Kafka: The Impossible Biography (2022)

The prospect of a new Kafka biography is like an invitation to a party that is bound to be entertaining but may end badly. Situating Kafka’s writing within the cultural and political landscape of European modernism and the late Austro-Hungarian Empire is a worthy, if daunting, endeavor. Less certain is whether such efforts to contextualize his corpus actually garner insights into it. Kafka’s readers are intrigued by virtually any anecdote about him, but few would allow that the abiding mysteries of his texts will be resolved by learning that he lived in Prague, was the son of a fancy goods merchant, and enjoyed going to the beach. Nor does history provide a reliable key to unlock his works, which have dates but do not date. If they are decidedly not a product of our time, there appears to be little chance of them ever going out of style.

Although Kafka’s importance is incontestable, scholars and casual fans alike fiercely debate every feature of his corpus. Each plot twist or curious turn of phrase calls for clarification, yet customary interpretive practices are seldom up to the task. To read Kafka is to lurch back and forth between the uncannily familiar and the abjectly foreign. To reread a favorite story is to risk seeing any exegetical progress made the first, second, or third time through evaporate. Given these challenges, learning more about Kafka’s life may be a good opportunity to win new perspectives on his writing, but it may also be the furthest thing from it.

Some two decades in the making, Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka confronts these difficulties head-on, acknowledging from the start that like virtually any discussion of this author, it is bound to be found wanting on many fronts. If anything, Stach is too self-deprecating. There is much to appreciate in the vast compendium of information he assembles, which fleshes out the stories about Kafka and his associates that have been in circulation for decades while introducing a host of new ones. Even better are the moments when Stach lets go of his skepticism about his project’s viability and allows himself to enjoy the conundrums that arise when one tries to coordinate Kafka “the man” with Kafka “the oeuvre.”

Intimidating in its thoroughness, this study is a major scholarly achievement whose comprehensive research is unlikely to be rivaled for decades to come. Stach chose not to avail himself of the biographer’s elementary crutch, chronology, and waited until he had access to key documents from the estate of Kafka’s friend Max Brod before writing this last volume, which covers the first part of Kafka’s life. With the appearance of The Early Years in English, we now have translations of all three books, over 1,800 pages to analyze 41 years that were by most accounts far from epic.1 Raised in a middle-class family in Prague, Kafka studied law and went into insurance, where he was rapidly promoted. He was spared the horror of fighting in the First World War, in part due to tuberculosis, an illness that ultimately forced him to give up his job and spend a large part of the last years of his short life in sanatoriums. Writing was something Kafka did in his spare time. He published relatively little, and at the time of his death, he was far from commanding a wide readership.

The photograph seems less like corroborating evidence of Kafka’s narrative than an image from a dream, threatening to unsettle the border between fact and fiction.

All three volumes of Stach’s biography have been ably translated into English by Shelley Frisch, who has won prizes for the first two. Her style betrays none of the aloof awkwardness that can characterize English renditions of German academic prose, and she deftly captures modulations in tone. Frisch’s preface to The Early Years helps the prospective reader orient herself within the larger study. This is no small matter, because coming to this trio of books for the first time, one may well wonder where to start. Kafka: The Decisive Years, which was written and published first, deals with the middle of the author’s life. It opens, however, with Stach’s thoughts on the nature of biography and on the unique problems encountered in tackling this particular writer, all of which are extremely clarifying for anyone picking up either The Early Years or The Years of Insight, the second volume published that deals with the end of Kafka’s life.

At the opening of The Decisive Years, Stach writes: “This biographer seeks to experience what was experienced by those who were there. What it was like to be Franz Kafka. He knows that this is impossible.”2 The very fact that “the biographer” is discussed in the third person foreshadows Stach’s ongoing dialogue with himself about the nature of his “impossible” enterprise. Stach observes that it is easy enough to identify Kafka’s “issues,” most prominently a vexed relationship with his father, struggles with sexual intimacy, and an uncertain engagement with Judaism. The problem is that when we chart these dynamics across four decades, the results are remarkably static, with little in the way of progress or regress. There also appears to be no clear way to prioritize the forces that informed Kafka’s experience of any given anxiety or event, because cause and effect can fluidly swap places depending on how a particular story is told. As a consequence, any persona one constructs will prove highly changeable. Look once and you see a fearful, neurotic young man; look again and you see a handsome dandy who was a successful investigator of industrial accidents and spent his leisure time cavorting in bars and nightclubs.

Stach never resolves the basic question of how a biography can best assist in the study of a literary corpus. He repeatedly introduces facts about Kafka’s life, explains in what respects they illuminate general themes or the details of well-known texts, and then declares that proceeding in such a manner is reductive. By the tenth time we are thrown an exegetical bone only immediately to have it yanked away, we are understandably puzzled about precisely what is being demonstrated. Adding to the confusion, at other junctures Stach pursues similar lines of interpretation but does not retract them, leaving us unsure as to why this kind of analysis is only intermittently impermissible.

