“Unmasking a Confidence Trickster” — Franz Kafka

“Unmasking a Confidence Trickster”


Franz Kafka

English translation by the Muirs


At last, about ten o’clock at night, I came to the doorway of the fine house where I was invited to spend the evening, after the man beside me, whom I was barely acquainted with and who had once again thrust himself unasked upon me, had marched me for two long hours around the streets.

“Well!” I said, and clapped my hands to show that I really had to bid him goodbye. I had already made several less explicit attempts to get rid of him. I was tired out.

“Are you going straight in?” he asked. I heard a sound in his mouth that was like the snapping of teeth.


I had been invited out, I told him when I met him. But it was to enter a house where I longed to be that I had been invited, not to stand here at the street door looking past the ears of the man before me. Nor to fall silent with him, as if we were doomed to stay for a long time on this spot. And yet the houses around us at once took a share in our silence, and the darkness over them, all the way up to the stars. And the steps of invisible passers-by, which one could not take the trouble to elucidate, and the wind persistently buffeting the other side of the street, and a gramophone singing behind the closed windows of some room-they all announced themselves in this silence, as if it were their own possession for the time past and to come.

And my companion subscribed to it in his own name and–with a smile–in mine too, stretched his right arm up along the wall and leaned his cheek upon it, shutting his eyes.

But I did not wait to see the end of that smile, for shame suddenly caught hold of me. It had needed that smile to let me know that the man was a confidence trickster, nothing else. And yet I had been months in the town and thought I knew all about confidence tricksters, how they came slinking out of side streets by night to meet us with outstretched hands like tavernkeepers, how they haunted the advertisement pillars we stood beside, sliding round them as if playing hide-and-seek and spying on us with at least one eye, how they suddenly appeared on the curb of the pavement at cross streets when we were hesitating! I understood them so well, they were the first acquaintances I had made the town’s small taverns, and to them I owed my first inkling of a ruthless hardness which I was now so conscious of, everywhere on earth, that I was even beginning to feel it in myself. How persistently they blocked our way, even when we had long shaken ourselves free, even when, that is, they had nothing more to hope for! How they refused to give up, to admit defeat, but kept shooting glances at us that even from a distance were still compelling! And the means they employed were always the same: they planted themselves before us, looking as large as possible, tried to hinder us from going where we purposed, offered us instead a habitation in their own bosoms, and when at last all our balked feelings rose in revolt they welcomed that like an embrace into which they threw themselves face foremost.

And it had taken me such a long time in this man’s company to recognize the same old game. I rubbed my finger tips together to wipe away the disgrace. My companion was still leaning there as before, still believing himself a successful trickster, and his self-complacency glowed pink on his free cheek.

“Caught in the act!” said I, tapping him lightly on the shoulder. Then I ran up the steps, and the disinterested devotion on the servants’ faces in the hall delighted me like an unexpected treat. I looked at them all, one after another, while they took my greatcoat off and wiped my shoes clean.

With a deep breath of relief and straightening myself to my full height I then entered the drawing room.

Kafka’s Statue of Liberty

As he entered New York Harbor on the now slow-moving ship, Karl Rossmann, a seventeen-year-old youth who had been sent to America by his poor parents because a servant girl had seduced him and borne a child by him, saw the Statue of Liberty, which he had been observing for some time, as if in a sudden burst of sunlight. The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.

The first paragraph of Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika.

The translation here is by Mark Harman, from his reworking of the novel “based on the restored text” and published by Schoken as Amerika: The Missing Person. I reviewed Harman’s translation several years ago.

No one reaches to him (Franz Kafka’s diary entry of 19 May 1922)

19 May. He feels more deserted with a second person than when alone. If he is together with someone, this second person reaches out for him and he is helplessly delivered into his hand. If he is alone, all mankind reaches out for him – but the innumerable outstretched arms become entangled with one another and no one reaches to him.

Franz Kafka’s diary entry of 19 May 1922. From The Diaries of Franz Kafka.” Schocken Books. Translation by Martin Greenberg.

