Reiner Stach has a droll way with epigraphs, and in Kafka: The Early Years he heads his chapters with a selection of gnomic snippets from numerous ingeniously obscure sources. Chapter 1, for instance, has a tag from a song by Devo, an American rock band of the 1980s: “Think you heard this all before,/Now you’re gonna hear some more.” This is Stach’s impish acknowledgment that the present book is the first of three volumes, the second and third of which have already been published. The joke is a good one, and sends the reader off smiling on what will be a long though immensely rewarding journey. This volume completes one of the great literary biographies of our time—indeed, of any time.
The reason for the delay in the appearance of the first volume is explained in a preface by Stach’s devoted and richly gifted translator, Shelley Frisch:
This order of publication, which may appear counterintuitive—even fittingly “Kafkaesque”—was dictated by years of high-profile legal wrangling for control of the Max Brod literary estate in Israel, during which access to the materials it contained, many of which bore directly on Kafka’s formative years, was barred to scholars.
In August of last year the Israeli Supreme Court found against Brod’s heirs, and ordered that the withheld documents be transferred to the National Library in Jerusalem. Frisch states that Stach “has been able to examine three volumes of Brod’s diaries in this collection, those from the years 1909 to 1911,” and indeed it is clear that Stach did draw heavily on the diaries—so heavily that at times the book might be mistaken for a joint biography of Franz Kafka and Max Brod.
However, a mystery remains. Since Stach’s book was originally published in German in 2013, how did he get his hands on the much-needed material from the Brod archive, since the court order for its release was not handed down until 2016? Perhaps he will add an appendix to a future edition explaining how he managed it, for it sounds as if there is a good story there, somewhat in the manner, perhaps, of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. One hopes that Stach did not at any point in the process find himself hissed at furiously as “you publishing scoundrel!” as did the hapless narrator of James’s tale.
As Frisch notes, the saga of the Brod archive smacks not a little of the Kafkaesque; there are few aspects of Kafka, as man and writer, that do not have a Kafkaesque dimension. How apt, for instance, that an artist who sets an animal as the protagonist, or even as the narrator, of so many of his stories—most notably, of course, “The Metamorphosis”—should have a name that is most likely derived from that of a bird: kavka is the Czech word for jackdaw.* And further, in the matter of names, Kafka’s mother’s family, the Löwys, “were once known,” Stach informs us, “as Boreas, like the god of the north wind, and later as Borges.” One wonders if the great Argentinian fabulist was aware of this admittedly tenuous connection to his Czech precursor. In the world of the kavka, everything makes strange.
Stach opens the narrative of Kafka’s life with one of his brilliant set-piece meteorological recreations of a particular day, in this case July 3, 1883, which was “a clear, pleasant summer’s day, with a gentle breeze wafting through the narrow streets of the Old Town in Prague.” When he first set out to write this biography, two decades ago, his aim, Stach declared, was to show “what it was like to be Kafka.” One of the strategies by which he triumphantly fulfills this aim has been to place the reader as directly as possible in Kafka’s world and time, as he does in this bravura opening description of the day and place of Kafka’s birth:
Today was a Tuesday, which meant that there were a good many “military concerts” in store. In the spacious beer garden on the Sophieninsel, the hoopla started up at four in the afternoon for tourists, students, and retirees. Most people still had a few more hours of work ahead of them, and those unlucky souls who earned their living in a shop had to wait until after sundown to join the festivities.
It might be the opening of a bildungsroman by Thomas Mann or Robert Musil. The immediacy of Stach’s narrative makes it not only uncannily evocative but compulsively readable, and the three big volumes of his Kafka constitute a work of literature as subtle, as intricate, and as entertaining as any novel.
“No intellectual biography that is situated in the Bohemian metropolis,” Stach writes, “is comprehensible without the history of this city and the surrounding region.” Therefore he goes far back to locate the beginnings of his tale, all the way to the Battle of the White Mountain, near Prague, in November 1620, in which a Protestant alliance of German states was defeated by the Catholic Habsburgs. The battle—the young René Descartes fought in it—lasted no more than two hours and was hardly more than a skirmish, yet it was celebrated with jubilation all over Catholic Europe, and ushered in a period known to Czechs as “the darkness,” which was to last for three centuries.
The following year, twenty-seven notable Protestants, including Jan Jessenius, rector of Charles University in Prague, were executed in public in the Old Town Square, as punishment for rebellion and a demonstration of the Habsburgs’ calculated ruthlessness. Praguers to this day retain a strong memory of what they see as the tragedy of the White Mountain; as Stach has it, “In some corners of this city, the intertwining of past and present, of death and life can make the presence of history feel downright eerie.”