Given these difficulties, we could be forgiven for feeling that we were reading Kafka: The Impossible Biography or The Biography That Is Not One. One reviewer of The Decisive Years observed that it appeared to have been written “by a Kafka character called, to borrow the words of the book’s promotional materials, ‘the definitive biographer.’”3 Hopelessly worn down by his Sisyphean task, this beleaguered individual alternately blames himself and others for his ills as he spars ineffectually with the mysterious forces imposing themselves upon him. Uncharitable though this assessment may be, it reminds us that as much as we may want to read Kafka’s stories and novels through the lens of his life, it is equally tempting to understand his life through his fiction, as if any story about him laid claim to being a weighty parable worthy of sustained scrutiny. Stach tells us that Kafka’s personality was shaped by “the feeling that he was standing outside of life and had to find his way in.” This may also serve as a description of the biographer’s—or reader’s—experience of his inability to find a way in to Kafka’s universe, where, as Theodor W. Adorno remarked, “each sentence says ‘interpret me’ but none will permit it.”4

If ambivalence about the ultimate value of his research is present in all three volumes of Stach’s biography, the stakes are higher than ever in this final book on Kafka’s early years. A psychological profile of the renowned author must necessarily be based in information about his family and childhood. Even here, however, Stach is consistently inconsistent. On the one hand, he appears to endorse psychologically- or psychoanalytically-informed analyses of Kafka’s diaries and letters, while maintaining that such interpretive practices are out of their depth when it comes to the literary texts. On the other hand, he rarely respects this distinction between the private and public Kafka, particularly when he is discussing Kafka’s own opinions about how his writing should be understood. Stach also makes contradictory observations about Kafka’s views on psychology. In the same breath as he describes Kafka’s ambition to improve his relationships with others through mutual self-betterment, he reminds us of Kafka’s scorn for “therapy” and the very notion of self-development.

As is the case with most literary biographies, there is a relative paucity of texts with which to make sense of Kafka’s formative years, whereas we have all manner of documents from the later decades of his life, written by him and by those who knew him. The first part of The Early Years thus broadens the focus to provide a rich social and cultural history of the city of Prague and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This includes an illuminating account of class and ethnic strife and a detailed picture of the economic situation of the Kafka family and other similarly situated merchants.

For more personal early source material, Stach relies heavily on Kafka’s infamous “Letter to Father,” a 45-page document that he wrote when he was 36 and gave to his mother to pass on to the pater familias, only to have it returned to him with the ostensible addressee none the wiser. The self-referential twists and turns of such a text are formidable, and the accounts it offers of events that took place decades earlier, in some cases when Kafka was barely old enough to have remembered them, must have undergone many degrees of revision, to say the least. Written in full awareness of these factors, the “Letter” itself may be as much a critique of the very possibility of autobiography as it is a basis for drawing any conclusions about the life of its author.

Stach’s analyses of specific sections of the “Letter” are, in any case, disappointing. In one of the best-known passages in the text, Kafka’s father puts the two- or three-year-old out on the balcony in the middle of the night, because he would not stop whimpering for water. Stach declares that this was “a key event in [Kafka’s] psychological development” that “sheds stark light on the three interdependent motifs in [his] world: power, fear, and isolation.” Whatever one may think of such a sweeping conclusion, it is not based on a careful reading of the scene, not least since Kafka’s opening line is that he was asking for water “not because [he] was thirsty, but probably in order to be annoying and to amuse [himself].”5 The duplicitous, even sadomasochistic status of amusement in Kafka’s work is a vertiginous topic, as is the irony with which he relates this information to his father by stating that this is “probably” why he was behaving so abominably. Where the power in this scenario lies and to whom feelings of fear or isolation are to be attributed is far more complex than Stach’s brief gloss allows.

When Stach throws caution to the wind and embarks upon more creative lines of interpretation, the results can be perplexing. Having observed that Kafka loved the beach, Stach announces: “Swimming is an archaic activity that taps into deep, preponderantly unconscious realms of experience. It is an exceptionally intense and multilayered, yet easily achievable physical and mental state of being, comparable only to sexuality…. People can swim freely, and even swim their way free. Once this movement is ingrained as a physical technique, it provides lasting narcissistic satisfaction.”Without pausing to substantiate or clarify these claims in any way, Stach moves on to confirm the importance of swimming to Kafka by citing a description he gave of his cousin Robert, who swam “with the power of a beautiful wild animal, shimmering in the water, with sparkling eyes … it was magnificent.”Stach’s conclusion is that for Kafka, being in the water was the “most persuasive metaphor for the fear-infused thrill surrounding [sexual] intimacy,” a bedeviling mix of freedom and constraint.

