THE AGONY AND THE EC­STASY

Kafka: The De­ci­sive Years Kafka: The Years of Insight Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

FRANZ Kafka woke abruptly at 4am on Au­gust 11, 1917. Some­thing was wrong with his throat. There was saliva in his mouth: he couldn’t swal­low it, it kept welling back up. He got out of bed and lit a lamp — then he re­alised it was blood, clot­ted blood. It filled his mouth, it was thick and salty on his tongue. He rushed over to the wash­stand: out it poured, deep red into the white bowl, for min­utes on end. He looked up from where he stood. He stared out at the street, he saw the loom­ing sil­hou­ette of the Prague Cas­tle in the gleam of dawn. At last the flow fal­tered, then stopped. He lay back down on his bed, and slept. Some while later, his house­keeper, Ruzenka, came in to wake him and make break­fast. She saw the blood­ied wash­stand at once. ‘‘ Pane Dok­tore,’’ she said, in Czech.‘‘You don’t have long to go.’’

In a let­ter de­scrib­ing this episode, one of his life’s ful­crum events, Kafka runs through his re­ac­tions with great pre­ci­sion and great calm, as if those mo­ments had marked a kind of lib­er­a­tion for him — and that morn­ing serves as the hinge­point of a re­mark­able new bi­o­graphic study by Reiner Stach, de­voted not only to the au­thor but to the sur­round­ing cir­cum­stances of his life: a work that is at once com­plete and frag­men­tary, de­fin­i­tive and ten­ta­tive, al­lu­sive and rev­e­la­tory — in short, sub­limely Kafkaesque, al­most as if it had been dreamed into be­ing by the be­nign ghost of the writer him­self.

From the day of his first pul­monary haem­or­rhage, Kafka’s fate was fixed. He viewed the tu­ber­cu­lo­sis that had made its home in­side his lungs as a spe­cial pres­ence, ‘‘ an ill­ness be­stowed on me’’. His thought swerved more and more to­wards the bare bones of things. He had al­ready writ­ten the book for which he is best known to­day, that pun­ish­ment fan­tasy The Trial — it lay in his desk in manuscript, un­known. In Septem­ber, he made a de­ci­sion to travel to the tiny vil­lage of Zu­rau in the Bo­hemian coun­try­side to con­va­lesce. While there, he wrote a let­ter to his long-suf­fer­ing fi­ancee, Felice Bauer: its words were dark as night. There were two com­bat­ants at war in­side him, he de­clared, and their con­fused war raged in­ces­santly. The blood was not com­ing from his lung but from a stab de­liv­ered by one of th­ese com­bat­ants: And now I am go­ing to tell you a se­cret that I don’t even be­lieve my­self at the mo­ment (al­though the dark­ness that falls about me in the dis­tance at each at­tempt to work, or think, might pos­si­bly con­vince me), but re­ally must be true: I will never be well again pre­cisely be­cause it is not the kind of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis that can be laid in a lounge chair and nursed back to health, but a weapon that con­tin­ues to be of supreme ne­ces­sity as long as I re­main alive. And both can­not re­main alive.

It is thought and writ­ing of this kind that dom­i­nates the move­ment of Stach’s nar­ra­tive. Stach aims to write at Kafka’s level, to push through to his sub­ject, to be wor­thy of him. The up­shot is two vol­umes that have al­ready been widely praised as de­fin­i­tive, as tri­umphs of the bi­o­graphic art — a third, deal­ing with Kafka’s youth, was de­layed in the vain hope that key archival sources would be re­leased: it is due to be pub­lished at last, out of se­quence, this year.

