Almost a century after his death in 1924, Franz Kafka has become a sort of modern-day saint, one of those artist-martyrs revered, like Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, partly for their work and partly for the suffering they endured in order to create it. The process of Kafka’s “canonization” is thought to have begun with his literary executor, Max Brod, who preserved the letters, diaries, and manuscripts from the flames to which Kafka had instructed him to consign them. In his 1937 biography of Kafka, Brod described the aura of beatitude that brightened around his friend:
The category of sacredness (and not really that of literature), is the only right category under which Kafka’s life and work can be viewed. By this I do not wish to suggest that he was a perfect saint…. But…one may pose the thesis that Franz Kafka was on the road to becoming one. The explanation of his charming shyness and reserve, which seemed nothing less than supernatural—and yet so natural—and of his dismayingly severe self-criticism, lies in the fact that he measured himself by no ordinary standard, but…against the ultimate goal of human existence.
Among the things one learns from Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka?: 99 Finds is that Brod was not the first person to portray Kafka as a species of holy man. Stach’s book—an informative, charming, and frequently touching compilation of anecdotes, letters, documents, gossip, little-known facts, and texts culled from the research he did for his acclaimed three-volume biography of Kafka—includes an obituary that appeared in a Czech newspaper a few days after his death and that was written by Milena Jesenská, his Czech translator, lover, and, most famously, the recipient of his Letters to Milena. In her brief tribute, Milena describes him as having had a “sensitivity bordering on the miraculous,” as someone who could “clairvoyantly comprehend an entire person on the basis of a single facial expression. His knowledge of the world was extraordinary and deep. He himself was an extraordinary and deep world.”
It’s telling that this testament to Kafka’s superhuman qualities should be the last of Stach’s 99 Finds, since, as he explains in a preface, his principal intention was to provide evidence suggesting that Kafka was, at least in some ways, a regular guy, fond of beer, gambling, and slapstick humor, an imperfect creature who cheated on his school exams, who could be petty about money, and who was given to spitting from the balcony before and after his tuberculosis was diagnosed. Arguing against the clichés and images (“a cobblestone alley damp with rain in nighttime Prague, backlit by gas lanterns…piles of papers, dusty in the candlelight…the nightmare of an enormous vermin”) that have contributed to the stereotypical view of Kafka as an “alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick—an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things,” Stach provides a series of “counter-images” and seems to have had a great deal of fun in chipping away at the myth of Kafka’s pure asceticism, his moral and spiritual perfection:
These 99 Finds from Kafka’s life and work display him in unexpected contexts, in unexpected lights, and they allow us to hear rarely detected undertones and overtones…. Taken together—and this is the chief criterion for their selection—they quietly divorce us from the clichés, and allow us to see that it might be useful after all to try other approaches to Kafka, approaches that were always there, but—plastered over with “Kafkaesque” images and associations—largely forgotten.
Lucidly translated from the German by Kurt Beals, ingeniously designed, illustrated with photographs of Kafka and the people he knew, of places he visited and art he admired, and with facsimiles of newspaper articles, manuscripts, notes, and letters, Is That Kafka? is a handsome volume. Its cover—on which a fragment of Kafka’s face is visible beneath a small circle cut from the black-and-white book jacket—captures and conveys the essence of the pages inside: a game of peek-a-boo in which the author beguiles the reader with fleeting glimpses of his elusive subject. Two sections entitled “Is that Kafka?” reproduce photographs of crowds—the audience at an air show near Brescia; 15,000 German-speaking residents of South Tyrol assembled in 1920 to protest the Italian occupation of the region. Stach playfully suggests that Kafka can be spotted among the Tyroleans:
In the lower middle of the photograph…two distinctive men can be seen…observing the passing musicians up close. In contrast to the rural demonstrators, who are almost all dressed in dark colors, these two men are wearing light-colored summer suits, much like one that Kafka owned. The figure on the left has Kafka’s strikingly slim, unusually tall build and—to the extent that this can be seen in the picture—his characteristically youthful features. While we can’t be certain, there is a high probability: That’s him.
Stach’s “finds” are numbered, one through ninety-nine, and divided thematically into groups: idiosyncrasies, emotions, reading and writing, slapstick, illusions, and so forth. Each text and image is followed by a passage in which he explains or comments on what we have just seen or read. The first find begins with a quote from one of Kafka’s letters to Milena, an account of the confusion he experienced as a small boy, uncertain about the best way to give money to a beggar. Stach suggests that the story was Kafka’s way of defending his behavior after he’d appalled Milena by offering a beggar woman a two-crown coin—and then asking her to give him one crown back. The ninety-ninth find—Milena’s obituary—precedes a section containing helpful biographical sketches of the people who appear in the book.
