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Franz Kafka: The Office Writings

Overview

Franz Kafka: The Office Writings brings together, for the first time in English, Kafka's most interesting professional writings, composed during his years as a high-ranking lawyer with the largest Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in the Czech Lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is commonly recognized as the greatest German prose writer of the twentieth century. It is less well known that he had an established legal career. Kafka's briefs reveal him to be a canny bureaucrat, sharp ...

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Overview

Franz Kafka: The Office Writings brings together, for the first time in English, Kafka's most interesting professional writings, composed during his years as a high-ranking lawyer with the largest Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in the Czech Lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is commonly recognized as the greatest German prose writer of the twentieth century. It is less well known that he had an established legal career. Kafka's briefs reveal him to be a canny bureaucrat, sharp litigator, and innovative thinker on the social, political, and legal issues of his time. His official preoccupations inspired many of the themes and strategies of the novels and stories he wrote at night.

These documents include articles on workmen's compensation and workplace safety; appeals for the founding of a psychiatric hospital for shell-shocked veterans; and letters arguing relentlessly for a salary adequate to his merit. In adjudicating disputes, promoting legislative programs, and investigating workplace sites, Kafka's writings teem with details about the bureaucracy and technology of his day, such as spa elevators in Marienbad, the challenge of the automobile, and the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk. Beautifully translated, with valuable commentary by two of the world's leading Kafka scholars and one of America's most eminent civil rights lawyers, the documents cast rich light on the man and the writer and offer new insights to lovers of Kafka's novels and stories.

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Editorial Reviews

The Nation
The Office Writings, however, convincingly suggests that his job was also integral to his writing, and that his literary production was not an escape from the alienation of daily life to that 'dreamlike inner life' but a striving to reconcile the two.
— Alexander Provan
The National
Kafka himself complained constantly that his day job at the Prague Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute oppressed his artistic calling; this volume's editors beg to differ. In the hands of Kafka scholars Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner and the legal scholar Jack Greenberg, the 18 briefs collected here comprise more than a record of the author's years in the insurance business. By reading between his legal writings and his fiction, the editors argue that Kafka's dual identities are inextricable: the writer is informed by the lawyer, the lawyer by the writer. Franz Kafka is the Franz Kafka we know not in spite of his day job, but rather because of it.
— Rachel Sugar
BookForum
[T]he 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. . . . But ultimately, the value of The Office Writings lies less in the potential connections to Kafka's fiction than in the fundamental disconnect.
— Ben Kafka
Nextbook.org
This event—finally, the translation and publication of the last known scrap of Kafka's work left untranslated, and unpublished—brings us to the subject of this series: how Kafka's office writings influenced his fiction, and what that influence means. Kafka's office writings, as presented here, cannot be read on their own . . . but, instead, must be read as companions, to demystify the three novels and stories (which are anything but boring). Taken together, though, both workaday fact and masterwork fiction create a network of connections that exposes not just the concerns of a single writer, but also that of a singular culture—the culture of the Office, which has imposed itself on what used to be our lives.
— Joshua Cohen
Choice
This handsome volume fills a void in Kafka studies and rectifies the unbalanced image of Kafka as a tortured genius who labored in an insurance office by day and wrote fiction by night. . . . A fascinating read for scholars of Kafka and modern Central European literature.
— M. McCulloh
Czech Business Weekly
The editors—Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg and Benno Wagner—have done a masterful job in making the drafts of speeches, letters, internal reports and newspaper articles relevant.
— Raymond Johnston
Federal Lawyer
These writings reveal Kafka the man at his best. For that reason, Franz Kafka: The Office Writings makes a significant contribution to understanding the enigmatic Franz Kafka.
— Jefferson M. Gray
Bookforum

[T]he 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. . . . But ultimately, the value of The Office Writings lies less in the potential connections to Kafka's fiction than in the fundamental disconnect.
— Ben Kafka
The Nation - Alexander Provan
The Office Writings, however, convincingly suggests that his job was also integral to his writing, and that his literary production was not an escape from the alienation of daily life to that 'dreamlike inner life' but a striving to reconcile the two.
The National - Rachel Sugar
Kafka himself complained constantly that his day job at the Prague Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute oppressed his artistic calling; this volume's editors beg to differ. In the hands of Kafka scholars Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner and the legal scholar Jack Greenberg, the 18 briefs collected here comprise more than a record of the author's years in the insurance business. By reading between his legal writings and his fiction, the editors argue that Kafka's dual identities are inextricable: the writer is informed by the lawyer, the lawyer by the writer. Franz Kafka is the Franz Kafka we know not in spite of his day job, but rather because of it.
BookForum - Ben Kafka
[T]he 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. . . . But ultimately, the value of The Office Writings lies less in the potential connections to Kafka's fiction than in the fundamental disconnect.
Nextbook.org - Joshua Cohen
This event—finally, the translation and publication of the last known scrap of Kafka's work left untranslated, and unpublished—brings us to the subject of this series: how Kafka's office writings influenced his fiction, and what that influence means. Kafka's office writings, as presented here, cannot be read on their own . . . but, instead, must be read as companions, to demystify the three novels and stories (which are anything but boring). Taken together, though, both workaday fact and masterwork fiction create a network of connections that exposes not just the concerns of a single writer, but also that of a singular culture—the culture of the Office, which has imposed itself on what used to be our lives.
Choice - M. McCulloh
This handsome volume fills a void in Kafka studies and rectifies the unbalanced image of Kafka as a tortured genius who labored in an insurance office by day and wrote fiction by night. . . . A fascinating read for scholars of Kafka and modern Central European literature.
Czech Business Weekly - Raymond Johnston
The editors—Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg and Benno Wagner—have done a masterful job in making the drafts of speeches, letters, internal reports and newspaper articles relevant.
Federal Lawyer - Jefferson M. Gray
These writings reveal Kafka the man at his best. For that reason, Franz Kafka: The Office Writings makes a significant contribution to understanding the enigmatic Franz Kafka.
From the Publisher

Honorable Mention for the 2008 PROSE Award in Literature, Language, and Linguistics, Association of American Publishers

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2009

"The Office Writings, however, convincingly suggests that his job was also integral to his writing, and that his literary production was not an escape from the alienation of daily life to that 'dreamlike inner life' but a striving to reconcile the two."--Alexander Provan, The Nation

"Kafka himself complained constantly that his day job at the Prague Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute oppressed his artistic calling; this volume's editors beg to differ. In the hands of Kafka scholars Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner and the legal scholar Jack Greenberg, the 18 briefs collected here comprise more than a record of the author's years in the insurance business. By reading between his legal writings and his fiction, the editors argue that Kafka's dual identities are inextricable: the writer is informed by the lawyer, the lawyer by the writer. Franz Kafka is the Franz Kafka we know not in spite of his day job, but rather because of it."--Rachel Sugar, The National (Abu Dhabi)

"[T]he 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. . . . But ultimately, the value of The Office Writings lies less in the potential connections to Kafka's fiction than in the fundamental disconnect."--Ben Kafka, Bookforum

"Cognizant that some readers might be put off by the legal writing style, Corngold (German & comparative literature, Princeton Univ.), Jack Greenberg (law, Columbia Univ.), and Benno Wagner (literature, media, & culture, Univ. of Siegen, Germany) provide ample and rich analyses that demonstrate the close link between Kafka's profession and his literary creativity and oeuvre. This scholarly book is indispensable to an understanding of Kafka. Highly recommended."--Ali Houissa, Library Journal (Starred Review)

"This event--finally, the translation and publication of the last known scrap of Kafka's work left untranslated, and unpublished--brings us to the subject of this series: how Kafka's office writings influenced his fiction, and what that influence means. Kafka's office writings, as presented here, cannot be read on their own . . . but, instead, must be read as companions, to demystify the three novels and stories (which are anything but boring). Taken together, though, both workaday fact and masterwork fiction create a network of connections that exposes not just the concerns of a single writer, but also that of a singular culture--the culture of the Office, which has imposed itself on what used to be our lives."--Joshua Cohen, Nextbook.org

"This handsome volume fills a void in Kafka studies and rectifies the unbalanced image of Kafka as a tortured genius who labored in an insurance office by day and wrote fiction by night. . . . A fascinating read for scholars of Kafka and modern Central European literature."--M. McCulloh, Choice

"The editors--Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg and Benno Wagner--have done a masterful job in making the drafts of speeches, letters, internal reports and newspaper articles relevant."--Raymond Johnston, Czech Business Weekly

"These writings reveal Kafka the man at his best. For that reason, Franz Kafka: The Office Writings makes a significant contribution to understanding the enigmatic Franz Kafka."--Jefferson M. Gray, Federal Lawyer

Library Journal

Critical interpretations of Kafka's writings provide little commentary on his jurist training and work as a high-ranking lawyer with the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in Prague-a side of him that Kafka tried to keep hidden. His characters and such literary works as The Trial and "In the Penal Colony" are imbued with representations of the law. This collection of never-before-translated legal briefs, articles, and documents is a singular source for a new understanding and interpretation of Kafka's literary works. The selected items, arranged chronologically, are each followed by commentary. Cognizant that some readers might be put off by the legal writing style, Corngold (German & comparative literature, Princeton Univ.), Jack Greenberg (law, Columbia Univ.), and Benno Wagner (literature, media, & culture, Univ. of Siegen, Germany) provide ample and rich analyses that demonstrate the close link between Kafka's profession and his literary creativity and oeuvre. This scholarly book is indispensable to an understanding of Kafka. Highly recommended for literature collections and all college and research libraries.
—Ali Houissa

The Barnes & Noble Review
In a passage from his "On the Examination of Firms by Trade Inspectors," written in 1908, Franz Kafka parsed the pernicious slipperiness of legal language -- like the word standard. "Some inspection reports seem to feel that they have to invent the term 'standard firms' all over again. In such evaluations, 'standard firms' can mean any number of things, sometimes more than one in the same document; the term may even have more than one meaning in the same sentence. This all-forgiving vocabulary often serves to bridge the statements of fact and the conclusions, serving to superficially reconcile the two, whereas in reality they would be contradictory according to the classification regulations." Kafka often sounds more Clintonian than Kafkaesque here when he writes about the difficulties of applying his inspectors' findings, which were used to establish insurance premiums and risk categories within the nascent compulsory workers' compensation system in the Austrian Empire. Then again, Kafka the clerk is writing before his surname turned into a shorthand adjective draping all manner of uncanny, phantasmagoric experiences.

"The whole world of insurance interests me greatly," the young Kafka wrote in 1907, a confession that the editors of Franz Kafka: The Office Writings take as an unexpected point of departure in their translation and collection of 18 reports and newspaper articles (each brief is accompanied by the editors' commentary). At the office, Kafka was no pencil pusher: After receiving his law degree in 1906, he went to work for the Italian insurance firm Assicurazioni Generali. Two years later, he left that company for the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, an agency that oversaw the local administration of the Austrian Empire's compensation system; specifically, the institute was charged with setting and obtaining the premiums covering all manner of industrial settings (he remained its employee, in greater and lesser capacity and on frequent sabbatical, until his resignation in 1922, two years before his death in a Kierling sanitorium). The semi-governmental organization was the product of a quietly radical exercise in social engineering; in statistically calibrating and underwriting the crippling nature of industrial capitalism, the instituted attempted to integrate the interests of labor and capital through the instrument of risk calculation. "In Kafka's place of work," Alan Bennett has written, "only the whole man had something to hide, the real handicap [was] to have no handicap at all, whereas a genuine limp genuinely acquired cleared every obstacle and a helping hand was one that had first been severed from the body. The world as hospital, it is Nietzsche's nightmare."

Initially the question of how Kafka the clerk brushed against Kafka the writer seems to have been foreclosed by his own nauseated perspective on "the office" as a ferocious burden on his creative life. "The office is a horror," he famously griped to his fiancée Felice Bauer, whining in his signature manner that "writing and office cannot be reconciled." But it is the argument of Franz Kafka: The Office Writings that a closer look at the actual writings the Prague bureaucrat churned out makes a more compelling case. Life at the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute provided him directly with material that the reader will quickly recognize from The Trial, The Castle, "In the Penal Colony," and other works, but more significantly it branded on his thinking the strange reality of the law -- its social and linguistic particularities, the coupling of a fickle arbitrariness with a fiendish absoluteness -- as it both surveyed a real landscape and proscribed behavior.

The 18 reports and newspaper articles touch on all aspects of the institute's work (not infrequently, these briefs pack a Kafkaesque tang in their very titles, such as "Petition of the Toy Producers' Assocation in Katharinaber, Erzgebirge" and "Fixed-Rate Insurance Premiums for Small Farms Using Machinery"). Some are intended to galvanize public support for workers' compensation or to push safety innovations onto recalcitrant manufacturers (the text "Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines," for example, deploys images of the mangled hands of workers to tout the relative costs and benefits of a new-fangled cylindrical device); others were directed to the insurance industry bureaucrats and grappled with the imperfect system of risk classification. "The Scope of Compulsory Insurance for the Building Trades," written in 1908, finds Kafka taking a position on the rewriting of a 1906 law attempting to close loopholes in a previous statute. While he supports the intention of righting old wrongs (the exclusion of certain workshops from compulsory insurance) through new legislation, he argues that "a repeated modification of the intepretation would only entail another dangerous confusion of legal relationships." From Kafka's perspective, vacillation in the law, the editor notes in his commentary, "is a greater danger to society than its possible misinterpretation."

"Kafka was a master dialectician and seldom found himself on only one side of an argument," writes Louis Begley in his short biographical essay "The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head" (Begley, an attorney himself, would seem a perfect guide to the material addressed in The Office Writings, and one wishes that in writing his book, a fine thumbnail guide to the major themes in Kafka's life -- particularly his vexed relationship to his Jewishness and his vexing epistolary to-and-fro with Felice -- he had had recourse to the juridical writings). The Kafka who emerges from The Office Writings is, somewhat surprisingly, a realist -- or rather, one reads backward from his later short stories and novellas to discover the realist hiding under the surface, not so much because Kafka lifted material and scenes directly from his working life. Instead, it emerges in his translation of the experience of interpretively reading legal fictions about, say, the attempts to classify automobile ownership under the rubric of workers' compensation (the argument being that since chauffeurs were employees, then automobiles must be seen as "firms") that Kafka seems less engaged in mythical fantasy and more a writerly observer of a jurisprudential reality.

The editors of The Office Writings are at pains to erase the lingering image of Kafka as a prophetic otherworldly poet of the absurd and reconnect his writing to his life as lived. James Hawkes has perhaps a similar goal in mind with his odd little Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life, an all-out debunking maneuver on "the K.-myth." "Most English-speakers seem to pick up Kafka's writings vaguely expecting something like a mixture of Edgar Allan Poe, The Fly, Philip K. Dick, and 1984, " Hawkes observes. "No other writer's work suffers from this kind of prejudgment. It means that readers come to Kafka already beholding the (alleged) man, forgetting that in the beginning were his words." Caught in Hawkes's fusillade is seemingly every other commentator on Kafka's legacy, from Max Brod on, including especially what Hawkes sees as the warped academic community comprising Kafka Studies.

