Reiner Stach - A magnificent Kafka's biography. Lawyer, clerk, hypochondriac, comedian: a new biography allows Tim Martin to see a great writer’s many selves




Reiner Stach, Kafka:The Years of Insight, Trans. by Shelley Frisch. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Introduction



This volume of Reiner Stach's acclaimed and definitive biography of Franz Kafka tells the story of the final years of the writer's life, from 1916 to 1924--a period during which the world Kafka had known came to an end. Stach's riveting narrative, which reflects the latest findings about Kafka's life and works, draws readers in with a nearly cinematic power, zooming in for extreme close-ups of Kafka's personal life, then pulling back for panoramic shots of a wider world scarred by World War I, disease, and inflation.
In these years, Kafka was spared military service at the front, yet his work as a civil servant brought him into chilling proximity with its grim realities. He was witness to unspeakable misery, lost the financial security he had been counting on to lead the life of a writer, and remained captive for years in his hometown of Prague. The outbreak of tuberculosis and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire constituted a double shock for Kafka, and made him agonizingly aware of his increasing rootlessness. He began to pose broader existential questions, and his writing grew terser and more reflective, from the parable-like Country Doctor stories and A Hunger Artist to The Castle.
A door seemed to open in the form of a passionate relationship with the Czech journalist Milena Jesenská. But the romance was unfulfilled and Kafka, an incurably ill German Jew with a Czech passport, continued to suffer. However, his predicament only sharpened his perceptiveness, and the final period of his life became the years of insight.
Reiner Stach worked extensively on the definitive edition of Kafka's collected works before embarking on this three-volume biography. The second volume, Kafka: The Decisive Years (Princeton), is also available. The first volume, covering Kafka's childhood and youth, is forthcoming. Shelley Frisch's translation of the second volume was awarded the Modern Language Association's Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize. She has translated many other books from German, including biographies of Nietzsche and Einstein, and she holds a PhD in German literature from Princeton University.




This well-researched new biography details the last nine years of Franz Kafka’s life and explores the personal, social, and political events that shaped his writing. In 1915 (the year “The Metamorphosis” was published), the 32-year-old Kafka was afflicted with headaches, insomnia, and loss of appetite, trapped in his grinding job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, and perpetually warring with his tyrannical father. Kafka’s suffering and perfectionism strained his relationship with his fiancé, Felice Bauer, and took its toll on his writing. After threatening to enlist to fight in WWI, Kafka was given time off by his employers in the summer of 1916, and a brief vacation in Marienbad seemed to turn him around. The following year, though, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the year after with the Spanish flu—both of which hastened his death in 1924. Quoting liberally from Kafka’s letters and notebooks, Stach (Kafka: The Decisive Years) presents Kafka in conflict: someone who shared a near marital relationship with his devoted younger sister, Ottla, but who couldn’t commit to the eligible women in his life; a man interested in studying Hebrew but wary of Zionism; an artist whose fortunes were tied to the city, yet who found his greatest peace growing vegetables in the country. Despite the narrow time frame, this insightful book is likely to become a standard by which future biographies are measured. - Publishers Weekly




"Conclusion of a massive, comprehensive life of the famed Czech/German/Jewish writer, chockablock with neuroses, failures and moments of brilliance. . . . An illuminating book built, like its subject's life, on small episodes rather than great, dramatic turning points. Essential for students and serious readers of Kafka."--Kirkus Reviews 

"With impressive insight into imaginative artistry, Stach illuminates the way Kafka responds to personal trauma and global firestorm, sometimes incorporating his negative circumstances into his fiction, but sometimes transcending those circumstances in metaphysical creations informed by a profoundly personal myth. This literary-biographical analysis will help scholars penetrate major Kafka works, including The Castle and The Trial, The Hunger Artist and The Burrow. Thanks to a lucid translation, English-speaking readers can now share the German enthusiasm for this masterful portrait."--Bryce Christensen



"[S]uperlative, readable and . . . genuinely gripping. . . . Stach manages to recreate the worlds through which Kafka moved and in which he suffered in a manner that reads . . . like high-quality fiction. . . . Stach on Kafka is more than worthy to be put on a shelf of the magisterial literary biographies of the last few decades. . . . It is quite splendid."--Kevin Jackson

"No one will ever be able to write Kafka's story as well as he could, but Reiner Stach, a first-class German scholar, does remarkably well in Kafka: The Years of Insight."--Robert Fulford

"A definitive biography of a rare writer. . . . [M]asterful. . . . [T]his biography makes for an excellent read. Mr Stach, a German academic, expertly presents Kafka's struggles with his work and health against a wider background of the first world war, the birth of Czechoslovakia and the hyperinflation of the 1920s."--The Economist

"A definitive biography of a writer as transcendent as Franz Kafka might be unattainable, but in his massive trilogy, Stach comes as close as one can."--Robert Legvold

Praise for Kafka: The Years of Insight: "It would be impossible to describe the work and essence of this key artist of the twentieth century in a livelier and more vibrant style. . . . A masterpiece of the art of interpretation and of empathy."--Der Tagesspiegel

Praise for Kafka: The Years of Insight: "Reiner Stach has recounted Kafka's life more vividly than any other biographer. The reader moves through his Kafka biography, which reads like a novel, in breathless anticipation. . . . No one has written about Kafka as suggestively and insightfully, and in such a beautiful and clear language, as Reiner Stach."--Ulrich Greiner


"Stach's plentiful virtues include his vivid social and historical panoramas, especially of the years of war, epidemics, and inflation; his narrative brio (the greatest part of the book is riveting); and his indefatigable scholarship, providing access to unpublished letters of signal importance."--Stanley Corngold

"Enlightening, readable, and convincing, this is a major addition to our understanding of Kafka's life. Stach has a connection to and familiarity with his subject that no other biographer can match. He gives us a real understanding of the ground from which Kafka's writings emerged--what he was reading, which lectures and concerts he was attending, who he was talking with and writing to, and what he was saying to himself when he was writing. Closer we cannot get. And Shelley Frisch's translation is a marvel--accurate, fresh, and elegant."--Mark Anderson




