Franz Kaf­ka, self-por­trait, 1911

Franz Kafka’s diaries, which he kept between 1909 and 1923, reveal the unspar­ing self-exam­i­na­tion and wide-rang­ing lit­er­ary inven­tion of one of the most vision­ary and influ­en­tial fig­ures of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture. My trans­la­tion gives Eng­lish-speak­ing read­ers access to the com­plete, uncen­sored diaries for the first time. Where­as the sole pre­vi­ous Eng­lish ver­sion, first pub­lished in 1948 – 49, was based on a bowd­ler­ized and sub­stan­tial­ly altered Ger­man edi­tion pre­pared by Kafka’s lit­er­ary execu­tor, Max Brod, my ren­der­ing is based on the orig­i­nal text of Kafka’s hand­writ­ten note­books, as faith­ful­ly tran­scribed in the 1990 Ger­man crit­i­cal edi­tion. Kafka’s unex­pur­gat­ed, undis­tort­ed diaries open a win­dow into his inner life and cre­ative process in all their com­plex­i­ty. Brod’s intru­sions dimin­ished that com­plex­i­ty in the ser­vice of Kafka’s posthu­mous sanctification.

A pro­lif­ic writer and crit­ic, Brod had been Kafka’s clos­est friend from their uni­ver­si­ty days until Kafka’s untime­ly death from laryn­geal tuber­cu­lo­sis in 1924. Defy­ing his tes­ta­men­tary wish­es to burn all the diaries, man­u­scripts, let­ters … sketch­es, and so on” he left behind, Brod instead applied a heavy edi­to­r­i­al hand to this dis­ar­ray of dis­parate mate­r­i­al, which he brought into print over the next sev­er­al decades. With his inter­ven­tions, Brod min­i­mized the frag­men­tary, unpol­ished nature of Kafka’s man­u­scripts and emend­ed the pecu­liar­i­ties and unortho­dox­ies of his writ­ing. In doing so, Brod was not only fab­ri­cat­ing more cohe­sive, smooth­ly read­able edi­tions, but also fash­ion­ing a saint­ly image of Kaf­ka as a pure lit­er­ary artist at a remove from the world.

Much of what Brod cen­sored in the diaries was pre­cise­ly what com­pli­cates this pic­ture. Notably, he down­played the com­plex­i­ty of Kafka’s rela­tion­ship to sex, cam­ou­flag­ing or san­i­tiz­ing sev­er­al pas­sages that recount vis­its to broth­els. In one descrip­tion of a sex work­er, for exam­ple, he cut the sen­tence, Hair runs thick­ly from her navel to her pri­vate parts,” pre­sum­ably because he deemed the lewd car­nal­i­ty of the diarist’s gaze unbe­fit­ting of the pious Kaf­ka myth. A num­ber of the omit­ted por­tions were homo­erot­ic, such as a diary entry Kaf­ka wrote dur­ing his stay at a nud­ist sana­to­ri­um: 2 beau­ti­ful Swedish boys with long legs, which are so formed and taut that one could real­ly only run one’s tongue along them.”

Brod was not only fab­ri­cat­ing more cohe­sive, smooth­ly read­able edi­tions, but also fash­ion­ing a saint­ly image of Kaf­ka as a pure lit­er­ary artist at a remove from the world.

Telling­ly, Brod was as inclined to tam­per with pas­sages impli­cat­ing Kafka’s Jew­ish­ness as he was with those impli­cat­ing his sex­u­al­i­ty. In these areas, at least, it was as if pro­tect­ing Kafka’s sanc­ti­ty depend­ed on neu­tral­iz­ing the rig­or of his own self-scruti­ny. In two suc­ces­sive entries from Octo­ber 1911, Jew­ish and sex­u­al mat­ters con­verged — and Brod man­aged to fend off the per­ceived dou­ble threat with a sin­gle stroke of the pen. In the first of the entries, writ­ten on Yom Kip­pur, Kafka’s obser­va­tions of his fel­low con­gre­gants at Prague’s Old New Syn­a­gogue dur­ing the pre­vi­ous evening’s Kol Nidre ser­vice were tinged with mock­ery of their false piety. To top it all off, he men­tioned the pres­ence of the fam­i­ly of the broth­el own­er.” In the next entry, he record­ed his impres­sions of that very broth­el, which he had fre­quent­ed a few days ear­li­er: In the Suha b. [broth­el] three days ago.” Sim­ply by delet­ing the name of the estab­lish­ment and Kafka’s abbre­vi­at­ed B.” for Bor­dell or broth­el — since noth­ing else in the account indi­cat­ed explic­it­ly what sort of place it was — Brod erased the con­nec­tion with the fam­i­ly of the broth­el own­er” in the pre­ced­ing entry. As a result, the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Brod’s adap­ta­tion even saw fit to replace the def­i­nite arti­cle with an indef­i­nite: the fam­i­ly of a broth­el own­er” (empha­sis added). What Kaf­ka actu­al­ly wrote sug­gest­ed that, as a recent patron of the broth­el, he shared in the impu­ri­ty he found in the syn­a­gogue, that there he (char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly) rec­og­nized him­self in his iron­ic reg­is­ter­ing of the hypocrisy sur­round­ing him. Brod’s manip­u­la­tion of the text was typ­i­cal of his over­all approach in its ele­va­tion of Kaf­ka to a more dis­tant, uncom­pro­mised height.

