THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
Kafka: The Decisive Years Kafka: The Years of Insight Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt
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