The immense third and final part of Stach’s trilogy is almost too unbearable, too destabilizing, too unnerving, finally, perhaps, too fierce. The uncanny spheres found in Kafka’s writing are not, like Melville’s invisible ones, merely ‘formed in fright’, which is bad enough, but are gathered out of an insinuating dread whose force-field reaches out from the writing into the solitary act of reading itself. As I read about him nearly more than I can bear is at stake. The loneliness, horror, disgust and shame of writing are never more pronounced than in the awful presence of Kafka, even a Kafka mediated by biography. Writing is its own metaphor for that loneliness, horror, disgust, and shame. Kafka is a miracle of dissembling arts, the most dangerous of hunger artists whose writings are unavoidable shameful acts, a writer whose writing is exactly the explanation needed for why he writes, and who, by being shamed, disgusted, horrified and lonely, is justified without remainder.
Kafka played his game of lonely hide and seek with this dread as a kind of chiding, and the conditions for modern literature have been set by his intensity, his crazy frankness, his terrible acts of concentration. To read about it is to marvel at how he managed to almost disappear in front of his own eyes in order to appear elsewhere, for a little while, as a writer resisting annihilation through zealous contortion. Kafka becomes an equal partner with the disaster of being a writer for as long as he could. He was popular, smart, good looking enough to attract women, a joker and a writer with enough fame to feed the ego whilst not so much that would distract from the business. He was capable of acts of kindness but his erotic escapades were pretty dismal. Kafka was a creepy womanizer – at thirty he was stalking with the help of Max Brod some sixteen year old he saw one time at Goethe’s house and he built himself an impervious persona who was cruel, calculating and decisively self-serving when dealing with his never-ending erotic interests. He was also very successful at work, and was therefore a consummate bureaucrat of the Weberian ‘iron-cage’ variety. His fiction’s verisimilitude is provided by his insider’s knowledge and mastery of the hierarchy of authority, of impersonality, of efficiency and achievement driven operationalism, of the specialized division of labour and the written rules regulating all conduct that delivers the implacable power of his fantasies and continues to drive the managerialism of our contemorary workplaces.
His strange obsessions with health and food and his body strike Stach as a species of asceticism. ‘There is little doubt that anxiety about his porous identity and his fear of dissolution, liquifaction and, ultimately, death gradually compelled Kafka to develop an ascetic survival strategy… fear of sex… does not account for the single-mindedness with which he clung to asceticism for the rest of his life or the highly imaginative manner in which he subjugated one area of his after another – eventually even literature – to an ascetic form.’ Stach discusses the ascetic in terms of a purity. ‘Choosing a ‘pure’ life could mean any number of things. It was even possible for someone to be dirty and clean at once; Kafka later considered this combination “characteristic of people who think intensely.” But Stach’s book is good enough to allow for a gulf between his interpretation and a reader’s. Kafka writes letters and diaries that make clear that he has only one subject and that is himself as literature. ‘I have no literary interests; I am made of literature. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.’ Decisive in this identity, Kafka frees himself from ties that bind those with merely an ‘artistic bent.’ In this Kafka is not an ascetic but rather a Nietzschean hedonist hell bent on following the ‘long logic’ of a life of genius where rules of the non-genius are irrelevant and dedication to his art his only consolation and purpose.
We know more than Kafka did about what happened next and because of that the life, just as the work, becomes treacherous and dangerous to interpret. In his strange, precise writings he rendered life as a catastrophe. This precision takes on an aura of prophecy because of these later events, and as we read it is tempting to fold world history into his singularity. But how much is gained by that is moot.
Nevertheless, Stach writes with a sense of dread attached to his vast undertaking. His test is whether he can write to this subject. ‘Kafka teaches us modesty. Anyone who tackles him has to anticipate failing.’ He fears ‘… the gulf between the explanations offered by the author and the interspersed Kafka citations.’ Stach claims that just as the biographer of a philosopher must be able to think then likewise, the biographer of a writer must be able to write. Stach has a kind of reverence for his subject.
Stach’s weird chapters have weird titles. One he calls ‘Ants of Prague’ and it begins with ‘a frosted region … a poor empty centre.’ The perky Kafka seems at times rather like this too – frosted with an empty centre. But that is because at his centre is the writing and the literary imagination of excessive pityless litigation that is a mysterious hole. At the threshold of the twentieth century European powers edged towards war. Kafka was fit enough for war but the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague protected him. He was ‘excused indefinitely.’ War displays were trenches, zigzagging systems of dugouts, telephones, wire obstacles next to cafes and fancy women and recreation. Prague loved it and drank Pisener beer, ate sausages, wandered the parks, listened to the Imperial Infantry Regiment No 51 Band, watched a film and sent postcards to friends. The coming horror was literally unimaginable for these people. At this time Kafka wanted to get away from the place. He wanted the urbanity of Paris and Berlin. War bonds as a wager on victory interested Kafka. He instructed his mother to invest two thousand kronen and then went to look at the displayed trenches and wrote in an attempt to capture an image; ‘Sight of the people swarming like ants in front and inside the trench.’ A childhood friend had died. His condolences to the family were ‘nearly too late, as always.’ What intrigues is the gulf between what he knew and what he writes. What did Kafka know? He knew what he wrote, and whether that is the same as what we know when we read him now is probably indeterminate. The Nazis brought vivid horror to his personal history, annihilating surviving family members and lovers, exiling others, and this inevitably mutates our understanding . That his writing can contain the enormity of such horrors is why Kafka remains quintessentially contemporary. Our modernity, especially our world of work, seems more than ever like his imagination’s fruition. The disappointment in this biography is how little his worklife is discussed.
Stach quotes Karel Capek: ‘Strange what a feeling of solitude there is in failure’ but it’s not clear whether Kafka thought of himself as a failure. The word ‘impossible’ is Kafka’s signature adjective according to Stach. This was picked up by Cynthis Ozick’s ‘The Impossibility of Being Kafka’ in 1999. ‘One must not prostrate oneself before the minor impossibilities’ says Kafka, ‘… or else the major impossibilities would never come into view.’ But this then changes the way we have to understand Kafka. It isn’t possible to even attempt to do something you know is impossible, let alone fail. Kafka’s relation to his writings is peculiar. There’s no reason to think Kafka knew how it worked. He for sure knew he was a writer, and he could make no concessions to that. But how to understand what it might mean, why should he be expected to know anything over and above the compulsion to write and its content? Max Brod didn’t understand it. Stach tries to hone it and thinks Kafka sought the impossibility of perfection. He cites Kafka: ‘Although striving for perfection is only a small part of my big Gordian knot, in this instance every part is the whole and so what you are saying is correct. But this impossibility actually does exist, this impossibility of eating etc; it is just not as blatantly obvious as the impossibility of marriage.’
By the time Felice Bauer detected Kafka had changed so had she. She lost hope of ever marrying him. Enigmatic misunderstandings defined the relationship. She sensed his rhetoric was a means of maintaining silence and avoiding her. July 12th 1914 was a catastrophe for Kafka. On that day he dissolved their engagement in front of witnesses in the Askanischer Hof. Stach senses he hated Felice on that day. He says she was Grete Bloch in ‘The Trial.’ He hid the manuscript from Felice. ‘Basically the same primitive accusations are always being levelled against me. The highest representative of this form of accusation, which comes right from my father, is of course my father.’ In choosing writing over life, which may be a little too trite a way of seeing it but is nevertheless sort of what we see in Stach’s account, what is strange is how good at life Kafka was. He had many friends, a deep relationship with his sister and his rather adolescent diatribes against his family were largely occasions allowing him to write. And he was good at his job. Even the hundred page letter to his father was never sent. All that mattered was to write, not to crush his dad.
Three weeks after breaking with Felice war broke out. He called them disasters that ‘dug into the same wound.’ He called them ‘… catastrophes of loneliness.’ Kafka remembered Felice’s wounded accusation: ‘a terrible saying… Now you’ve got what you wanted ’ and it would become another site for his writing. Hopes of escape from Prague were dashed. His favourite sister Ottla had a boyfriend and this inconvenient relationship robbed him of their intimate conversations. He was jealous and further isolated. ‘At these times I feel as though I am standing not in front of my house but in front of myself while I am sleeping…’ And again we need to be aware that perhaps all that’s happening in these diary entries and his letters are examples of the writer perfecting his images. Who can know what he actually felt, or even care?
In ‘The Burrow’ the creature defends his deep intricate burrow by standing guard outside of it. ‘It got to the point that at times I was seized by the childish desire never to go back to the burrow at all but to settle in here near the entrance and spend my life watching the entrance and find my happiness in realizing all the time how the burrow would keep me secure if I were inside it.’ Oddly Stach doesn’t drive home the link between this story, the autobiographical crux and the earlier identification of ‘impossibility.’ There’s the hint of the impossible act of sitting outside one’s own life, observing it. But to do so would require another self sitting outside the life of the observer, observing the observer, and then another observer to observe the observer observing … and so on in an infinite regress. From ‘The Burrow’ to ‘The Castle’ and ‘The Trial’ isn’t so far. The same paradoxical nightmares arise and their repecussions either grip you or they don’t.
To Grete, a witness and judge at the catastrophe at the Askanischer Hof he wrote; ‘ Even if everyone were to hate you, I don’t hate you… in reality I was sitting in your place and have not left it to this day.’ Stach sees this letter as a series of defensive gestures. He thinks it is aggressive. He says the central message was ‘Stay away from me.’ But Kafka is just writing and the more you read the life you see that everything he wrote was about getting the writing precise, not the life right. The reality is a pretty funny and banal soap-opera episode: he’d been caught out chatting up two women and then found himself sitting with them both having to explain himself. All that is extraordinary is that he uses it as a platform for producing startling images and narratives of such weirdness that they breech hermeneutic form and settle as opaque allegory.
Hours before he had written that he had contemplated suicide. Stach sees the letter as a new way of dealing with his situation with Felice, ‘living in the trenches.’ Stach notes that his rhetoric no longer fazed Felice. ‘If I were another person observing myself and the course of my life I would have to say that everything must end in futility, consumed by never ending doubt, creative only in self-torment. But as someone involved, I go on hoping.’ Stach writes ‘ He left the burrow, hid nearby, kept watch on the entrance, embraced the entire entrenchment including the naked creature hiding inside, and enjoyed the view from an untouchable distance.’ Kafka reports on himself in the third person: ‘he is frightened. He says he stayed there too long…’ The chapter ends with a trip to Karlsbad and an error.
Karl Kraus writes: ‘ Any sacrifice should be made for art – except from the sacrifice of art itself.’ ‘The Trial’, if completed, would bring him success and he had guaranteed support from well established literary circles. Stach insists he worried about failure but I think Stach identifies failure with non-completion and this is a mistake. Symptoms of exhaustion in 1915 continued. Kafka fell into a kind of silence and he no longer read his diary aloud to friends. For those with an idea that Kafka was Kafkaesque, this fact alone ought to disabuse them of that thought. Who reads their diaries aloud to friends? This is a confident guy, this is one for whom life is merely the ground for what he thinks is serious. Only a few works were published at the start of 1915, ‘Meditation’ and ‘The Stoker’ and scattered stories. Nothing sold well and Stach talks about the paltry interest from promised publishers alongside his lack of work completed. In mid October 1915 he was informed that ‘The Metamorphosis’ had been published in ‘Die Weissen Blatter’ without his seeing the galleys. The publisher Meyer used aggressive advertising campaigns to sell his authors. This was advanced thinking. Authors were asked to contribute to the promotion of their own books. Meyer pushed for the Fontane Prize money to go to Kafka even though the prize was to go to the millionaire writer Sternheim. Kafka insisted that no drawing of the insect was put on the cover: ‘Not that, please not that!… the insect itself cannot be drawn. It cannot even be shown from a distance.’ Kafka turned down the offer at first but then accepted it and wrote a strange letter of thanks to Sternheim who never replied. Stach has a brilliant phrase when he writes that all attempts to encourage Kafka went astray ‘ in some strange way’. I like the furtive mystery Stach hangs on it.
The war was misunderstood at the start and its contours of disaster only slowly learned and psychologically mapped. The war moved towards mechanization. The battle of Gorlice-Tarnow was a turning point. Stach thinks Kafka meanwhile ‘integrated the war into his hypochondriac game.’ He wrote to Felice, ‘ it would be my good fortune… to become a soldier… You ought to wish for me to be accepted, the way I want it to work out.’ He spoke of resigning from his job. He had ludicrous plans. He thought Rilke wrote regrettable poetry of ‘lofty, ultimate form’. But the new circumstances were beyond him in life. ‘The disturbing part is not the fact of the war, but rather that it is being used and exploited in a commercialized world that is nothing but profane’ he wrote. ‘Throughout this war, rash lies spread by the newspapers came up with one new fact after another; you get the impression that since there has been this press coverage carried to an extreme, a war cannot stop once it has started. Those disgraceful papers are always one step ahead of the actual events.’ Zweig and Hofmannsthal remained delusional about the war. Rilke was luckily sent to the war archives not the front. Kafka never got to wore uniform but was released for a long vacation by his bosses Pfohl and Marschner. He didn’t think this good fortune.
Stach insists he understood the truth about the war. On top of everything else there was the ‘hellish official channel to the war for Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute staff members.’ On top of the reports and the physically mutilated were the Kriegszitterer whose ‘facial tics, stuttering, muteness, deafness, blindness, and especially “hysterical tremors” accompanied by violent shivering and uncontrolled trembling that could go on for months and years undiminished …’ Stach is of course right. Kafka understood the war in his writing ‘The Penal Colony’ in 1914 and now it had crawled out of his imagination into the streets ‘… right there in the centre of Prague.’ Kafka recognized that the Institute’s ‘Committee on Therapy’ needed ‘fewer regulations and more philanthropy.’ When Kafka was employed to write messages about the war they were platitudinous and patriotic propaganda. No one asked him which sanatorium would be best for returning traumatized soldiers despite his personal experience.