“The Hunter Gracchus,” a short tale by Franz Kafka

“The Hunter Gracchus”


Franz Kafka

Two boys were sitting on the wall by the jetty playing dice. A man was reading a newspaper on the steps of a monument in the shadow of a hero wielding a sabre. A young girl was filling her tub with water at a fountain. A fruit seller was lying close to his produce and looking out to sea. Through the empty openings of the door and window of a bar two men could be seen drinking wine in the back. The landlord was sitting at a table in the front dozing. A small boat glided lightly into the small harbour, as if it were being carried over the water. A man in a blue jacket climbed out onto land and pulled the ropes through the rings. Behind the man from the boat, two other men in dark coats with silver buttons carried a bier, on which, under a large silk scarf with a floral pattern and fringe, a man was obviously lying.

No one bothered with the newcomers on the jetty, even when they set the bier down to wait for their helmsman, who was still working with the ropes. No one came up to them, no one asked them any questions, no one took a closer look at them.

The helmsman was further held up a little by a woman with disheveled hair, who now appeared on deck with a child at her breast. Then he came on, pointing to a yellowish two-story house which rose close by, directly on the left near the water. The bearers took up their load and carried it through the low door furnished with slender columns. A small boy opened a window, noticed immediately how the group was disappearing into the house, and quickly shut the window again. The door closed. It had been fashioned with care out of black oak wood. A flock of doves, which up to this point had been flying around the bell tower, came down in front of the house. The doves gathered before the door, as if their food was stored inside the house. One flew right up to the first floor and pecked at the window pane. They were brightly coloured, well cared for, lively animals. With a large sweep of her hand the woman on the boat threw some seeds towards them. They ate them up and then flew over to the woman. Continue reading ““The Hunter Gracchus,” a short tale by Franz Kafka”

Incapable of writing even one word (Kafka diary entry, 8 April 1914)

8 April. Yesterday incapable of writing even one word. Today no better. Who will save me? And the turmoil in me, deep down, scarcely visible; I am like a living lattice-work, a lattice that is solidly planted and would like to tumble down.

Today in the coffee-house with Werfel. How he looked from the distance, seated at the coffee-house table. Stooped, half reclining even in the wooden chair, the beautiful profile of his face pressed against his chest, his face almost wheezing in its fullness (not really fat); entirely indifferent to the surroundings, impudent, and without flaw. His dangling glasses by contrast make it easier to trace the delicate outlines of his face.


From the diaries of Franz Kafka. The entry is from 8 April 1914. English translation by Martin Greenberg.

Even more beautiful emotions (Kafka’s diary entry, 27 March 1912)

27. March. Monday, on the street. The boy who with several others, threw a large ball at a servant girl walking defencelessly in front of them; just as the ball was flying at the girls’ behind I grabbed him by the throat, choked him in a fury, thrust him aside, and swore. Then walked on and didn’t even look at the girl. One quite forgets one’s earthly existence because one is so entirely full of fury is permitted to believe that, given the opportunity, one would in the same way fill oneself with even more beautiful emotions.

Franz Kafka’s diary entry, 27 March 1912. Translation by Joseph Kresh.

Gorey’s Kafka


Reading/Have Read/Should Write About



Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Tried to write about it for a few hours—did write something, mostly complaining about how hard it is to write, etc. etc. etc. Deleted it. Slim Bernhard—not the best starting place for anyone interested in Tommy B, but not a particularly bad one either. (Correction, which also features a Wittgenstein (in disguise) is probably the best I’ve read by Bernhard so far).

Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners

These books are essential. 


Anyone who wants to write fiction must read Mystery and Manners, a collection of O’Connor’s lectures and essays on her craft. The Habit of Being, which collects her letters, is fascinating–of particular interest are her letters to A., a younger woman who liked O’Connor’s stories and wrote to her until the end of her life.

I sort of graze on these books.

Kafka’s Diaries

More grazing.

