What are we to make of Kafka? Not, surely, what he made of himself, or at least what he would have us believe he made of himself. In a letter to his long-suffering fiancée Felice Bauer he declared: “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.” This was a constant theme of his mature years, and one that he expanded on in a highly significant diary entry from August 1916: “My penchant for portraying my dreamlike inner life has rendered everything else inconsequential; my life has atrophied terribly, and does not stop atrophying.”
Of course, Kafka is not the first writer, nor will he be the last, to figure himself as a martyr to his art—think of Flaubert, think of Joyce—but he is remarkable for the single-mindedness with which he conceived of his role. Who else could have invented the torture machine at the center of his frightful story “In the Penal Colony,” which executes miscreants by graving their sentence—le mot juste!—with a metal stylus into their very flesh?
His conception of himself as tormented artist is allied closely to his view of his predicament as a man struggling to maintain his health and sanity in the face of an unrelentingly inhospitable world. In the annals of lamentation, from Job and Jeremiah to Beckett’s Unnamable, surely no one has devoted himself to the sustained moan with such dedication, energy, and exquisite finesse as the author of the “The Judgment” and the “Letter to His Father,” of the diaries, and of the correspondence with Felice Bauer and his lover Milena Jesenská, as well as his friend Max Brod.1
There are moments, numerous moments, when this supreme ironist seemed to recognize the comical aspect of his endless complaining, and the wintry, self-mocking smile that flashes out at us on these occasions is peculiarly irresistible. We think too of that famous incident when Kafka was reading aloud the opening pages of The Trial before a group of Prague friends but laughed so much that he had to stop at intervals, while his listeners also laughed “uncontrollably,” despite what Brod described as “the terrible gravity of this chapter.” That must have been quite an evening.
Despite the particularity of Kafka’s work—and what other writer has fashioned a literary landscape as instantly recognizable as his?—as an artist he is generally taken for a tabula rasa. In his short study, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, Saul Friedländer quotes the German-American critic Erich Heller’s description of Kafka as “the creator of the most obscure lucidity in the history of literature,” and goes on to note how the opacity of Kafka’s texts has allowed him to be regarded as
a neurotic Jew, a religious one, a mystic, a self-hating Jew, a crypto-Christian, a Gnostic, the messenger of an antipatriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, an iconic voice of High Modernism, and much more….
It is notable how few critics and commentators have seen Kafka as essentially a product of his time and milieu—early-twentieth-century Mitteleuropa—and it is to Friedländer’s credit that he notes “the ongoing influence of Expressionism” and contemporary works of fantastic literature such as Gustav Meyrink’s Der Golem on Kafka’s literary sensibility. The fact is, Kafka was a son of Prague to his phthisic fingertips. As a young man he remarked ruefully that the city had claws, and would not let go. He knew well both himself and his birthplace.
Reiner Stach, in his ongoing biography of Kafka, strives for a similarly intimate knowledge of his subject, and of the time and place in which he lived and worked. Stach is at once highly ambitious and admirably unassuming. He wishes, he tells us, to experience “what it was like to be Franz Kafka,” yet suggests that the effort even to get “just a little bit closer” is illusory:
Methodological snares are of no use; the cages of knowledge remain empty. So what do we achieve for all our efforts? The real life of Franz Kafka? Certainly not. But a fleeting glance at it, or an extended look, yes, perhaps that is possible.
This modesty is not false, but it is misplaced. So far, two volumes of this latest Kafka biography have been published. The Decisive Years and The Years of Insight are volumes two and three; volume one, dealing with the life up to 1910, was held up while Stach waited in hope—vain hope, it would seem—that an important archive of Max Brod’s papers, at present held in Israel, would be released; however, the book is now due for publication in 2014.
On the evidence of the two volumes that we already have, this is one of the great literary biographies, to be set up there with, or perhaps placed on an even higher shelf than, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, George Painter’s Marcel Proust, and Leon Edel’s Henry James. Indeed, in this work Stach has achieved something truly original.2 By a combination of tireless scholarship, uncanny empathy, and writing that might best be described as passionately fluent,3 he does truly give a sense of “what it was like to be Franz Kafka.” He has set himself the Proustian task of summoning up, and summing up, an entire world, and has performed that task with remarkable success. The result is an eerily immediate portrait of one of literature’s most enduring and enigmatic masters.
Part of Stach’s method is a point-by-point mapping of the biographical evidence against the autobiographical evidence within the work—and Kafka is everywhere autobiographical, though he seeks to cover his tracks with finical care. Stach is in sympathy with Kafka’s dismissal of psychology, and maintains an epistemological approach to his task, cleaving to the facts as he knows them—and he knows a great many—and never indulging in the kind of fanciful speculation that so many biographers permit themselves.4
On occasion he will take a deliberate step back in order to present a broad view of this or that aspect of Kafka’s life and work. See, for instance, in volume three, his brilliant exegesis on the prose fragment “The Great Wall of China.” The piece focuses not on the emperor on whose orders the wall was constructed, but on the construction itself, which was built “not as a single entity but rather in individual sections far apart from one another,” the same method, Stach points out, that Kafka brought to the assembling of his novels, The Trial in particular. Of the Great Wall, Stach writes:
no one apart from those in the top command can say with any certainty how far the construction has progressed; it is not even clear whether the wall will really have all the gaps filled in when the work is done. It is never completed, and remains a fragment made up of fragments.
In this way the Wall matches the “meta-structure that has been characterized as ‘Kafka’s world’ or ‘Kafka’s universe.’”
