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 Most of his unpublished work he left to his friend Max Brod with a final request that it all be burned.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.