“Lost and Found”: Franz Kafka’s “The Lost Writings,” Translated from German by Michael Hofmann

By Alex Andriesse

Anyone who is interested in Kafka—which is to say pretty much everyone who is interested in literature—will be curious to read the “lost writings” of a man who famously, at the time of his death, wanted all of his unpublished work destroyed. We have Kafka’s first biographer, Max Brod, to thank for going against his friend’s last wishes and salvaging as much of this work as possible. If it were not for Brod, Amerika, The Trial, The Castle, and most of Kafka’s stories would never have seen the light of day. Now, almost a century after Brod began publishing these first lost works, we have Kafka’s most recent biographer, Reiner Stach, to thank for letting us read several more of Kafka’s abiding fragments.

Almost all of Kafka’s work, as Stach is quick to point out in his afterword to this volume, consists of fragments. Amerika has no proper ending. The Castle break off midsentence: “it was difficult to understand her, but what she said” (The Castle 316). The Trial, which at least seems to come to a close, Kafka himself “regarded as unfinished” (Brod 296). This is not even to mention the many fragments in his diaries or in The Blue Octavo Notebooks (which contain the raw material for The Zürau Aphorisms—a series of short numbered fragments that Kafka carefully copied out, one by one, on separate sheets of onionskin paper, perhaps with the layout of a book in mind).[i] “The fragile, fragmentary quality of Kafka’s work,” Stach suggests, has “presented editors and readers with considerable difficulties,” as is no doubt true (The Lost Writings 133). It has also, he adds, “caused us to begin to take the literary fragment seriously” (133). This is a rather absurd assertion in the light of, say, Sappho (many of whose poems have been recovered in bits and pieces from ancient strips of papyrus) or Virgil (whose Aeneid is at least as unfinished as The Castle). But one can forgive a biographer as single-minded as Stach a tiny bit of overstatement.

The fragments printed in The Lost Writings have—with the exception of a few previously published pieces at the end of the book—been selected by Stach from volume two of the German scholarly edition of Kafka’s Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente [Posthumous Writings and Fragments]. Typographically, they are treated with much the same respect as The Zürau Aphorisms as presented by Roberto Calasso: each fragment begins on its own page, with no imposed titles or footnotes or other impedimenta. Best of all, however, they have been translated by polyphonic, wizardly Michael Hofmann, who has made of Kafka a marvelous, often very humorous writer of eccentric English prose. “When he escaped it was nighttime,” one of the lost writings begins:

Well, the house was situated on the edge of a forest. A town house, built in a town manner, single story, bow-fronted in the urban or suburban style, with a small picket-fenced front garden, lace curtains in the windows, a town house, and yet the only dwelling far and wide. And it was a winter evening and very cold out in the open. But then it wasn’t in the open, there was city traffic, because just then an electric tram came around the corner, but it wasn’t the city, because the tram wasn’t moving, it had been standing there forever, always in that position, as though coming around the corner. And it had been empty forever, and it was no tram, it was a wagon set up on four wheels, and in the moonlight diffusing through the fog, it could have been many things… (105)

The initial thrill of such a passage is our instant recognition that we are indeed reading Kafka—the same Kafka we met in “The Hunger Artist” or “Investigations of a Dog.” The concentrated energy of the language; the restless visual inventiveness (note the way “he” disappears after the first sentence, giving way to the things he encounters); the fascination with the physical almost indistinguishable from the metaphysical—it is all present and accounted for (and surely more present and accounted for than in the first translations, done by Willa and Edwin Muir). In Hofmann’s hands, Kafka has remained Kafka, and yet at the same time he has moved closer to us; he has fully entered the galaxy of English.

The Lost Writings cannot be summarized except to say that, for the most part, they are narratives. Some of these narratives are monologic slivers—precursors of the short pieces of Lydia Davis:

I can swim as well as the others, only I have a better memory than they do, so I have been unable to forget my formerly not being able to swim. Since I have been unable to forget it, being able to swim doesn’t help me, and I can’t swim after all. (6)

Many others take the form of dialogues—probing, playful, often profound:

“You are forever speaking of death, and not dying.”

