Listen to this article
Kafka: The Years of Insight, by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch, Princeton RRP£24.95/$35, 720 pages
Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, by Saul Friedländer, Yale, RRP£18.99/$25, 224 pages
The Castle, adapted by David Zane Mairowitz, illustrated by Jaromír 99, SelfMadeHero, RRP£12.99, 144 pages (Published in the US in November)
In 1982, the Italian writer and Nazi concentration camp survivor Primo Levi embarked on a translation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. At first he was enthusiastic, hoping to improve the German he had learnt so imperfectly at Auschwitz. Instead, Kafka involved him more terribly than he could have imagined. Levi found only bleakness in the hero Josef K, who is arrested and executed for a crime he probably did not commit.
The more Levi became immersed in Kafka, the more he began to see his own life mirrored in that of “St Franz of Prague”, as he called the Czech writer. Born in Prague in 1883 into a German-speaking Jewish family, Kafka lived a life of quite exemplary tedium as an insurance clerk, rarely travelling beyond his home or that of his parents. Levi saw similar constrictions in his own life as an assimilated Jew in bourgeois Turin. Moreover, Kafka’s three sisters had all perished in the Nazi gas chambers – victims of the grotesque bureaucracy foretold by their brother two decades earlier in The Trial. Kafka must have had a seer-like sensibility, Levi thought, to have looked so accurately into the future.
Kafka was not quite 41 when he died in a sanatorium outside Vienna in June 1924. Little-known in his own lifetime, he would later be recognised as one of the 20th century’s most important writers. Samuel Beckett was drawn to his bleak and unsparing vision; today his admirers include JM Coetzee, Lydia Davis and Jonathan Franzen. If Kafka still speaks to us, it is because he is a sort of 20th-century Dante, who wrote a story of Everyman who sets out in search of salvation in this world, only to encounter a proliferating darkness.
A writer of such mystique would need a very good biographer and, at first, it looked as though Kafka had found him in his literary executor Max Brod, who had refused to burn his work as instructed, and seen to its publication. While Brod’s 1937 biography had much to say about Kafka’s fiction and inner life (as well as his famed sensitivity to noise and unlikely interest in Prague nightlife), it viewed Kafka as an essentially redemptive figure, whose perceived Jewish “spirituality” was the commanding side of his personality. It is true that Kafka’s literary friends and almost his entire circle in Prague were Jews; yet the word “Jewish” does not appear anywhere in his fiction. Like many German-speaking Jews within the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kafka saw assimilation as a means of escape from the pogrom-tainted past. Nevertheless, he was fascinated by Yiddish culture and Yiddish literature; his Jewish identity was conflicted at best.
Subsequent biographies by Ernst Pawel, Ronald Hayman and James Hawes sought to explore other sides of Kafka, from his vegetarianism to his surrealist humour, but none of them quite captured the man in all his eccentric variety. The conventional view of Kafka – what Hawes calls the “K Myth” – is of the oversensitive author who was too physically frail for this world. Reiner Stach offers a more nuanced view. His Kafka, like the others, is a reclusive man prone to bouts of depression; he is also an “incessant” womaniser who visited brothels for much of his adult life and was drawn to pornography.
The final part of Stach’s projected three-volume biography, The Years of Insight, follows The Decisive Years (2005) and covers the period 1916-1924, when Kafka was mortally ill with tuberculosis of the larynx. (The first volume, covering Kafka’s childhood and youth, has yet to be written owing to an embargo placed on papers by Max Brod’s estate in Tel Aviv.)
The book takes up at the point where Kafka is a 32-year-old unmarried employee of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague. He is tormented by his overweening father and filled with fears of “sexual failure” and inadequacy. Wisely, Stach makes no Freudian or other interpretations of Kafka’s neuroses. Stories such as “The Hunger Artist” and “Description of a Struggle” have been scrutinised by academics as if they were “a set of papyrus rolls from an Egyptian burial chamber”, Stach objects. Instead, his approach is to place Kafka within the larger frame of early 20th-century Europe and see his life as mirrored in his times.
The Trial, in particular, cries out for critical exegesis: is the novel an allegory of capricious and unjustified authority? What does it mean? The truth is, no single key will turn the lock; not even Kafka would have been able to “interpret” his novel, Stach maintains. The Trial (published posthumously in 1925) is what it appears to be: a dark metaphysical fancy with a paranoid-seeming logic.
