The first-comes-last fi­nal in­stal­ment of a three­vol­ume bi­og­ra­phy of Franz Kafka re­veals the fears and in­spi­ra­tions that fash­ioned a writer of un­fath­omable gifts, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The young man trans­formed into a mon­strous cock­roach while asleep in his bed­room at night; the hunger artist per­form­ing du­ti­fully in his cage; the re­mote pe­nal colony, with its death ma­chine that in­scribes a fa­tal sen­tence on a con­demned man’s skin; and the mys­te­ri­ous Trial, above all, the opaque, re­lent­less trial of the bank of­fi­cer Josef K. Where do they come from, these dark dreams in nar­ra­tive? What ex­plains them — what dis­tinc­tive fea­tures in the back­ground of their cre­ator, Franz Kafka, what ten­sions within his so­ci­ety or fam­ily, what as­pects of his school­ing, his early friend­ships and first ex­pe­ri­ences?

All these dif­fer­ent el­e­ments are pre­sented in de­tail and probed with sub­tle, foren­sic care in Kafka: The Early Years, the first vol­ume of Rainer Stach’s three-part bi­og­ra­phy, which, by a suit­able piece of Kafkarna, ap­pears, due to archival ac­cess prob­lems, only af­ter the prior pub­li­ca­tion of its two se­quels. Now the por­trait is com­plete. We can trace, through Stach’s mea­sured nar­ra­tive, the full course of Kafka’s brief life, stretch­ing from his birth in the dy­ing days of the Haps­burg em­pire in 1883 to his death from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in 1924, just as the shad­ows of Nazism were be­gin­ning to take form. The re­sult is not merely a bi­og­ra­phy of painstak­ing thor­ough­ness but a piece of psy­cho­log­i­cal investigation and lit­er­ary de­tec­tive work with­out clear par­al­lel. It gives its readers a new Kafka. It ex­plains much that has long seemed ob­scure; yet, by paradox, the more its au­thor-hero is grounded in his con­text, and the more we grasp of the ini­tial sources of his imag­i­na­tion, the more un­fath­omable his gifts be­come. The haze clears; he stands alone.

No stereo­types or easy as­sump­tions about his mi­lieu or cul­tural in­flu­ences help much in sit­u­at­ing Kafka. In­deed, we would scarcely read him with such care and at­ten­tion if he were sim­ply a prod­uct of his mul­ti­plicit times — a Ger­man-speak­ing Jew com­ing of age in the new cap­i­tal of Cze­choslo­vakia, leav­ing the high bour­geois era for the tra­vails of the 20th cen­tury and the loom­ing Great War. Stach is em­phatic on this point. Kafka was rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from his con­tem­po­raries: dif­fer­ent in the de­gree of his lin­guis­tic skill, in his flair for lit­er­ary form, above all in his scorn for stan­dard cul­tural fash­ions. His writ­ing was mag­i­cal in a sense that was ut­terly un­like the al­leged magic of Prague, be­cause ev­ery one of his lines passed through the fil­ter of a daunt­ing, often icecold in­tel­lec­tual alert­ness and an un­yield­ing re­flex­iv­ity sat­u­rated with im­agery. Kafka was not merely cap­tive to the city of his birth like thou­sands of oth­ers; he was bound and com­pelled to get to the bot­tom of the mys­tery of this at­tach­ment.

This un­end­ing quest for clar­ity and self­aware­ness gives his sto­ries, let­ters and diaries a tone one rarely finds in the works of the time. His tales are wholly free of schmaltz and sen­ti­ment; there is noth­ing in them of the melan­choly murk of Cen­tral Euro­pean tra­di­tion. They seem brightly lit and sharply drawn. The un­canny lurks close at hand, but it is real; there is noth­ing ghostly or in­dis­tinct about its pres­ence. The ac­cepted con­tours of the world are what must be ques­tioned and re­de­fined.

Given this au­tho­rial flavour, and Kafka’s de­sire to know him­self through words and use writ­ing as his pri­vate guide rail for mak­ing sense of things, it is nat­u­ral that Stach looks to psy­chol­ogy and gives great at­ten­tion to the most Freudian-seem­ing of Kafka’s texts, the book­length un­de­liv­ered let­ter in which the de­tails of his re­la­tion­ship with his over­bear­ing fa­ther are anatomised. Her­mann Kafka was a suc­cess­ful mer­chant, driven, straight­for­ward, well-built. His el­dest child and only son was tall, thin and al­most dandy­ish in his re­fined fragility. They were vir­tual op­po­sites and in con­stant op­po­si­tion. But the hand­writ­ten, hun­dred-page “Let­ter to His Fa­ther” was not a con­ven­tional anal­y­sis of trou­bles within a fam­ily so much as a de­scrip­tion of “a real re­la­tion­ship’s fan­ta­sized di­men­sions”, first drafted in the hope that con­fes­sion and fil­ial can­dour might lead to “mu­tual en­light­en­ment” and then fin­ished off in de­spair. There was noth­ing to hope for: Kafka had noth­ing in com­mon with his fa­ther.

