Franz Kafka’s badly healed wounds

Prague, mid-1880s. A young boy has been keeping his parents awake by repeatedly asking for water; exasperated, his father picks him up and carries him to the communal balcony (or Pawlatsche), where the child is left for a while, dressed only in his nightshirt.

This episode forms the dramatic climax of Franz Kafka’s “Brief an den Vater” (“Letter to his Father”), a lengthy epistle in which the thirty-six-year-old writer takes stock of his relationship with his father, Hermann. As cases of child mistreatment go, the incident is certainly harmless; indeed, Kafka concedes that Hermann used physical punishment only sparingly. The threat of violence, however, was ubiquitous, and the Pawlatsche episode embodied this traumatic sense of exposure: “For years to come I suffered agonies when I imagined how this giant man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come, for practically no reason, and carry me from my bed to thePawlatsche at night, and that I was such a nothing to him”. The charge, then, is not physical but psychological cruelty: a lack of empathy and affection combined with techniques of intimidation, which, however transparent, had a lasting impact on the child.

Hermann Kafka never got to read this letter. Instead, it has become the closest we have to Kafka’s memoirs, a story of mutual misunderstanding and alienation, charted in a series of evocatively sketched scenes: father and son at the swimming pool, the little boy feeling dwarfed by his father’s powerful physique; at the dinner table, where Hermann lectures his children about table manners which he himself cheerfully ignores; and, some years later, Hermann bluntly telling his adolescent son to visit a prostitute to quell those irksome physical urges. The letter, then, is less a source of factual information than a psychological portrait of Kafka’s early years. For all its power of psychological analysis – the tone is rarely self-pitying but almost forensically detached – it is a carefully constructed document, which shows off Kafka’s superior rhetorical skills: his method of dialectical analysis and his masterful use of understatement. The fact that Kafka nearly always gives his father the benefit of the doubt, scrupulously casting around for attenuating circumstances, makes his accusations all the more devastating.

The letter’s impact on Kafka scholarship, on perceptions of the man and his work, cannot be overstated. Peter-Andre Alt, in his biography Kafka: Der ewige Sohn (Kafka: The eternal son, 2005), uses it as a template, arguing that Kafka never really outgrew the – literal as well as figurative – role of the son; thus Alt casts even Kafka’s last lover, the twenty-six-year-old Dora Diamant, as a mother substitute. For all its erudition, Alt’s 750-page biography pales in comparison with Reiner Stach’s rival project, begun in the mid-1990s, which explores the forty years of Kafka’s life in three volumes totalling 2,000 pages. In response to the inaccessibility of certain documents, particularly the Brod bequest, Stach started his project with the well-documented middle period (Die Jahre der Entscheidungen, 2002; The Decisive Years, 2005), then moving on to his later years (Die Jahre der Erkenntnis, 2008; The Years of Insight, 2013). The present volume, Die frühen Jahre (The Early Years), which charts Kafka’s childhood and adolescence, his university years and first employment, concludes the trilogy.

The sheer size of his project gives Stach scope to go further and dig deeper than previous biographers. Whole stretches of Kafka’s early life remain shrouded in obscurity; there are no surviving diaries and only a few letters from the time before 1910, for Kafka regularly destroyed batches of his own manuscripts, diaries and letters. The biographer thus needs to draw on contextual materials: on school reports, viva transcripts and the recollections of contemporaries. Stach’s narrative is the result of years of archival research, and he is scrupulous in laying open the gaps in his material. Rather than resorting to conjecture to fill these gaps, he uses a combination of literary techniques and historical contextualization to bring events vividly, and often spectacularly, to life.

The two opening chapters, forming a kind of diptych, are a case in point. The story begins on July 3, 1883, Kafka’s birthday. It is a hot summer day, and the people of Prague are flocking to the beer gardens. Their monarch, Kaiser Franz Josef I, is on a visit to Graz, where he attends Mass and visits the local shooting club. And yet this seemingly uneventful day marks a turning point in political history. For the first time, elections for the Bohemian parliament resulted in a Czech majority, and contemporaries were quick to recognize the significance of this day for Austria–Hungary, a multi- ethnic state governed by a German-speaking elite.

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