John Banville

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Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach, trans­lated from the Ger­man by Shelley Frisch.

Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 564 pp., $35.00

Reiner Stach has a droll way with epigraphs, and in Kafka: The Early Years he heads his chap­ters with a se­lec­tion of gnomic snip­pets from nu­mer­ous in­ge­niously ob­scure sources. Chapter 1, for in­stance, has a tag from a song by Devo, an Amer­i­can rock band of the 1980s: “Think you heard this all be­fore,/Now you’re gonna hear some more.” This is Stach’s imp­ish ac­knowl­edg­ment that the present book is the first of three vol­umes, the sec­ond and third of which have al­ready been pub­lished. The joke is a good one, and sends the reader off smil­ing on what will be a long though im­mensely re­ward­ing jour­ney. This vol­ume com­pletes one of the great lit­er­ary bi­ogra­phies of our time—in­deed, of any time.

The rea­son for the de­lay in the ap­pear­ance of the first vol­ume is ex­plained in a pref­ace by Stach’s de­voted and richly gifted trans­la­tor, Shelley Frisch:

This order of pub­li­ca­tion, which may ap­pear coun­ter­in­tu­itive— even fit­tingly “Kafkaesque”—was dic­tated by years of high-pro­file le­gal wran­gling for con­trol of the Max Brod lit­er­ary es­tate in Is­rael, dur­ing which ac­cess to the ma­te­ri­als it con­tained, many of which bore di­rectly on Kafka’s for­ma­tive years, was barred to schol­ars.

In Au­gust of last year the Is­raeli Supreme Court found against Brod’s heirs, and or­dered that the withheld doc­u­ments be trans­ferred to the Na­tional Li­brary in Jerusalem. Frisch states that Stach “has been able to ex­am­ine three vol­umes of Brod’s di­aries in this col­lec­tion, those from the years 1909 to 1911,” and in­deed it is clear that Stach did draw heav­ily on the di­aries— so heav­ily that at times the book might be mis­taken for a joint bi­og­ra­phy of Franz Kafka and Max Brod.

How­ever, a mys­tery re­mains. Since Stach’s book was orig­i­nally pub­lished in Ger­man in 2013, how did he get his hands on the much-needed ma­te­rial from the Brod archive, since the court order for its re­lease was not handed down un­til 2016? Per­haps he will add an ap­pen­dix to a fu­ture edi­tion ex­plain­ing how he man­aged it, for it sounds as if there is a good story there, some­what in the man­ner, per­haps, of Henry James’s The Aspern Pa­pers. One hopes that Stach did not at any point in the process find him­self hissed at fu­ri­ously as “you pub­lish­ing scoundrel!” as did the hap­less narrator of James’s tale.

As Frisch notes, the saga of the Brod archive smacks not a lit­tle of the Kafkaesque; there are few as­pects of Kafka, as man and writer, that do not have a Kafkaesque di­men­sion. How apt, for in­stance, that an artist who sets an an­i­mal as the pro­tag­o­nist, or even as the narrator, of so many of his sto­ries—most notably, of course, “The Meta­mor­pho­sis”—should have a name that is most likely de­rived from that of a bird: kavka is the Czech word for jack­daw.* And fur­ther, in the mat­ter of names, Kafka’s mother’s fam­ily, the Löwys, “were once known,” Stach in­forms us, “as Boreas, like the god of the north wind, and later as Borges.” One won­ders if the great Ar­gen­tinian fab­u­list was aware of this ad­mit­tedly ten­u­ous con­nec­tion to his Czech pre­cur­sor. In the world of the kavka, ev­ery­thing makes strange.

