Franz Kafka: Meticulous Insurance Lawyer

I guess you know you've achieved literary immortality when even the memoranda you produced in the course of your tedious office job as an analyst for the Prague Institute for Workmen’s Accident Insurance are translated into English and interpreted by professors:

We follow Kafka through reports and claims and arguments and petitions concerning building trades, wooden toys, quarries, farms, automobiles, trade inspections, risk assessments, accident prevention, the effects of the war on insurance premiums and practices, what to do about the apparitions the war has thrown onto the city streets: ‘men who could move ahead only by taking jerky steps; poor, pale and gaunt, they leaped as though a merciless hand held them by the neck, tossing them back and forth in their tortured movements.’ This is a pretty gripping image, but I can’t pretend the texts as a whole make for lively reading, or that they are full of secret literary treasures. They are dense, detailed, local, and they hold your (or my) attention because they really do give you a sense of consuming office work, a set of tasks where the spectre of boredom and a necessarily intense concentration go hand in hand. This is very much how Kafka, in his letters, talks about his job; but he was also, as the editors insist, often proud of it. He complained about it incessantly, but he took it seriously and he did it well. If he was just coasting, as one of his officials might say, he wouldn’t have complained so much.

For all their lack of literary merit, the memos do shed some light on the structure of Kafka's fictional worlds:

[I]n what the editors call ‘a core document among Kafka’s office writings’, he really does enter a logical realm very much resembling that of his fiction. This is a note of protest to the minister of the interior, written in June 1911, concerning the practices of trade inspectors, who make recommendations regarding premiums – recommendations favourable to the employers rather than the institute – when they are legally supposed only to be describing conditions. Every time the institute raised objections to these practices, Kafka says, ‘it was considered an exceptional case’ – ‘just Kafkaesque’, we might say. The plea for a ruling against the inspectors’ activities was ‘completely successful in principle’, Kafka then says. Such a ruling was obtained from the Royal and Imperial Trade Inspectorate. Completely successful in principle and ‘futile’ in practice, since the inspectors and everyone else forgot about the ruling as soon as it was issued. On the next page Kafka mounts the masterly argument that ‘these unfortunate conditions also have some welcome consequences,’ because they make the problems ‘glaringly clear’ – a hopeless arrangement, we might say, that is in other respects excellent.

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