Why am I writing a review of the newly released Kafka Diaries? There is a reason, but it’s more of a story.
Roughly a month ago, I received an email from the publisher, Shocken Books, about a new translation of Franz Kafka’s diaries. If you will recall, Franz Kafka was one of the great writers of the 20th century and a weird guy.
For example, one of his masterpieces, The Metamorphosis, is about a salesman (maybe even a toy salesman, but we don’t know) who wakes up one morning and finds he has turned into a giant cockroach.
Kafka’s other notable works include The Castle (about a man who keeps trying to reach the authorities but is continually stymied by bureaucracy) and The Trial (about a man who is charged with a crime but is never told what his offense is).
Kafka’s themes are so unique that a word was invented to describe a situation that bears the weirdness of a Kafka work. Here is how the Cambridge Dictionary defines the term:
As it turns out, the publisher wanted me to review the new book. I responded that I write about the toy industry. The publisher, in turn, pointed out that I had written about Kafka. “I did?” I thought. So, I searched my story archives, and, indeed, I had.
I had published an article, “Kafka and the Lost Doll,” in June 2019. Here is a brief passage from my article:
Coming upon a little girl crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka felt sympathy for the child and told her that her doll was not lost but was away on a trip. Over three weeks, he sent her letters daily, supposedly, from the doll.“Kafka and the Lost Doll,, Richard Gottllieb, Global Toy News, June 29, 2021
The publisher told me that they liked what I had written and wanted me to write a review. And now, I will commence the review.
THE DIARIES OF FRANZ KAFKA – TRANSLATED BY ROSS BENJAMIN
The Diaries of Franz Kafka is a new translation by Ross Benjamin. Kafka kept a diary between the years 1909 and 1923. He wrote down his thoughts, dreams, experiences, and complete and unfinished stories. Although we think of Kafka as melancholy, there are occasions for laughter in the Diary. There are also hints of a hidden life.
The Diaries were, therefore, extremely personal to Kafka. He had never intended to have them published. Despite his wishes, the Diaries were published by his friend, Max Brod, after Kafka’s death in 1924.
Max Brod felt that for the work to be published, he had to ensure that it did not damage Kafka’s literary and personal reputation. As a result, Brod attempted to smooth out the roughness of a manuscript that Kafka had never intended to publish. He changed the spelling, grammar, and style. He also left out hints of Kafka’s possible homosexuality and other statements deemed unsettling to the reading public of the time.
Mr. Benjamin, in his translation, returns to Diaries to their original format, with spelling errors and personal peccadilloes included. The result is a chance to understand Kafka as a flawed man whose work started, stopped, and improved with time.
This book is for someone either fascinated by Kafka or interested in the writer’s process of developing a work of art. It is also for those who want to know more about Kafka’s personal life.
One final note. It seems that Kafka did write a short story about a toy. The story, The Top, is about a philosopher who believes he can understand the world if he can understand what makes a top spin. As with any Kafka story, he is frustrated by the top stopping its motion the moment he picks it up.
The Diary entrees run in chronological order. You may want to read it from beginning to end. I found it pleasurable to skip around in the book. If you read it, let me know your thoughts.