By chance, Stach’s long, fine-grained, hy­per­de­tailed ac­count of Kafka’s last decade ap­peared in the same month as a very dif­fer­ent por­trait of the writer’s life: a slen­der sketch of his so­cial and cul­tural back­ground and the role that back­ground plays in his best-known texts. It is the work of the dis­tin­guished Holo­caust his­to­rian Saul Fried­lan­der, who was him­self brought up in pre­war Prague and has al­ways felt a spe­cial close­ness to Kafka and his words. The two books com­ple­ment each other: they do much more than merely ad­vance our ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Kafka and his mi­lieu. Pre­vi­ous bi­ogra­phies have pre­sented him as in­ert, pas­sive; th­ese ver­sions pro­vide mo­tives for his ac­tions and his in­ac­tion, they make him flesh and blood. Stach pro­vides us with the tex­ture of Kafka’s ex­pe­ri­ences and the events sur­round­ing him; Fried­lan­der reads the writ­ings with ea­gle eyes, at­tuned to the nu­ances and lurk­ing clues in ev­ery phrase. Yet By Reiner Stach Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 581pp, $49.95 (HB) By Reiner Stach Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 682pp, $49.95 (HB) Both trans­lated by Shel­ley Frisch By Saul Fried­lan­der Yale Univer­sity Press, 183pp, $34.99 (HB) both bi­og­ra­phers, in­evitably, fall short in their at­tempts to catch and clar­ify Kafka’s elu­sive art. It is the sheer stuff of it that es­capes them, the sud­den jumps of insight and the trans­for­ma­tions within it that stay con­cealed and veiled. Stach de­scribes in de­tail the raw magma of Kafka’s mid-pe­riod writ­ing — the so-called ‘‘ oc­tavo note­books’’ of 1916-17, each about 80 pages in length — a com­pact size, suit­able for car­ry­ing around town in his breast pocket: A star­tling and con­fus­ing sight: long, short, and very brief en­tries, prose and di­a­logue, a cou­ple of lines of poetry, dated and un­dated texts, nor­mal hand­writ­ing ran­domly al­ter­nat­ing with short­hand, a scat­ter­ing of head­ings, en­tire pages crossed out, word-for­word rep­e­ti­tions, dis­jointed state­ments, fluid tran­si­tions and long di­vid­ing lines punc­tu­ated by doo­dles, mys­te­ri­ous names, an ad­dress, drafts of let­ters, a check­list of er­rands, torn out and mixed-up pages, a ran­dom slip of pa­per . . . ev­ery­thing look­ing as though he had spread his pa­pers out all over the floor while writ­ing.

It is a jun­gle: drafts, feints and ex­plo­rations — yet wher­ever the words of a tale or story emerge, they are clear, and set: ‘‘ Pre­cisely where the per­fec­tion is be­yond any doubt, the cre­ator of th­ese texts seems quite sure of him­self. The au­thor as cre­ator ex ni­hilo.’’

But those words set down, if stud­ied closely, do at least lead back to­wards the life: and the life pro­vides their fit­ting frame. With the deftest of touches, Stach suc­ceeds in es­tab­lish­ing a con­text for his hero — and he goes be­yond the fa­mil­ial and pro­fes­sional worlds that pre­vi­ous bi­og­ra­phers have seen as the sole key to Kafka’s work.

His sub­ject is a man recog­nis­ably un­der the in­flu­ence of pol­i­tics and world events: they fil­ter into the nov­els and the shorter fic­tions in telling ways. Thus the dark­est of Kafka’s pub­lished sto­ries, In the Pe­nal Colony, gains new res­o­nance when seen in the at­mo­spher­ics of its time and against the back­drop of the trench war­fare un­der way on the east­ern front. In much the same way, the death of Em­peror Franz Josef and the im­pend­ing demise of the Austro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire stand be­hind An Im­pe­rial Mes­sage, one of Kafka’s short­est and most haunt­ing tales. Chap­ter by chap­ter, de­tail by de­tail, The Years of Insight binds the writer and the writ­ing to­gether — works that had seemed be­yond life, in­ex­pli­ca­ble, take on a dif­fer­ent kind of depth.

Some pre­lim­i­nary con­clu­sions can be drawn: a re­assess­ment shim­mers into view. For us, read­ers of th­ese stud­ies, the idea we have of Kafka changes: he can no longer be quite what he was made into by his first as­so­ci­ates or by the co­terie of ad­mir­ers who saw the con­di­tion of moder­nity mir­rored in his work, and paused to see lit­tle else.

The course of Kafka’s literary ca­reer known thanks al­most en­tirely to his is well clos­est

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