Stach opens the nar­ra­tive of Kafka’s life with one of his bril­liant set-piece me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal recre­ations of a par­tic­u­lar day, in this case July 3, 1883, which was “a clear, pleas­ant sum­mer’s day, with a gen­tle breeze waft­ing through the nar­row streets of the Old Town in Prague.” When he first set out to write this bi­og­ra­phy, two decades ago, his aim, Stach de­clared, was to show “what it was like to be Kafka.” One of the strate­gies by which he tri­umphantly ful­fills this aim has been to place the reader as di­rectly as pos­si­ble in Kafka’s world and time, as he does in this bravura open­ing de­scrip­tion of the day and place of Kafka’s birth:

To­day was a Tues­day, which meant that there were a good many “mil­i­tary con­certs” in store. In the spa­cious beer gar­den on the So­phienin­sel, the hoopla started up at four in the af­ter­noon for tourists, stu­dents, and re­tirees. Most

*I can­not re­sist not­ing that as I was writ­ing this para­graph, a jack­daw flew in through the open win­dow of my study, and got out again only with the great­est dif­fi­culty. peo­ple still had a few more hours of work ahead of them, and those un­lucky souls who earned their liv­ing in a shop had to wait un­til af­ter sun­down to join the fes­tiv­i­ties.

It might be the open­ing of a bil­dungsro­man by Thomas Mann or Robert Musil. The im­me­di­acy of Stach’s nar­ra­tive makes it not only un­can­nily evoca­tive but com­pul­sively read­able, and the three big vol­umes of his Kafka con­sti­tute a work of lit­er­a­ture as sub­tle, as in­tri­cate, and as en­ter­tain­ing as any novel. “No in­tel­lec­tual bi­og­ra­phy that is si­t­u­ated in the Bo­hemian me­trop­o­lis,” Stach writes, “is com­pre­hen­si­ble with­out the his­tory of this city and the sur­round­ing re­gion.” There­fore he goes far back to lo­cate the be­gin­nings of his tale, all the way to the Bat­tle of the White Moun­tain, near Prague, in Novem­ber 1620, in which a Protes­tant al­liance of Ger­man states was de­feated by the Catholic Hab­s­burgs. The bat­tle—the young René Descartes fought in it—lasted no more than two hours and was hardly more than a skir­mish, yet it was cel­e­brated with ju­bi­la­tion all over Catholic Europe, and ush­ered in a pe­riod known to Czechs as “the dark­ness,” which was to last for three cen­turies.

The fol­low­ing year, twenty-seven no­table Protes­tants, in­clud­ing Jan Jesse­nius, rec­tor of Charles Univer­sity in Prague, were ex­e­cuted in pub­lic in the Old Town Square, as pun­ish­ment for re­bel­lion and a demon­stra­tion of the Hab­s­burgs’ cal­cu­lated ruth­less­ness. Pra­guers to this day re­tain a strong mem­ory of what they see as the tragedy of the White Moun­tain; as Stach has it, “In some cor­ners of this city, the in­ter­twin­ing of past and present, of death and life can make the pres­ence of his­tory feel down­right eerie.”

The Hab­s­burgs were still firmly in power in 1883 when Kafka was born, into a mi­lieu that was an amal­gam of an­cient re­sent­ments and present com­pla­cency. He was deeply riven in his at­ti­tude to­ward his na­tive city. He never ceased to be­moan hav­ing to live there, yet he was in­ca­pable of mov­ing else­where. “Prague doesn’t let go,” he fa­mously wrote. “This lit­tle mother has claws.” If Bohemia felt it­self a vic­tim and an out­cast, Kafka had the added bur­den of be­ing a Jew in Cen­tral Europe—al­though he would plain­tively de­mand to know what he could have in com­mon with the Jews, since he had hardly any­thing in com­mon with him­self. The fore­bears of both his par­ents were not Pra­guers; his fa­ther, Her­mann, was born in a vil­lage near Strakon­ice in south­ern Bohemia, and his mother’s peo­ple, the Löwys, had lived for gen­er­a­tions in Podĕbrady, a town on the river Elbe “in the shadow of a mas­sive cas­tle”; they were “a fam­ily of schol­ars and ec­centrics, com­plete with de­pres­sions,” as Stach notes.

