Franz Kafka singled out four writers as his "blood-relations": Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Grillparzer and Kleist. The first two need no introduction, but the third almost certainly does. Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872) was considered the finest Austrian playwright of his day. As for Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), a German dramatist and writer of stories and novellas, he falls into that nebulous category of superb writers whose short lives and slender outputs militate against their getting the recognition they deserve.

Kafka fits that description, too (at least with regard to works published during his lifetime), and might have suffered the same fate if his literary executor, Max Brod, had not disregarded Kafka's express wish that much of his work be destroyed upon his death.

With its relative brevity and sound judgment, Nicholas Murray's Kafka (Yale Univ., $30) measures up to his previous lives of Bruce Chatwin and Aldous Huxley. In a brief passage, Murray epitomizes the self-tormenting nature of Kafka's pervasive anxiety: Kafka told Brod that " 'You want the impossible, while for me the possible is impossible.' Brod had evidently told Kafka that it was his friend's striving for perfection that made the attainment of women impossible for him. Kafka replied, 'The striving for perfection is only a small part of my huge Gordian knot.' In other words it created difficulties in every department of his existence, not just relationships with women."

-- Dennis Drabelle

Franz Kafka with his fiancee, Felice Bauer