It was in ‘The Penal Colony’ that he knew about the horrors of war. His life story tracks nothing but the usual mix of cowardice and bravery mixed with luck, both good and bad. ‘It would have been half a lie if I had asked for an immediate lengthy leave and for my dismissal if it were refused. It would have been the truth if I had given notice. I didn’t dare to do either, so it was a total lie.’ When he had dreamed of leaving for Berlin longing for an erotic encounter with Felice at the time of writing ‘The Judgment’ in 1912 he had lost his nerve. Here he had stepped away from trenches and the hospital. ‘Captivity, disability, the void.’ By this point he had not the energy to even ‘vizualise a concrete end to his life.’ Writing was stifled by ‘headaches, insomnia and increasing isolation.’ Kafka’s decisions were not determined by considerations, convictions or concepts. ‘He never used deductive reasoning for the mere sake of reasoning.’ He took the war personally. He reacted to gazes not arguments. He read out all pressure from faces. He suspected slanders from all quarters. Everything was processed by his writing. He was taking literally his claim to be literature. Only the art could redeem his life.
Darkness descended on Kafka in the summer of 1915. He read military campaigns of Napoleon, and the Bible. He stopped going to the movies and reading contemporary writers. Relationships making demands on him disintegrated. Kafka made an inventory of suffering that included no people. Heimito von Doderer’s ‘The Strudlhof Steps’ of 1951 deliberately used dry lifeless inadequate language like ‘The Trial’ and ‘The Castle’ where it says ‘Only in an operetta can the happy man be someone who forgets what cannot be changed.’ He rifled through paperwork but refused to see that life is the decision maker. He had a three week break and went by rain to Marienbad. Stach writes: ‘… he sought and found an image that united near and far, the mysterious distance of what appears closest to us and the provocative presence of the unattainable, yet nearly attainable, off in the distance: a dialectical image, a thought image.’
This was ‘the door.’ Doors in his work are open but inaccessible or have peepholes or open by themselves or invite torture and death by touching them or that alter their degrees of accessibility. This last one he invented on his thirty third birthday in Marienbad with Felice. They switched hotels and constant rain fell. ‘I arrived at a human relationship of a kind that I had never known before and that came very near in quality to the relationship we had achieved at our best periods as one letter writer to another.’ Kafka and Felice were turning their backs on their social circles. She would continue to work. They would marry. This was the single most visible consequence of the war. Accusations of accompanying hedonism were misfires: people took whatever was still there. It won’t make any difference now was the frantic, defeated, scared generality. In the proximity of death life becomes livelier. Schloss Balmoral gave him a glimpse of a utopian visual image. And this shattering detail: ” [H]e may have opened his notebook and sought a metaphor, a fitting image for this impossibility, but he did not find it. But then it slipped in on a postcard, in the form of a tiny careless mistake, of the kind he made so often. He intended to write Schloss (castle) Balmoral as the sender’s address, but it nearly came out Schoss (lap).’
Kafka asked ‘What do I have in common with Jews?’ He met the rabbi of Belz in Marienbad after Felice had left. He scrutinised the rabbi to see what features qualified him for the role. He was interested in the mystery of authority. ‘L tries to find the deeper or thinks he finds deeper meaning in everything; I think that the deeper meaning is that there is none and in my opinion this is quite enough. It is absolutely a case of divine right, without the absurdity that an adequate basis would give to it.’ Kafka found something that went beyond sectarian religiosity, ‘deeper than Judaism itself.’ Truth was a force field, untaught and lived. It included ‘vegetarians, eastern Jewish actors, calisthenics devotees, and pietists and other mystics. A true life, dans le vrai.’
He became preachy to Felice. The didactic dodges fail to impress her. He involved himself in Martin Buber’s Zionism but looked for authenticity as a basis of avowals of any sort. He found examples in the Old Testament, Napoleon, Grillparzer, Dostoevsky, Hauptmann, Rudolph Steiner, Morris Schnitzer, the Pietists of Herrnhut, the rabbi of Belz, Feigl’s married life and Lily Braun’s ‘Memoirs of a Socialist. ’What do I have in common with the Jews? I barely have anything in common with myself.’ He turned Buber down. Reviewers pigeon-holed him as either a German or Jewish writer. Brod saw Kafka in terms of his own fierce Zionism and so they disagreed. Felice was involved in Jewish community work and education though she was no Zionist. For Kafka what was unworkable was not valueless if it was truthful.
He kept his own interpretation to himself. He read ‘The Penal Colony’ in Munich, the only reading he ever gave outside of Prague, in Goltz’s art gallery, and met Rilke. Rilke had read everything. He worked in his sister’s cottage. Wrestling with impossibilities. People started starving as the war dragged on. Stach keeps imagining what his Kafka might have said throughout: ‘Kafka might have replied that this was the age of the ascetics. A dark time, an icy time, to write.’ ‘I was stiff and cold, I was a bridge.’ ‘No one will read what I am writing here.’ ‘We had set up camp in the oasis. My companions were asleep.’ ‘Yesterday a swoon came to me. She lives in the house next door.’ He writes ‘Red Peter’ in a free monologue.
The notebooks are testing grounds. No manipulation of language, no word coinings, no pointless alliteration, no imitation of oral speech, misue of grammar, accumulations of dashes or exclamation points. He tried a play and it remains a fragment. ‘The Warden of the Tomb.’ It has not grown the significance yet of other fragments such as ‘ A Country Doctor’, ‘The Bridge,’ ‘Up in the Gallery,’ ‘The Next Village,’ ‘The Bucket Rider,’ ‘A Fratricide,’ all written in December and January. ‘Jackals and Arabs,’ and ‘The New Attorney’ were written in February. ‘An Old Page,’ ‘Eleven Sons’ were written in March. ‘The Cares of a Family Man,’ ‘A visit to a Mine,’ ‘A Crossbreed,’ and ‘ A report to an Academy,’ in April. The ‘Hunter Gracchus’ project ran from January to April. In March through April ‘My Neighbour,’ ‘The Knock At The Manor Gate,’ and ‘The Great Wall of China’, all these ‘ensured a worldwide exegesis of Kafka, a humble approach to writing to his writing, groping its way with eye and index finger and taking the text as revelation, snatching it away from the realm of mere mortal criticism once and for all. In particular, the mystifying texts from Kafka’s octavo notebooks lured critics, and then general readers, into picking them apart letter by letter in the quest for meaning – an approach that would eventually extend to Kafka’s entire oeuvre.’
These were texts ‘of unreal fullness and perfection’ without ‘trace of genesis’ where their deathly atmosphere was a symbol of his day. Daily nuisances were written as harbingers of epochal catastrophes. This was literature as redemptive art and again supports a Nietzschean undersanding of what he was doing. ‘ This apartment might not restore my inner peace, but it would at least give me a chance to work; the gates of paradise would not fly open again, but I might find two slits for my eyes in the wall.’ The motto of his future work was that, plus the ‘cramped stage, open at the top.’ He called himself ‘the Rat of Palais Schonborn.’ His rhetoric obscures through analytic precision. He grew closer to his sister and supported her rebellions against their family. He met with Felice and reengaged with her before they parted realizing that they would never marry. The famous picture of the two of them is taken then and is full of disillusion.

His publication was slow and ludicrous. He wrote animal stories as dark sayings that accumulate into parables. They are written to keep their secrets and to exclude their readers. He lives in the Alchimistengasse. Alchemists of the crazy Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II lived there in 1600. ‘My life is just monotonous and proceeds within the prison of my innate, threefold misfortune, in a manner of speaking. When I can’t do anything, I am unhappy, when I can do something, there isn’t enough time; and when I look to the future for hope, the next thing I know is that the fear is there, the wide-ranging fear, and then I am less able to work. An exquisitely calculated hell. Yet – and this is the main point – it is not without its good moments.’
Saturday, August 11, 1917, 4 A.M Stach tells us that he wakes coughing blood. ‘You don’t have a long way to go’ says his housekeeper. TB was a disease from outside his social milieu. He avoided the medical diagnosis and instead talked about it as if it were a mental illness, a final defeat, a punishment, a symbol. Brod had no sympathy with this. Many were angry with his attitude where ‘the language is of a distraught piety.’ ‘There is undoubtedly justice in this illness…’ writes Kafka, and again there’s the sense of his working to the pressurized intensity of pure writing. It substitutes for spirituality and psychology and therefore flies around madly. Stach thinks Kafka found TB easier to bear than moral and social pressures. Kafka says ‘It is almost a relief.’ The ‘almost’ should make us defer judgment and at least consider bravado in the teeth of fear. Kafka goes for three months in Zurau. He said he couldn’t get married with TB. ‘Then Kafka pointed to a suitcase and said, ‘Take the coffin.’
Zurau was teeming with animals. Good weather brought the farm to the brink of destruction. He emphasized the unsexualized bliss with his sister because of the impending decision about Felice. When Felice came to him she met a changed man. He was bored with her. He said he was brooding on big ideas. She had come to help. Brutally rejected, she had to fight embarrassment and humiliation. He writes a letter Canetti finds distressing, ‘an unworthy myth and a false one’. He was tormented but not unhappy. Stach thinks Brod and (later) Canetti fail to appreciate that Kafka ‘was struggling for psychological survival.’ They’re probably all right to some extent. But on balance, I think he acted like a coward with most of the women, and was a bullshitter and liar in equal measure. On December 27th he helped Felice onto a train and never saw her again. He cried harder than he had ever done, and was proud of feeling wretched.
His was a solipsistic furtiveness. That in itself raises deadly paradox. He was out to avoid self-judgement. He took courses in Hebrew with a sexy teacher. He reads Dickens, Herzen, the diaries of Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, JMR Lenz, Hans Bluher, Theodor Tagger – and of these only Kierkegaard was explicitly religious. Of the Dane he read ‘The Moment’, ‘Fear and Trembling,’ and ‘Repetition.’ He heard his own questions in them. The Zurau meditations say ‘ the direction is correct; there it is, but your eyes don’t reach far enough to see it, and they never will.’ This is a image that is a gesture to ‘The Trial.’
What is the difference between the last insight and the last attempt at rescue? Happy in his unhappiness he forges a condition of profound dislocation from the world where ‘everything has fallen apart’, where ‘no voice can reach out to him clearly any longer and so he cannot follow it straightforwardly.’ He perfects a calm and laconic tone to express catastrophes. A way in to understanding Beckett is to begin by noting that Beckett hated this tone and expressed his catastrophes in a different register. Beckett’s characters are all wreckages, Kafka’s aren’t.

