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 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today