Apr/May 2009

PAPER GRIP

Ben Kafka


A week after moving to New York, I hired a car service to take me to the commercial loading docks at Kennedy Airport. I was trying to pick up several cartons of books I had shipped from Paris. After signing for the contents, I proceeded to the Customs Office, where an agent was waiting to stamp the import papers. I had forgotten my passport; all I had was an expired, out-of-state driver’s license. “Kafka, eh?” he said, looking closely at the license, then at me. There was a pause. “I guess you must find this all pretty Kafkaesque!” He chortled—actually chortled—before permitting me to collect my books and head home.

Freud would say that jokes about the Kafkaesque help us bank a bit of pleasure as we navigate bureaucracy’s maddening requirements. It can be a struggle to maintain that levity, and the editors of The Office Writings have just made it even harder. Kafka scholars Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner have collaborated with Jack Greenberg (of Brown v. Board of Education fame) to collect and comment on Kafka’s bureaucratic writings, neatly translated from the German by Eric Patton and Ruth Hein. They have added thoughtful, detailed, and generally convincing essays, commentaries, and notes. And after reading these memorandums, briefs, and reports, one can’t help but feel that the customs official’s little joke might not have been so funny after all.

Kafka was hired as an assistant secretary by the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague in 1908, not long after receiving his law degree. He remained there until 1922, when bad health forced him into early retirement. By then, he was chief legal secretary, and the editors describe Kafka as the “virtual CEO” of the institute’s two hundred or so engineers, lawyers, doctors, clerks, and typists. During his years of service, Kafka wrote everything from reports on the working conditions in Bohemian quarries, textile mills, and toy manufacturers to newspaper articles reminding employers of their moral and legal obligation to contribute to the Habsburg Empire’s public workmen’s accident-insurance fund.

The editors tell us they have selected the writings that “most vividly reveal aspects of Kafka’s craft as an insurance lawyer—articles and briefs with literary value that are at the same time relevant to his literary work.” That em dash is a bit of a stretch. Many of the texts here are more crafty than literary. Kafka’s report on “Accident Prevention in Quarries” is said by the editors to be a “quarry for images” for his fiction, such as the location of K.’s murder at the end of The Trial, and this is plausible enough. But even ardent fans of the Czech author will probably find themselves skimming the finer details of wood-lathe safety mechanisms and automobile-risk-categorization subgroups. And while they might enjoy the odd list of wooden toys or the gruesome illustrations of hand and finger injuries, which are evocative in a Walter Benjamin or Ben Katchor sort of way, these details are neither odd nor gruesome enough to hold anyone’s attention. No matter. Whatever their literary value, the texts have impressive sociological merit: They provide a compelling picture of what life was like for an early-twentieth-century bureaucrat who took his work seriously, believed in it, and did it well.

This was no small task. Bohemia was the most heavily industrialized region of Austria-Hungary. Work conditions were hazardous, wages miserable, and employers unprincipled. Indeed, one document after the next attests to the bad faith of the local industrialists. Several of the selections include their letters, appeals, and complaints; each one is written in the same indignant idiom, as if nothing were more normal than misreporting wages in order to defraud the state.

Day after day, week after week, year after year, Kafka and his colleagues arrived at the office, sat down at their desks, and tried once again to explain to these employers why they were being called on to contribute to the public insurance fund even though they didn’t feel like it. “Real hell is there in the office,” Kafka wrote in a letter to Felice Bauer, “no other can hold any terror for me.” Corngold suggests that this torment reflects Kafka’s attitude toward “the bureaucratic castle world.” After reading these texts, it seems somewhat more likely that he was cranky and tired at the end of a long day at work spent dealing with yet another letter from Norbert Hochsieder, the hotel owner in the resort town of Marienbad who refused to pay his premiums on the grounds that his hotel, with its twenty employees and fifty rooms, was not really a commercial enterprise, since it did not serve breakfast.

“Only two interests apply here, those of the workers and of the employers,” Kafka wrote in one of his first assignments, a report to the Ministry of the Interior. “The Institute has no other interest but theirs.” It’s easy to read something sinister into this statement, as if it were a premonition or prefiguration of the bleakly funny worlds of The Trial and The Castle. But ultimately, the value of The Office Writings lies less in the potential connections to Kafka’s fiction than in the fundamental disconnect. Placed in context, it becomes clear that, far from being sinister, this statement is in fact profoundly idealistic, the result of a young lawyer’s earnest attempt to balance competing interests in a complex world. There’s nothing Kafkaesque about it at all.

Ben Kafka is an assistant professor of media studies and history at New York University. He is writing a history of paperwork.

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