Returning to Prague he missed his sister. He escalated his Purism, swam in the Moldau river, walked, did Pomology, Viniculture, Horticulture. He wrote another masterpiece and he died horribly. He nearly made it with another woman but it was too late for the kind of games he liked to play. The details of his death seem too intrusive and are a bit ill-judged here. Stach’s book is aptly strange. It is profuse but the lens is jumpy, so the focus is at times a close up and at other times from far off. The volume is staggering, possibly more impressive by dint of its oddness than a more straightforward telling would have been. The connection between it and the previous volume seems a little fragmented, and there is an as yet unwritten first volume. The hold-up has been a law-suit. - Richard Marshall





Someone must have been telling lies about K., for the popular image of him as the great Gloomy Gus of 20th-century letters (close rivals: Beckett, Cioran, maybe Céline) does not bear very much scrutiny. Consider this incident, which took place as he was dying of tuberculosis, and knew it. One day, when he was walking in a Berlin park, Kafka saw a little girl crying. He asked her why she was sad and she told him that she had lost her doll. Oh no, Kafka said, her doll was not lost - the toy was simply off on an exciting adventure. Understandably sceptical, the girl asked for proof. So Kafka went home and wrote a long, detailed letter from the doll, and gave it to the little girl the following day. Then, every day for the next three weeks, he gave her an additional letter. It seems that the doll had met a boy doll, and become engaged, and then married. By the end of the three weeks, the doll was setting up her marital home and the little girl no longer missed her mute companion.
This is hardly the sort of thing you would expect of the fellow who wrote The Trial or The Castle or 'In the Penal Settlement' (one of the most horrific short texts ever to have sneaked its way into the literary canon), and it is poignant as well as charming, not least because in our own climate of nervy erotic suspicion a middle-aged male writer who attempted such kindliness would have the social services or police on him like a shot. But the story of Kafka and the Lost Doll is instructive as well as surprising.
It explains to the neophyte what an unusually kind and thoughtful man he could be, even when he was drawing his shallow breaths in sharp pain. Some of his fans think that - again like Beckett - he bordered on the saintly. But it also hints at Kafka's knowledge of the power that lies in stories, his own stories in particular. Stories can cure the sadness of small girls. They can also frighten, console, give courage. They can help even a sick and dying writer make some sense of what remains of his short life. Kafka seems often to have thought of writing as a curse or (to borrow a term from the literature of shamanism) a sickness vocation. And yet the thing that makes you ill may also, from time to time, make you powerful.
Some of Kafka's greatness is due to the fact that his work belongs as much to the very long history of storytelling as to the relatively short history of Western literature. On the whole it is plain, simple, direct and tantalisingly cryptic. His stories worm their way under your skin and stay there until you itch. They make some people itch so badly that they have to start telling their own stories about K. In the years when his reputation first began to take off, after the Second World War, he was mainly revered as Kafka the prophet, the man who had read the entrails of his age and foreseen, first, the rise of totalitarianism, secondly the cancer-like proliferation of faceless officialdom, thirdly 'alienation' and finally, especially, the death camps in which most of his close family and lots of his friends were murdered.
That story of dark prophecies is still being passed around, despite its many and increasingly evident flaws. In the last few decades, though, it has had no shortage of competition. Despite the curious fact that Kafka's body of fictional work is slender - three unfinished novels, a clutch of short stories, some prose fragments - it has generated such a gigantic industry of comment that only an eternal graduate student could possibly keep up with the output. Among the regiment of Kafkas now stalking the world, we have Kafka the Christian mystic (though he wasn't a Christian), Kafka the Jewish mystic (he had bafflingly complicated views about Jewish identity and religion), Kafka the Zionist, Kafka the sexual inadequate, Kafka the wicked capitalist (he co-ran an asbestos factory), Kafka the vegetarian, Kafka the socialist, Kafka the social butterfly and laugh riot, and, in Saul Friedländer's new essay - a very good and sane little book, which may safely be put into the hands of newcomers - Kafka the poet of shame and guilt. Having noted how often Kafka writes about canine encounters, I am myself tempted to write a monograph entitled Wie ein Hund: Kafka and Dogs. But it's a fair bet that someone will have beaten me to it.
In short, we need more Kafka commentary about as much as we need more asbestos factories. Kafka biography is a different matter, and Reiner Stach's thumping two-volume account of Kafka's life from late adolescence to early death - a third volume, on his childhood, is apparently in the works - is a superlative, readable and occasionally genuinely gripping addition to the giant scrap heap. Stach's achievement is not so much in having turned up new material (though he has), or in making an all too familiar narrative bright and fresh (though he does). What he has achieved is to make you feel, by the end of the book, that Kafka is someone you now know very well, perhaps almost too well.
There are no big surprises here, just hundreds of small ones. The Kafka and the Lost Doll story is well enough known to buffs; Stach pairs it with another story of a little girl in a park and gives it in Kafka's own words. During another walk in the park, Kafka saw another little girl, this one very pretty and coquettish. She smiled at him.
Naturally I smiled back at her in an overly friendly manner, and continued to do so when she and her girlfriends kept turning back in my direction. Until I began to realize what she had actually said to me. 'Jew' is what she had said.
There is a good deal about Kafka's Jewishness in Stach's pages, and he is lucid and enlightening about every aspect of this thorny and tangled area, from Kafka's study of Hebrew to his fascination with the disreputable Yiddish theatre, from his ambitions (realistic enough despite his ill health) to settle in Palestine to his charming but hopelessly impractical dream of opening a restaurant there, in which his girlfriend Dora would run the kitchen and he would be the waiter. But there is much else here too and almost all of it is top quality.
Stach manages to recreate the worlds through which Kafka moved and in which he suffered in a manner that reads more like high-quality fiction than a regurgitation of excessive research. He puts us inside the famously cramped apartment in which Kafka the impossible son scraped against the rough surfaces of his angry father; inside the insurance offices in which Kafka worked, and worked very well; inside the back-biting, log-rolling, blatantly ambitious circles of young Czech writers; inside sanatoria; inside the brothels Kafka patronised when his need for sex overpowered his dread of women.
Stach is a first-rate scholar and, unless his German prose has gained in the translation by Shelley Frisch, a fine writer who can be a little too show-off at times ('the fearless dance over the abysses of life that this golden couple celebrated') but is more often, like his leading character, content to be simple: 'Women appreciated that.' The biographer has entertained the biographee in his mind so long that Stach's summaries command assent where a less devoted writer's words might seem merely impertinent: 'He tried to limit any movement or change, like a wounded man who fears pain so much that he stays in whatever position he is in, no matter how uncomfortable.'
Above all, Stach is brilliant on Kafka's love life, a topic that might seem like a candidate for one of those 'World's Shortest Books' jokes, but is in fact as rich as it is strange. As usual, Kafka does not come out of these amorous scrapes at all well: lots of commentators have found his long and mostly epistolary courtship with Felice Bauer creepy to the point of 'vampirism', and he dumped one of his last girlfriends as summarily as any heartless rakehell. His affair with Milena Jesenská, more than eventful enough for a downbeat date movie, is exceptionally well told here; you can almost feel Stach's hands trembling with exasperation as he is obliged to show how Franz manages to botch his best chances for a few years of common happiness with a vital, passionate girl.
Nor is this a book solely for the Kafka fan club. By filling in the details of Kafka's Prague (and Berlin, and the High Tatras), Stach has created a valuable new account of a world that was about to be destroyed. Anyone interested in the Europe and Middle East of the early 20th century would find it engaging. There are good things in every chapter, including the reactions of Kafka's contemporaries to this polite and curious being in their midst. Here is the satirist Franz Blei, in 1922: 'The Kafka is a very rare magnificent moon-blue mouse that does not eat meat but feeds on herbs. It is a fascinating sight because it has human eyes.'
And here is Kafka on Kafka:
Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child's visual instruction, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place down below, which is unknown to those up above, writing their stories in the sunlight. Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind; at night, when fear prevents me from sleeping I know only this kind.
Stach does not venture much in the way of criticism and interpretation, but he does offer sensible observations now and then. 'In Kafka's late work, guilt and punishment would no longer have a prominent role.' Just so. Those late stories, including the curious animal fables 'Josefine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk', 'The Burrow' and 'Investigations of a Dog', will remain enigmatic forever. That is part of their magic. But thanks to Stach, Kafka is now much less of a puzzle, if no less of a wonder.

