February 28, 2010

How to Read Kafka's Non-Fiction

Let's say you've already read all of Kafka's short stories, and the three novels, and all the parables, and you're still interested in reading more, how should you proceed? Or let's say you haven't read everything, but you'd like to get an idea of who Kafka was from his personal writings, rather than his many (many) biographies, which book should you turn to?

First, let's put things in order. As far as I am aware, these are the books which collect Kafka's non-fiction:
(The last two volumes might be a little difficult to find)

Since almost all of these have been meticulously dated, it's pretty simple to read them in order, though constantly going from one book to another might be a little tiring, so I suggest reading them by year (e.g. diaries from 1910, followed by letters from 1910, followed by diaries from 1911, et cetera; years with less writing can be condensed). I would, however, suggest a few exceptions to this strict chronological order - Kafka's letter to his father should be read first, before anything else, and his series of letters to Felice and Milena should not be broken up, but read complete (Felice around 1912, Milena around 1924), as they form complete, coherent, and fascinating narratives on their own. I would probably also read The Blue Octavo Notebooks all together, since they were deliberately set apart from the diaries by Kafka. In case you still want to throw a biography into the mix, I suggest Max Brod's, which may be a bit dated, but still indispensable. To sum it all up, here is how I would arrange the reading list:
  1. Letter to His Father
  2. Biography – Chapter I
  3. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1902-1904
  4. Biography – Chapter II
  5. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1905-1909
  6. Biography – Chapter III
  7. Diaries – 1910
  8. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1910
  9. Biography – Chapter IV
  10. Diaries – 1911
  11. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1911
  12. Biography – Chapter V
  13. Biography – Chapter VI
  14. Biography – Chapter VII
  15. Biography – Chapter VIII
  16. Letters to Ottla and the Family – 1909-1912
  17. Letters to Felice
  18. Diaries – travel diaries
  19. Diaries – 1912-1917
  20. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1912-1917
  21. Letters to Ottla and the Family – 1913-1918
  22. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1918
  23. The Blue Octavo Notebooks
  24. Diaries – 1919-1923
  25. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1919-1923
  26. Letters to Ottla and the Family – 1919-1924
  27. Letters to Milena
  28. Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors – 1924 + Conversation Slips
(All said I think it comes to about 2,000 pages, with about 250 more for the biography)

A few more tips:
  • If you're going for extra credit, you can weave in The Office Writings, which includes some of Kafka's professional papers written between 1908 - 1917.
  • If you're interested in this method of reading Kafka, but would like the whole thing to be much shorter and less complicated, you can try to track down I Am a Memory Come Alive, a chronological selection of Franz Kafka's autobiographical writings edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, clocking in at a mere 250 pages.
  • If you're interested in my ramblings about the need for a definitive edition of Kafka's collected work, check out this old post.
  • If you don't know anything about Kafka, read the short stories first, then the novels; if you feel lost or confused, read Introducing Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz and Robert Crumb; if you smell bad, take a shower.

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