The top paperback releases this month include works by Katherine Rundell, Nick Hornby, and others.
The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka
Revised by Reiner Stach, interpreted by Shelley Frisch, Walker Evans translator.
Original: Unique insight into the writer’s mind
Reworded: A one-of-a-kind understanding of the writer’s thoughts.
In 1917, Franz Kafka was 34 years old and employed by the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague. During the day he was a conscientious employee, but at night he was writing the strikingly original stories, such as “The Metamorphosis”, that have made him into one of the 20th century’s most influential authors.
In August, Kafka experienced a severe pulmonary hemorrhage, resulting in the expulsion of blood from his cough and indicating his tuberculosis diagnosis. He took a leave of absence and resided with his sister Ottla at a farm in the Bohemian village of Zürau (known as Siřem today) for eight months. During this time, he reflected on his life while helping on the farm and enjoying the fresh air. For years, he had been torn between his desire for close relationships with women and his equally strong desire for creative fulfillment, as described by his biographer Reiner Stach.
In his journal, he penned the words “you have the chance to start anew. Don’t waste it.” Instead of completing The Trial, he started filling two notebooks with “scribbled notes” in pencil. Amongst the numerous corrections and changes, a few concise sentences and sections emerged, containing “thoughtful writing filled with striking imagery and philosophical musings”, short sayings that discussed what Kafka called “the most important matters”.
This new edition of Kafka’s Zürau aphorisms is beautifully produced, with a page for each aphorism, printed both in the original German and in English, with a commentary on the facing page. Stach has written an excellent introduction as well as the commentaries. Shelley Frisch – who also translated Stach’s magisterial three-volume biography of Kafka – has skilfully translated these aphorisms, which use precise yet idiosyncratic language to crystallise thoughts which are both philosophical and deeply personal.
The cover is adorned with a striking black feather from a jackdaw, set against a white background. In Czech, “kavka” means “jackdaw”, and Kafka often infused his writing with the enigmatic symbolism of these birds and their crow counterparts against a stark backdrop like snow. One of his aphorisms states: “A cage went in search of a bird.” Could this bird represent Kafka himself? As noted by Stach, Kafka skillfully uses imagery to convey abstract ideas: “they are not mere illustrations, but rather the substance of his arguments.” Paths also feature prominently in his writing, such as this poignant quote from November 1917: “like a path in autumn: continuously swept clean, only to be covered once again with dry leaves.”
This exceptional collection of aphorisms is a must-read for fans of Kafka’s literary works. It provides a fascinating glimpse into his thoughts during a significant period in his life. While some may find the aphorisms perplexing, the accompanying explanations shed light on their meaning and offer potential explanations. As Stach notes, readers of the aphorisms will find themselves in uncharted and perhaps challenging territory, but one that can ultimately be deeply moving.
“The Guardian bookshop is offering a purchase of £13.19 (originally priced at £14.99).”