Some of Stach’s finds will surprise even those familiar with the details of Kafka’s life. I was particularly interested in the discarded first draft of the opening chapter of The Castle, and in the fact that Kafka at one point planned to write the novel in the first person. I’d had no idea that Kafka wrote a scheme for a social utopia, a “workforce without property” that was much admired by André Breton. Kafka’s ideal society was to provide housing for the sick and elderly, mandate a six-hour work day (“for physical labor four to five”), insist that individual possessions be turned over to the state, exclude independently wealthy, married men and women, and be governed by strict regulations and “duties”:
To earn one’s livelihood only by working. Not to shy away from any work that one has the strength to perform without damaging one’s health. Either select the work oneself or, if this is not possible, to follow the orders of the workers’ council, which is subject to the government.
Another find informs us that Kafka composed two earlier versions of his long, impassioned letter to his father, the first draft of which was far more conciliatory and timid than the one with which we are familiar. “I am beginning this letter without self-confidence, and only in the hope that you, Father, will still love me in spite of it all, and that you will read the letter better than I write it.” We learn that Kafka and Brod concocted a scheme (“to make us millionaires”) for a series of guides advising travelers on how to visit Italy, Switzerland, Paris, Prague, and the Bohemian spas “on the cheap.” Though their plan was never realized, it was (like so much that Kafka imagined) prescient; half a century later, guides of this sort would make a great deal of money.
It’s satisfying to discover that the well-known story about Kafka’s public reading, in Munich in 1916, of “In the Penal Colony”—allegedly, several distressed listeners fainted during the performance and Kafka went on reading—is, as one might have suspected, apocryphal. Other aspects of Kafka that Stach brings to light—that he distrusted conventional medicine and was a fan of faddish health regimes, that he frequented brothels, that he was not unknown and isolated in Prague but enjoyed a measure of literary success, that he liked reading his work aloud to friends—are more widely known.
A sequence of finds portrays Kafka, in contrast to the mournful, melancholic image we may have of him, as having had a robust sense of humor. In a letter to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, he describes, at considerable length, a fit of nearly uncontrollable laughter that seized him during a formal speech being given by the president of the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute, where he worked. But the idea that Kafka was witty will surely not come as a shock to most of his readers, who will doubtless have noticed that, despite its frequently grotesque and horrifying subject matter, his fiction can be delightfully (if darkly) funny.
Some of Stach’s discoveries are amusing but slight. Do we really need to know that another man named Franz Kafka lived in Berlin at the same time as the writer?
We finish Stach’s book having learned more than a few odd facts about Kafka. But has our picture of him been fundamentally altered—or subverted? It soon becomes clear why Stach’s admirable efforts to present Kafka in “unexpected contexts” and “unexpected lights” are not entirely convincing. Nearly every time he quotes from Kafka and allows us to hear his literary voice, we find ourselves seeing Kafka in the old light, the old context: self-lacerating, paralyzed by uncertainty and doubt, alienated, painfully sensitive and pathologically worried about his place in the world and his effect on others. On the page, Kafka sounds like Kafka.
Consider, for example, this 1920 diary entry, quoted by Stach, about a painting that Kafka admired—Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon by Edward John Gregory—and that he reflected on, writing about himself in the third person:
Now he imagined that he himself was standing on the grassy bank…. He observed the festivities, they weren’t festivities exactly, but you could still call them that. Of course he would have loved to take part, he was practically yearning to, but he had to tell himself in all honesty that he was closed off from their festivities—it was impossible for him to insinuate himself there, it would have required so much preparation that not only this one Sunday, but many years, and he himself would have passed on, even if the time had been willing to stand still here, no other outcome would have been possible, his whole genealogy, his upbringing, his physical training would have had to go so differently.
So that was how far he was from those holiday-makers, but at the same time he was very close, and that was even harder to grasp. After all, they were people like him, nothing human could be fully alien to them, and if you were to search their minds you would have to find that the same feeling that dominated him and excluded him from their boating trip was present in them as well, except that it did not come close to dominating them, but only lurked in some dark corners.
In Stach’s thirty-fourth find, we watch Kafka trying and failing to write a book review with even a minimal relation to The Powder-Puff: A Ladies’ Breviary, the collection of sketches by Franz Blei that he had been asked to write on:
He who casts himself into the world with a great exhalation, like a swimmer plunging from the high platform into the river, disoriented at first and sometimes later as well by the currents, like a sweet child, but always drifting into the distant air with the beautiful waves at his side, may gaze across the water as one does in this book, aimlessly but with a secret aim, this water that bears him up and that he can drink and that has grown boundless for the head resting on its surface.
A short, lovely meditation by Kafka about his writing desk begins: “Now I’ve taken a closer look at my desk and realized that nothing good can be produced on it.” This text, Stach tells us, breaks off, followed by a note:
Wretched, wretched, and yet well intended. It’s midnight…. The burning light bulb, the quiet apartment, the darkness outside, the last waking moments entitle me to write, even if it’s the most wretched stuff. And I hastily make use of this right. This is just who I am.