The Habsburgs were still firmly in power in 1883 when Kafka was born, into a milieu that was an amalgam of ancient resentments and present complacency. He was deeply riven in his attitude toward his native city. He never ceased to bemoan having to live there, yet he was incapable of moving elsewhere. “Prague doesn’t let go,” he famously wrote. “This little mother has claws.” If Bohemia felt itself a victim and an outcast, Kafka had the added burden of being a Jew in Central Europe—although he would plaintively demand to know what he could have in common with the Jews, since he had hardly anything in common with himself. The forebears of both his parents were not Praguers; his father, Hermann, was born in a village near Strakonice in southern Bohemia, and his mother’s people, the Löwys, had lived for generations in Podĕbrady, a town on the river Elbe “in the shadow of a massive castle”; they were “a family of scholars and eccentrics, complete with depressions,” as Stach notes.
Hermann Kafka and Julie Löwy were married in 1882, and the following summer their son Franz was born. When one studies photographs of Franz Kafka—and there are surprisingly many of them for such a notoriously self-effacing person—one is struck by how little he resembles his parents. Hermann Kafka is burly, with a flat skull, a broad face, and a thick neck, the very model of the character Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, while his wife Julie’s most marked feature is her lantern jaw. How did this couple beget a son so delicately made, so tall, and thin to the point of emaciation? It is as if this singular creature were his own self-creation. One cannot imagine anyone looking like Franz Kafka—certainly none of his three sisters did, if, again, we take the photographs as dependable evidence—and there are even instances when he does not look entirely like himself.
Stach displays a deep tenderness toward his subject as a child. Kafka’s parents ran what used to be called a fancy goods store in central Prague, and Hermann, aggressive and volatile, frequently flew into rages and gave staff their notice on the spot. There was also the fact that the two boys born to Julie Kafka after Franz did not survive long: Georg died of measles when he was fifteen months old, and the next-born, Heinrich, lived only six months before succumbing to meningitis:
These constant fluctuations resulted not only in an atmosphere of tumult and frayed nerves, but also in a series of separations that instilled in little Franz a deep mistrust regarding the consistency of human relationships and wariness of a world in which every face he had become accustomed to or even grown to love could vanish instantly and forever.
For a person as sensitive as Kafka was, or at least as he presented himself as being—it is entirely possible to view his life in a light other than the one he himself shone upon it—inner escape was the only available strategy. “If we are to believe his own personal mythology,” Stach writes, “he drifted out of life and into literature,” to the point, indeed, that as an adult he would declare that he was literature, and nothing else. Stach, however, offers another and, in its way, far more interesting possibility when he asks, “What if literature was the only feasible way back for him?” Yet along this route into the psychological depths of Kafka’s emotional and artistic self we must pick our way carefully, recalling Kafka’s own skepticism toward Freudian analysis—“I consider the therapeutic part of psychoanalysis a helpless error”—and keeping in mind one of what are known as the Zürau aphorisms, in which he declares with uncharacteristic vehemence: “No psychology ever again!”
Naturally much of this volume is taken up with an account of Kafka’s formal education. One might expect that the student years of an artist would be of great biographical interest, but it is rarely the case, and Stach’s account of Kafka’s schooling is no exception. Perhaps the reason is that the education of an artist is for the most part a self-administered process, the progress of which is not recorded in class placings and examination results. If there are longueurs in the present volume, they occur here, as we might guess from the title to Chapter 7: “Kafka, Franz: Model Student.” He was a tireless and omnivorous reader—it is really by reading that writers learn to write—but early on he tried his hand at composition, too, and by the age of twelve or thirteen he had determined to become a writer.
Stach tells us that Kafka “grouped his first literary endeavors under a surprising watchword: coldness,” and lamented: “What a chill pursued me for days on end from what I had written!” It is not clear why the biographer considers this surprising; the first and hardest lesson an artist must learn is to curb the excesses of youthful ardor. A mark of Kafka’s greatness was the distance from himself that he achieved in his writings from the outset. The remarkable story “The Judgment,” composed in a single sitting one night in 1912, which he considered his first fully achieved work, is written at “degree zero,” to use Roland Barthes’s formulation, and maintains a dreamlike steadiness and purity of tone, despite its strongly autobiographical theme—the son humiliated and overborne by the father—and the fact that it was done, the author himself wrote, by way of “a complete opening of body and soul.” Kafka always wrote out of himself, and of himself, without ever imagining that thereby he was directly expressing himself. The artist, he once remarked, is the one who has nothing to say. “He would always speak only of the act of writing as the truly precious element,” Stach observes, “but not of the resulting works, which always conveyed no more than a hazy image of the flash of creation.”
In his diary in 1920 he wrote of a moment when he had a clear glimpse of what would be for him the true creative flame. He was sitting one day, “many years ago,…on the slope of the Laurenziberg,” the hill in the center of Prague that figures in “Description of a Struggle,” brooding on “the wishes I had for my life”:
The most important or the most appealing wish was to attain a view of life (and—this was inescapably bound up with it—to convince others of it in writing) in which life retained its natural full complement of rising and falling, but at the same time would be recognized no less clearly as a nothing, as a dream, as a hovering.
