Ending at the Beginning

Kafka: The Early Years

by Reiner Stach, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch
Princeton University Press, 564 pp., $35.00
Max Brod, Franz Kafka: Eine Biographie (Prague: H. Mercy Sohn, 1937)
Franz Kafka (right) with Max Brod’s younger brother, Otto, at the Castel Toblino near Trento, Italy, 1909

Reiner Stach has a droll way with epigraphs, and in Kafka: The Early Years he heads his chapters with a selection of gnomic snippets from numerous ingeniously obscure sources. Chapter 1, for instance, has a tag from a song by Devo, an American rock band of the 1980s: “Think you heard this all before,/Now you’re gonna hear some more.” This is Stach’s impish acknowledgment that the present book is the first of three volumes, the second and third of which have already been published. The joke is a good one, and sends the reader off smiling on what will be a long though immensely rewarding journey. This volume completes one of the great literary biographies of our time—indeed, of any time.

The reason for the delay in the appearance of the first volume is explained in a preface by Stach’s devoted and richly gifted translator, Shelley Frisch:

This order of publication, which may appear counterintuitive—even fittingly “Kafkaesque”—was dictated by years of high-profile legal wrangling for control of the Max Brod literary estate in Israel, during which access to the materials it contained, many of which bore directly on Kafka’s formative years, was barred to scholars.

In August of last year the Israeli Supreme Court found against Brod’s heirs, and ordered that the withheld documents be transferred to the National Library in Jerusalem. Frisch states that Stach “has been able to examine three volumes of Brod’s diaries in this collection, those from the years 1909 to 1911,” and indeed it is clear that Stach did draw heavily on the diaries—so heavily that at times the book might be mistaken for a joint biography of Franz Kafka and Max Brod.

However, a mystery remains. Since Stach’s book was originally published in German in 2013, how did he get his hands on the much-needed material from the Brod archive, since the court order for its release was not handed down until 2016? Perhaps he will add an appendix to a future edition explaining how he managed it, for it sounds as if there is a good story there, somewhat in the manner, perhaps, of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. One hopes that Stach did not at any point in the process find himself hissed at furiously as “you publishing scoundrel!” as did the hapless narrator of James’s tale.

As Frisch notes, the saga of the Brod archive smacks not a little of the Kafkaesque; there are few aspects of Kafka, as man and writer, that do not have a Kafkaesque dimension. How apt, for instance, that an artist who sets an animal as the protagonist, or even as the narrator, of so many of his stories—most notably, of course, “The Metamorphosis”—should have…

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