Her­mann Kafka and Julie Löwy were mar­ried in 1882, and the fol­low­ing sum­mer their son Franz was born. When one stud­ies pho­to­graphs of Franz Kafka—and there are sur­pris­ingly many of them for such a no­to­ri­ously self-ef­fac­ing per­son—one is struck by how lit­tle he re­sem­bles his par­ents. Her­mann Kafka is burly, with a flat skull, a broad face, and a thick neck, the very model of the char­ac­ter Pozzo in Wait­ing for Godot, while his wife Julie’s most marked fea­ture is her lantern jaw. How did this cou­ple beget a son so del­i­cately made, so tall, and thin to the point of ema­ci­a­tion? It is as if this sin­gu­lar crea­ture were his own self-cre­ation. One can­not imag­ine any­one look­ing like Franz Kafka— cer­tainly none of his three sis­ters did, if, again, we take the pho­to­graphs as de­pend­able ev­i­dence—and there are even in­stances when he does not look en­tirely like him­self.

Stach dis­plays a deep ten­der­ness to­ward his sub­ject as a child. Kafka’s par­ents ran what used to be called a fancy goods store in cen­tral Prague, and Her­mann, ag­gres­sive and volatile, fre­quently flew into rages and gave staff their no­tice on the spot. There was also the fact that the two boys born to Julie Kafka af­ter Franz did not sur­vive long: Ge­org died of measles when he was fif­teen months old, and the next-born, Hein­rich, lived only six months be­fore suc­cumb­ing to menin­gi­tis:

Th­ese con­stant fluc­tu­a­tions re­sulted not only in an at­mos­phere of tu­mult and frayed nerves, but also in a series of sep­a­ra­tions that in­stilled in lit­tle Franz a deep mis­trust re­gard­ing the con­sis­tency of hu­man re­la­tion­ships and wari­ness of a world in which ev­ery face he had be­come ac­cus­tomed to or even grown to love could van­ish in­stantly and for­ever.

For a per­son as sen­si­tive as Kafka was, or at least as he pre­sented him­self

as be­ing—it is en­tirely pos­si­ble to view his life in a light other than the one he him­self shone upon it—in­ner es­cape was the only avail­able strat­egy. “If we are to be­lieve his own per­sonal mythol­ogy,” Stach writes, “he drifted out of life and into lit­er­a­ture,” to the point, in­deed, that as an adult he would de­clare that he was lit­er­a­ture, and noth­ing else. Stach, how­ever, of­fers another and, in its way, far more in­ter­est­ing pos­si­bil­ity when he asks, “What if lit­er­a­ture was the only fea­si­ble way back for him?” Yet along this route into the psy­cho­log­i­cal depths of Kafka’s emo­tional and artis­tic self we must pick our way care­fully, re­call­ing Kafka’s own skep­ti­cism to­ward Freudian anal­y­sis—“I con­sider the ther­a­peu­tic part of psy­cho­anal­y­sis a help­less er­ror”—and keep­ing in mind one of what are known as the Zürau apho­risms, in which he de­clares with un­char­ac­ter­is­tic ve­he­mence: “No psy­chol­ogy ever again!”

Nat­u­rally much of this vol­ume is taken up with an ac­count of Kafka’s for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. One might ex­pect that the stu­dent years of an artist would be of great bi­o­graph­i­cal in­ter­est, but it is rarely the case, and Stach’s ac­count of Kafka’s school­ing is no ex­cep­tion. Per­haps the rea­son is that the ed­u­ca­tion of an artist is for the most part a self-ad­min­is­tered process, the progress of which is not recorded in class plac­ings and ex­am­i­na­tion re­sults. If there are longueurs in the present vol­ume, they oc­cur here, as we might guess from the ti­tle to Chapter 7: “Kafka, Franz: Model Stu­dent.” He was a tire­less and om­niv­o­rous reader—it is re­ally by read­ing that writ­ers learn to write— but early on he tried his hand at com­po­si­tion, too, and by the age of twelve or thir­teen he had de­ter­mined to be­come a writer.

