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 which Kafka’s deeply neurotic life passed. But the narrative is overcrowded with correlative pages from the diaries and letters, and the style, though intelligible, is commonplace. Compare Kafka’s own words about his meeting with Rudolf Steiner with Hayman’s interpretation. Kafka is attracted by the guru’s belief in clairvoyance, but says, with some de haut en bas, that his own talents are literary:

And here I have indeed experienced states (not many) which in my opinion came very close to the clairvoyant states that you, Herr Doktor, have described, states in which I fully inhabited each insight, and filled it out, feeling at the outer edge both of myself and of humanity.

Hayman’s comment is no more than theoretical guessing:

What Kafka wanted from the doctor was quasi-paternal encouragement to believe that the triangular pull of forces between theosophy, writing and job would be easier to handle than the tug of war between the last two.

In fact, Kafka is really asserting that he is free of the need of a father-figure. He is asserting the greater importance of his gift of “inhabiting” an independent sensibility. He knows how to use his neuroses imaginatively.

Although Kafka’s almost unceasing guilt and anxieties seem to mark him as a man of pestilential morbidity and gloom, it is not the important effect he has on us. He has a kind of cunning. His plain and simple prose is elating in its precision, its air of naïveté, and its bleak drollery. It is ingenious in its suspense and has the transparency of Swift’s. He was capable of four kinds of prose, as indeed Hayman commendably notes: at the lowest level he was forced to write reports at the insurance office. Being taciturn he hated to be overheard dictating this official stuff and would dry up. Then, there was the prose of his diary, in which he trained himself to use his eye for concrete detail, to give self-examination a fine edge and to keep it moving; after that comes the talking prose of his letters to women. He needed women to be distant so that he could conduct a dialogue with himself by way of them; and finally, there is the exact, liberated prose of the fables, in which he achieved his desire to “consist of literature and nothing else.”


One or two important influences formed this prose. From France, Flaubert; from German usage, the delight in the packed sentence that travels on but is not clinched until it arrives at the verb at the end. This is one of Hayman’s notable points. Kafka was awakened by the Eastern and Hasidic influences which had seeped into Central Europe: his discovery of the Yiddish players who put on wild, if crude, shows in shabby cafés was, as Mr. Hayman says, transforming. They were fables in themselves. Their miming, their power of caricature and fright excited his own feeling for the dire and extravagant. He wrote of the Yiddish players that they were

Jews in a specially pure form because they live only in the religion, but without weariness, understanding or upset. They seem to make fools out of everyone, laugh straight after the murder of a noble Jew, sell themselves to a renegade, dance with their hands held delightedly over their earlocks when the unmasked murderer poisons himself, calling on God, and all this only because they are so volatile, sinking to the ground at the slightest pressure, and so sensitive, readily dissolving into dry-eyed weeping (they do all their weeping with grimaces)….

This kind of theater had a powerful effect on his own inspired dreams and nightmares—see his diaries—and stimulated his sinister and poetic laughter. It is delightful to hear him write about Frau Tschissik, one of the Yiddish actresses, a woman with a large mouth and a bony body and long, restless arms:

she likes nodding her head at table even while eating roast goose, you believe you can get in under her eyelids with your gaze if you first look carefully along the cheeks, and then, making yourself small, slip in, without having to raise the eyelids, for they’re raised, letting out a bluish gleam, which tempts you in.

Mr. Hayman, who does not incline to mystical interpretations of Kafka’s writings, speaks of Kafka, when he was dying, as one who “wanted to feel passive in the caress of his own phrases.” And adds:

Both in thought and expression, he was repeating rhythms and symmetrics found in the Bible and in Kabbalist writings, and he was influenced by Hasidic ideas about the value intrinsic to language. The Zohar, a mystical exegesis of the Torah, rests on the tradition that the divine word has no specific meaning but is imbued by God with meaning that must always remain largely obscure to the human intelligence.

It is true that Kafka had moved out of indifference to Judaism and was sympathetic to Zionism, though rather—I would guess—as an idealist in love with distance, he lived for the lure alone. He spoke often of going to Palestine but never made up his mind to go there. What the Yiddish players must have fertilized was his gift for the fabulous, the droll, and the grotesque. Without this, his sense of being the accused perpetually on trial, and worse, of being seated on the same bench with the judge, would have been anxiety carried to the length of tedium.

In some respects he is a comic writer, acting out a child’s logic. Not only in writing, but in real life. There is that famous row in his relations with Felice, to whom he was more than once engaged to marry and with whom he finally quarreled. One day she found his watch was an hour and a half fast. The bossy girl put it right. He put the hands ahead again and raged that in that imaginary hour and a half lay his freedom. One can see why: he was, in his way, practical. He loathed his work at the insurance company because the office took his time away from writing. To put the watch on was a resource of the comic spirit: it gave him the illusion that the time to leave the office was dramatically nearer.