A final note of encomium: Stach on Kafka is more than worthy to be put on a shelf of the magisterial literary biographies of the last few decades, next to, say, Ellmann on Joyce and Wilde, Holmes on Coleridge, Walter Jackson Bate on Johnson, Tomalin on Pepys, Bellos on Perec, Hilton on Ruskin, Steegmuller on Cocteau, Nicholl on Marlowe and Rimbaud and Shakespeare, Morgan on Burroughs, Brotchie on Jarry, Miller on Foucault, Rukeyser on Hariot, Monk on Wittgenstein and Russell, Roudinesco on Lacan... When the third and final volume appears, Stach's work may well come to be seen as one of the very best of this distinguished company. It is quite splendid. - Kevin Jackson




 "Dear Sir,” the reader wrote, “You have made me unhappy. I bought your Metamorphosis as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of the story. My cousin gave it to her mother, who doesn’t know what to make of it either. Her mother gave the book to my other cousin, and she doesn’t know what to make of it either. Now they’ve written to me…”
History doesn’t record Franz Kafka’s reply to this fan letter from 1917, but his correspondent’s fascinated bemusement echoes down a hundred years of Kafkaology. What, after all, are any of us to make of this body of work, with its elusive blend of the mundane, the comic and the purely uncanny? Generations of readers and scholars have observed it through the telescopes of mysticism, Judaism, modernism, psychoanalysis, theory and biography, but the work continues to float like a strange planet in the skies of literature, enclosed by its unique atmosphere of wide-awake nightmare and hilarious, lazy unease.
The German scholar Reiner Stach has spent more than 20 years working on Kafka’s life, and his comprehensive biography is now available in this country for the first time since the publication in German of its two volumes in 2002 and 2008. It arrives in a Kafkan bureaucratic tangle all its own, since these two stout books are, in fact, the final two in a projected trilogy. To write the first volume, covering the childhood, Stach needs access to papers from the estate of Kafka’s friend and executor Max Brod, which have been locked up for years in the possession of their elderly custodian (Brod’s secretary’s daughter) while a protracted court case shuttled between judges.
The irony of a Kafka biographer stymied by the depredations of heredity and the slow revolutions of the law will be lost on no one, though a fortunate judgment last year finally ordered the papers back into public hands. As it stands, however, Stach’s biography introduces us to Kafka in 1910 – he is a 27-year-old insurance clerk living with his mother, father and three sisters in their flat in Prague – and follows him through to his death at the age of 40 from complications of tuberculosis.
This coincides, broadly speaking, with the period in which Kafka became a writer. Although he had written several prose pieces since 1904 and subsequently begun the novel that would become Amerika, it was only with The Judgment, dashed off in a single night of sleepless composition in 1912, that he felt he had made his breakthrough. Writing that story, in which a young man is condemned to death by his father, taught Kafka “how everything can be hazarded,” as he wrote in his diary; “how for everything, even for the strangest idea, a great fire is ready in which it expires and rises up again”.
Stach’s book succeeds brilliantly at clearing a path through the thick metaphysical fog that has hung about Kafka’s work almost since his death. As everyone knows, Kafka requested that Max Brod burn his unpublished work; as everyone knows, Brod ignored the instruction, though whether Kafka really expected him to comply remains open to debate. Brod had long complained of Kafka’s perfectionism in life, and, as a selfless promoter of other writers, he was determined that his friend should have his due in death. His opinion of Kafka as “the greatest poet of our time” and his barrage of stitched-together publications and commentaries managed to cast Kafka as a kind of writerly sage, inaugurating a long tradition of critical blindness to anything but the most serious, poetic and religious aspects of the work. Such interpretations were given further plausibility by the ominous metaphors of the totalitarian era in which Kafka studies came of age.
Stach sets himself to redress this balance. In addition to Doktor Kafka the doom-ridden poète maudit of Prague, he gives us Dr Jackdaw (Kavka in Czech), the charming young writer, fond of slapstick humour, who, reading the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, became so convulsed with laughter that “he could not continue reading at times” while they howled “uncontrollably”. To add to Kafka the endless clerk, plagued by the job he hated, he gives us Kafka the lawyer and invaluable insurance expert, throwing his considerable organisational weight behind campaigns for hospitals for shell-shocked veterans of the trenches.
The point is not that Kafka was one and not the other. He was both. But this account seems correspondingly more fresh for the years of leaden interpretation that precede it. We encounter Kafka convalescing from tuberculosis on his sister’s farm: “He picked rosehips, set up a vegetable garden, got down on all fours and dug potatoes from the ground, fed the cattle, drove the horse and cart, and even chopped wood and tried his hand — rather clumsily — at the plough.” We see him with his girlfriend Julie Wohryzek: “They trudged together through short paths in the snow, launched into stories, switching back and forth between German and Czech, punctuated by laughter. And when they ran into one another, they burst into laughter before they even spoke.”
Other lingering misapprehensions — particles of what James Hawes, in his satirical 2008 study Excavating Kafka, called “the K-myth” — are exploded with equal good cheer. Was Kafka unknown in his lifetime? Not at all: his publishers printed his books and begged him for more, his pieces were added to the repertoire of a famous elocutionist and reciter and he belonged to an influential band of writers, none of whom was averse to rolling a log for a friend.
But anyone tempted to discard the other point of view too quickly need only run an eye down one of the harrowing processions of nouns in the index: “selfishness; shame; suffering; suicidal thoughts; unhappiness; unspecified declines; weeping”. We become grimly familiar with Kafka’s health-freakery and hypochondria: his faddish eating and exercise regimes, his ghastly fantasies of penetration and dismemberment and his habit of worrying so hard over nebulous illnesses that tuberculosis eventually came, he wrote, “almost as a relief”.
Stach is also good on Kafka’s doomed love life, beginning with his strange epistolary courtship of the unfortunate Felice Bauer, with whom he exchanged 500 wrangling, confessional letters over five years while seemingly making every effort not to see her in person. When he eventually felt compelled to propose marriage, he did so in an 18-page document containing such inducements as “You would lose Berlin, the office you enjoy, your girlfriends, the small pleasures of life, the prospect of marrying a decent, cheerful, healthy man, of having beautiful healthy children”; and once they were married, he concluded, she would probably have to bring him his meals in a special writing cell underground.
This is a fearsome demonstration of Kafka’s splinter of writerly ice in the soul, the blend of sensitivity and iron selfishness that Felice and his other intimates eventually recognised to their cost. It could manifest as masochistic self-laceration — “You are my human tribunal,” he told Felice, while his later lover Milena was asked to go through his notebooks for anything “against him” — or simply as a chilly distance from the world. “Kafka once wept after reading a news report of a woman who murdered a child,” Stach tells us, “but noted at the same time, 'A well-plotted story’.”
Such observations are valuable because the texts themselves manifest just this kind of doubleness. By enshrining their cryptic personal symbols in a German whose purity was much remarked on in Kafka’s lifetime, they became polished for public display while remaining deeply and woundingly private. “He wanted his texts to see the light of day,” Stach observes, “but to remain in the dark himself.” The remark helps explain Kafka’s lifelong concerns over publication.
This biography is illuminating on Kafka’s literary influences, including Dickens, Flaubert and Robert Walser, and particularly on his vexed relationship with Jewishness, another topic long overshadowed by history and interpretation. Brod’s own ardent Zionism informed his conviction that Kafka wrote some of “the most Jewish documents of our time”, a perspective much amplified by academic exegetes in the wake of the Holocaust. But such suggestions bemused Kafka, who once frustratedly wondered to his diary: “What do I have in common with Jews? I barely have anything in common with myself.”
Even while Brod was praising his work for its Jewishness, Kafka wrote to Felice, another critic was simultaneously examining its “fundamental Germanness”. “Won’t you tell me what I really am?” he implored. In later life he learnt fluent Hebrew, read avidly in the Hasidic tales and dreamt of emigrating to Palestine; yet the word “Jewish” appears nowhere in his work. Again, Kafka seems to float obstinately free of interpretation, slipping from the hands of those who would claim him for a cause.
It is common to say of biography that it sends you back to the work. Stach’s book does this in spades, but, importantly for English readers, it also presents new aspects of the work in Shelley Frisch’s superb and lucid translations. Many English admirers of Kafka are likely to have read him in dated and occasionally problematic Thirties versions by Willa and Edwin Muir. In her afterword to this book, however, Frisch writes that she has retranslated all the quoted excerpts herself since no standard Kafka edition exists in English. If this constitutes a job application, she would be an excellent candidate for the post. Between them, she and Stach have produced a superbly fresh imaginative guide to the strange, clear, metaphor-free world of Kafka’s prose: a prose which, just like the court in The Trial, “wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.”  - 



The second volume of Reiner Stach’s epic biography of Franz Kafka begins in the year 1916 and ends with Kafka’s death in 1924 (in a slightly bizarre – almost Kafkaesque – sequence, the third and final volume will cover its subject’s boyhood and youth) and thus encompasses the two great impersonal upheavals of Kafka’s life: the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of the First World War, and the collapse of Kafka’s health due to tuberculosis, first diagnosed in the summer of 1917. These are years of intense personal upheaval as well, with Kafka shuttling almost frantically from one emotional relationship to another. His tortured dalliances with Grete Bloch, Julie Wohryzek, and Dora Diamant all date from this period, as well as his very strange and almost entirely epistolary passion for Czech journalist Milena Jesenski. And as if all that weren’t enough, these years also mark a deepening of both conviction and confusion in Kafka’s attempts at writing, with works like The Castle and “The Hunger Artist” achieving something like their present forms and a number of other works thinly emerging from sketches and notebooks.
It’s a tangle of counter-grained and often under-sourced life stories, but reading Stach’s magnificent narrative (wonderfully translated by Shelley Frisch) straight through brings death, not life, to the forefront. Stach is a compulsively readable writer – the book has many digressions but no longueurs – but he can only do so much to manage the essentially grim nature of his story: despite a string of health regimens, spas, and clinics, Kafka grows steadily sicker, until we wince whenever he ventures outside: 
Four months later [November 1920], the streets of Prague were covered in grayish slush, and Kafka was feeling drained. He had been running a low-grade fever almost all the time, and he alternated between chills and sweating. He was short of breath, and if he fell into conversation with someone outdoors and breathed in too much cold air, a coughing fit was sure to follow. His coughing did not let up even at night, and it sometimes went on for hours on end. Everyone – his friends and family, and especially his youngest sister, Ottla – agreed that something had to be done.
The evaporation of the formal empire in which he’d lived his life deeply underscored Kafka’s sense of his own uprootedness, his feelings of being a stranger in the world. Stach very sensitively explores how this feeling may have intensified Kafka’s interest in his own Jewish heritage – and in the possibility of making a journey to the Holy Land, which Stach describes as a very different place from its 21st century counterpart: 
In the fall of 1922, only 11 percent of the three million people living in Palestine were Jews, and the notion that Jews would reclaim Palestine with their hands – namely by acquiring and cultivating land – was no more than a collective myth. Only 3 percent of the landed property was in Jewish hands, and only about a thousand people lived in kibbutzim. The Jewish immigrants who came later crowded into the cities and even misstated their professions so that they would not be sent to the country.
The progress of Kafka’s illness is agonizing – for him thanks to the helpless state of medicine at the time, and for the reader thanks to Stach’s indefatigable research and passionate writing (as in the previous volume, the prose in The Years of Insight is supple and very appealingly complex – all of which, once again, is perfectly rendered by Frisch). In the end, the ravages of his throat make eating impossible and one of the seminal authors of the 20th century simply starves to death. But long before that point in his narrative, Stach has subtly shifted his emphases from life to legacy. What, ultimately, does Kafka mean?
It’s both haunting and more than a little funny that Stach seems to come up with an answer with which Kafka might have agreed: 
Particularly in the early years of Kafka’s worldwide renown, his work, his achievement as a writer, was insistently categorized as “prophecy.” Kafka, it was said, was one of the first to predict and envision the anonymous violence of the twentieth century, and that was the primary reason for his overwhelming resonance. But this view overlooks the fact that Kafka was himself witness to the devastations of utterly depersonalized, technologically based violence, which was already claiming victims in his day. This lethal alliance of violence and bureaucracy burst onto the scene in August 1914 and was later called the “great seminal catastrophe” of the century. The world war was unthinkable without typewriters, files, index cards, and official seals – he knew that better than any of his writer friends.