More essential.

Emmanuelle Guattari’s memoir I, Little Asylum

Did you know that Felix Guattari had a pet monkey? Boubou was her name. She died in a tree. Full review forthcoming.

Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets

Don’t know if I’ll ever work up the courage to write about this one, but what I’ve read so far—the first four essays in the collection—is really compelling. Badiou tackles Plato’s rejection of the poets from his ideal state—Badiou reckons that “no truth can ever deliver the meaning of meaning, or the sense of sense”:

Plato banned the poem because he suspected that poetic thought could not be the thought of thought. We once again welcome the poem in our midst, because it keeps us from supposing that the singularity of a thought can be replaced by the thought of this thought.

By which I take this to mean: The spirit of the spirit.

Dmitry Samarov’s Where To? A Hack Memoir

Been enjoying the vignettes here—Samarov has a direct and descriptive but wry style. His stories spill over into rants, comic asides, lovely ugly grotesque anecdotes, and tales of warmth and friendship. Love the illustrations too. Great stuff.

William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories

I like Vollmann, but this one is hard to get into. Wonderful dark moments, great little fragments of stories, but 150 pages in and I feel like I’m reading the scraps left out of some other, better, tighter novel.

The impenetrable outline of human bodies is horrible (Kafka’s diary, Oct 30, 1921)

30 October. In the afternoon to the theatre, Pallenberg.
The possibilities within me, I won’t say to act or write The Miser, but to be the miser himself. It would need only a sudden determined movement of my hands, the entire orchestra gazes in fascination at the spot above the conductor’s stand where the baton will rise.
Feeling of complete helplessness.
What is it that binds you more intimately to these impenetrable, talking, eye-blinking bodies than to any other thing, the penholder in your hand, for example? Because you belong to the same species? But you don’t belong to the same species, that’s the very reason why you raised this question.
The impenetrable outline of human bodies is horrible.
The wonder, the riddle of my not having perished already, of the silent power guiding me. It forces one to this absurdity: ‘Left to my own resources, I should have long ago been lost.’ My own resources.

From Franz Kafka’s diary entry of October 30, 1921.

“The Truth about Sancho Panza” — Franz Kafka


Dazzled (Kafka)


“The Top” — Franz Kafka


“A Crossbreed” — Franz Kafka

“A Crossbreed”


Franz Kafka

I have a curious animal, half kitten, half lamb. It is a legacy from my father. But it only developed in my time; formerly it was far more lamb than kitten. Now it is both in about equal parts. From the cat it takes its head and claws, from the lamb its size and shape; from both its eyes, which are wild and flickering, its hair, which is soft, lying close to its body, its movements, which partake both of skipping and slinking. Lying on the window sill in the sun it curls up in a ball and purrs; out in the meadow it rushes about like mad and is scarcely to be caught. It flees from cats and makes to attack lambs. On moonlight nights its favorite promenade is along the eaves. It cannot mew and it loathes rats. Beside the hen coop it can lie for hours in ambush, but it has never yet seized an opportunity for murder.

I feed it on milk; that seems to suit it best. In long draughts it sucks the milk in through its fanglike teeth. Naturally it is a great source of entertainment for children. Sunday morning is the visiting hour. I sit with the little beast on my knees, and the children of the whole neighborhood stand around me.

Then the strangest questions are asked, which no human being could answer: Why there is only one such animal, why I rather than anybody else should own it, whether there was ever an animal like it before and what would happen if it died, whether it feels lonely, why it has no children, what it is called, etc.

I never trouble to answer, but confine myself without further explanation to exhibiting my possession. Sometimes the children bring cats with them; once they actually brought two lambs. But against all their hopes there was no scene of recognition. The animals gazed calmly at each other with their animal eyes, and obviously accepted their reciprocal existence as a divine fact.

Sitting on my knees, the beast knows neither fear nor lust of pursuit. Pressed against me it is happiest. It remains faithful to the family that brought it up. In that there is certainly no extraordinary mark of fidelity, but merely the true instinct of an animal which, though it has countless step-relations in the world, has perhaps not a single blood relation, and to which consequently the protection it has found with us is sacred.