A year before his death Kafka wrote to Max Brod, “I do not trust words and letters, my words and letters. I want to share my heart with people but not with phantoms that play with the words and read the letters with slavering tongue.” But he also says that the innocent period of his life is over; more and more he writes for “strategic” reasons. When was he not a strategist? If we turn to Elias Canetti’s long essay on the Letters to Felice we see strategy at work in the wings even when the heart is shared. Canetti’s long essay is less encumbered, more pertinent and limpid than a documented biography can be. These letters minutely display all the frantic indecisiveness, fearfulness, coldness of feeling, and the tense idealism. For those who find a vein of cruelty in Kafka’s writing, Canetti says shrewdly, “His cruelty is that of the non-combatant, who feels the wound in advance. He fearfully avoids confrontation, everything cuts into his flesh, and the enemy goes unharmed.” Fear of superior or hierarchic power is central to him: he resists it by becoming insectile.


After his meeting with Felice in 1912 Kafka came at once under the girl’s influence. He wrote, “It is just possible something foolish, some [secretly] comic sequences may have resulted.” Then, although estranged from her, “by coming too close to her physically he had the sensations of an unshakeable verdict.” The comic sequence—if that is the word—is soon revealed: his chronic indecisiveness was in conflict with his admiration of her robust health and strength. Distance was the ideal. He is in Prague. She is in Berlin. He is not a talker, indeed chiefly a listener, but in letters he can pour himself out to her with a wily yet honest recklessness. Writing every day he can improvise, confirm, retract—above all that—and repeat himself. He can become airier than he is in his diaries: he can pour out what Canetti brilliantly calls those “veritable litanies” of complaint which were a need of his nature.

Whatever he would eventually say of her in disfavor years later, in the dark pages of his diary, his relations with her certainly led to a great release of his imaginative powers. There was danger for her in this: he really was married to literature. We come to that scarcely believable meeting of the partisans of one and the other, at what they called “the tribunal,” to decide the rights and wrongs of what had become a broken public engagement, announced in the papers. This amateur “breach of promise” case, with its changes of sides among the attendant friends, while Kafka stands silent, is the astonishing basis of The Trial. After this, in brief further meetings, Felice will be the wooer, Kafka will listen with detachment but will refuse. In his diary he tells the dull truth:

I yield not a particle of my demand for a fantastic life arranged solely in the interest of my work; she, indifferent to every mute request, wants the average: a comfortable home, an interest on my part in the factory, good food, bed at eleven, central heating….

No appeal to a man who wrote from ten at night to three in the morning in a cold room, a vegetarian for a long time, too. He brings up the catastrophic story of the watch!

Low comedy? Romantic tragedy? Neither. The story within the story takes Canetti deeply into Kafka’s nature. In the letters the affair is “all so composed as to become instantaneously law and knowledge.” (“Law” because Kafka sits as judge, accused, and claimant all together, and also because there is the double sense of a superior hierarchical law and the endlessly legalistic in Kafka’s precise yet open-ended utterances. His legal training made him a master of “on the one hand, this, on the other….” He will be able to go on examining.)

We notice that his real work requires “a fantastic life.” In an aside Canetti remarks that Kafka’s art is motionless. Marriage to Felice or indeed anyone else would have ruled out “the possibility of one’s ever becoming so small as to be able to vanish.” In marriage “one has to be there.” That is to say not free for the fantastic life. Kafka is honest: “Can you not see by now that if disaster—yours, your disaster, Felice—is to be averted, I have to remain locked up within myself?” Yet the honesty is devious: Kafka is, as Canetti says, disguising his own fears as anxieties about her. And when we look again at the imbroglio of “the tribunal” we see that he (the accused) took some pride in a humiliation too shocking to forget. Or, perhaps, he had the injured man’s conceit in his injury.

The snail retires to his shell, his originality and his genius. Later, he did come out into the spacious writing of The Castle. For Canetti, that central preoccupation with power enlarged his gifts as a small artist. Canetti goes on to say his special gift was that “he detects power, identifies it, names it, and creates figures of it in every instance where others would accept it as being nothing out of the ordinary.”

What he did not suspect was power as terror, that is to say, the lengths power would go to. Had he survived there would have been no trial: he would have died in Auschwitz as his beloved and heroic sister Ottla and her schoolchildren did. Power would become barbarous. It would exterminate. His touching letters to this sister, when she was a child and as a young married woman, are beautifully simple, tender, and fresh. In them one sees the side of his nature that was not estranged. It is lucky they have been preserved.

This Issue

February 4, 1982