Readers who’ve experienced the odd, jumpy, iron-grip spell of Kafka’s work will be nodding at that eloquent mention of “this lethal alliance of violence and bureaucracy.” Kafka himself would probably have smiled knowingly at “typewriters, files, index cards.” -


http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/kafka-the-years-of-insight-by-reiner-stach-1.1508223





Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years. Trans. by Shelley Frisch. Princeton University Press, 2013.
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This is the acclaimed central volume of the definitive biography of Franz Kafka. Reiner Stach spent more than a decade working with over four thousand pages of journals, letters, and literary fragments, many never before available, to re-create the atmosphere in which Kafka lived and worked from 1910 to 1915, the most important and best-documented years of his life. This period, which would prove crucial to Kafka's writing and set the course for the rest of his life, saw him working with astonishing intensity on his most seminal writings--The Trial, The Metamorphosis, The Man Who Disappeared (Amerika), and The Judgment. These are also the years of Kafka's fascination with Zionism; of his tumultuous engagement to Felice Bauer; and of the outbreak of World War I.

Kafka: The Decisive Years is at once an extraordinary portrait of the writer and a startlingly original contribution to the art of literary biography.


"Most impressive is Stach's recounting of the creation of his subject's writings. . . . Stach's own writing is wonderfully expressive."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)


"[S]uperbly tempered. . . . [T]hrough this robustly determined unearthing he rescues Kafka from the unearthliness of his repute. . . . Shelley Frisch, Stach's heroic American translator, movingly reproduces his intended breadth and pace and tone. . . . In this honest and honorable biography there is no trace of the Kafkaesque; but in it you may find a crystal granule of the Kafka who was."--Cynthia Ozick, New Republic


"A scrupulous, discriminating, and highly instructive account of Kafka's life."--Robert Alter, New Republic


"Stach's is a splendid effort and will be hard to surpass."--William H. Gass, Harper's Magazine


"A masterpiece of inspired biographical writing."--Choice


"Probing. . . . Essential reading."--Booklist (starred review)


"Magnificent."--Die Zeit


"Stach develops the various elements that play a role in Kafka's life brilliantly."--Der Spiegel


"The first great biography of Franz Kafka ... exciting and instructive from the first to the last page."--Tagesanzeiger


"This extraordinary biography fills the empty spaces between Kafka's own writings and the writings of friends, family, and contemporaries with so much empathy and imagination that one can't put it down."--Frankfurter Rundschau




Reiner Stach opens the first volume of his monumental projected three-volume biography of Franz Kafka, Kafka – Die Jahre der Entscheidungen (published in 2002, given a superb English-language translation by Shelley Frisch in 2005 as Kafka: The Decisive Years, and now reprinted in a handsome paperback by Princeton) with a disclaimer so long, so eloquent, and so all-encompassing that the average reader will have the last reaction they’d ever expect to have upon starting a long biography of a very intense young writer: outright laughter. Stach characterizes the whole biographical enterprise as a hopeless muddle, a futile and fraudulent attempt to impose order on chaos:
What is the cause, and what is the effect? The slightest shift of emphasis, and the picture changes. A conclusion can prove false or crumble. How much can a biographer afford to simplify? How far can a biographer go to reconstruct the bits and pieces in order to recount them? The sheer number of interrelations between the thematic honeycomb cells makes any narrative geometry impossible.
And if all those sines and secants of narrative geometry weren’t bad enough, their application to a life like Kafka’s makes things that much worse:
Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them … No definitive biography of Franz Kafka exists. Even the number of attempts at a comprehensive biography is unexpectedly limited, and to date there are no more than three or four introductions to Kafka published anywhere in the world that are worth reading.
“No definitive biography of Franz Kafka exists” is brutal if untrue and even more brutal if true; it’s the sort of thing writers only risk saying when they’re engaged in writing a multi-volume biography of their own. Even from a marketing perspective, they have to say it; no reader is going to undertake 1500 pages running the risk that what they’re reading isn’t definitive. This is especially true in Kafka’s case, where whole tranches of pertinent documents – the literary estate of Kafka’s lifelong friend and avid editor Max Brod – have been kept under vindictive lock and key for half a century by Brod’s former secretary and now by her daughters. Stach’s approach to circumventing this villainous obstruction has all the virtues of necessity: he’s saving Kafka’s early youth – about which, presumably, Brod’s diaries would give their best value – for the final volume of his trilogy. The first two volumes concentrate instead on Kafka the grown man, for whom there’s at least some sourcework that isn’t mildewing in a lock-box under somebody’s bed.
That adult life is, to put it mildly, well-studied, and if Stach is brutal to those previous biographies, he’s no less brutal to his subject:
All his literary projects that grew beyond the scope of a story failed Failure plagued his endeavors in other literary genres; the language of poetry was inaccessible to him; his plan to write an autobiography was never realized; and his halfhearted forays into dramatic writing yielded no tangible results. Let us imagine, as a comparison, that the works of a composer comprise just a few finished pieces of chamber music and dozens of fragmentary compositions, including three unfinished symphonies. Is the composer a failure? An incompetent? Brod tried to gloss over this lamentable situation by adopting a tendentious editorial strategy. Today, however, there is nothing left to conceal: the critical edition of Kafka’s oeuvre is available, and it is impossible to escape the impression that Kafka left a heap of rubble for posterity.
In this first volume, Stach sifts through that rubble with huge amounts of energy and discretion (and Frisch follows him without a misstep; it feels like exactly the same book I read ten years ago in its original language). The volume covers the years 1910 to 1915 and includes in-depth looks not only at such works as The Trial and “The Metamorphosis” but at the long and complicated course of Kakfa’s relationship with Felice Bauer and her family. His letters and journals are marshaled with sometimes breathtaking ingenuity, and the sheer scope of the work allows Stach to be expansive when painting his backgrounds. We get, for instance, every detail of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – and plenty of details about the war that assassination triggered:
But the Great War was different from anything people had been able to imagine up to that point. It went beyond any national or ethnic point of view. During the war, an average of 6,000 soldiers were killed each day, and 13,000 were wounded. The catastrophe of technologically sophisticated carnage that would last longer than four years – and there had been prophecies of that sort – was completely unanticipated by most people. Even those whose profession it was to make the inconceivable conceivable – intellectuals, writers, artists – were at a loss.
Always in these recountings, Stach is searching for his elusive subject, trying – as all previous biographers have tried, though none so well – to hear Kafka’s strange, singular voice in the noise:
Was Kafka immune to the war slogans? We would like to think so. Finding a voice that remained pure and authentic in the midst of this cacophony would be a consolation.
Kafka: The Decisive Years was greeted with a loud chorus of praise when it first appeared in English, and the passage of almost a decade has cast no doubt on that verdict. Princeton has re-issued this classic so that it can stand next to the following volume, Kafka: The Years of Insight, newly published in hardcover. No one interested in Kafka (or, by almost inevitable extension, 20th century literature) should miss either. -Steve Donoghue


