Kafka: A Biography
by Ronald Hayman
Oxford University Press, 349 pp., $19.95
Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice
by Elias Canetti, translated by Christopher Middleton
Schocken, 94 pp., $5.95 (to be published in March) (paper)
Letters to Ottla and the Family
by Franz Kafka, edited by N.N. Glatzer, translated by Richard Winston, by Clara Winston
Schocken, 130 pp., $15.95
After his critical biography of Nietzsche, Ronald Hayman has turned to Kafka; from the prophetic self-enlarging Superman to one who assuaged his sense of estrangement from his family and society by diminishing himself. There was an air of humility in this, but there was pride in an evasiveness: or, if not pride, a marked obduracy. His capital is stored in his anxieties and humiliations: his abnormally self-centered genius was able, by the fabulist’s sleight of hand, to make his parlous situation appear to be our own. When we read The Trial and The Castle again now Kafka also seems, by accident, even to have prepared us for the faked political trials we have seen since the Thirties. One can say, at any rate, that deformed in his own private life, he became absorbed in what has come to be called the metaphysic of a bureaucratic nightmare in which one is born powerless, accused and self-accused, not knowing of what.
In his private self Kafka was isolated as the intellectual son of a bullying and shouting father, an ambitious Jewish shopkeeper who ridiculed the Jews of Prague and thought the boy was spineless and incompetent. In fact Kafka slaved at law as a student, achieved his doctorate, and became a conscientious official at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute and was often traveling responsibly to their conferences. This employment he regarded with disgust (though the travel suited his restless nature) and confirmed his view of himself as a nonperson; but the job was invaluable to him as a writer. There was another, more important, estrangement. As a German-speaking Czech (as he said of himself) he is not quite a Czech; as a German-speaking Jew detached from Judaism (until later on in life), he was not quite of Bohemia. As a Bohemian he did not quite belong to Austria, and as the son of a rising middle-class man he was not quite a worker, though he dealt exclusively with the disasters of working-class life.
If we change the names of the cultural mélange, his kind of history is now common enough in twentieth-century societies. What has to be added is that, in Kafka’s case, the exceptional price he paid was fatal to his health and decisiveness of mind: after brief periods of euphoria, he dropped into suicidal depression—however, no attempts at suicide—anxiety, physical pain, night-mares, insomnia, and illnesses that ended in his early death from tuberculosis at the age of forty-one. He was drawn to women but always disentangled himself if marriage tempted.
This and much more is well known, for Kafka himself was a ceaseless autobiographer, in his diaries, his marvelous letters, and in his fables. No stone is left unturned: indeed each one is turned over and over again. Yet since Max Brod’s Biography, revised in 1954, there has been no full critical biography until the present one by Ronald Hayman, which is indeed very informative and detailed; he is particularly observant of the phases through …