In con­trast to Kafka’s crit­i­cal appraisal of his fel­low Prague Jews, his atti­tudes toward the mem­bers of a trav­el­ing Yid­dish the­ater troupe from Lem­berg, whom he came to know when they gave a series of guest per­for­mances in Prague between 1911 and 1912, were gen­er­al­ly pos­i­tive and open-mind­ed. As reflect­ed in the many diary pages devot­ed to their per­for­mances, of which Kaf­ka attend­ed more than twen­ty, they inspired his enthu­si­asm and fas­ci­na­tion. He grew enam­ored of more than one of the actress­es, and formed par­tic­u­lar­ly close ties with the actor Jizchak Löwy. In his diaries, he repro­duced Löwy’s sto­ries of Jew­ish life in War­saw. He also not­ed his father’s den­i­gra­tion of his friend: Löwy — My father about him: He who lies down in bed with dogs gets up with bugs.” (It’s unclear whether Kafka’s father or the writer him­self is respon­si­ble for the uncon­ven­tion­al phras­ing of the usu­al idiom about dogs and fleas.) 

This com­ment echoed antipathies that were rife among Prague’s assim­i­lat­ed, Ger­man-speak­ing Jew­ish bour­geoisie — of which Her­mann Kaf­ka was a rep­re­sen­ta­tive — toward Jews from the East who spoke Yid­dish and came from an impov­er­ished shtetl milieu. It’s strik­ing that, in his con­tempt, Her­mann Kaf­ka resort­ed to the clas­sic anti­se­mit­ic com­par­i­son to ani­mals and insects. Schol­ars have sug­gest­ed that such tropes, preva­lent as they were in the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an cul­ture in which Franz Kaf­ka grap­pled with his own Jew­ish­ness, influ­enced key motifs in his fic­tion, such as Gre­gor Sam­sa wak­ing up as a mon­strous insect and Josef K.’s last words at his exe­cu­tion: Like a dog!

And yet, for all Kafka’s pro­tec­tive­ness of Löwy in the face of his father’s dis­par­age­ment, in a diary entry about an evening with his friend at the the­ater, he remarked, More­over, L. con­fessed his gon­or­rhea to me; then my hair touched his when I leaned toward his head, I grew fright­ened due to at least the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lice.” Here, Kaf­ka con­front­ed his own West­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish anx­i­ety about the hygiene of his East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish com­pan­ion. Brod’s exci­sion of these lines exempt­ed Kaf­ka from the reflex­ive, vis­cer­al prej­u­dices that the writer hadn’t shied from acknowl­edg­ing in himself.

To desanc­ti­fy Kaf­ka is not sim­ply to bring to light his imper­fec­tions, but to give a real­er, fuller, rich­er, and more nuanced sense of who he was, as a human and a writer. In my trans­la­tion of the restored text of the diaries, I sought to resist any temp­ta­tion to smooth away rough edges or impose nar­row inter­pre­ta­tions. My task was, as far as pos­si­ble, to let the self that Kaf­ka probed so painstak­ing­ly in his note­books speak for itself.

Ross Ben­jam­in’s trans­la­tions include Friedrich Hölder­lin’s Hype­r­i­on, Joseph Roth’s Job, and Daniel Kehlman­n’s You Should Have Left and Tyll. He was award­ed the 2010 Helen and Kurt Wolff Trans­la­tor’s Prize for his ren­der­ing of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov, and he received a Guggen­heim fel­low­ship for his work on Franz Kafka’s diaries.