Volume two, The Decisive Years, begins, excitingly, in May 1910, with the approach of Halley’s Comet. “For months, newspaper reports had been warning of a possible collision, gigantic explosions, firestorm, and tidal waves, the end of the world.” On May 18, the day when the comet would either smash into the earth or miss it, excited crowds thronged the streets and cafés of Prague, among them “a thin, sinewy man…a head taller than everyone around him.” One wonders how much heed Kafka paid to the threatened celestial collision. If we are to take the diaries and the letters at face value, he regarded the momentous events of his time with weary indifference. Consider his infamous diary entry for August 2, 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia.—Swimming in the afternoon.” In this matter Stach takes a characteristically subtle approach:
One of the primary reasons that Kafka has come to be regarded as oblivious to reality and politically remote is that he focused less on great losses themselves—even when they were catastrophic—than on the larger significance of these losses, and the way they laid bare the essence of the era as a whole. The decline of a great symbol, the end of a tradition, the tip of the pyramid chopped off [e.g., the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the subsequent destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire]—like most of his contemporaries, he experienced these events as signs of an irreversible dissolution.
Kafka was twenty-seven the year of Halley’s Comet, and as Stach notes, with muted wryness, “the fifteen pages he had published already showed every indication that he would go far.” This was not apparent to everyone, and the long litany of Kafka’s publishing woes makes for dispiriting reading—however, it should be said in defense of his publishers that Kafka must have been impossible to deal with. Yet although he was both diffident and difficult, this does not mean he was also indifferent. “The notion that he was not concerned about public resonance,” Stach writes, “that he was immune to both praise and criticism, is false.” Indeed, it seems that during World War I he engaged a clippings agency so that he would not miss even the most fleeting public reference to his work. All the same, he had no illusions about the possibility of worldly success and fame. He remarked with melancholy humor of his first book, a slim volume entitled Meditation, “Eleven books were sold at André’s store. I bought ten of them myself. I would love to know who has the eleventh.”
Much of his energy, physical and spiritual, was bent to the task of insulating himself against the world’s affronts. In the process, Stach writes, he
established a system of obsessions that would enhance his life on a narcissistic level but consume all his vitality. His story “The Burrow” presents a vivid symbol of this: A creature who walls himself in to remain self-sufficient, in a permanent state of siege, is therefore condemned to permanent vigilance. Everything is threatening; every spot is vulnerable. One cannot let down one’s guard anywhere, every act of carelessness is punished, and a single leak will sink the ship. If nothing can enter, and all cracks are sealed, nothing can exit either. He noted laconically in his diary, “My prison cell—my fortress.” It is hard to imagine a more precise analogy.
But what is it, exactly, that drives him down into the burrow of himself, there to cower in Kierkegaardian fear and loathing? He saw himself as alien, hardly human, a creature who, as one of Nietzsche’s friends said of the philosopher, seemed to come from a place where no one else lived. Why? In seeking an answer, one returns to Erich Heller’s elegant characterization of Kafka’s prose style as at once lucid and obscure. Native speakers assure us of the limpid beauty of Kafka’s German, of its unrivaled purity and conciseness. Yet his language, like Freud’s, gives a distinct sense of shroudedness. His sentences move like Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers in Yeats’s poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” who “enwound/A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,” inside which the dancers themselves seemed no more than flickering shadows. In Kafka, something is always not being said. What is it?
1 Brod, though mistaken in some things—his representation of Kafka as a religious writer, for instance—was ever commonsensical. He largely had the measure of his friend, and even after Kafka had been diagnosed with tuberculosis did not hesitate to write to him with a flat rebuke: “You are happy in your unhappiness.” ↩
2 In the matter of originality of approach one should mention Pietro Citati’s Kafka (English translation 1990) and Robert Calasso’s K. (English translation 2005). These are not biographies but deeply perceptive and poetic meditations on the unique phenomenon that Kafka represented. ↩
3 It is a shame to relegate praise of Shelley Frisch’s translation to a footnote, but on the other hand one wants to single out the clarity and unemphatic beauty of her language. Stach could not have hoped for a better English version than this, and it is apt to quote here his remark on Kafka’s own approach to language: “Standard German remained the only medium Kafka respected, and he never deliberately went beyond its limits, and certainly not for mere effect—yet the journey within this medium took him into uncharted territories.” ↩
4 Stach writes: “A biographer cannot dispense advice, and perfunctory long-distance diagnoses of human relationships that go back generations or even epochs are among the vilest side effects of the historical leveling that has become prevalent along with the discursive predominance of psychology.” ↩
Brod, though mistaken in some things—his representation of Kafka as a religious writer, for instance—was ever commonsensical. He largely had the measure of his friend, and even after Kafka had been diagnosed with tuberculosis did not hesitate to write to him with a flat rebuke: “You are happy in your unhappiness.” ↩
In the matter of originality of approach one should mention Pietro Citati’s Kafka (English translation 1990) and Robert Calasso’s K. (English translation 2005). These are not biographies but deeply perceptive and poetic meditations on the unique phenomenon that Kafka represented. ↩
It is a shame to relegate praise of Shelley Frisch’s translation to a footnote, but on the other hand one wants to single out the clarity and unemphatic beauty of her language. Stach could not have hoped for a better English version than this, and it is apt to quote here his remark on Kafka’s own approach to language: “Standard German remained the only medium Kafka respected, and he never deliberately went beyond its limits, and certainly not for mere effect—yet the journey within this medium took him into uncharted territories.” ↩
Stach writes: “A biographer cannot dispense advice, and perfunctory long-distance diagnoses of human relationships that go back generations or even epochs are among the vilest side effects of the historical leveling that has become prevalent along with the discursive predominance of psychology.” ↩