A fragmentary piece entitled “In the Management Offices” features an employer interviewing—and humiliating—a prospective employee in a manner that evokes the tone in which Josef K. is accused and berated throughout The Trial. In an early letter to Milena Jesenská, Kafka refers to her translation of his “abysmally bad story” “The Stoker.” Eventually, one may come to feel that Kafka’s spirit is actively resisting Stach’s attempts to portray him as a beer-drinking, joke-loving fellow. Given the chance, Kafka continues to represent himself as a solitary insomniac, awake while the rest of the world sleeps, struggling to write his wretched and abysmally bad stories.
Reiner Stach is not the first writer to challenge the view of Kafka that inspired Brod’s lengthy comparison of his sufferings to those of the biblical Job. Walter Benjamin and Milan Kundera disagreed with Brod, and Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture on “The Metamorphosis” (which appears in his Lectures on Literature) includes his sharp, clever critique of Kafka’s first biographer:
I want to dismiss completely Max Brod’s opinion that the category of sainthood, not that of literature, is the only one that can be applied to the understanding of Kafka’s writings. Kafka was first of all an artist, and although it may be maintained that every artist is a manner of saint (I feel that very clearly myself), I do not think that any religious implications can be read into Kafka’s genius.
But Brod’s view continues to be influential, not least in the conversion of Kafka into a popular celebrity figure. Throughout Prague’s historic center, souvenir shops sell Kafka coffee mugs, Kafka cell phone cases, Kafka T-shirts and memo pads. His haunted and haunting portrait is everywhere, and one can watch tourists deliberating over the Kafka refrigerator magnets with the rapt attention of pilgrims deciding which image of Saint Bernadette to carry home from Lourdes.
So perhaps the interesting question, and one which Is That Kafka? addresses only tangentially in its preface, is: Why, since Max Brod and Milena Jesenská before him, has Kafka proven to be such a natural candidate for literary beatification, and why it is so difficult to change people’s minds about him? Why does his image seem to offer a kind of consolation, why does he so powerfully stir our imagination and excite our sympathy? Why do we continue to regard him as the exemplar of the suffering artist—even now, in an era when, it often seems, many people no longer want artists to suffer in isolation but prefer them to be successful, famous, visible: celebrities who somehow find the time to write, paint, or compose music?
Perhaps one reason that Kafka has assumed the role of the contemporary saint is that the instruments of his martyrdom were the quotidian psychic torments—isolation, self-doubt, boredom, and neurosis—familiar in modern life. A German Jew living among Czech-speaking Catholics, he was, from birth, an outsider. He worked, as many of his readers do, at an unrewarding, time-consuming office job. His relationship with his father was a source of deep unhappiness, as were his affairs with the women to whom he wrote letters of such raw, unfiltered panic and shame that Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle seems, by comparison, reticent and self-protective. The aphorisms that have become well known (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” “There is infinite hope, but not for us”) reinforce our notions of his pessimism and melancholia, and of the obsessive inner struggles so well documented in his diaries.
Even more to the point is the way in which Kafka’s readers so frequently conflate him with his characters. It seems paradoxical—and somehow unfair—that such an imaginative and fantastical writer should so often be assumed to be a more narrowly autobiographical one. Asked to picture the face of Gregor Samsa (before his transformation into an insect) or of Josef K. or of Georg Bendemann in “The Judgment,” many readers might admit that they imagine these unfortunate characters to look very much like their creator. But though these fictions contain autobiographical elements, they are far from being self-portraits.
Apparently this confusion between Kafka and his characters started during his lifetime. In Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka (1968), Janouch, whose father was a business associate of Kafka’s, describes his first meeting with the older writer, whose work he knew and esteemed. The two men consider the advantages of writing at night, without the distractions of daylight. “If it were not for these horrible sleepless nights,” says Kafka, “I would never write at all. But they always recall me again to my own dark solitude.” And Janouch thinks, “Is he not himself the unfortunate bug in The Metamorphosis?”
Of course, he was not. And not simply because, as Stach tells us, Kafka flirted with country girls and was kind to children, but because he was able to transmute his fears and his grief into magnificently inventive and compressed narratives, into simple, beautifully crafted sentences, into the judicious, perfect deployment of metaphor, dialogue, and description, into a profound understanding of human experience.
Regardless of how often we tell ourselves that Kafka was not Gregor Samsa, regardless of how convincingly Stach persuades us that Kakfa was more than just a tormented soul, we continue to see him that way. There seems a need to seek out and revere that sort of saint: the holy men who lived alone in the wilderness, who mortified their flesh, had visions, and fought off demons. The saint I found myself thinking of most often, as I read Is That Kafka?, was Saint Joseph of Cupertino, who insisted on levitating and swooping around the church, high above the congregants, despite the well-intentioned efforts of his brother monks to keep his feet safely on the ground.