Sentences — November 17, 2008, 12:32 pm

Trivialities Difficult to Surpass

kafkamemorycomealive“The frequent references to Max Brod, Prague, insomnia, headache, have not been included in the Index.” So runs the inadvertently hilarious advisory sentence to the index of I Am a Memory Come Alive, a gathering and sequencing of Kafka’s so-called “autobiographical writings” put out by Schocken in 1974. I like a list that takes a friend, a city, a condition, and a pain and, by eliding them, equalizes them. Taken together, the quartet conspires to a kind of story. Throw a conjunction or two in there and you have a thumbnail biography: Max Brod and Prague, but insomnia and headache.

“The reader of Kafka will want to know,” runs the flap copy of the book above, “what kind of man the author was, how he lived, what he cared for, what he was like as a lover.” Oy! Do we, really, want to learn about that last bit? Really? Will my reading of “In the Penal Colony,” be radically transformed by a knowledge of Kafka’s pillowy likes? “Fortunately,” the flap flaps on, “Kafka tells us about his life, though often covertly, and the present volume facilitates a better understanding of that life and its relationship to his work.”

Well, no, it doesn’t, or so I’d contend. We don’t even have to go so far as to dip into The Sacred Wood to justify the claim. “Yesterday and today wrote four pages, trivialities difficult to surpass,” is an entry from Kafka’s diary, 7 August 1914. Naturally, there’s more to Kafka’s intimate notations than such seethings against self. In tone, though, that kind of entry is the rule. Headaches predominate, and are interesting of themselves, to those of us interested in the pain of others. But how Kafka managed to transform such commonplace into uncommon fiction is not a story told in his “autobiographical writings.” Thankfully, that’s a story that cannot, though not for lack of trying, be told.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
"In mid-August, hundreds of displaced Christians who had fled to Erbil were moved by Kurdish authorities into the concrete shell of a half-built mall. "
Photograph by Sebastian Meyer
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Iraq has every disease there is; its mind is deranged with too many voices, its organs corrupted, its limbs only long enough to tear at its own body.”
Photograph by Benjamin Busch
Post
Flying Blind·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“President Obama’s war against the Islamic State will represent, by a rough count, the eighth time the U.S. air-power lobby has promised to crush a foe without setting boot or foot on the ground.”
Article
The Monkey Did It·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Murakami’s fiction, what presents itself as a key reveals itself simultaneously to be a keyhole.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
PBS Self-Destructs·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The present state of PBS, the result of built-in deficiencies and ideological conflicts, was almost an inevitability.”
Illustration by Thomas Allen

Estimated percentage of U.S. gasoline consumption that occurs during traffic jams:

4

In India, 1.8 million female children were estimated to have died between 1985 and 2005 as an indirect result of domestic violence against their mothers; the boys of abused mothers were not at increased risk of death.

Vanilla latte and lemon pound cake continued to be the best-selling items at the Starbucks at CIA headquarters, where baristas do not write customers’ names on their cups.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today