Reiner Stach opens the first volume of his monumental projected three-volume biography of Franz Kafka, Kafka – Die Jahre der Entscheidungen (published in 2002, given a superb English-language translation by Shelley Frisch in 2005 as Kafka: The Decisive Years, and now reprinted in a handsome paperback by Princeton) with a disclaimer so long, so eloquent, and so all-encompassing that the average reader will have the last reaction they’d ever expect to have upon starting a long biography of a very intense young writer: outright laughter. Stach characterizes the whole biographical enterprise as a hopeless muddle, a futile and fraudulent attempt to impose order on chaos:
What is the cause, and what is the effect? The slightest shift of emphasis, and the picture changes. A conclusion can prove false or crumble. How much can a biographer afford to simplify? How far can a biographer go to reconstruct the bits and pieces in order to recount them? The sheer number of interrelations between the thematic honeycomb cells makes any narrative geometry impossible.
And if all those sines and secants of narrative geometry weren’t bad enough, their application to a life like Kafka’s makes things that much worse:
Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them … No definitive biography of Franz Kafka exists. Even the number of attempts at a comprehensive biography is unexpectedly limited, and to date there are no more than three or four introductions to Kafka published anywhere in the world that are worth reading.
“No definitive biography of Franz Kafka exists” is brutal if untrue and even more brutal if true; it’s the sort of thing writers only risk saying when they’re engaged in writing a multi-volume biography of their own. Even from a marketing perspective, they have to say it; no reader is going to undertake 1500 pages running the risk that what they’re reading isn’t definitive. This is especially true in Kafka’s case, where whole tranches of pertinent documents – the literary estate of Kafka’s lifelong friend and avid editor Max Brod – have been kept under vindictive lock and key for half a century by Brod’s former secretary and now by her daughters. Stach’s approach to circumventing this villainous obstruction has all the virtues of necessity: he’s saving Kafka’s early youth – about which, presumably, Brod’s diaries would give their best value – for the final volume of his trilogy. The first two volumes concentrate instead on Kafka the grown man, for whom there’s at least some sourcework that isn’t mildewing in a lock-box under somebody’s bed.
That adult life is, to put it mildly, well-studied, and if Stach is brutal to those previous biographies, he’s no less brutal to his subject:
All his literary projects that grew beyond the scope of a story failed Failure plagued his endeavors in other literary genres; the language of poetry was inaccessible to him; his plan to write an autobiography was never realized; and his halfhearted forays into dramatic writing yielded no tangible results. Let us imagine, as a comparison, that the works of a composer comprise just a few finished pieces of chamber music and dozens of fragmentary compositions, including three unfinished symphonies. Is the composer a failure? An incompetent? Brod tried to gloss over this lamentable situation by adopting a tendentious editorial strategy. Today, however, there is nothing left to conceal: the critical edition of Kafka’s oeuvre is available, and it is impossible to escape the impression that Kafka left a heap of rubble for posterity.
In this first volume, Stach sifts through that rubble with huge amounts of energy and discretion (and Frisch follows him without a misstep; it feels like exactly the same book I read ten years ago in its original language). The volume covers the years 1910 to 1915 and includes in-depth looks not only at such works as The Trial and “The Metamorphosis” but at the long and complicated course of Kakfa’s relationship with Felice Bauer and her family. His letters and journals are marshaled with sometimes breathtaking ingenuity, and the sheer scope of the work allows Stach to be expansive when painting his backgrounds. We get, for instance, every detail of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – and plenty of details about the war that assassination triggered:
But the Great War was different from anything people had been able to imagine up to that point. It went beyond any national or ethnic point of view. During the war, an average of 6,000 soldiers were killed each day, and 13,000 were wounded. The catastrophe of technologically sophisticated carnage that would last longer than four years – and there had been prophecies of that sort – was completely unanticipated by most people. Even those whose profession it was to make the inconceivable conceivable – intellectuals, writers, artists – were at a loss.
Always in these recountings, Stach is searching for his elusive subject, trying – as all previous biographers have tried, though none so well – to hear Kafka’s strange, singular voice in the noise:
Was Kafka immune to the war slogans? We would like to think so. Finding a voice that remained pure and authentic in the midst of this cacophony would be a consolation.
Kafka: The Decisive Years was greeted with a loud chorus of praise when it first appeared in English, and the passage of almost a decade has cast no doubt on that verdict. Princeton has re-issued this classic so that it can stand next to the following volume, Kafka: The Years of Insight, newly published in hardcover. No one interested in Kafka (or, by almost inevitable extension, 20th century literature) should miss either.
Kafka's stories are all parables of despair and helplessness, sorrowful emblems of the human condition. The all-important message from the emperor will never reach our ears, the hunger artist must die because he can't find anything he'd like to eat, the mole-like digger will always fail to construct a burrow impregnable to his enemies, the door into the castle isn't ever, ever going to open. Is no redemption possible in this world? Of course it is -- just not for us.
Kafka's work is famously susceptible to interpretations of all kinds. Nonetheless, most readers still tend to see the stories as fundamentally existential or theological, the modern equivalents to Plato's fables about caves and the origins of love or of Kierkegaard's many brief philosophical fictions. But since the death (in 1968) of Kafka's literary executor, Max Brod, who pushed a sacerdotal view of his friend's writing, modern scholarship has turned to examining the actual life of this enigmatic artist. Certainly nobody, with one celebrated exception, actually creates ex nihilo . And so we have now seen the careful publication of Kafka's holograph manuscripts, the scholarly editing of his every scrap, commentaries stressing his links to gesture-rich Yiddish theater and to cultural Zionism, speculation about his sexual life -- did he really have a son by Grete Bloch? -- and research into his actual daily work at the insurance office (he was a recognized authority on industrial accidents).
Reiner Stach's Kafka builds on much of this research. By focusing on 1910 through 1915 -- the time in his late twenties and early thirties when Kafka fell in love with Felice Bauer and began to produce his first great stories -- Stach aims to tell us all that can be known about the writer, avoiding the fancies and extrapolations of earlier biographers. The result is an enthralling synthesis, one that reads beautifully, in part thanks to the excellence of Shelley Frisch's English.
Though he avoids invention, Stach knows too much simply to present the facts and just the facts. With the kind of élan we associate with European intellectuals, he actively engages with his material, commenting or reflecting on its meaning. Take the correspondence with Felice Bauer. Stach admits that Kafka would have been appalled by the publication of these letters, but he then reflects on letter-writing as "one of the essential forms of modern individuality," goes on to note that mail posted on a Saturday night in Berlin (where Bauer lived) would be delivered on Sunday morning in Prague, and that Kafka so fetishized this young woman's letters that he carried them along on business trips. All this, and more, then serves to enhance a patient presentation of an agonized epistolary romance, the central thread of these crucial years.
The evening that Kafka met Bauer -- August 13, 1912 -- is, Stach asserts, one of those landmark days in intellectual and literary history, like the October afternoon in 1749 when Rousseau suddenly grasped the corrupting nature of civilization during a walk to Vincennes or the night of Oct. 4, 1892, when Paul Valéry decided to renounce poetry. A few days after that casual meeting, Kafka composed -- in a single night from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- his first masterpiece, "The Judgment," in which a father unexpectedly condemns his son to death. Stach aptly summarizes its importance:
"Suddenly -- without guide or precedent, it seemed -- the Kafka cosmos was at hand, fully equipped with the 'Kafkaesque' inventory that now gives his work its distinctive character: the father figure who is both overpowering and dirty, the hollow rationality of the narrator, the juridical structures imposed on life, the dream logic of the plot, and last but not least, the flow of the story perpetually at odds with the hopes and expectations of the hero."
Many months go by before Kafka again sees Bauer. During this time he confesses in his letters that he lives for literature alone, that he is unsociable, fearful, sickly, unhealthily thin, self-pitying, obsessive, neurotic, without interest in children and probably incapable of sexual intercourse. He has nothing to offer her, except his devotion -- and he's not even sure about that, since it might interfere with his writing.
Meanwhile, Bauer is dealing with problems of her own. Kafka doesn't know that her father once abandoned her mother to live with another woman, that her sister is about to give birth to an illegitimate daughter and that her brother is a swindler (who eventually flees to America to avoid his creditors). Bauer has compensated by becoming a serious career woman, the sales representative for a dictation system called Parlographs. Her family counts on her, expects her to make a good match. So, naturally she falls more and more in love with this loser from Prague.
Whenever the two meet, they are tongue-tied, and yet before long there is uncertain talk of marriage, eventually followed by a painful engagement ceremony. Not surprisingly, Kafka finally realizes that he simply can't face the prospect of a wedding and suddenly calls the whole thing off, at almost the last moment. Though Stach ends his book shortly after this, in 1915, Kafka fans know that Felice and Franz eventually started seeing each other again, and that in 1917 they announced a second engagement. Kafka cancelled a second time, this time for good: By then he was spitting up blood and diagnosed with tuberculosis. Nonetheless, he still had eight years to live and, surprisingly, there would be other women, as well as work on stories like "The Hunter Gracchus" and "A Hunger Artist" and the never-completed masterpiece The Castle .
I can't say enough about the liveliness and richness of Stach's book. Even his chapter epigraphs, while apposite, are delightfully original. When he discusses Kafka's official duties, he heads the chapter with a quotation from the Portuguese writer (and sometime office worker) Fernando Pessoa: "What are desires compared to a promotion?" When he discusses "The Metamorphosis," he opens with a line from the pulp detective Charlie Chan: "Strange events permit themselves the luxury of occurring." In short, every page of this book feels excited, dynamic, utterly alive. My copy is now covered with pencilings and marginalia.
Above all, though, Stach repeatedly underscores that Kafka never valued incompleteness or endorsed a romantic cult of the fragment. "The opposite is true. He greatly admired perfect formal unity and was determined to achieve it, a resolution evident in every one of his endeavors. His pursuit of formal perfection meant that his literary texts had to develop organically from their fictional and visual seed. There could be no arbitrary plot twists." After reminding us of Kafka's need to work in sustained bursts, he zeroes in on the author's creative problem: "Kafka suffered not from a lack of ideas but from a lack of continuations . . . . He demanded much more from his texts than formal unity; he sought a seamless linking of all motifs, images, and concepts. . . . Not one detail of Kafka's descriptions, whether the color of a piece of clothing, a gesture, or simply the time of day, is merely illustrative. Everything carries meaning, refers to something, and recurs." Little wonder that almost everything fell short in this quest for perfection.
Near the end of these "decisive years" Kafka was working on The Trial . By now he had written a handful of masterpieces -- and important professional reports for his insurance company; he had fallen in and out of love with Bauer while also flirting with (or even succumbing to) her close friend Grete Bloch; he had talked with Martin Buber about Zionism, dealt with the novelist Robert Musil as his editor, and attended a ballet in which Nijinksy danced. Though we must imagine Kafka in his noisy family apartment, living on vegetables and hidden in his room, we shouldn't forget that he also traveled to Venice and once stopped in Trieste, where he could have glimpsed Italo Svevo and James Joyce. (As he had learned Italian for his insurance work, he might have spoken to them.) And even this introspective and solipsistic genius eventually noticed when Europe went to war in 1914, though not for a while. His diary entry for August 2, 1914, reads: "Germany has declared war on Russia. --Swimming in the afternoon."
Could this last, I have long wondered, be an example of Kafka's wit? (He could supposedly set his friends roaring with laughter when he read some of his stories aloud.) Certainly, one suspects a smile behind this passage in a letter to Bauer from 1913: "Are you finding any meaning in 'The Judgment,' I mean some straightforward, coherent meaning that can be followed? I am not finding any and I am also unable to explain anything in it." Many people feel just as puzzled even now when they first finish reading the story.
Such a strange man. But this fine book helps us better understand that apparently inexhaustible strangeness. Right now Kafka even seems a useful counter-example to the ongoing cult of celebrity authors and bright, edgy writing. He destroys more than he publishes, he takes art as serious and life-changing; he views writing as a vocation of dissatisfaction, unhappiness and sacrifice. As he writes to Bauer: "I have no literary interests; I am made of literature. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else." This certainly sounds grandiose and exaggerated, but in Kafka's case it's also true. - Michael Dirda


