In 1917, one of Franz Kafka’s few readers sent him a letter. It was a rare taste of recognition. This reader, Dr. Siegfried Wolff, wanted something. Not an autograph, a signed book, or a manuscript page. He wanted answers. He had bought a copy of “The Metamorphosis” for his cousin, who passed it to Wolff’s mother, who passed it to another cousin. None of them could figure out what it meant. Dr. Wolff read the story for himself and came away equally confused. “Only you can help me,” he wrote to Kafka. “You have to, because you are the one who landed me in this situation. So please tell me what my cousin ought to make of ‘The Metamorphosis.'”
The supplicating Dr. Wolff came at the head of a long line of readers who would be stymied by Kafka’s stories. Not having Kafka around to pester for answers, many of the perplexed wrote their own guides. Perhaps no modern author has initiated such a frenzy of interpretation with so slender and fragmentary a body of work. Three unfinished novels, one volume’s worth of shorter pieces, some aphorisms: even if we include his journals and letters, Kafka’s work would fill a very small shelf, yet it bears the weight of a whole scholarly industry. Despite this glut, there have been comparatively few full-dress biographies. (A notable exception is Ronald Hayman’s K: A Biography of Kafka.) For many years the owners of the best collection of sources on Kafka’s early life, the literary estate of Max Brod, refused access to researchers. Even for those interested in a biographical approach Kafka remained frustratingly inaccessible, and the best work on his life has been partial, like Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial about Kafka’s engagement to Felice Bauer.
These barriers were still in place when Reiner Stach decided to enter the field. He had to compose his three-volume biography of Kafka out of chronological order, hoping that Brod’s estate would eventually be opened to him. Volume two came first, treating Kafka’s middle years, then volume three, carrying the story to his death, and now, at last, volume one, about his youth. Given the state of the field, with Brod’s archives only recently opened, Stach’s completed trilogy has no competition as the definitive biography: nowhere else, at this point, can you learn so much about the life and times of Kafka. But even apart from any temporary preeminence, Reiner Stach’s biographical trilogy belongs in the company of the masterpieces of literary biography. Like Leon Edel’s Henry James, Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, it is comprehensive but raised above mere competency through astonishing architectural beauty. Thanks to the superb work of Stach’s translator, Shelley Frisch, the trilogy also stands out in English at the sentence level, for the unbroken clarity, verbal ingenuity, and unflagging momentum of its prose.
Stach’s overarching goal is to answer Dr. Wolff’s question: what are we to make of Kafka’s texts? In the preface to book two (which, due to publication order, is really the preface to the whole work), Stach writes that upon reading Kafka,
Two questions come to the fore: “What does all this mean?” and “How does something like this come about?” Pursuing the first question, readers wind up in a jungle of textual interpretation; pursuing the second, they toil at a biographical crossword puzzle that cannot be completed.
Stach manages to avoid both forms of futility. His innovation is a new angle on the old question. He announces: “How it happened. That ought to be the starting point.” The question that should primarily engage us in a literary biography, he suggests, is one of production. He approaches Kafka’s texts not as ciphers he will decode, but as artifacts whose making he will describe. By focusing on the act of writing, he fashions into a coherent whole a long and detailed trilogy, written over the course of decades. It carries us through explorations of everything from the history of Prague to the sociology of letter-writing to the architecture of bathing pools. All of it subtends the goal of discovering what conditions could foster a writer who worked like Kafka.
Perhaps this succeeds because few writers have worked like Kafka. Stach describes it:
If we were to observe the ebb and flow of Kafka’s literary productivity from a great height, we would see a wave pattern: an initial phase of intensive, highly productive work that comes on suddenly and lasts several hours a day, followed by a gradual decline of his powers of imagination, lasting for weeks, and then finally, in spite of his desperate attempts to fight it, a standstill and feelings of despair for months on end.
Proof of the swift ebbing of creativity that Stach describes are the three unfinished novels (The Man Who Disappeared, The Trial, and The Castle) that rise like shipwrecks on Kafka’s shore. “It is […] a legend,” Stach writes, “that Kafka regarded the failure in general and the fragmentary character of his novels in particular as the appropriate expression of his aesthetic desire or even of himself.” No, he simply failed to carry his projects to their desired conclusion. What restrained him from working regularly? Why did his creativity seem to dry up prematurely every time? These are the mysteries Stach requires three volumes to explain.
Kafka was born in Prague and continued to live there for most of his life. His father, Hermann, was a first generation city-dweller. He never forgot that he had escaped the toil and uncertainty of a village. “For Hermann Kafka,” writes Stach, “mistrust, combativeness, and crude utilitarianism were lofty virtues that he sought to inculcate in his children to make them fit for survival in a dog-eat-dog society.” He was an impatient and quick-tempered man, and his effect on the sensitive, physically weak Franz was devastating. In an undelivered letter that Kafka wrote as an adult to his father, he recalled a specific incident that encapsulates the psychic wound. Once, when tiny Franz tried the bedtime avoidance technique of asking repeatedly for a drink of water, Hermann ran out of patience, dragged him onto a balcony, and locked him outside in the dark. This is the archetype of Kafka’s nightmare. He always felt disproportionately condemned by unreceptive judges; he worried that the surest human bond could suddenly disintegrate; and he felt alienated from normal social existence, locked forever on an existential balcony in a spiritual night.
This almost mythopoetic version of Kafka’s origin story — or at least the origin story of the particular neurotic sensibility subsequently named “Kafkaesque” — has often born too much explanatory weight, not least because it feels tailor-made for psychoanalysis. While Stach gives the father-son relationship its due, he refuses to stop there. Plenty of other things in Kafka’s circumstances were conducive to anxiety and alienation.
For example, Kafka was born to a Jewish family in Prague. The Jewish population of Prague was mixed up in a centuries’ old antagonism between the German and the Czech populations. Jews were distrusted, often hated, associated with the Habsburg regime that had suppressed Czech nationalism — so the story went — ever since the defeat of the Bohemian revolt in the 1620s. In Kafka’s lifetime, after the first World War destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the embers of Prague’s stale grudge were fanned by new racism and ancient religious bigotry, bringing the city to the verge of pogrom. Kafka did not live to see the conflagration; but all three of his sisters died in concentration camps. Even without an angry and overbearing father, Kafka’s life would not have been free of paranoia in Prague.
Fortunately, even beneath cruel patriarchs and among the oppressed, there is life. And Stach’s Kafka is more alive than he has ever been in a biography. We learn about his love for books and friendship and nature and travel and swimming. With the care of an archeologist, Stach picks up each available piece of Kafka’s history, habits, and personality, brushes off the dust, holds it to the light, and turns it carefully to examine every side.