Stach tells us that Kafka “grouped his first lit­er­ary en­deav­ors un­der a sur­pris­ing watch­word: cold­ness,” and lamented: “What a chill pur­sued me for days on end from what I had writ­ten!” It is not clear why the bi­og­ra­pher con­sid­ers this sur­pris­ing; the first and hard­est les­son an artist must learn is to curb the ex­cesses of youth­ful ar­dor. A mark of Kafka’s great­ness was the dis­tance from him­self that he achieved in his writ­ings from the out­set. The re­mark­able story “The Judg­ment,” com­posed in a sin­gle sit­ting one night in 1912, which he con­sid­ered his first fully achieved work, is writ­ten at “de­gree zero,” to use Roland Barthes’s for­mu­la­tion, and main­tains a dream­like steadi­ness and pu­rity of tone, de­spite its strongly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal theme—the son hu­mil­i­ated and over­borne by the fa­ther—and the fact that it was done, the author him­self wrote, by way of “a com­plete open­ing of body and soul.” Kafka al­ways wrote out of him­self, and of him­self, with­out ever imag­in­ing that thereby he was di­rectly ex­press­ing him­self. The artist, he once re­marked, is the one who has noth­ing to say. “He would al­ways speak only of the act of writ­ing as the truly pre­cious el­e­ment,” Stach ob­serves, “but not of the re­sult­ing works, which al­ways con­veyed no more than a hazy im­age of the flash of cre­ation.”

In his di­ary in 1920 he wrote of a mo­ment when he had a clear glimpse of what would be for him the true cre­ative flame. He was sit­ting one day, “many years ago, . . . on the slope of the Lau­ren­z­iberg,” the hill in the cen­ter of Prague that fig­ures in “De­scrip­tion of a Strug­gle,” brood­ing on “the wishes I had for my life”:

The most im­por­tant or the most ap­peal­ing wish was to at­tain a view of life (and—this was in­escapably bound up with it—to con­vince oth­ers of it in writ­ing) in which life re­tained its nat­u­ral full com­ple­ment of ris­ing and falling, but at the same time would be rec­og­nized no less clearly as a noth­ing, as a dream, as a hov­er­ing.

This artis­tic epiphany—re­mark­ably rem­i­nis­cent of that in­ter­rupted mo­ment in Beck­ett’s Krapp’s Last Tape when Krapp rec­og­nizes that his aim must be to al­low into his work the dark­ness he had al­ways strug­gled to keep out—is summed up beau­ti­fully by Stach when he writes: “The pres­ence of be­ing and noth­ing­ness in one and the same mo­ment, in the same ob­ject or the same sen­tence, struck Kafka as a sign of per­fec­tion that made life worth liv­ing.” And art worth mak­ing.


Early Years brings Kafka through school and col­lege and into his life as “The For­mi­da­ble As­sis­tant Of­fi­cial,” to quote another of Stach’s chapter head­ings. Kafka hated his work as an in­sur­ance clerk, but he clung to his desk as if it were the raft of the Me­dusa. In the of­fice he was in a state of un­re­lent­ing frus­tra­tion, yet even there he saw the slap­stick com­edy of his predica­ment:

I have so much to do!... Peo­ple fall off the scaf­folds as if they were drunk, into the ma­chines, all the beams top­ple, all em­bank­ments give way, all lad­ders slip, what­ever peo­ple carry up falls down, what­ever they hand down, peo­ple stum­ble over. And I have a headache from all th­ese girls in porce­lain fac­to­ries who keep throw­ing them­selves down the stairs with mounds of dish­ware.

Stach is not the first to com­ment on the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of Kafka’s life­long re­la­tion­ship with his fel­low writer Max Brod. In the late 1930s, Brod’s bi­og­ra­phy of his friend was at­tacked by Wal­ter Ben­jamin, who was par­tic­u­larly ex­er­cised by what he saw as Brod’s en­tirely mis­taken re­li­gious in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Kafka’s work. Stach sees Kafka’s con­nec­tion with the out­go­ing and es­sen­tially mid­dle-brow Brod as a typ­i­cal cleav­ing to fig­ures with a stronger, per­haps more ele­men­tal, grasp on life and the busi­ness of liv­ing:

Kafka felt clos­est to peo­ple whose su­pe­rior vi­tal­ity he could share with­out buck­ling un­der, par­tak­ing in the lives of oth­ers, whose fluxes of en­ergy he could latch on to with­out ced­ing con­trol over the dosage of the en­ergy.

