The Secret Bureaucrat

Paul Greenberg

12/28/2012 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Franz Kafka is one of those authors whose name has become an adjective, as in Shakespearean or Faulknerian or this dictionary entry:

Kafka-esque -- adj., referring to the nightmarish, surreal, illogical quality Franz Kafka evoked in works like "The Metamorphosis," "The Castle" and "The Trial."

No wonder Franz Kafka was able to capture the maddeningly frustrating world of the modern bureaucrat so well. He was one. And a pretty good one, too: conscientious, adaptable, public-spirited and practical. At least to judge from the latest collection of his work, which is not a volume of short stories, but office memos and other working papers. Its title: "Franz Kafka: The Office Writings."

Who knew? The myth is that Kafka the artist was drained of time and energy by the demands of his day job in Prague as a government employee -- specifically, as a legal clerk at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute of the Kingdom of Bohemia.

A combination attorney, actuary and all-around bureaucrat, he seems to have carried out his duties with a combination of mitteleuropäisch flair and German efficiency. And even a sense of humor, no small feat in anyone with a thoroughly German education.

. .

You might even call Herr Kafka a hard-working, realistic reformer. His workaday world would seem the opposite of the nightmarish, surreal, illogical atmosphere he summoned up in his allegories about the individual trapped in a world beyond his comprehension, namely the modern bureaucratic state. Yet even this able administrator seemed to think his job was but drudgery, a drag on his calling as a writer. An artiste.

. .

A daydreamer, self-doubting and given to complaining, the sort of smart but uncollected type who's the despair of family and teachers, young Kafka finally managed to land a government job -- thanks to the connections of a friend's father.

Kafka started working at the Insurance Institute, a sort of early workmen's compensation bureau, in the golden peacetime year 1908 -- before the last century's World War in two acts put an end to much of Western civilization, including the airy assumption that man's progress was inevitable.

By 1911, Herr Kafka was a rising bureaucrat who, still complaining about the time his work at the office took from his after-hours writing career, could nevertheless write about his department's progress with pride, especially in light of the mess he'd found when he arrived there:

"We gladly admit that until 1909 the annual reports of the Institute, with their figures documenting a deficit that seemed to spread almost like a living organism, offered little encouragement to feel excitement. Instead, these reports succeeded in damping all the Institute's hopes for the future; the Institute seemed simply to be a corpse, whose only living element was its growing deficit."

Goodness. Sound familiar? Young Kafka sounds like a Republican budget-balancer, even a Tea Party type with a certain flair for indignation.

But things had changed with the arrival of a new director, Robert Marschner, in 1909. Reforms were introduced, all for the better. Like a new, statistically verifiable system of risk assessment for different occupations, with different insurance premiums to match. The riskier the job, the higher the insurance rate. And the higher Herr Kafka rose in the bureaucracy, receiving regular promotions and even tenure. Till he was adjudicating appeals and suggesting even more reforms.

Franz Kafka the author, who prefigured the existential angst of so much of modern literature, also turns out to be Franz Kafka the bureaucrat who wrote "Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines" and "Accident Prevention in Quarries."

Young Kafka would soon find his well-organized world collapsing all about him in war and revolution. An enlightened public servant, his response was to advocate a psychiatric clinic for soldiers traumatized by their wartime experience. Shell-shocked, they were called then. The name of the diagnosis has changed over the years and wars -- battle fatigue, PTSD -- but the military still has not managed to deal adequately with the condition that Franz Kafka recognized early on. In his office as in his art, he foreshadowed the troubled future.

Not even the editors of this latest collection of his writings may fully recognize just how talented a bureaucrat he was. They still tend to dismiss Franz Kafka's day job as an impediment to his artistic expression, and approach actuarial work as some kind of impenetrable thicket of statistics. But that's understandable. They're just following the lead of Franz Kafka himself.