99 Ways of Looking at Kafka

The Statue of Liberty holding not a torch but a sword. A massive insect on its back in an apartment bedroom. A decaying machine designed to inscribe a prisoner’s sentence into the skin of his back. These images, like so many others from Kafka’s mind, are so strange and immediate as to belie their age. His stories seem disturbingly contemporary, as if they had not been written by an author who died nearly a century ago. To enter Kafka’s cosmos is to enter a space of unease, one that retroactively casts our own world in an unfamiliar light.

The urge to explain how anybody might possibly conceive these seemingly inconceivable stories is overwhelming. Was Kafka estranged from daily life? Was he deformed or antisocial? Not at all, says Kafka’s biographer Reiner Stach. “Kafka’s social life is striking for the fact that he was generally well received by all,” he tells us at the start of an anecdote about the one person who bore him any ill will. “In his everyday life, Kafka was friendly, helpful, charming, a sensitive listener, but also discreet.” This veneer of innocence is every bit as evident in his prose. Sentences that were characterized by Hannah Arendt as “the purest German prose of the century” and by George Steiner as “stainless quiet” only serve to underscore how sinister, how nastily vivid Kafka’s visions were. All these innocuous attributes, like the Kafka we see in his photographs—his distinctive hair, those piercing eyes, that calm expression—simply feel like a façade.

Those who would delve deeper to seek explanations must turn to Reiner Stach’s magisterial biography, which has come out, part by part, over the past 14 years. Due to various complications, including a trial around the ownership of Kafka’s papers (which Judith Butler discussed at length in the London Review of Books), Stach was forced to postpone completion of the first volume. In the meantime, he published the second volume—covering 1910 to 1915, the five years when Kafka’s best-known books were written—in 2002, and the third volume—from 1916 to 1924, the year he died—in 2008. The long-awaited first volume, covering the 27 years from Kafka’s birth in 1883 to 1910, was finally published in German in 2014; the English edition (which Princeton-based translator Shelley Frisch has been translating nearly simultaneously with Stach’s writing thereof) is currently anticipated for this fall.

Two years before readers in Berlin and Vienna could finally buy this literary equivalent to a foundation stone, Stach’s German publisher put out Ist das Kafka?: 99 Fundstücke, a textual cabinet of curiosities displaying 99 “finds” from Stach’s extensive research. This book, now metamorphosed into English by Kurt Beals as Is that Kafka?: 99 Finds, offers extracts from Kafka’s octavo notebooks; musings on beer drawn from the full breadth of Kafka’s correspondence; an investigation into various reports of the color of Kafka’s eyes; and even an explanation of how Kafka once schemed (and failed) to become a millionaire. Somehow, this surprisingly hefty book of trivia does not feel like a gimmick. Its various components, rather, present many different facets of this writer who was anything but anodyne. We are introduced to a complex figure who, for example, struggled mightily to tell a single lie for his own sake (as we learn in Find 8), but who (in Find 70) overcame this reluctance to console a little girl who had lost her doll, telling her a stream of invented stories from the doll’s new life.

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