Still, it is impossible not to read Kafka’s works in the light of the horrors that would unfold in the decades after his death, and a recent graphic novel adaptation of The Castle by David Zane Mairowitz and the Prague-born artist Jaromír 99 proves the point. Fraught with allusions to Hitler’s destruction of European Jewry, the book brilliantly conjures the atmosphere of Kafka’s last, unfinished novel, a disturbing parable about the arbitrary exercise of power in which a land surveyor (again, Josef K) tries in vain to gain access to the authorities of a mysterious castle. Woodcut-like drawings of paper-strewn corridors and sinister-looking janitors enhance the effect of darkness.
Stach, a German writer based in Berlin, is careful not to over-emphasise Kafka’s reputation as a prophet of Nazi anti-Semitism. For him, such a view overlooks the fact that Kafka had lived through the technological violence of the first world war. At the insurance institute where he worked in Prague from 1908 almost to the end of his life, claimants had acquired facial tics and “hysterical tremors” from trench warfare, with its mustard gas and barrage fire. All across Europe, people had been sent to their deaths by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen; in Germany such bureaucrats would become known as Schreibtischtäter – “desk-murderers”.
As it stands, Stach’s two-volume biography has a combined total of almost 1,300 pages. Do we really need the superabundance of facts and footnotes? In a way we do: Kafka and his books invite scrutiny and “herr-doktoring”. In pages of plain but highly readable prose, Stach connects themes of impotence and futility in Kafka’s fiction to Kafka’s hesitant and apparently confused sexuality.
The women in Kafka’s life were many and adoring yet Kafka was unable to sustain relations with them. The Berlin businesswoman Felice Bauer was twice jilted by him before she disappeared from his life in about 1917. Her friend Margarethe (“Grete”) Bloch was another who fell for the Czech author yet their love was shadowed from the start by Kafka’s squeamish aversion to sex with women whom he knew (prostitutes were another matter). In April 1944, having fled anti-Semitic Germany, she was arrested in Italy and sent to the same transit camp near Modena as Primo Levi; unlike Levi, she did not survive Auschwitz.
For Saul Friedländer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who is himself of Prague Jewish ancestry, perhaps the most intriguing of Kafka’s many women was Dora Diamant. In Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, Friedländer reminds us of their meeting in the Baltic resort town of Müritz in 1923, a classic coup de foudre that led to a decorous courtship.
Born into an impoverished Hassidic family in Poland in 1898, Diamant was sympathetic to the idea that Jews should recover their historic homeland in Palestine. Though Kafka was no Zionist, he was tempted, bizarrely, to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv (though it is hard to imagine the author of The Metamorphosis providing palatable meals). Afterwards, in Berlin in 1924, he and Diamant studied Jewish literature and Old Testament parables of deliverance and survival. Yet their relationship was to be terminated abruptly by Kafka’s tuberculosis. At the second world war’s end, having escaped the Nazi dragnets, Diamant settled in east London and opened a restaurant and theatre for the Jewish community; she died at the age of 54, pretty well forgotten.
In Friedländer’s view, Kafka was attracted to certain men. Homoerotic feelings are hinted at in his diaries; Robert Klopstock, a Hungarian-born doctor Kafka met in 1920, is described as having “a boyish face …earnest and tense, yet also dreamy”. By contrast, writes Friedländer, women in Kafka’s fiction are “dangerous beings who, in one way or another, can lead the male protagonist astray”. Nevertheless, Kafka was an avid follower of women’s fashion; his father ran a fancy goods shop in Prague, and Kafka maintained a dandyish sense of dress.
His interest in couture was bolstered by his friendship with the Czech journalist Milena Jesenská, which began in 1920. A non-Jewish newspaper reporter, Jesenská wrote numerous witty articles on the cabarets, cafés and fashion parlours of Prague. Anti-Semitic slurs regarding the effeminacy of the Jewish body may have made Kafka doubly wary of heterosexual relations; certainly his passion for Jesenská was platonic and largely epistolary. Thirteen years younger than Kafka, she went on to translate his work from German into Czech, and later helped Jews to escape Nazi-occupied Prague. As punishment for this she was deported to Ravens-brück camp outside Berlin where, at 47, she died from a kidney infection.
Kafka himself did not live to see Hitler’s destruction of civilised old Europe, and was spared the fate that befell so many of those he knew. Only his books survive – and these are a strange marvel.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi: A Life’ (Vintage)
Get alerts on Franz Kafka when a new story is published