I have reached one of the parts of Stach’s biography that I been eagerly anticipating—his discussions of Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks. In the winter of 1916-1917, Kafka’s youngest sister, Ottla, rents a small house in Alchimistengasse (Alchemists’ Alley) in a section of Old Prague. “A room with an open hearth in a tiny basement, grimy and dilapidated, for a mere twenty kornen,” Stach says. Ottla rented it in secret and it was to serve as a little oasis, away from her parents, away from the family shop, for a few hours a day. She generously shared her space with her brother and Kafka loved the quiet and solitude of this space; while visiting this simple hideaway, at the height of winter and world war, he had one of his most productive writing periods. During this time, Kafka started writing in octavo notebooks instead of his diary. As usual, Stach’s description of these notebooks is perfect:
Four unlined octavo volumes, each about eighty pages in length—a compact size suitable for carrying around town in his breast pocket—have been preserved from the winter of 1916 to 1917. Two additional notebooks that Kafka must have used are missing.
These nondescript pads, which are filled with writing down to the last page (Kafka scholars refer to them as the Octavo Notebooks A through D), offer a startling and confusing sight: long, short, and very brief entries, prose and dialogue, a couple of lines of poetry, dated and undated texts, normal handwriting randomly alternating with shorthand, a scattering of headings, entire pages crossed out, word-for-word repetitions, disjointed sentences, fluid transitions and long dividing lines punctuated by doodles, mysterious names, an address, drafts of letters, a checklist of errands, torn out and mixed up pages, a random slip of paper…everything looking as though he had spread his papers out all over the floor while writing.
There is something decidedly different about reading these notebooks. They are profound, sad and contemplative. I have enjoyed reading them more than another other of Kafka’s writings. I share with you a few of my favorite pieces from the first few notebooks:
October 18, 1917:
Dread of night. Dread of not-night.
Celibacy and suicide are on similar levels of understanding, suicide and a martyr’s death not so by any means, perhaps marriage and a martyr’s death.
It could be imagined that Alexander the Great, in spite of his youthful triumphs in warfare, in spite of the superb army he built up, in spite of the energies he felt in himself that were directed to transforming the world, might have halted at the Hellespont and not have crossed it, and this not from fear, not from irresolution, not from weakness of will, but from the force of gravity.
Weariness does not necessarily signify weakness of faith—or does it? In any case weariness signifies insufficiency. I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me. But if, for instance, I read a good book, say an account of travels, it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me. Proofs that previously I did not include this book in my eternity, or had not pushed on far enough ahead to have an intuitive glimpse of the eternity that necessarily includes this book as well. —From a certain state of knowledge [Erkenntnis] on, weariness, insufficiency, constriction, self contempt, must all vanish: namely at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature what previously was something alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.
The edition of the Blue Octavo Notebooks I have were edited by Max Brod and translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins.