This month’s best paperbacks: Katherine Rundell, Nick Hornby and more | Books

This month’s best paperbacks: Katherine Rundell, Nick Hornby and more | Books

The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka Edited by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch Walker Evans

Unique insight into the writer’s mind

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 suffered an intense pulmonary haemorrhage that caused him to cough up blood, indicating that he had tuberculosis. He took sick leave and went to stay with his sister Ottla on a farm in the Bohemian village of Zürau (Siřem today). He stayed for eight months and during this time, while helping on the farm and enjoying the fresh air, he took stock of his life. For years he had been caught in a struggle between what his biographer Reiner Stach describes as “his longing for intimacy with a woman and his equally deep longing for the rapture of production”.

In his diary he wrote “you have the opportunity to make a new beginning. Don’t throw it away.” Instead of finishing The Trial, he began filling two notebooks with “pencilled scribblings”. Amidst the many crossings out and revisions a few pared down sentences and passages emerged, “reflective prose that abounded in startling images and metaphysical speculations”, aphorisms that addressed what Kafka termed “the ultimate things”.

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 beautiful cover features an ink-black jackdaw’s feather against a white background. “Kavka” was Czech for “jackdaw” and the image of these birds and crows against a bright surface such as snow often assumed a mysterious significance in Kafka’s writing. One aphorism reads: “A cage went in search of a bird”. Perhaps the bird was Kafka himself? As Stach notes, in the most evocative of his aphorisms, Kafka finds images to represent abstract concepts: “they are not there to illustrate his arguments; they are his arguments.” Paths, for example, occur repeatedly, as in this memorable one, from November 1917: “like a path in autumn: no sooner has it been swept clean than it is once more covered with dry leaves.”

For anyone who loves Kafka’s fiction, this wonderful edition of aphorisms offers a unique insight into his mind at a crucial point in his life. Though often enigmatic and obscure, the commentaries open them up brilliantly, suggesting possible interpretations. As Stach says, “readers of the aphorisms wind up in unfamiliar, sometimes inhospitable territory, which can then turn terribly beautiful”.

£13.19 (RRP £14.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

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