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Reviewed by:
  • Franz Kafka: The Office Writings
  • Doreen Densky
Franz Kafka: The Office Writings. Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg, and Benno Wagner, eds. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. xx + 404. $46.95 (cloth).

Among the numerous editions of Franz Kafka’s works—and the countless secondary sources devoted to them—one set of writings has been largely absent: that produced as part of his day-to- day office work. Most of the texts which Kafka, a Doctor of Laws, produced as a bureaucrat for the Prague Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute have only been accessible in the German and partially Czech original, most expansively in the 2004 volume of the German Critical Edition.1 With their felicitous selection, the editors of the English volume Franz Kafka: The Office Writings add to the shelves a substantial body of these hitherto un-translated primary sources. Concurrently, they enrich a vital discursive field with ample background information, lucid commentary, and compelling associations to Kafka’s fictional œuvre.

The impact of Kafka’s daytime work on his nocturnal writing process is undisputed, but often described as merely an impediment to his literary creativity. True, Kafka repeatedly complained about the burdens of his insurance law practice. Yet it is also true that he mentioned his professional accomplishments proudly, often with ironic undertones but in some instances with strong conviction, asserting, “the whole world of insurance itself interests me greatly” (quoted 20). Encouraged by such statements and supported by some prior Kafka scholarship, the book’s goal is to demystify the relation between the office desk and the home desk and to “highlight themes, images, and ideas as they flow back and forth” (xi). In a nutshell, “the world of Kafka’s writing, both literary and official, is a single institution, in which the factor of bureaucracy is ever present” (xv).

“Before the Law,” the eminent parable’s title phrase, is also Kafka’s daily office reality. To Jacques Derrida’s reading of “before” as both a spatial position and a temporal suspension, the editors add the sense of being “confronted by” the law (xi). They then approach Kafka’s legal-administrative work and its literary transformations from different scholarly angles. Stanley Corngold, an American literature professor and a reputable Kafka scholar, provides a reading of reconciliation between both areas of writing in “Kafka and the Ministry of Writing.” In Kafka’s preference for the term “writerly being” (Schriftstellersein) over appellations like “poet” or “author,” Corngold discerns a “disenchanted, merely technical flavor,” which shares a mode of being with Kafka’s “‘official’ being” (Beamtensein)(3). In the second preparatory essay, Benno Wagner, a German literature professor and co-editor of the Critical Edition’s Amtliche Schriften, cogently leads the reader through the historical, legal, and institutional milieu of Imperial Austro- Hungarian insurance administration. He refers to it in passing as a blueprint for the “surreal attic-court bureaucracy” in The Trial and the “enigmatic castle bureaucracy’s proliferation” in The Castle (29). Jack Greenberg, an American professor of Law and a prominent civil rights attorney, closes the volume with his “Wraparound: From Kafka to Kafkaesque,” in which he analyzes, among other topics, the frequent use of the eponym Kafkaesque in American legal practice.

The eighteen documents and document sets at the heart of the book—Kafka’s “articles and briefs with literary value that are at the same time relevant to his literary work” (xvii)—are each framed by a short introduction and a longer commentary. This framing supplies additional information and draws often conclusive but at times perhaps magnified connections. It also demonstrates that Kafka was in fact the writer (or with reasonable certainty involved in the drafting or handling) of the respective document, which was often anonymously composed or ghostwritten for a superior. Since the texts are by and large chronologically arranged from 1908 to 1917, they allow the reader to follow a paper trail through Kafka’s tenures as deputy clerk, [End Page 957] trainee, law clerk (Concipist), and finally his tenure as Vice-Secretary, after which Kafka’s tuberculosis outbreak forced long absences until his early retirement in 1922. The itinerary leads from the written laudatory “Speech on the Occasion...