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)
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


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