The Diaries of Kafka: 1910-1923 Critical Essays

Franz Kafka

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Around the turn of the century and continuing until the years following World War I, a circle of German writers in Prague exerted great influence on German literature. Franz Werfel, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Max Brod were the most widely read authors of this group, but in the closing decades of the period Franz Kafka, sometimes called the author of anxiety, found an ever increasing audience. Biographers of Kafka complain that his short life does not offer anything dramatic to report: his existence could be termed provincial because the major part of his life, except for a short period of travel, was spent within a few city blocks in Prague. His father was a merchant and his mother the daughter of a brewery owner. The family, financially well-to-do, tried to maintain a nineteenth century upper-class living standard: French governess, humanistic education for the children, and efforts to preserve a bourgeois concept of German culture. The sensitive Kafka found no understanding at home; he had almost no communication with his family and the Jewish faith practiced by his parents offered him few consolations. Thus Kafka grew up in a withdrawn isolation, constantly groping for some kind of salvation which he could only find in his writings. He earned a doctor of law degree and worked for fourteen years with an insurance company.

Kafka’s continuous anxiety of being directed by forces over which he had no control and about which he had no knowledge is superbly described in his best-known novel THE TRIAL; however, it is in his diaries that he reveals most about his motivations and his innermost feelings. His friend and fellow writer, Max Brod, has published these diaries with the care of a loving friend, though admitting the omission of a few intimate entries. The diary was compiled out of thirteen notebooks. The first dated entry is May 17, 1910; last notes were written in the summer of 1923. There are also three travel diaries covering Kafka’s travels in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France during the years 1911 and 1912. Since these entries are quite different from the usual character of the diary, the travel journals have been separated from the rest.

The diary was a necessity for Kafka, who said that the advantage in keeping one is that it gives awareness of change in thought and feeling. When he realizes that he has neglected his diary, he promises that he will continue to keep it because it is the only place where he can hold on to experience. His urge to write was the safety valve for the hypersensitive and withdrawn Kafka, a means of relieving his anxieties through writing down his deepest feelings so that later he could reverse the process. Literature is his only obsession because, he wrote, literature was the only thing that did not bore him. Whether this fact was only in his mind does not disturb him. He feels that he can only observe family life, not participate in it.

Contemporary historic events are without interest to him. His entry on August 2, 1914, when World War I started, notes that Germany has declared war on Russia and that he went swimming in the afternoon. He is conscious of the direction of his work and states that his fate as a writer will be to record his inner life of dreams; he feels that his life has dwindled and will continue to dwindle, but this record is the only kind of writing that will satisfy him.

The silent stroller along the streets and parks of Prague is a most inquisitive observer of people and events as he ponders on their work, their salaries, what they will be doing tomorrow, how life in their old age will be, their sleeping habits, if he could do their jobs, or how he would like doing another man’s work. In...

(The entire section is 1514 words.)