The result of a decade of research, this first volume of a trilogy on Kafka, flawlessly translated from the German by Shelley Frisch, covers the period 1910 to 1915. During this time he wrote some of the most hauntingly strange texts in modern literature, including the stories "Metamorphosis" and "The Judgment" and the novel The Trial. It was also a period of intense personal anxiety as Kafka struggled to reconcile his writerly need for solitude with his family's expectation that he should marry. He wrote more than 500 letters and postcards to his fiancee Felice Bauer. But "the cascade of fears that plagued and eventually overwhelmed Kafka" meant marriage was impossible. "I am taciturn, unsociable, glum, self-serving, a hypochondriac," he admitted to her in 1913. But out of the ruins of their engagement emerged The Trial, an "overwhelmingly complex" novel that translated "the accumulated humiliations" of his disastrous personal life into literature. This is a wonderfully intelligent and perceptive portrait of a uniquely powerful writer. - PD Smith


Kafka. K. The letter is his alone. He liked the word “Zweifellosigkeit,” which can be awkwardly translated as “indubitableness.” To be true, a work had to be indubitable. He felt his story “The Judgment” to be so. He wrote it in eight hours, almost in ecstasy. “This is the only way to write,” he said. He dedicated it to Felice Bauer, a woman he had recently met at his friend Max Brod’s house. In his diary he describes her as having an “empty face that wore its emptiness openly.” From 1912 to 1917 he wrote hundreds of letters to her. When he stopped corresponding, he dreamed of her as “someone who was dead and could never live again.” He burned her letters when their long engagement was finally broken off; she saved his. They are one of the great unnerving monuments of literature.
Kafka was always burning his stuff, or threatening to, or demanding that others do it for him. He asked at least three women to marry him, but something always came up to thwart the nuptials. (Once it was the beginning of World War I.) One of his obsessions for a time was the sassy Milena Jesenska, who called him Frank. “Frank cannot live,” she wrote to Brod. “Frank does not have the capacity for living. . . . He is absolutely incapable of living, just as he is incapable of getting drunk.” He was a subject in the playful “Bestiary of Modern Literature,” published in 1922, and was described thus: “The Kafka is a very rare magnificent moon-blue mouse that does not eat meat but feeds on herbs. It is a fascinating sight because it has human eyes.” The famous and vindictive “Letter to His Father,” which was more than 100 pages long, was never sent to his father, Hermann, a purveyor of fancy goods. Kafka gave it to his mother to give to him. She didn’t. He lived with his parents well into his 30s, and according to Reiner Stach’s biography, “on Sunday mornings he was always overcome by slight nausea” when he saw their rumpled bedsheets “only a few steps from his own bed.”                  
We all know how he ate his food: he “Fletcherized” it, chewing each bite a hundred times before swallowing. He was almost six feet tall, meticulously groomed and preternaturally self-absorbed. He was an executive at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, where his associates were lawyers, businessmen and engineers. He was well respected there and considered invaluable, though he was given endless leaves and extended vacations. He felt he was a citizen of another world, a white desert. It could certainly be argued that what he called his “animal stories” — “A Report to an Academy,” “The Burrow,” “Investigations of a Dog” — weren’t about humans at all. There is a beach named after him in the Baltic seaside resort of Müritz. He insisted he wanted to be a soldier, later a waiter in Palestine. He admitted he had “something against needlework.” He liked to read his work aloud to friends and found it terribly funny, sometimes doubling up with laughter. He did not like to read to rooms of strangers, but he did read “In the Penal Colony” at a German Expressionist event in Munich. Rilke was present. A newspaper review opined that the story was “too long, and not captivating enough.” When “The Metamorphosis” was to be published as a book in 1915, Kafka was afraid the cover illustrator would want to draw the insect. “Not that, please not that!” he wrote to the publisher. “The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance.”
The ever industrious Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor, collected these conversation slips and published them. He published “The Trial” in 1925, “The Castle” the following year and Kafka’s first effort, “Amerika,” in 1927. He arranged and edited, ordered the chapters, numbered the fragments, restored the deletions. He wrote forewords and afterwords and postscripts. He titled the random pieces. He wrote a biography of Kafka. He published the octavo notebooks and the Zürau reflections. In 1948 he published the diaries. Brod seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of Kafka matter, a magic suitcase. And there’s more to come. An Israeli court recently ruled that further scraps, drawings, letters and Brod’s own diaries belong to the National Library of Israel and not to the aged daughters of Esther Hoffe, his secretary, who died in 2007 at the age of 101. Hoffe’s daughters had hoped to sell the papers here and there but principally to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany, which has the manuscript of “The Trial.”
Kafka scholars are making no attempt to contain their excitement. This new material will become available soon. Sometime. Soon. Discoveries will be made. New translations will appear. (The translations into English of Kafka’s writings by the Scottish couple Willa and Edwin Muir, to which a generation is deeply indebted, have been considered old-fashioned and not definitive for some time now — too elegant and smoothly readable, too much arising from a Kierkegaardian Calvinism and not enough from a Talmudic Judaism.) Massive biographies might at last be completed. For we must know Kafka. It is not enough to know, to live, to be intimate with the ­Kafkaesque.
Reiner Stach’s “Kafka: The Years of Insight,” translated by Shelley Frisch, covers the years from 1916 to his death in 1924. An earlier book, “Kafka: The Decisive Years” (1910-15), was published in 2002 and translated into English in 2005. A volume dealing with K.’s childhood and youth is forthcoming. (Stach seems reluctant to address this period. Without verifiable accounting, there are those dreadful gaps. Speculation can run riot. Kafka as a baby! Who would believe it?) The whole package will comprise some 2,000 pages.
Stach explains that his somewhat unusual manner of transmittal over the years has to do with the availability of biographical materials. He is eager to gain access to Brod’s final suitcase, the contents of which are actually in a number of bank vaults and even a cat-ridden apartment. This is what he’s been waiting for, a “first-rate resource” that will fill out Kafka’s young manhood, that will “contribute valuable insights to our understanding of the literary and historical issues concerning Kafka and the period as a whole.” This might not make your blood race, but Stach is very much a relentless historian. He would disagree with Hannah Arendt’s assertion that Kafka’s “uniqueness,” his “absolute originality . . . can be traced to no predecessor and suffers no followers.” Or he might not. His rhetoric can be shrewd. He interprets much of Kafka according to “the isolation of the Western European Jew who is cut off from his own tradition” and views “Jackals and Arabs” and “A Report to an Academy,” both of which appeared in Martin Buber’s publication Der Jude (the magazine was, after all, concerned strictly with Judaica), as lending themselves to a Jewish interpretation. With Red Peter, the ape in the latter story, Kafka chose “an ­inferior species with negative connotations as the symbol of the Jewish people, and it is not surprising that most of his Zionist-minded readers blocked out the logic of this image to keep the text enjoyable.” However, Stach states that such a reading is not “compelling,” for though he can be reiterative and circumlocutory, he can also (and frequently does) nimbly dissociate himself from arguments he has relentlessly constructed. Thus, Kafka in 1922 was intent on finding “images that were both simple and unfathomable, images to be engraved in cultural memory,” at the same time making notes that were “utterly incomprehensible without knowing their biographical genesis.”
Throughout, Stach emphasizes Kafka’s Jewishness (rather than, as some might consider, his almost other-species strangeness): “Clearly under the influence of his Zionist readings, physical activity had become a moral aim for him, a question of existential style.” (Kafka! Existential style?) At the same time he objects to the view of Kafka as a Zionist or a religious writer, and claims nothing of his was pure invention. This allows him to trace the iconic story “A Country Doctor,” with its dream horses, to material found in a collection called “Legends of Polish Jews.”


Franz Kafka and Asceticism Excerpts from two volumes of Reiner Stach's Kafka

Reiner Stach, Is that Kafka?: 99 Finds, Trans. by Kurt Beals, New Directions, 2016.

Out of the massive research for an authoritative 1,500-page biography emerges this wunderkammer of 99 delightfully odd facts about Kafka
In the course of compiling his highly acclaimed three-volume biography of Kafka, while foraying to libraries and archives from Prague to Israel, Reiner Stach made one astounding discovery after another: unexpected photographs, inconsistencies in handwritten texts, excerpts from letters, and testimonies from Kafka’s contemporaries that shed surprising light on his personality and his writing. Is that Kafka? presents the crystal granules of the real Kafka: he couldn’t lie, but he tried to cheat on his high-school exams; bitten by the fitness fad, he avidly followed the regime of a Danish exercise guru; he drew beautifully; he loved beer; he read biographies voraciously; he made the most beautiful presents, especially for children; odd things made him cry or made him furious; he adored slapstick. Every discovery by Stach turns on its head the stereotypical version of the tortured neurotic―and as each one chips away at the monolithic dark Kafka, the keynote, of all things, becomes laughter.
For Is that Kafka? Stach has assembled 99 of his most exciting discoveries, culling the choicest, most entertaining bits, and adding his knowledge-able commentaries. Illustrated with dozens of previously unknown images, this volume is a singular literary pleasure.
                                    

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