Kafka: The Impossible Biography

The prospect of a new Kafka biography is like an invitation to a party that is bound to be entertaining but may end badly. Situating Kafka’s writing within the cultural and political landscape of European modernism and the late Austro-Hungarian Empire is a worthy, if daunting, endeavor. Less certain is whether such efforts to contextualize his corpus actually garner insights into it. Kafka’s readers are intrigued by virtually any anecdote about him, but few would allow that the abiding mysteries of his texts will be resolved by learning that he lived in Prague, was the son of a fancy goods merchant, and enjoyed going to the beach. Nor does history provide a reliable key to unlock his works, which have dates but do not date. If they are decidedly not a product of our time, there appears to be little chance of them ever going out of style.

Although Kafka’s importance is incontestable, scholars and casual fans alike fiercely debate every feature of his corpus. Each plot twist or curious turn of phrase calls for clarification, yet customary interpretive practices are seldom up to the task. To read Kafka is to lurch back and forth between the uncannily familiar and the abjectly foreign. To reread a favorite story is to risk seeing any exegetical progress made the first, second, or third time through evaporate. Given these challenges, learning more about Kafka’s life may be a good opportunity to win new perspectives on his writing, but it may also be the furthest thing from it.

Some two decades in the making, Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka confronts these difficulties head-on, acknowledging from the start that like virtually any discussion of this author, it is bound to be found wanting on many fronts. If anything, Stach is too self-deprecating. There is much to appreciate in the vast compendium of information he assembles, which fleshes out the stories about Kafka and his associates that have been in circulation for decades while introducing a host of new ones. Even better are the moments when Stach lets go of his skepticism about his project’s viability and allows himself to enjoy the conundrums that arise when one tries to coordinate Kafka “the man” with Kafka “the oeuvre.”

Intimidating in its thoroughness, this study is a major scholarly achievement whose comprehensive research is unlikely to be rivaled for decades to come. Stach chose not to avail himself of the biographer’s elementary crutch, chronology, and waited until he had access to key documents from the estate of Kafka’s friend Max Brod before writing this last volume, which covers the first part of Kafka’s life. With the appearance of The Early Years in English, we now have translations of all three books, over 1,800 pages to analyze 41 years that were by most accounts far from epic.1 Raised in a middle-class family in Prague, Kafka studied law and went into insurance, where he was rapidly promoted. He was spared the horror of fighting in the First World War, in part due to tuberculosis, an illness that ultimately forced him to give up his job and spend a large part of the last years of his short life in sanatoriums. Writing was something Kafka did in his spare time. He published relatively little, and at the time of his death, he was far from commanding a wide readership.

All three volumes of Stach’s biography have been ably translated into English by Shelley Frisch, who has won prizes for the first two. Her style betrays none of the aloof awkwardness that can characterize English renditions of German academic prose, and she deftly captures modulations in tone. Frisch’s preface to The Early Years helps the prospective reader orient herself within the larger study. This is no small matter, because coming to this trio of books for the first time, one may well wonder where to start. Kafka: The Decisive Years, which was written and published first, deals with the middle of the author’s life. It opens, however, with Stach’s thoughts on the nature of biography and on the unique problems encountered in tackling this particular writer, all of which are extremely clarifying for anyone picking up either The Early Years or The Years of Insight, the second volume published that deals with the end of Kafka’s life.

At the opening of The Decisive Years, Stach writes: “This biographer seeks to experience what was experienced by those who were there. What it was like to be Franz Kafka. He knows that this is impossible.”2 The very fact that “the biographer” is discussed in the third person foreshadows Stach’s ongoing dialogue with himself about the nature of his “impossible” enterprise. Stach observes that it is easy enough to identify Kafka’s “issues,” most prominently a vexed relationship with his father, struggles with sexual intimacy, and an uncertain engagement with Judaism. The problem is that when we chart these dynamics across four decades, the results are remarkably static, with little in the way of progress or regress. There also appears to be no clear way to prioritize the forces that informed Kafka’s experience of any given anxiety or event, because cause and effect can fluidly swap places depending on how a particular story is told. As a consequence, any persona one constructs will prove highly changeable. Look once and you see a fearful, neurotic young man; look again and you see a handsome dandy who was a successful investigator of industrial accidents and spent his leisure time cavorting in bars and nightclubs.

Stach never resolves the basic question of how a biography can best assist in the study of a literary corpus. He repeatedly introduces facts about Kafka’s life, explains in what respects they illuminate general themes or the details of well-known texts, and then declares that proceeding in such a manner is reductive. By the tenth time we are thrown an exegetical bone only immediately to have it yanked away, we are understandably puzzled about precisely what is being demonstrated. Adding to the confusion, at other junctures Stach pursues similar lines of interpretation but does not retract them, leaving us unsure as to why this kind of analysis is only intermittently impermissible.

Given these difficulties, we could be forgiven for feeling that we were reading Kafka: The Impossible Biography or The Biography That Is Not One. One reviewer of The Decisive Years observed that it appeared to have been written “by a Kafka character called, to borrow the words of the book’s promotional materials, ‘the definitive biographer.’”3 Hopelessly worn down by his Sisyphean task, this beleaguered individual alternately blames himself and others for his ills as he spars ineffectually with the mysterious forces imposing themselves upon him. Uncharitable though this assessment may be, it reminds us that as much as we may want to read Kafka’s stories and novels through the lens of his life, it is equally tempting to understand his life through his fiction, as if any story about him laid claim to being a weighty parable worthy of sustained scrutiny. Stach tells us that Kafka’s personality was shaped by “the feeling that he was standing outside of life and had to find his way in.” This may also serve as a description of the biographer’s—or reader’s—experience of his inability to find a way in to Kafka’s universe, where, as Theodor W. Adorno remarked, “each sentence says ‘interpret me’ but none will permit it.”

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