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A Different Kafka

Kafka: The Decisive Years

by Reiner Stach, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch
Princeton University Press, 581 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Kafka: The Years of Insight

by Reiner Stach, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch
Princeton University Press, 682 pp., $35.00
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Hans-Gerd Koch, Hagen
Franz Kafka (right) with, from right, his secretary Julie Kaiser, his sister Ottla, their cousin Irma, and the maid Mařenka, near Zürau, Bohemia, 1917

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?

Saul Friedländer has a strong suspicion about what the answer might be. Describing Kafka, beautifully, as “the poet of his own disorder,” Friedländer states his case baldly:

These Diaries and the Letters indicate clearly enough that—except for the constant pondering about his writing, the quintessence of his being—the issues torturing Kafka most of his life were of a sexual nature.

Later he reinforces this view, insisting that “aside from the total primacy of writing, sexual issues turned into the most obsessive preoccupation of Kafka’s life.” Of what variety were these sexual issues? “All the sources indicate…that his feelings of guilt were related not to some concrete initiatives on his part but to fantasies, to imagined sexual possibilities.” And these possibilities, Friedländer suggests, were homoerotic in origin.

In one of the more heated passages during the course of Lolita, Humbert Humbert pauses to surmise that by now his respectable reader’s eyebrows will have traveled to somewhere near the back of his balding head. No doubt there will be many Kafka admirers on whom Friedländer’s thesis will have a similar effect. It is important to stress, therefore, that Friedländer is no firebrand young academic thirsting for tenure and bent on making a scandalous name for himself. He is emeritus professor of history and holds the Club 39 Endowed Chair of Holocaust Studies at UCLA; he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945.

He was born in Prague, and a number of aspects of his life chime with Kafka’s: his father studied law at Charles University and became, like Kafka, legal adviser to a Prague insurance firm; and, tragically, “like those of Kafka’s three sisters, my parents’ lives ended in German camps.” However, these echoes from long ago

would not have convinced me of writing on a topic so far removed from my field, history, but for very specific and hardly mentioned issues that I considered important enough to be brought up in a small biographical essay.

One is reminded of the boy who cannot but speak out as the emperor swishes past in his invisible new clothes—except that in this case the royal personage is only too eager that no one should see the fancy outfit he is secretly wearing.

Friedländer bases his case mostly on internal evidence from the fictional writings, but he also follows up some excisions that Max Brod made in the published versions of the letters and the diaries. There is for instance an entry for February 2, 1922, which, Friedländer writes, Brod “censored in the English translation” but left unaltered in the German. Here is what Kafka wrote, with the “censored” passages in square brackets:

Struggle on the road to [the] Tannenstein in the morning, struggle while watching the ski-jumping contest. Happy little B., in all his innocence somehow shadowed by my ghosts, at least in my eyes [, specially his outstretched leg in its gray rolled-up sock], his aimless wandering glance, his aimless talk. In this connection it occurs to me—but this is already forced—that towards evening he wanted to go home with me.

There are also some admiring glances thrown in the direction of a couple of handsome Swedish youths. It is hardly a damning testament. What is perhaps most significant is the fact that Brod felt it necessary to make these quiet elisions, since it suggests he had definite suspicions about his friend’s sexual inclination.

Friedländer follows the Kafka scholar Mark Anderson in thinking it “highly improbable that Kafka ever considered the possibility of homosexual relations.”5 Nor does he for a moment seek to suggest that the “imagined sexual possibilities” Kafka may have entertained are a key to unlock the enigmas at the heart of the Kafka canon. All the same, once this particular genie is out of the bottle there is no forcing it back inside. Repressed homosexual yearnings certainly would account for some of the more striking of Kafka’s darker preoccupations, including the disgust toward women that he so frequently displays,6 his fascination with torture and evisceration, and most of all, perhaps, his lifelong obsession with his father, or better say, with the Father—the eternal masculine. For surely poor old Hermann Kafka, small-time businessman and purveyor of fancy goods, could not have fitted into the shoes, indeed, the nine-league boots, that Kafka fashioned for him in the story he considered his first real artistic success, “The Judgment,” in which a father condemns a son to drown himself, and in the never-to-be-delivered “Letter to His Father,” during the long toils of which the son declared: “My writing was about you; in it, I merely lamented what I was unable to lament at your breast. It was a deliberately drawn out farewell from you.” Here, as so often throughout Kafka’s writings, we see, in one of Friedländer’s rare lapses into near psychobabble,

an evolution in the symbolic significance of paternal authority from its most fundamental psychosexual function (in a Freudian sense) to its preeminent social function as representing tradition and the law.

