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.”