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Kafka contemplates his messy desk


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Reiner Stach is the author of a renowned three-volume biography on groundbreaking modernist and general oddball Franz Kafka. While researching the biography, Stach came across various notes and ephemera Kafka left behind, which offer a curious window into the author’s personal life. Stach has collected these fragments into a book called That Kafka? 99 Finds, which is excerpted at The Nation. Here’s a snippet in which Kafka muses on his messy desk:

Now I’ve taken a closer look at my desk and realized that nothing good can be produced on it. There’s so much lying around here, it creates disorder without regularity, and with none of that agreeableness of disorderly things that otherwise makes every disorder bearable. Whatever disorder is on the green desk-cloth, it is no worse than what might be permitted in the orchestra section of the old theaters. But when papers pour out of the standing-room section, out of the open compartment below the raised platform in the back—brochures, old newspapers, catalogs, postcards, letters, all partly torn, partly opened, piled up like a staircase—this undignified state spoils everything. Individual items in the orchestra, enormous by comparison, spring into action, as if the spectators in the theater were suddenly given free rein, the businessman to put his books in order, the carpenter to hammer, the officer to wave his saber, the lovers to cast aside their inhibitions, the priest to speak to the heart, the scholar to the understanding, the politician to the civic spirit, etc. Only the shaving mirror on my desk stands upright, as required for shaving, the clothes-brush lies bristles-down on the cloth, the portemonnaie lies open, in case I need to pay, one key sticks out from the key ring, ready for work, and the tie is still partly wrapped around the cast-off collar. The next highest compartment of the raised back, already boxed in by the small, closed drawers on either side, is nothing but a junk room, as if the lowest balcony of the auditorium, basically the most visible section of the theater, had been reserved for the most vulgar people, for old scoundrels whose dirt slowly works its way out from the inside, coarse fellows who dangle their feet down over the balcony railing, families with so many children that you only glance at them quickly and can’t even count them fill the place with the dirt of poor nurseries (in fact, it’s already flowing down into the orchestra), people with incurable illnesses sit back in the darkness, fortunately you can only see them when the lights shine their way, etc. This compartment contains old papers that I would have thrown away long ago if I had a wastepaper basket, pencils with broken-off points, an empty matchbox, a paperweight from Karlsbad, a ruler with an edge that would be too bumpy even for a country road, a lot of collar buttons, dull razor blades (the world has no place for them), tie clips, and yet another heavy iron paperweight. In the compartment above—

Image of Kafka via Wikipedia Commons.