Kafka’s repeated cries of self-disgust are striking, and frequently border on the hysterical. Writing to Milena Jesenská he offers one of his loveliest and most terrifying metaphors—“No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song”—but precedes it with a tortured admission—or is it a warped form of boasting?—“I am dirty, Milena, infinitely dirty, this is why I scream so much about purity.” And this from an obsessively fastidious teetotaler and semivegetarian whose elegant blue suits and spotless linen were so often commented upon by friends and acquaintances. Kafka certainly carried some dark trouble deep inside him.

His secretiveness, his drive toward an “obscure lucidity,” are evident not only in his life but also in his work and in his working methods. In a fascinating study of the original manuscript of Das Schloss (The Castle), the Kafka translator and scholar Mark Harman has traced the process by which Kafka cut and edited the work so as “to preserve an aura of ineffable mystery by making everything sound [as Kafka wrote] ‘ein wenig unheimlich’ [a little uncanny].”7

The unedited version of the novel was begun in the first person, but part-way along Kafka changed his mind and went back through the pages and switched from “I” to “K.”8 K’s character and motivations are spelled out quite openly, too much so for the author, who in revising the manuscript, Harman writes, “consistently crossed out sentences and passages that reveal a high degree of self-awareness on his hero’s part.” Reiner Stach, following Harman’s lead, points out that

Kafka would surely have undermined the mysterious, parabolic, or allegorical structure of The Castle if he had had his protagonist appear explicitly as a Jew or a writer, although this double experience of exclusion clearly underlay his dogged battle for village and castle.

As Harman writes, we can attribute many of the deletions “to Kafka’s often-expressed dislike of psychology. However, instead of entirely eliminating psychology, Kafka buried the workings of his hero’s psyche in the interstices of his writing.”

In the end, none of this mattered, as Kafka ventured steadily into a hitherto unknown realm. In March 1922 he wrote in his diary, “Somewhere help is waiting and the beaters are driving me there.” By then, however, fate had him firmly in its sights. Five years previously, in the summer of 1917, Kafka had suffered his first pulmonary hemorrhage. He greeted the onset of illness with relief—death, after all, would solve so many things—describing it to a friend as “special…you might say an illness bestowed upon me.”

There is undoubtedly justice in this illness; it is a just blow, which, incidentally, I do not feel at all as a blow, but as something quite sweet in comparison with the average course of the past years, so it is just, but so coarse, so earthly, so simple, so well aimed at the most convenient slot.

Sickness was to free him at last, from the demands of life, from himself, and even from literature. He told Max Brod, “What I have to do, I can do only alone. Become clear about the ultimate things.” He had much to write, in the short time left to him, yet his endeavor now would not be purely literary but, in the deepest sense, moral. In “At Night,” one of his late fragments, he wrote—and repeated, word for word, in a letter to Felice Bauer—“Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.” From now on he would be both sentinel and witness, and his achievement would be transcendent. In the last story that he completed, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” he describes Josephine’s piping song, which here “is in its right place, as nowhere else,” and which despite the thinness of the music expresses essentials:

Something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness that can never be found again, but also something of active daily life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet springing up and not to be obliterated.
  1. 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. 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. 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. 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.” 

  5. 5

    “Whatever homoerotic drives may have informed Kafka’s sexuality, he was most probably not a practising homosexual who simply ‘translated’ biographical experience into coded literary form.” See Mark M. Anderson, “Kafka, Homosexuality and the Aesthetics of ‘Male Culture,’” in Gender and Politics in Austrian Fiction, edited by Ritchie Robertson and Edward Timms (Edinburgh University Press, 1996), p. 80. 

  6. 6

    “I find every newly-wed couple going on their honeymoon a revolting sight, whether I relate myself to them or not, and if I want to arouse disgust in myself, I need only imagine putting my arm round a woman’s waist.” Quoted in Anderson, Gender and Politics, p. 96. On the other hand, Reiner Stach is adamant that “Kafka’s female characters…are representatives of power and of a knowledge that is not acquired by social status but conferred on every female person; these are prototypes of a myth of femininity.” 

  7. 7

    See Harman’s “Making Everything ‘a little uncanny’: Kafka’s Deletions in the Manuscript of Das Schloss and What They Can Tell Us About His Writing Process,” in A Companion to the Work of Franz Kafka, edited by James Rolleston (Camden House, 2002). This essay was translated into German by Reiner Stach and published in Neue Rundschau, which, under the editorship of Robert Musil, might very well have published Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” for the first time—it appeared instead in Die weissen Blätter in 1915. Central Europe was, and is, a small world. 

  8. 8

    In January 1922, as Kafka was embarking on the composition of The Castle, he arrived one snowy evening in the health resort of Spindelmühle in the Riesengebirge near the Polish border. At the Hotel Krone, where he was expected, he found he was listed in the hotel directory as “Dr. Josef Kafka.” 

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