The Incurable

Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors

by Franz Kafka, translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston
Schocken Books, 509 pp., $24.50

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka; drawing by David Levine

At the beginning of his “Investigations of a Dog,” Kafka wrote—in Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation—

When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes, but very often, the mere look of some fellow dog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair.

The flat bureaucratic style strikes one as being a mask: Kafka notoriously did not know where he belonged. He was a Jew not quite in the Christian world; as a non-practicing Jew—at the beginning anyway—he was not quite at home among Jews. The German critic Günther Anders, from whom I take these remarks, goes on:

As a German-speaking Czech, [Kafka is] not quite among the Czechs; as a German-speaking Jew not quite among the Bohemian Germans. As a Bohemian he does not quite belong to Austria. As an official of a workers’ insurance company, not quite to the middle class. Yet as the son of a middle-class family not quite to the working class.

In his family he wrote that he is “more estranged than a stranger” and at the office he is alien because he is a writer. In love he is in conflict with literature. Because he was an extreme case which was exacerbated by fatally bad health, Kafka was able to enlarge, as by a microscope, the sense of exile which becomes visible as a characteristic of our experience in this century, its first martyr to “alienation,” which has become something of a cult.

When we turn from his books to his letters we have a series of self-portraits desperate and courageous, always eager and warm in feeling; the self is lit by fantasy and, of course, by drollery. His candor is of the kind that flies alongside him in the air. He was a marvelous letter writer. For these reasons alone the present translation of the Briefe first published in 1958 and collected by his great friend Max Brod is worth having. Richard and Clara Winston, the American translators, tell us that it is “based” on that volume and it is not clear to me whether “based” means the whole or a selection from that volume—I fancy, the whole. (Other parts of Kafka’s large correspondence have been translated, notably the important Letters to Felice by James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth in 1973.) The present volume does contain now the full text of his long letter…

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