companion. He contemplates getting a dog to keep him company, but quickly decides that the fleas, dirt and other messes involved would disrupt his orderly lifestyle. The rigidity of Blumfeld’s daily routine felt as inflexible as Kafka’s description of his own bachelor lifestyle.
One evening, as Blumfeld is arriving home he hears a strange noise and upon entering his apartment he finds two bouncing balls. The balls follow him around the apartment, incessantly moving and making noise and he is uneasy to find that he suddenly has two constant, annoying companions. He comes up with a brilliant idea to give the balls away to his charwoman’s ten-year-old son, so he entrusts the boy with the keys to his apartment and requests that the child fetch them while Blumfeld is at work.
When Blumfeld feels that he has a successful plan to get rid of the balls, the scene and topics of the story change abruptly. Blumfeld forgets about the balls and arrives at work in a linen factory where he is viewed as an obstinate, crabby man who does not work well with others. He is condescending to his two interns and he doesn’t trust them to do even the most menial tasks. The story ends with Blumfeld’s intern trying to wrestle a broom from a janitor so that he can avoid doing any work for Blumfled. Kafka’s story is an interesting and sad commentary on the monotony of working in an office factory. But what about the balls from Blumfeld’s apartment? Did the boy ever successfully extract them? Or were they able to entertain Blumfeld and offer some interest and companionship to his dull, lonely life?
“Texts on the Hunter Gracchus Theme,” “Building the Great Wall of China” and “Investigations of a Dog” were my other favorite stories in this collection. They all have themes of restriction, as each person or animal is caught in a situation he feels he cannot easily escape. The Hunter Gracchus particularly stood out because the main character is caught in a state of limbo, neither fully dead nor alive. Is that how Kafka viewed his life, his office job and his routine?
What are your favorites of Kafka’s short prose?