Reiner Stach is the German author of an exceptionally lively and deeply researched multi-volume biography of Franz Kafka that has slowly been making its way into English. In 2005 Harcourt published “Kafka: The Decisive Years” and in 2013 Princeton brought out “Kafka: The Years of Insight,” both superbly translated by Shelley Frisch. Together these cover the great writer’s maturity and cast light on the development of such masterpieces as “The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist.” Frisch’s translation of Stach’s final volume, focusing on Kafka’s childhood and youth, is eagerly awaited.
In the meantime, New Directions has just issued this little compendium of brief anecdotes and odd factoids about Prague’s most famous author. Derived from Stach’s years of burrowing in the archives, “Is That Kafka?” indirectly contributes to an ongoing scholarly project, in Europe and America, to revisit many of the assumptions about the writer and his work, in effect, to move beyond the myths and cliches. The actual life of the man who gave us Josef K. (from “The Trial”) was much less Kafkaesque — and more human and ordinary — than is still commonly thought.
Still, myths are hard to dislodge. When most of us think of Kafka, we tend to visualize — to quote Stach — “a cobblestone alley damp with rain in nighttime Prague, backlit by gas lanterns. . . piles of papers, dusty in the candlelight . . . the nightmare of an enormous vermin.” We don’t picture a nice Jewish boy with a good job in an insurance company, who was also a doctor (though only of law). The real Franz Kafka exercised every morning, played pool and drank lots of beer, loved going to the movies, flirted regularly with pretty girls and was afraid of mice.
He also wrote prose that conveys, to Stach and at least some other readers, “the greatest pleasure that literature has to offer.” I wouldn’t go that far, though Kafka’s sentences regularly surprise us like a sucker-punch, as in the matter-of-fact, jaw-dropping opening of “The Metamorphosis”: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Given, too, the generally downbeat character of Kafka’s outlook on life — he once wrote “In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world”— it seems natural to think of him as a tormented, Central European version of Poe or Dostoevsky.
That so much of his writing dissatisfied him and never left his desk drawer certainly added to Kafka’s posthumous legend, which was then magnified further by the eventual publication of those enigmatic novels, “The Trial ” and “The Castle.” Imagine two nightmarish worlds — each a combination of police state and theocracy — in which doomed characters struggle against capricious bureaucracies and baffling customs. On the morning of his 30th birthday the quite ordinary Josef K. was inexplicably arrested “without having done anything wrong.” No matter: In this bleak moral universe, simply being born establishes guilt.
Yet Stach emphasizes that, despite the dread and grotesquerie pervading his fiction, Kafka was overall quite an ordinary chap. From these 99 “finds” – which generally take the form of a self-revelatory remark by Kafka, followed by a comment or correction from his biographer — we learn that young Franz cheated on school exams, mistrusted doctors, hoped to get rich from a budget travel guide to Europe and once forged the signature of Thomas Mann. Contrary to myth, he was also popular with his insurance office colleagues and well-respected in Prague as a man of letters. Chapters 19 and 20 — titled “Kafka’s No Prude” and “Going Whoring”— discuss pornography, bordellos and prostitutes. It turns out that this boyish, tubercular young man favored “fat older women.” There’s even a picture of the bowler-hatted writer with a smiling, accommodating barmaid. Other illustrations show us Kafka’s desk, the layout of his family’s apartment (repurposed for that of the Samsas in “The Metamorphosis”), the corrected title page of “A Country Doctor,” and even the practice sheets used in an effort to master Hebrew. In two instances, Stach reproduces newspaper photographs — one of people at an air show, the other of a rally — and tentatively identifies Kafka in the crowd.
Still, amid so much that is quotidian, the unnerving, the Kafkaesque does periodically creep in.We learn that when Kafka moved to Berlin in 1923, another, completely different Franz Kafka came to Berlin at the same time. The writer’s fiancee Felice Bauer once stayed at a hotel that was previously owned by still another Franz Kafka. For three weeks, the author who depicted the horrific torture machine of “In the Penal Colony” composed a daily letter to a little girl in the voice of a doll, who wasn’t lost but simply away on a trip. Stach also transcribes some brilliant fragments, notably “The Broskwa Sketch,” which begins: “It is possible that there are European settlements further north than Broskwa, but none could be more desolate.” Alas, as so often with Kafka, the story just breaks off.
Kurt Beals’s translation of “Is That Kafka?” generally reads well, though I find the word “alright” — used for “all right”— to be barbaric, and the term “ripped off” seems jarringly inappropriate for the early 20th century. While obviously an enjoyable and instructive grab-bag of anecdotes, Stach’s book inevitably contains a tragic dimension as well: Kafka succumbed to tuberculosis at just 40, while his three sisters and many people he cared about later died in World War II concentration camps.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Reiner Stach
Translated from the German by Kurt Beals
New Directions. 312 pp. $27.95