It is as if Kafka, believ­ing he could only live vi­car­i­ously through other peo­ple, con­sid­ered Brod as good an ex­em­plar as any other. Yet it would be hard to imag­ine a more ill-as­sorted pair. Brod, a year younger than Kafka, came from a solidly mid­dle­class Jewish back­ground—his fa­ther was a suc­cess­ful banker—and there­fore found it hard to em­pathize with the so­cial un­ease and sense of dis­place­ment of Kafka the hab­er­dasher’s son. He even tried to get Kafka to curb his fan­tas­ti­cal no­tion of his fa­ther’s power over him. “We know how well that worked,” Stach mor­dantly ob­serves.

There was too a darker as­pect to Brod’s pro­pri­eto­rial at­ti­tude to Kafka; as Stach notes, “De­lib­er­ate ma­nip­u­la­tions to serve his own in­ter­ests, which even ex­tended to al­ter­ing Kafka’s di­aries, have been iden­ti­fied.” Stach is care­ful to be fair-minded and to sup­press what seems an in­stinc­tive an­tipa­thy to­ward Brod—it would prob­a­bly be un­fair to at­tribute this, even in part, to Stach’s lin­ger­ing ir­ri­ta­tion over the dif­fi­cul­ties he had in se­cur­ing ac­cess to the Brod archive—and he goes so far as to won­der not how Kafka the ge­nius tol­er­ated the mun­dane Brod, but how Brod in turn put up with Kafka’s end­less emo­tional fid­get­ings, over his writ­ing, his health, his loves. Af­ter all, we have Brod to thank for the very sur­vival of the Kafka oeu­vre, since he de­cided to ig­nore Kafka’s di­rec­tion to him to de­stroy his pa­pers af­ter his death. One might surely for­give a bit of pro­pri­etor­ship, and even a cer­tain fid­dling with the facts, in re­turn for the great gift to pos­ter­ity—to us—of such a lit­er­ary trea­sure.

That Kafka was fond of Brod can­not be doubted. Stach gives a com­i­cal and won­der­fully en­dear­ing ac­count of a hol­i­day they took to­gether in 1911:

“Let’s be quick now,” Kafka said when they ar­rived at the ho­tel. “We’re go­ing to be in Paris for only five days. Just give the face a lit­tle wash.” Brod rushed off to his room, put down his lug­gage, took care of the bare ne­ces­si­ties, and was back in a mat­ter of min­utes. His friend, by con­trast, “had taken ev­ery last thing out of his suit­case and would not go un­til he had put ev­ery­thing back in order.” Kafka asked why Brod was carp­ing at him.

On their way to France they had been ea­ger to get there at once, with­out de­lay, but at Lake Mag­giore they could not re­sist stop­ping over for some days, be­gin­ning with a swim. Such was their re­lief from the heat and the stresses of travel “that they em­braced while stand­ing in the water,” Stach writes, adding, with po-faced flat­ness, “—which must have looked quite odd es­pe­cially be­cause of the dif­fer­ence in their heights.”

How, one won­dered, would Stach find an end­ing to this first vol­ume, which would be an end­ing also to the mag­nif­i­cent ven­ture he em­barked on so many years ago? The so­lu­tion he comes up with, Mozartian in its de­cep­tive light­ness, is wholly cap­ti­vat­ing. It takes place in a sana­to­rium on Lake Zurich that Kafka had checked him­self into for a rest af­ter that hectic trip to Paris with Brod. So de­light­ful, so mag­i­cal, are the clos­ing cou­ple of pages that one longs to para­phrase them, but that would be to spoil the per­fect bal­ance the bi­og­ra­pher achieves be­tween com­edy, wist­ful­ness, and faint ab­sur­dity, qual­i­ties that are as much a mark of Kafka’s writ­ing as its dark­ness and its ter­ror. There could not have been a better close to this mar­velous ac­count of the life of a supremely great artist.

Franz Kafka (right) with Max Brod’s younger brother, Otto, at the Cas­tel Toblino near Trento, Italy, 1909

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