Michael Dirda

Drawing by Franz Kafka and a portrait taken in 1910
Drawing by Franz Kafka and a portrait taken in 1910 (From "Kafka")
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 27, 2005


The Decisive Years

By Reiner Stach

Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch

Harcourt. 581 pp. $35

Like Pascal, Kierkegaard and Baudelaire, Franz Kafka (1883- 1924) is one of the great masters of spiritual desolation. We don't actually read his work, we are harrowed by it. In German of classical directness and purity, this desk functionary of the Prague Workers' Accident Insurance Institute presents tableau after tableau of what Pascal called " la misère de l'homme sans Dieu ," the misery of man without God. All of Kafka's unfortunate protagonists -- Georg Bendemann in "The Judgment," Gregor Samsa in "The Metamorphosis," Josef K. in The Trial -- struggle against the one great, serious truth about life: Each of us is fundamentally and inescapably alone, especially in the face of death.

Oh, we may hope to lose ourselves in love, family or work, but these are just Potemkin villages, little more than flimsy movie sets. They can be knocked down with a single sharp blow. After all, a man could wake up one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic cockroach or suddenly arrested without having done anything wrong. Far-fetched? By no means. Some sunny afternoon the X-ray will unexpectedly reveal a shadow no bigger than a baby's hand; one evening, after a pleasant dinner with wine, the phone will ring. And then we in our turn will twitch and twist and finally give in to the inevitable, like the tormented prisoner of "In the Penal Colony."

Kafka's stories are all parables of despair and helplessness, sorrowful emblems of the human condition. The all-important message from the emperor will never reach our ears, the hunger artist must die because he can't find anything he'd like to eat, the mole-like digger will always fail to construct a burrow impregnable to his enemies, the door into the castle isn't ever, ever going to open. Is no redemption possible in this world? Of course it is -- just not for us.

Kafka's work is famously susceptible to interpretations of all kinds. Nonetheless, most readers still tend to see the stories as fundamentally existential or theological, the modern equivalents to Plato's fables about caves and the origins of love or of Kierkegaard's many brief philosophical fictions. But since the death (in 1968) of Kafka's literary executor, Max Brod, who pushed a sacerdotal view of his friend's writing, modern scholarship has turned to examining the actual life of this enigmatic artist. Certainly nobody, with one celebrated exception, actually creates ex nihilo . And so we have now seen the careful publication of Kafka's holograph manuscripts, the scholarly editing of his every scrap, commentaries stressing his links to gesture-rich Yiddish theater and to cultural Zionism, speculation about his sexual life -- did he really have a son by Grete Bloch? -- and research into his actual daily work at the insurance office (he was a recognized authority on industrial accidents).

Reiner Stach's Kafka builds on much of this research. By focusing on 1910 through 1915 -- the time in his late twenties and early thirties when Kafka fell in love with Felice Bauer and began to produce his first great stories -- Stach aims to tell us all that can be known about the writer, avoiding the fancies and extrapolations of earlier biographers. The result is an enthralling synthesis, one that reads beautifully, in part thanks to the excellence of Shelley Frisch's English.

Though he avoids invention, Stach knows too much simply to present the facts and just the facts. With the kind of élan we associate with European intellectuals, he actively engages with his material, commenting or reflecting on its meaning. Take the correspondence with Felice Bauer. Stach admits that Kafka would have been appalled by the publication of these letters, but he then reflects on letter-writing as "one of the essential forms of modern individuality," goes on to note that mail posted on a Saturday night in Berlin (where Bauer lived) would be delivered on Sunday morning in Prague, and that Kafka so fetishized this young woman's letters that he carried them along on business trips. All this, and more, then serves to enhance a patient presentation of an agonized epistolary romance, the central thread of these crucial years.

The evening that Kafka met Bauer -- August 13, 1912 -- is, Stach asserts, one of those landmark days in intellectual and literary history, like the October afternoon in 1749 when Rousseau suddenly grasped the corrupting nature of civilization during a walk to Vincennes or the night of Oct. 4, 1892, when Paul Valéry decided to renounce poetry. A few days after that casual meeting, Kafka composed -- in a single night from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- his first masterpiece, "The Judgment," in which a father unexpectedly condemns his son to death. Stach aptly summarizes its importance:

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