The story of Cousin Robert, however, is not quite complete. For the final sentence of Kafka’s description of his relative, Stach offers the pithy shocker: “And six months later [Robert] was dead.”Having introduced this startling new detail, Stach hurriedly adds that Kafka is implying that it is difficult to imagine that such a strong swimmer could be mortal. A glance at the source for this tale reveals that Kafka actually ended his account: “And six months later [Robert] was dead, tortured to death by doctors. A mysterious disease of the spleen which they were treating principally with injections of milk, in the consciousness that it was no use.” 6 One could envision various ways to link Stach’s reflections on sexuality and swimming with death. Still, this additional material introduces a host of new motifs that will require considerably more discussion, especially if the story is to serve as evidence for the transcendently liberatory powers of swimming and their importance for understanding Kafka’s psycho-sexual life.

Look once and you see a fearful, neurotic young man; look again and you see a handsome dandy.

As we follow a maturing Franz through his education, we learn a great deal about the Austro-Hungarian school and university systems. Some of this terrain will be familiar to those who have read Kafka’s letters, which contain ample information about his trials and tribulations in the classroom. When it comes to Kafka’s personal consumption of art and literature, Stach snobbishly judges his tastes to be middlebrow or worse. At times, our biographer sounds almost parental in his disapproval of the fledgling author’s late-night escapades, which rarely saw him attend the theater, concerts, or academic lectures. Stach also has some amusingly unexamined assumptions about what famous writers like to read. He seems to feel genuine astonishment that someone with such creative potential could have spent so much time devouring travelogues, in particular “Indian, Eskimo, and animal adventures,” although a quick review of the reading habits of Kafka’s contemporaries would reveal this to be nothing out of the ordinary—one thinks of Joyce’s love of cartoons or of Brecht’s passion for detective stories.

For yet another perspective on the cultural environ in which the young author came of age, Stach details his encounters with “great men.” We hear about Kafka’s single consultation with Rudolf Steiner, after which he declared to Brod that the famous philosopher and social reformer had not understood him. We also hear about the occasion on which Kafka and his friends attended a popular science lecture by Albert Einstein, who taught in Prague from 1911 to 1912. Stach unself-consciously strains to make more of the latter event than his sources warrant. Acknowledging that there is no evidence that Kafka ever met the famous physicist, Stach observes that Brod did socialize with him, so “it is highly likely that [Kafka] was at least introduced to Einstein.” This impulse to embellish is telling. A life story of the sort Stach is relating will be rife with contingency, unambiguous cause-and-effect relationships at best taking shape only sporadically. In another biographer’s hands, this fact could be a source of anxiety, if not a realization to be dissimulated at all costs, but Stach embraces it and savors the opportunity to see his discussion shade into fiction, as he speculates on a quasi-hypothetical encounter between two people, one already famous, one destined to be.

At another point, Stach describes Kafka and Brod at an air show. The two men documented this experience in writing, and, improbably, their accounts are substantiated by a photograph discovered decades later, which appears to show Kafka from behind as he stands in a crowd watching the plane of a famous French aviator fly by. Chance has given us proof that Kafka and Brod’s stories of this event are not just stories; although looking at the photo, it seems less like corroborating evidence of their narratives than an image from a dream, whose power lies precisely in how it threatens to unsettle the border between fact and fiction.

In the end, Kafka: The Early Years may be most compelling at precisely such junctures, when its wealth of information about the young author fails to concretize in definitive assessments of his personality or cultural milieu, and instead offers a glimpse of something inchoate and fleeting that does not need to be ascribed paradigmatic import. One might object that these flashes of contingency are symptomatic of the degree to which the different strands of Stach’s project never entirely come together, but Kafka’s fans are likely to be the last people who would imagine that they could.Kafka: The Impossible Biography (2)

  1. Kafka: The Decisive Years, dealing with Kafka’s life from 1910–15, appeared in German in 2002 and in English 2005. Kafka: The Years of Insight, which covered 1916–1924, appeared in German in 2008 and in English in 2015.
  2. The Decisive Years, 15.
  3. See Marco Roth, “Franz the Obscure,” New York Times, January 1, 2006.
  4. Theodor W. Adorno, “Notes on Kafka,” Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (MIT Press, 1983), 246.
  5. Kafka, “Letter to Father,” cited in The Early Years, 65.
  6. Quoted in Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography (De Capo Books, 1960), 206–207. (The English translation of the Brod text actually begins: “And half a year later.”)

Featured image: A five-year-old Franz Kafka, Prague, approximately 1888. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia

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