HERMAN BROCH once observed that he
had one thing in common with Robert Musil and Franz Kafka. "We three have no real biography. We lived and wrote, and that's all." The apercu applies to Franz Kafka with even greater validity than to his two longer-lived contemporaries.
Kafka spent most of his 40 years in and around Prague, where he was born in 1883 as the eldest child of a tyrannical Jewish shopkeeper. The compulsive bachelor was destined to live virtually his entire life in his parents' apartments, usually within earshot of the heavings and groanings of the matrimonial bed. Following school and university, Kafka escaped sporadically for brief vacations--to Paris, Switzerland, Italy, Germany. He spent weeks with his favorite sister Ottla on her farm in northern Bohemia. His fragile health--insomnia, constipation, stabbing headaches, heart-pains, hemorrhages--necessitated repeated medical leaves from the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute, where he was employed from 1908 until shortly before his death in 1924. He died away from Prague because he had been taken to a sanatorium near Vienna for treatment of his fatal tuberculosis of the larynx.
But neither his chronic illness nor his love affairs--serious ones with Hedwig Weiler, Felice Bauer, Greta Bloch, Julie Wohryzek, Milena Jesensk,a, and Dora Dymant, not to mention casual trysts at the spas he frequented--were able to keep him away for long from the city to which he was tied with ambivalent feelings of love and fear, or from the detested parental apartments that provided the material for almost all his writings.
The challenge to Kafka's biographers--and it is symptomatic that there have been only three major efforts since his death--is not unlike the one he faced in his own stories: to wrest meaning out of the trivialities of a seemingly humdrum existence. What can be said, after all, about the life of a man who insisted that "I have no literary interests, but I consist of literature"? Kafka's life is throughly unremarkable until metamorphosed in his writing, which afforded a means of escape from a reality with which he was unable to come to terms.
At the same time, that tedious and pain-ridden existence provided him with virtually the only material for his works. His demon bound him to situations whose frustrations he seemed to require in order to write. The man so sensitive to noise that he used earplugs insisted on living in crowded flats with his parents or his sister--a pattern evident in The Metamorphosis as well as The Castle. The struggle with his domineering father drove Kafka not out of the loathed apartment but to his desk, where he produced such classics of the father-son conflict as "The Judgment" and "Letter to His Father."
Hayman characterizes Kafka's relationship with the various women who found him attractive as "literary rape." He did not avoid physical sex. But the affairs were essential because they enabled him to expose his soul and force it upon his correspondents in the hundreds of cards and letters that he valued as highly as his fictions.
In those writings Kafka reveals himself as a genius of metaphor--metaphors that he wielded with merciless accuracy, like the knives that so often figure in them, to lay bare through unexpected twists the quiverings of a human consciousness. The vegetarian Kafka dreams that he is lying outstretched on the floor, "sliced up like roast meat, while with my hand I slowly push a slice towards a dog in the corner." He visualizes himself as a piece of wood pressed against the body of a cook "who's holding the knife in both hands and with all her strength drawing it along the side of this stiff log (somewhere in the region of my hip) slicing off shavings to light the fire." It is this metaphoric blend of realism and the absurd that our century has come to recognize as "Kafka- esque."
Hayman's strength lies in this sense for the apt quotation--almost 2,000 quotations or paraphrases by my count. As external evidence dwindles in Kafka's later life, Hayman relies increasingly on his writings--e.g., the tender Letters to Ottla (Schocken, $15.95)-- sometimes even citing the fiction as testimony for the life.
Hayman heaps up his material with little selectivity, little drama, and little hint of the controversies concerning Kafka's life and the interpretation of his works. We learn how much Kafka weighed, how long his coughing spasms lasted, what his temperature measured on given days, which stations he passed on his various trips. But we are rarely provided with adequate information about the people who figure importantly in his life. When Hayman cites writer who mattered to Kafka--Dickens, Flaubert, Hoffmann, Kleist, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy --he seldom offers any explanation for their impact on him. Hayman makes passing references to Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, Baudelaire, and other European figures, but he betrays little appreciation for the unique cultural atmosphere that produced such a brilliant generation of writers in fin-de-siecle Prague. What emerges is a life without context, like a portrait figure without background and uncomplicated by chiaroscuro.
"We are nihilistic thoughts that come into God's head," Kafka once remarked to Max Brod. Through the power of his language Kafka shocks us into awareness of the existential emptiness that characterizes his view of the world. It is not the life that matters so much as the process through which that life was transmuted into art. Hayman's bland pastiche supplies the raw material but conveys little sense of the tragic process or the unforgettable product.