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“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.
More from Wyatt Mason:
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.
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.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
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.
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“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.”