“The way I am,” he wrote, “I am (apart, of course, from my fun­da­men­tal dis­po­si­tion and the in­flu­ence of life it­self) as the out­come of your up­bring­ing and of my com­pli­ance.

“That this out­come is nev­er­the­less dis­tress­ing to you, in­deed that you un­con­sciously refuse to ac­knowl­edge it as the out­come of your meth­ods of up­bring­ing, is due to the fact that your hand and the ma­te­rial I of­fered were so alien to each other.”

Kafka knew him­self: he was re­flec­tive, he was in­tro­spec­tive, he saw the way that episodes of con­fronta­tion sank deeply into him. The cru­cial night when his fa­ther re­fused his “whim­per­ings” for wa­ter and shut him out on the apart­ment veranda had scarred him.

“Even years af­ter­ward I suf­fered from the tor­ment­ing vi­sion that the huge man, my fa­ther, the ul­ti­mate au­thor­ity, would come al­most for no rea­son and drag me out of bed into the night — and that I meant ab­so­lutely noth­ing as far as he was con­cerned.”

The im­pact of this scene res­onated through Kafka’s life, but he un­der­stood it had not caused the an­guish and the anx­i­ety that ruled him so much as brought those feel­ings to the sur­face of his mind and “ex­posed an un­con­sciously ex­ist­ing dis­tress that ran much deeper”. Here, then, in the af­ter-echoes of a child­hood episode, is the key theme that sounds con­stantly in Kafka’s writ­ings: a sense of break­age that has no name, no cause, no end­ing. It is this void in the heart of his be­ing, Stach ar­gues, that spurs him on to write — and thus makes him into what he is, and drives him to trans­form him­self. The pro­ce­dure he adopted can be sim­ply ex­pressed: Kafka an­tic­i­pated ex­clu­sion. His trau­matic ex­pul­sion by his fa­ther was not so much the cause of his suf­fer­ings as an ex­pres­sion of them, and there­fore an event to be faced. The “let­ter”, which is com­posed with all the grav­ity and style of a piece of lit­er­a­ture, is much more than a recita­tion of his or­deal. In its pages, Kafka takes charge: “The once-aban­doned child, caught up in pas­sive sor­row, re­gains in­ter­pre­tive au­thor­ity over his own life.”

For Stach, it is pre­cisely Kafka’s need to tell the story of his life and be­ing that drives him to pro­vide an ac­cu­rate, un­spar­ing por­trait of him­self. Lit­er­a­ture, then, could be seen not as the es­cape path he took to flee from life but the only way back he found into the sur­round­ing world.

That world, in all its vivid, fast-shift­ing con­tours, is richly painted in this vol­ume, just as in the two books that cover Kafka’s later years. Fine-grained chap­ters delve into the dress con­ven­tions of the Bo­hemian cap­i­tal, the elab­o­rate so­ci­ol­ogy of the cof­fee houses where aspir­ing writ­ers and artists gath­ered, the com­plex, chang­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the na­tive lan­guage of the coun­try, Czech, and Ger­man, the lan­guage of the so­cial and eco­nomic elite.

For the young Kafka, Ger­man was the lan­guage of au­thor­ity, the lan­guage of law, and force. It was his fa­mil­ial tongue, his medium of ex­pres­sion, yet Czech was the lan­guage spo­ken to him by those who cared for him in child­hood, and time and again at crit­i­cal mo­ments in his life words of telling, ten­der af­fec­tion are spo­ken to him in Czech, by friends and strangers, by lovers and ser­vants.

“I have never lived among the Ger­man peo­ple,” he wrote once to Milena Je­sen­ska, the great flame of his adult years, who was her­self a na­tive Czech speaker: “Ger­man is my mother tongue and is there­fore nat­u­ral to me, but I con­sider Czech much more af­fec­tion­ate.”

The di­vide be­tween the two cul­tures of Prague was thus mir­rored in Kafka’s mind. It was on his lips and in the words he spoke, it was a split be­tween worlds that ex­pressed it­self

The young Franz Kafka, left. There is a lin­ger­ing, guilty an­guish that emerges in his writ­ings as a con­stant fear of tests, ex­am­i­na­tions, as­sess­ment and judg­ment. A mon­u­ment to the writer in the Jewish quar­ter of Prague, right

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