The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka By Franz Kafka, with commentary by Roberto Calasso Translated by Michael Hofmann Schocken Books, 160 pages, $15.95.
In the summer of 1917, Franz Kafka suffered the first symptoms of tuberculosis. Paradoxically enough, the onset of the disease liberated him. It freed him from his agonized and agonizing engagement to Felice Bauer, from the oppressiveness of his job, from the anxieties of life in Prague. It freed him to write.
He broke the engagement, took a leave of absence from his office and decamped to Zürau, a remote country town where his sister lived. At first he wrote nothing. Then, in October, he began working on the series of enigmas, maxims and aperçus that make up the “The Zürau Aphorisms,” out now in a new book, with commentary by Robert Calasso.
The Zürau aphorisms are peculiar in a number of ways. Normally Kafka wrote his notes and fragments in notebooks. In this case, though, each maxim was given room to breathe on its own single, loose-leaf page and then preserved with the others in a special folder. Obviously Kafka conceived of them as a matched set, even though he did not try to have them published during his lifetime. Kafka’s executor, Max Brod, brought them out well after Kafka’s death. (They first appeared in the 1930s and not, as this edition states, in the 1950s.) Brod called them “Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way,” a dreadful title, unless it was meant ironically. While these reflections do indeed use a pointedly religious and moral vocabulary, it is hard to know what to make of a text that tells us that the true way is in fact less a tightrope than a tripwire. At least that is how this new translation puts it.
Willa and Edwin Muir’s English renderings of Kafka — the only ones available until recently — have been much criticized for being Anglicized and inaccurate. It is therefore one of the chief selling points of this edition that Michael Hofmann, an excellent translator and poet, has produced a new version. Also unique to the latest volume is its attempt to hew to Kafka’s intent and publish one maxim per page. The text is also provided with something of a commentary — a reprint of the chapter devoted to the aphorisms from Calasso’s recent study of Kafka, “K.” There are thus two possible reasons for buying this book: The translation might be good, and Calasso’s comments might say something interesting or important about Kafka’s work.
Sad to say, there are some problems with the translation. Hofmann has, oddly for a poet of his ability, messed around with Kafka’s cadences. Take the instance where Kafka says that the spirit becomes free only when it ceases to be a support or a prop. (The German word Halt, here translated as support or prop, is actually more evocative. It means “ballast” or “foothold.”) Hofmann adds extra words, which cause Kafka’s easy concision to stumble: “The spirit only becomes free when it ceases to be invoked as a support.”
More troubling, though are those places where Hofmann has tried to clean up Kafka’s ambiguities or make literal his implications. A case of this occurs in the very first aphorism. Kafka tells us that the true way goes over a rope that lies close to the ground. It is therefore definitely more likely to be tripped over than to be walked on. While Kafka’s German definitely implies an antithesis between tightrope and tripwire, it never actually states it. In English, Hofmann has Kafka state it loud and clear.
Perhaps the most obvious example of Hofmann’s desire to render Kafka less ambiguous comes with his occasional insistence of translating geistig — which can mean either “spiritual” or “mental” — as “constructed.”
“Constructed” sounds odd in a literary setting but has become a common term in those strains of contemporary thought that remind us that the apparently objective distinctions of our apparently solid world are nothing more than our mental projections. So in Hofmann’s version, Kafka’s claim that there is nothing other than a mental/spiritual realm becomes “the fact that the only world is a constructed world takes away hope and gives us certainty.” This is an interesting and very smart interpretation of Kafka’s original statement, one that casts it as a critique of German Idealism. (If the world is our mental construct, we can know it, but it cannot surprise us with redemption.) Hofmann’s interpretation, though, completely ignores the possibility that Kafka might not be referring to the mental constitution of the world at all, but rather to its spiritual nature — a possibility left open by the polyvalence of the original German. In other places, Hofmann has no trouble translating geist as “spirit” — rather than as “mind”— and for good reason: In the Zürau aphorisms, Kafka makes much of the traditional opposition between the spiritual and the sensual. He has a great time ringing all the changes he can on the different senses of geistig, because he delights in saturating his prose with meaning. Hofmann, on the other hand, seems bent on trimming that meaning, because — and here I can only guess — he wants to forestall any pre-emptively supernatural readings of Kafka.
If Hofmann wants to clear Kafka of any charges of undue spirituality, Calasso’s commentary wants to give Kafka’s thought a distinct, though different, spiritual cast. An Italian editor and the author, most recently, of “Literature and the Gods” (Knopf, 2001), Calasso attributes to Kafka his own cosmopolitan and urbane neo-paganism. This leads him to attribute to Kafka the belief that idolatry “is more than anything an attempt to evoke life’s splendor with names that are, time after time, right. Such a recognition ought to be sufficient to put an end to the atavistic struggle against the gods — a struggle that fails to understand that the singular is one modality of the plural, and the plural one way to catch a flashing glimpse of the veiled splendor.”
This is lovely stuff, so lovely, in fact, that it makes you forget that what Calasso refers to as the “atavistic struggle against the gods” is normally called monotheism and encompasses the Jews’ historic and historical enmity toward idolatry. It also ignores one of the longest aphorisms in the book, the one in which Kafka attacks the worship of idols as a misguided rejection of human responsibility. Calasso thus misrepresents the evidence before him. He overlooks the fact that the gorgeous, enigmatic fragments, maxims and bits of narrative that make up “The Zürau Aphorisms” suspend human life between Paradise, which is lost, and redemption, which is always to be gained. These are not pagan coordinates at all.
Calasso’s comments on Kafka are therefore misleading. Two decades of scholarship have demonstrated that Kafka was always painfully conscious of himself as a Jew. His heresy — and what good Jewish writer does not flirt with heresy? — is much closer to Gnosticism, with its horrified denigration of the physical world, than to Calasso’s rather comfortable polytheism. So, for all its considerable charm, Calasso’s commentary does more of a disservice than Hofmann’s sometimes erratic translation. Calasso does not bring us any closer to either the Kafka of history or the writer of Kafka’s wonderful text. If anything, Calasso leads us subtly and oh so seductively away.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.