This artistic epiphany—remarkably reminiscent of that interrupted moment in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape when Krapp recognizes that his aim must be to allow into his work the darkness he had always struggled to keep out—is summed up beautifully by Stach when he writes: “The presence of being and nothingness in one and the same moment, in the same object or the same sentence, struck Kafka as a sign of perfection that made life worth living.” And art worth making.
The Early Years brings Kafka through school and college and into his life as “The Formidable Assistant Official,” to quote another of Stach’s chapter headings. Kafka hated his work as an insurance clerk, but he clung to his desk as if it were the raft of the Medusa. In the office he was in a state of unrelenting frustration, yet even there he saw the slapstick comedy of his predicament:
I have so much to do!… People fall off the scaffolds as if they were drunk, into the machines, all the beams topple, all embankments give way, all ladders slip, whatever people carry up falls down, whatever they hand down, people stumble over. And I have a headache from all these girls in porcelain factories who keep throwing themselves down the stairs with mounds of dishware.
Stach is not the first to comment on the peculiarities of Kafka’s lifelong relationship with his fellow writer Max Brod. In the late 1930s, Brod’s biography of his friend was attacked by Walter Benjamin, who was particularly exercised by what he saw as Brod’s entirely mistaken religious interpretation of Kafka’s work. Stach sees Kafka’s connection with the outgoing and essentially middle-brow Brod as a typical cleaving to figures with a stronger, perhaps more elemental, grasp on life and the business of living:
Kafka felt closest to people whose superior vitality he could share without buckling under, partaking in the lives of others, whose fluxes of energy he could latch on to without ceding control over the dosage of the energy.
It is as if Kafka, believing he could only live vicariously through other people, considered Brod as good an exemplar as any other. Yet it would be hard to imagine a more ill-assorted pair. Brod, a year younger than Kafka, came from a solidly middle-class Jewish background—his father was a successful banker—and therefore found it hard to empathize with the social unease and sense of displacement of Kafka the haberdasher’s son. He even tried to get Kafka to curb his fantastical notion of his father’s power over him. “We know how well that worked,” Stach mordantly observes.
There was too a darker aspect to Brod’s proprietorial attitude to Kafka; as Stach notes, “Deliberate manipulations to serve his own interests, which even extended to altering Kafka’s diaries, have been identified.” Stach is careful to be fair-minded and to suppress what seems an instinctive antipathy toward Brod—it would probably be unfair to attribute this, even in part, to Stach’s lingering irritation over the difficulties he had in securing access to the Brod archive—and he goes so far as to wonder not how Kafka the genius tolerated the mundane Brod, but how Brod in turn put up with Kafka’s endless emotional fidgetings, over his writing, his health, his loves. After all, we have Brod to thank for the very survival of the Kafka oeuvre, since he decided to ignore Kafka’s direction to him to destroy his papers after his death. One might surely forgive a bit of proprietorship, and even a certain fiddling with the facts, in return for the great gift to posterity—to us—of such a literary treasure.
That Kafka was fond of Brod cannot be doubted. Stach gives a comical and wonderfully endearing account of a holiday they took together in 1911:
“Let’s be quick now,” Kafka said when they arrived at the hotel. “We’re going to be in Paris for only five days. Just give the face a little wash.” Brod rushed off to his room, put down his luggage, took care of the bare necessities, and was back in a matter of minutes. His friend, by contrast, “had taken every last thing out of his suitcase and would not go until he had put everything back in order.” Kafka asked why Brod was carping at him.
On their way to France they had been eager to get there at once, without delay, but at Lake Maggiore they could not resist stopping over for some days, beginning with a swim. Such was their relief from the heat and the stresses of travel “that they embraced while standing in the water,” Stach writes, adding, with po-faced flatness, “—which must have looked quite odd especially because of the difference in their heights.”
How, one wondered, would Stach find an ending to this first volume, which would be an ending also to the magnificent venture he embarked on so many years ago? The solution he comes up with, Mozartian in its deceptive lightness, is wholly captivating. It takes place in a sanatorium on Lake Zurich that Kafka had checked himself into for a rest after that hectic trip to Paris with Brod. So delightful, so magical, are the closing couple of pages that one longs to paraphrase them, but that would be to spoil the perfect balance the biographer achieves between comedy, wistfulness, and faint absurdity, qualities that are as much a mark of Kafka’s writing as its darkness and its terror. There could not have been a better close to this marvelous account of the life of a supremely great artist.
I cannot resist noting that as I was writing this paragraph, a jackdaw flew in through the open window of my study, and got out again only with the greatest difficulty. ↩