“And yet die I shall. I am just intoning my swan song. One person’s song is longer, another’s shorter. The only difference is a few words.” (65)

A handful of the fragments go on for five or six pages and might be called stories. For example, the one that begins:

A farmer stopped me on the highway and begged me to come back to his house with him, perhaps I could help, he’d had a falling out with his wife, and their argument was wrecking his life. He also had some simple-minded children who hadn’t turned out well, they just stood around or got up to mischief. (11)

The narrator agrees to go with the farmer, though he says that, obviously, he will have to “stay with him a long time to first become familiar with the situation and think about possible improvements,” to which the farmer responds “That won’t be possible… Here you are wanting to install yourself in my house,” to which the narrator replies “Do what you want… but don’t forget—I’m saying this to you in friendship, as one man to another—that if you don’t take me with you, you won’t be able to stand it for much longer…” (12). This delirious, Marx Brothers–like negotiation continues for a few more pages before, alas, fizzling out.

Any number of writers have tried to imitate Kafka’s way of imagining impossible situations in meticulous detail, but none has quite matched his gift for describing, rapidly and yet with no sense of hurry, even the most hallucinatory figures and scenes: “twenty little gravediggers, none any bigger than an average pinecone” (40); a shop that is always full of people despite having no street entrance; a “large pharmacy with a lofty concave wall studded with a hundred identical drawers” opened and closed by assistants with “bushy tails…like squirrels’ tails but much longer” (31–32).

Certain motifs in The Lost Writings are familiar from the known Kafka universe (talking animals, mysterious confined spaces, fantastical cities, metamorphoses of various kinds). Others seem, if not exactly unfamiliar, more noticeable in an omnium gatherum like this one. Characters are often found going for walks or boat rides, pondering wells or walls, asking relentless questions of each other and of themselves. They are in near-constant motion, physically or mentally—there is no sharp distinction between these states in Kafka’s imagination—and this constant motion requires constant attention, which is, of course, impossible: an inevitability that Kafka evokes again and again:

The deep well. It takes years for the bucket to reach the top, then in an instant it plummets to the bottom, faster than you can lean down; you think you are still holding it in your hands and already you hear the faraway splash, but you’re not even listening. (10)

There may, if we can believe the rumors, be still more “lost” Kafka to come.[ii] But for now, with gratitude to Stach and Hofmann, we must rejoice at what has been found—yet another entrance into a literary labyrinth from which there is, happily, no exit.

Kafka, Franz. The Lost Writings. Edited by Reiner Stach. Translated by Michael Hofmann. New York: New Directions, 2020.

Alex Andriesse studied English literature at Boston College, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Robert Lowell. His translations from the French include Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, 1768–1800 (NYRB Classics) and Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy (forthcoming from NYRB). His translations from the Italian include Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text (Dalkey Archive Press) as well as essays by Roberto Calasso, Italo Calvino, and Pietro Citati. He is also the editor of two volumes of Best European Fiction and The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick (forthcoming from NYRB). He lives in the Netherlands.

[i] “Kafka typically wrote, in pen or in pencil, in school notebooks, barely even marking divisions between one text and the next as he filled them,” Roberto Calasso writes in his afterword to The Zuräu Aphorisms (118). Thus Kafka’s choice to write these fragments on separate sheets of paper is significant and underpins Calasso’s opinion that Kafka was thinking of them as an eventual book.

[ii] “Numerous notebooks from [Kafka’s] final year,” Stach writes, may still exist (The Lost Writings 133). There is also a trove of manuscripts recently deposited in the Israeli National Library, some of which could someday very well be translated into English. For more on these manuscripts, one can read Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy, published by Norton in 2018.

Works Cited

Max Brod. “Epilogue,” in The Trial, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950.

Roberto Calasso, “Veiled Splendor,” in Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms, translated by Michael Hofmann. New York: Schocken Books, 2006.

Franz Kafka. Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), translated by Michael Hofmann. New York: New Directions, 1996.

Franz Kafka. The Castle, translated by Mark Harman. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

Leave a Reply