Burn the Manuscript

Jorge Luis Borges on Kafka instructing Max Bod to burn Kafka’s unpublished work.

In the days before the internet people used more ephemeral media for writing, like paper, like parchment, like papyrus. If you wanted to destroy your work, you would chop it up and commit it to flames. You could also delegate the task, though in modern terms that would be like handing someone your phone and asking them to delete your notes.

Kafka died a month shy of his forty-first birthday, in June 1924. Most of his unpublished work he left to his friend Max Brod with a final request that it all be burned.

Brod didn’t burn it.

Jorge Luis Borges offers an answer as to why. The following excerpt is from his interview with The Paris Review in 1966.

In the case of Kafka, we know very little. We only know that he was very dissatisfied with his own work. Of course, when he told his friend Max Brod that he wanted his manuscripts to be burned, as Virgil did, I suppose he knew that his friend wouldn’t do that. If a man wants to destroy his own work, he throws it into a fire, and there it goes. When he tells a close friend of his, I want all the manuscripts to be destroyed, he knows that the friend will never do that, and the friend knows that he knows, and that he knows that the other knows that he knows, and so on and so forth.

True or not, this Borgesian circularity has a particular, pleasing ring to it, like an echo—an echo every reader of Kafka’s work perpetuates.

Thinking about that gives me goosebumps.


This is the last posts in the mini series about famous writers’ comments on Kafka’s work:

  • Running After Tops: Poet and classicist Anne Carson on Kafka’s text.
  • Fishing in a Bathtub: Philosopher Albert Camus on the absurd in Kafka’s work.
  • Quiet of the Now: Philosopher Hannah Arendt on time in Kafka’s aphorism.
  • Burn the Manuscript: Essayist and master of the short story Jorge Luis Borges on Max Brod (not) burning Kafka’s manuscripts.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

3 thoughts on “Burn the Manuscript”

  1. I wonder what Mark Zuckerberg would have done. But we know that now. And what is going to happen to all the stuff I’ve written and posted on blogs that have been cancelled.When I am dead will it still be there in ‘the cloud’? If I predict that some American president will become a great dictator sometime in the future, will somebody find my prediction when I am dead and make into a great prophet, or will they just laugh at my innocence?
    But seriously, thank you for the Kafka comments.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha, Zuckerberg. Apropos his solution, I just read Jack Gilbert’s interview in the Paris Review (Gilbert, the American poet, 1925-2012) where he was asked about his unpublished work. He said he would give it to one of his old flames in the hope that she could do something useful with it, sell it perhaps and use the money. But then, judging from his interview (I haven’t read any of his poetry yet), the man was full of love and heart, and, I suppose, a gentle-natured practicality.

      It’s a difficult question: how much should we care about the work we leave behind. (It’s easier to answer that question where work is body.)

      I don’t think I ended up saying in the posts, but it was Hanna Arendt’s comment on Kafka’s aphorism, the one I discussed in “Quiet of the Now”, that actually got me interested in reading all of his short fiction. The innovative graph of time derived from the aphorism is what spurred my imagination. Ironically, the aphorisms weren’t in the book of short fiction (but rather in a book on aphorisms) and so it was through a fluke that I was motivated to embark on this long Kafka journey.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the resulting posts.

      Liked by 2 people

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