Hawkes's Kafka is a moneyed, skirt-chasing, life-of-the-party type with a weakness for hookers and Aubrey Beardsley -- like period porn. Hawkes's book is an exasperating exercise in pulling masks off the writer's face as he thinks we remember it. Jewishness, it turns out, had virtually nothing to do with his Kafka's work; Kafka's dad was actually a pretty nice fellow; even the TB he suffered from wasn't really that bad, at least until it killed him, of course. Preposterously literal and rather dubiously dedicated to the notion that if Kafka the man is made more human, the K. myth -- a shaky thing to begin with, despite Hawkes's view -- will disappear like chimney smoke, Why You Should Read Kafka is a strange brief: "The plain fact seems to be that scholars just don't want to know -- which, they being the gatekeepers of the facts, means that they don't want you, dear Reader, to know -- about the real Franz Kafka, warts, porn, whores, and all. The effect is one of censorship pure and simple." Hawkes's iconoclasm grows tiresome very fast (in part because he is more assiduous a promoter of a sort of anti-myth of Kafka than even the most evangelical of his opponents). Then again, even a good prosecutor will have a hard time winning if his case is weak. --Eric Banks

Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum. He has contributed to The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, and the Financial Times and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691126807
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/29/2008
  • Pages: 424
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Stanley Corngold is professor of German and comparative literature at Princeton University. Jack Greenberg is the Alphonse Fletcher Professor of Law at Columbia University. Benno Wagner is a professor in the Department of Literature, Media, and Culture at the University of Siegen in Germany.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Abbreviations for Kafka Citations xix
Kafka and the Ministry of Writing by Stanley Corngold 1
Kafka's Offi ce Writings: Historical Background and Institutional Setting by Benno Wagner 19

DOCUMENTS
Chapter 1: Speech on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Institute's New Director (1909) 51
Commentary
Chapter 2: The Scope of Compulsory Insurance for the Building Trades (1908) 54
Commentary
Chapter 3: Fixed- Rate Insurance Premiums for Small Farms Using Machinery (1909) 74
Commentary
Chapter 4: Inclusion of Private Automobile "Firms" in the Compulsory Insurance Program (1909) 80
Commentary
Chapter 5: Appeal against Risk Classifi cation of Christian Geipel & Sohn, Mechanical Weaving Mill in Asch (1910) 90
Commentary
Chapter 6: Mea sures for Preventing Accidents from Wood- Planing Machines (1910) 109
Commentary
Chapter 7: On the Examination of Firms by Trade Inspectors (1911) 120
Commentary
Chapter 8: Workmen's Insurance and Employers: Two Articles in the Tetschen- Bodenbacher Zeitung (1911) 145
Commentary
Chapter 9: Petition of the Toy Producers’ Association in Katharinaberg, Erzgebirge (1912) 170
Commentary
Chapter 10: Risk Classifi cation Appeal by Norbert Hochsieder, Boarding House Own er in Marienbad (1912) 194
Commentary
Chapter 11: Letters to the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in Prague (1912-15) 213
Commentary
Chapter 12: Criminal Charge against Josef Renelt for the Illegal Withholding of Insurance Fees (1913) 225
Commentary
Chapter 13: Second International Congress on Accident Prevention and First Aid in Vienna (1913) 249
Commentary
Chapter 14: Accident Prevention in Quarries (1914) 273
Commentary
Chapter 15: Jubilee Report: Twenty- Five Years of the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute (1914) 301
Commentary
Chapter 16: Risk Classifi cation and Accident Prevention in War time (1915) 322
Commentary
Chapter 17: A Public Psychiatric Hospital for German- Bohemia (1916) 336
Commentary
Chapter 18: "Help Disabled Veterans! An Urgent Appeal to the Public" (1916/1917) 346
Commentary

Wraparound:From Kafka to Kafkaesque 355by Jack Greenberg Chronology 373
Notes 379
About the Editors 393
Index 395

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