This lengthy but vivid excerpt from Kafka’s early diary is described by Gabriel Josipovici (with perhaps a touch of hyperbole) as one of the key moments in modern literature. The essays in Josipovici’s collection The Singer on the Shore just keep getting better: Kafka’s Children is superlative (no hyperbole).
Once I projected a novel in which two brothers fought each other, one of whom went to America while the other remained in a European prison. I only now and then began to write a few lines, for it tired me at once. So once I wrote down something about my prison on a Sunday afternoon when we were visiting my grandparents and had eaten an especially soft kind of bread, spread with butter, that was customary there. It is of course possible that I did it mostly out of vanity, and by shifting the paper about on the tablecloth, tapping with my pencil, looking around under the lamp, wanting to tempt someone to take what I had written from me, look at it, and admire me. It was chiefly the corridor of the prison that was described in the few lines, above all its silence and coldness… Perhaps I had a momentary feeling of the worthlessness of my description, but before that afternoon I never paid much attention to such feelings when among relatives to whom I was accustomed (my timidity was so great that the accustomed was enough to make me half-way happy), I sat at the round table in the familiar room and could not forget that I was young and called to great things out of this present tranquility. An uncle who liked to make fun of people finally took the page that I was holding only weakly, looked at it briefly, handed it back to me, even without laughing, and only said to the others who were following him with their eyes, ‘The usual stuff’, to me he said nothing. To be sure, I remained seated and bent as before over the now useless page of mine, but with one thrust I had been banished from society, the judgement of my uncle repeated itself in me with what amounted almost to real significance, and even within the feeling of belonging to a family I got an insight into the cold space of our world which I had to warm with a fire that first I wanted to seek out.