This week in Literary Hub, read a chapter from our new spring title, Absentees: On Variously Missing Persons, by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Click here to learn more about the book. Click here to read the full excerpt. A section appears below:
“Any consideration of Kafka’s accounts of Gracchus must begin with the observation that they are unpublished and unauthorized; in principle, all were to be destroyed according to the author’s wishes. None of the surviving texts can be considered complete in any simple sense, and the variations, commonalities, and breaks among the extant ‘versions’ of the material have been variously interpreted. It remains uncertain how many Gracchus texts there are. Some scholars argue for the existence of three versions of the material, others for five. Malcolm Pasley, the editor of the German critical edition, suggests, on the basis of a convincing study of Kafka’s papers, that there are four ‘Gracchus fragments.’
The surest point of entry into the universe of this multiple, yet insistently loquacious dead man may lie in the formal architecture of Kafka’s four narrations. They rely on a single set of grammatical possibilities: those afforded by personal pronouns. Each time, it is by means of an/, a you, or a he that Gracchus is announced.
The ‘fragments’ can be ordered by means of the role these persons play. The diary entry consists first of sentences belonging to some third person’s perspective and then of an exchange in direct discourse, involving an / and a you. This sequence first relates the events that occurred ‘today, in the little harbour,’ in an impersonal voice; then it introduces the view of a narrator, who appears as a witness to the arrival of the ‘clumsy old craft.’ He recalls striking up a conversation, in perplexity, with a workman near the water: ‘I gazed at it in astonishment for some time, waited for someone to show himself on deck. No one appeared. A workman sat down beside me on the harbour wall. ‘Whose ship is that?’ I asked.’ The passage ends with an answer, in direct discourse, which concerns neither the speaker nor the addressee, but the unseen owner of the bark: ‘It puts in every two or three years,’ said the man, ‘and belongs to the hunter Gracchus.’”