‘The Last Days of Franz Kafka’

Sam Kinchin-Smith

The coincidence of the centenary of Kafka’s death, on 3 June, and the publication of the first complete, uncensored English translation of his diaries a month before, is less straightforward than it seems. There are more obvious texts through which to tell the story of his last days. Kafka’s final diary entry was written on 12 June 1923, almost a year before he died. Over the next eleven months, he wrote a lot of letters and a few stories, including one really substantial one, ‘Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk’. After he had been urged not to speak during the final stages of the tuberculosis that killed him, he communicated with Dora Diamant and his doctor, Robert Klopstock, by writing ‘conversation slips’ (the translation is Richard and Clara Winston’s):

Do you have a moment? Then please lightly spray the peonies.

A bird was in the room.

A lake doesn’t flow into anything, you know.

Tremendous amount of sputum, easily, and still pain in the morning. In my daze it went through my head that for such quantities and the ease somehow the Nobel Prize.

(Of which Alan Bennett wrote in the LRB: ‘Nothing if not sick, it is a joke that could have been made yesterday.’)

Put your hand on my forehead for a moment to give me courage.

Every limb as tired as a person.

‘The Last Days of Franz Kafka’, a performance at the Hay Festival on Saturday, 1 June (to be repeated, we hope, in London later in the summer), includes readings from the new translation, by Ross Benjamin, of Kafka’s diaries, as well as writing about Kafka from the LRB archive, with music from Max Richter’s album The Blue Notebooks (which takes its title from the notebooks in which Kafka wrote the Zürau aphorisms, among other things).

As we were preparing for the event, I asked Benjamin why Kafka stopped keeping his diary when he did; why his conversation with himself ended even as his conversations with Diamant, Klopstock, Max Brod and his readers continued. It’s entirely possible, Benjamin replied, that it didn’t:

Dora is thought to have destroyed notebooks at Kafka’s instruction during his last year of life and she is also thought to have kept some materials from Max Brod when he was collecting Kafka’s scattered literary estate. If true, those papers, notebooks, drawings, letters, manuscripts – no one knows what – would have been confiscated by the Gestapo when they raided her home and as of now have never been recovered. Which is all to say that we don’t know for sure that his self-dialogue through diary writing didn’t continue into that last year in some form unknown to us.

But if it did stop?

We can speculate that with his health declining, he might have found it difficult to maintain the diary writing practice or allocated his limited energy toward his more public and enduring work, since his letters and stories were for audiences, both personal and public, that may have provided an immediate sense of connection and legacy. His correspondence and his fiction, driven by a sense of duty or creative impulse (or both in the case of the stories he was preparing for publication in the Hunger Artist collection that appeared just after his death), might also simply have felt more purposeful or manageable than keeping a diary. His focus could have shifted to these more outward forms, which in turn might have provided some distance from his suffering as his illness progressed, while the intense self-scrutiny of diary writing could have felt more burdensome at such a time. There are also the circumstantial changes of Kafka’s move to Berlin with Dora Diamant in 1923, a new phase of his life that could have altered his routines and priorities; the companionship and new environment might have reduced his reliance on diary writing.

All the same, that intense self-scrutiny gives an insight into Kafka’s state of mind as his body broke down that’s unlike anything in the later texts. A letter to Klopstock, from the beginning of August 1923, begins:

My dear Robert, On the basis of my own experience, I shall never be able to understand, never manage to understand, that an otherwise cheerful and essentially untroubled person can be destroyed by consumption alone.

The contrast with his last diary entry, written a few weeks earlier, is striking:

More and more anxious while writing. It is understandable. Every word, twisted in the hand of the spirits – this flourish of the hand is their characteristic movement – becomes a spear, turned against the speaker. A remark like this most especially. And so on to infinity. The consolation would be only: it happens whether you want it or not. And what you want helps only imperceptibly little. More than consolation is: You too have weapons.

‘One weapon he had in mind,’ Benjamin speculates, ‘might have been the testamentary letter he wrote instructing Brod to burn all his unpublished writing after his death’ – a form of pre-emptive defence against the way ‘his work has been garrisoned,’ in Bennett’s words, ‘by armies of critics with some fifteen thousand books about him at the last count’ (and that was in 1987). In any case, it has a sense of finality to it: it sounds like a deliberate ending. ‘It’s a remarkable and moving conclusion,’ Benjamin agrees, but perhaps more revealing of something else, which calls into question whether ‘self-dialogue’ is quite what the diaries are, after all:

While translating, I was keenly aware of Kafka’s always-present impulse to give literary form to what he set down on the page. It wasn’t merely private introspection; with often comic self-dramatisation, he was inventing an aesthetic and a persona … He himself writes toward the end of the diaries about his ‘playacting’, how even his profound inner dissatisfaction and unhappiness might have stemmed from a more or less careless youthful urge to play at being dissatisfied and unhappy. And early on, he writes about leafing back through his notebooks to find entries to read aloud to his friends at a New Year’s Eve celebration.

‘The Last Days of Franz Kafka’ at St Mary’s Church, Hay-on-Wye, starring Toby Jones and Julian Rhind-Tutt, with music performed by James McVinnie, is part of this year’s Hay Festival. Tickets are sold out but there is a waiting list.