Sometimes I cannot help laughing when it sniffs around me and winds itself between my legs and simply will not be parted from me. Not content with being lamb and cat, it almost insists on being a dog as well. Once when, as may happen to anyone, I could see no way out of my business problems and all that they involved, and was ready to let everything go, and in this mood was lying in my rocking chair in my room, the beast on my knees, I happened to glance down and saw tears dropping from its huge whiskers. Were they mine, or were they the animal’s? Had this cat, along with the soul of a lamb, the ambitions of a human being? I did not inherit much from my father, but this legacy is quite remarkable.

It has the restlessness of both beasts, that of the cat and that of the lamb, diverse as they are. For that reason its skin feels too tight for it. Sometimes it jumps up on the armchair beside me, plants its front legs on my shoulder, and put its muzzle to my ear. It is as if it were saying something to me, and as a matter of fact it turns its head afterwards and gazes in my face to see the impression its communication has made. And to oblige it I behave as if I had understood, and nod. Then it jumps to the floor and dances about with joy.

Perhaps the knife of the butcher would be a release for this animal; but as it is a legacy I must deny it that. So it must wait until the breath voluntarily leaves its body, even though it sometimes gazes at me with a look of human understanding, challenging me to do the thing of which both of us are thinking.

Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.

“At Night” — Franz Kafka


Kafka Smiling

kafka smiling

An Extract From Reiner Stach’s “Kafka: The Years of Insight”

(Ricardo Bofill.)

The easy possibility of writing letters–from a purely theoretical point of view–must have brought ruination to the souls of the world. Writing letters is actually communication with ghosts, not only with the ghost of the recipient, but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters where one letter corroborates another and can cite it is a witness. How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power. But writing letters means barring oneself to the ghosts, who are greedily awaiting that. Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way. This ample nourishment enables them to multiply so enormously. Mankind senses this and struggles against it; in order to attain a natural communication and a tranquility of soul, and to switch off the ghostly dimension as far as possible, man invented trains, cars, airplanes, but nothing helps anymore. These are evidently inventions devised at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal system, the ghosts invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. The ghosts will not starve, but we will parish.


The opposing side. The phrase reveals that his mythopoeic imagination had reached the next level. Although the recipient of this letter could not know it, Kafka had just written a novel about this opposing side. But in The Castle, the fiends (who work mainly at night) are no longer a chaotic mob but emissaries of a ststem, officials who are not free and are themselves subjugated to an unfathomable will. Somewhere inside the castle a highest authority lives; it is the castle of Count Westwest, without whose tacit approval not a creature can stir. This creature with the unearthly name is mentioned on page 20, only to disappear behind a smoke screen of endless chatter. And no one penetrates these walls by waiting patiently for them to become porous–as in Kafka’s “Before The Law” legend–or by the land surveyor’s challenge to a “fight.” The highest authority exists, but it remains unrelentingly remote, and thus the crucial question of whether it is hostile or even evil remains a matter of conjecture. Kafka himself was not clear on this. A few months before beginning the novel, he wrote:

The systematic destruction of myself over the years is astonishing, it was like a slowly widening breach in a dam, a purposeful action. The spirit that brought it about must now be celebrating triumphs; why doesn’t it let me take part in them? But perhaps it hasn’t yet completed its work and can therefore think of nothing else.

(trans. Shelley Frisch).

Reconstruction of the Machine from Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony


 “However,” the Officer said, interrupting himself, “I’m chattering, and his apparatus stands here in front of us. As you see, it consists of three parts. With the passage of time certain popular names have been developed for each of these parts. The one underneath is called the Bed, the upper one is called the Inscriber, and here in the middle, this moving part is called the Harrow.” “The Harrow?” the Traveller asked. He had not been listening with full attention.

“In the Penal Colony,” Franz Kafka.