A Portrait of Kafka's Age

Review: Reiner Stach, 'Kafka: The Early Years'

Franz Kafka in 1906
December 18, 2016

The final installment of Reiner Stach's highly praised three-volume biography of Kafka—"This is one of the great literary biographies," John Banville says, and he's right—covers Kafka's early years, 1883-1909. The books were published in this order—Kafka: The Decisive Years (1910-1915) first, then Kafka: The Years of Insight (1916-1924) second, then this volume. This was not to emulate Star Wars or be "Kafkaesque," the translator Shelley Frisch tells us in her preface, but because of "high-profile legal wrangling" on the part of the Brod family.

Max Brod was Franz Kafka’s best friend (though perhaps not the deepest) and literary executor whom Kafka asked to burn all his unpublished manuscripts and who—thanks to the literary gods, Brod's own ambition, and recognition of his friend's genius—did not comply. Stach contrasts the contents of Brod and Kafka's diaries, and it tells you a lot. Brod, who succeeded at being a published writer from the get-go, was also a literary networker of the first magnitude. Here is Stach on Brod's diary:

Brod produced little more than a succession of jottings, written in the kind of postcard language that gave no indication of a will to form or literary authorship. "To Riva with Kafka; Otto came later," it begins. "Nice vacation! The lido!!/ Only A. didn't write or come to the rendezvous on the last day . . . . Experienced quite a lot, quite a lot. I will not forget it!" And on it went in this vein, for years to come, as far as we can tell.

Contrast Brod's jottings with the first line of Kafka's diary: "The spectators grow petrified when the train goes past." Or the second line: "'If he should always aaask me' the aaa broke away from the sentence and flew off like a ball on the meadow.'"

This is not just a biography. Stach provides copious helpings of political, social, and scientific history, along with psychological and literary analysis, with Kafka as his locus. At times, these volumes read as though Kafka were the eye of the hurricane that was the early twentieth century.

Kafka was born to Jewish parents in Prague, a city with a rigid social hierarchy: Germans at the top and the seething, prosperous mass of Czechs chafing under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kafka's father was a textile merchant, a giant of a man, who had to mostly squelch his Jewishness in order to succeed. Financial success and security were what he most cared about.

Franz, the oldest child, took more after his mother, whose family included rabbis and mystics. His father's bludgeoning arbitrary discipline traumatized Kafka (see Letter to His Father) and contributed to his imagining a protagonist who turns into a huge insect surrounded by a "normal" family (see The Metamorphosis). But Franz played it safe himself—he never quit his day job working in an insurance agency.

The biggest surprises Stach reveals involve how socially and sexually active Kafka was. He wasn't Brod, but he loved the nightlife, he was a fan of the back-to-nature (Lebensreform) movement and homeopathic cures, and he loved to swim and hike. He was not an "underground" Dostoevskian kind of guy, always holed up in his room.

Yet he always returned to his writing; he told a girlfriend that he did not love literature, he consisted of literature. Like Thoreau, whom he resembles in some ways, Kafka learned to be a great writer in his diary, "a secret writing school of an utterly different provenance with only a single pupil, whose progress was not verifiable."

Stach's biography is akin, in my estimation, to Joseph Frank's five-volume biography of Dostoevsky. It portrays not just a man, but an age and place whose depths a great man saw and had the courage to transform into books that, in Kafka's words, "affect us like a calamity that causes us great pain, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide, a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

Remember, though, that Kafka used to laugh a lot when he read his works to his friends.

Published under: Book reviews