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 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