'Kafka had never before devised this sort of layout and sequencing for one of his texts. And though he made no surviving reference, either direct or indirect, to the existence of these aphorisms, one can't help but think that he meant to publish them in a form corresponding to the way he arranged them on those thin slips of paper [...]
'The more I studied those thin slips of paper and their connections with the notebooks and letters written in the Zürau months, the more strongly I felt that those texts, like shards of meteorites fallen in a barren land, should be read in exactly the form Kafka gave them. Strangely enough, although these fragments have been published and translated many times, no edition has taken this approach - a fact that convinced me to try it.'
From Robert Calasso's Introduction to The Zürau Aphorisms
I've been spending the holiday season sitting around, watching television reruns and drinking beer. It's a charmed existence, as you can imagine. I'm at my parents' home in the valleys, and there's little to do but bask between the home-cooked meals.
But Christmas time is never complete without its dose of despair. So it's a lucky thing, then, that I've accumulated some new Kafka editions just recently. I'm dividing my reading time very neatly between Philip Roth's Zuckerman Trilogy and Franz Kafka's Octavo Notebooks. But I've also been flicking through Kafka's Zürau Aphorisms, available in a wonderful pocket-size hardback edition.
The volume includes an introduction and afterward from Kafka scholar Roberto Calasso, who describes his joy at reading Kafka's original texts in 'schoolboy notebooks' at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Written during a recuperative period in Kafka's life, living in the countryside and tackling the onset of tuberculosis, the aphorisms marked a formal departure from his previous writings up to this point. They were to be found among his Octavo notebooks, and in the new edition have been published in isolation: each aphorism has been given a page to itself. Calasso explains his reasoning for this approach:
'If published one after the other, these fragments would occupy twenty or so pages and would be almost suffocating - because each fragment is an aphorism in the Kierkegaardian sense, an 'isolated' entity, which must be surrounded by an empty space in order to breath.'
Calasso is a little sentimental in his introduction, but it's difficult not to share his excitement at seeing such precious writings up-close and personal. And personal, to so many, is the perfect word to sum up Kafka's writing: while it resists fixed meanings and interpretations, fans of his work are often drawn to something they feel they can identify with. Harold Pinter once said his two key literary influences were Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, and described their appeal in a way that captures this sense of identification perfectly: 'When I read them it rang a bell, that’s all within one. I thought some thing is going on here which is going on in me too.'
So on that note, I thought I'd offer some of the Kafka aphorisms that caught my eye - for one reason or another. Sometimes it's easy to agree and identify, at other times the aphorism is something to question and react against. Some of them are real gems. Here are a few:
- The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.
- All human errors stem from impatience, a premature breaking off of a methodical approach, an ostensible pinning down of an ostensible object.
- Like a path in autumn: no sooner is it cleared than it is once again littered with fallen leaves.
- A cage went in search of a bird.
- The way to tell fewest lies is to tell fewest lies, not to give oneself the fewest opportunities of telling lies.
- Dealings with people bring about self-scrutiny.
- He runs after the facts like someone learning to skate, who furthermore practices where it is dangerous and has been forbidden.
- A faith like an ax. As heavy, as light.
- Once we have taken Evil into ourselves, it no longer insists that we believe in it.
- The road is endless, there are no shortcuts and no detours, and yet everyone brings to it his own childish haste. 'You must walk this ell of ground, too, you won't be spared it.
Happy Holidays, everyone.