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When biography captures a world

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Essay | 13 minute read
The best kind of biography captures a historical moment, as well as a historic figure, argues one writer

Who, beyond the boundaries of the German-speaking world really reads Kafka any more – or any more after their student years? Go to Prague and you’ll find it awash with Kafka tat, but round a table in the English-speaking world recently, there wasn’t a single person who had read ‘Metamorphosis’ – not even as susceptible, identity-anxious adolescents – let alone anything else. My exhortation to read Reiner Stach’s monumental 1800-page biography, Kafka: The Early Years, was received with bafflement rather than enthusiasm. I don’t suppose anyone went home, ordered its three weighty volumes and settled down for the tremendous journey I have travelled with Stach and Kafka in the last nine months. Which is baffling in its turn to me, because Kafka isn’t difficult, and his work and life are exemplary and fascinating. And here’s another thing – whisper it softly – you don’t need to have read Kafka to be absorbed in his world. You just need to be a keen reader with an interest in human lives and in the history and fate of Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Aside from this, you’d expect Kafka to be having a resurgence, because he is surely the canonical modernist writer whose concerns most mirror those of the literary stars of our own day. The hallmark of cutting edge literary work today is a renewed rejection of traditional fictional forms and distinct imagined characters. Auto-fiction, as it is called, in which character and author, or author and narrator are blurred and melded, is one manifestation of this rejection, which we see in Karl Ove Knausgaard, Édouard Louis or Sheila Heti. Another is an impatience with traditional plot and what it demands of the characters placed within it. Often the two are combined – in Rachel Cusk or Teju Cole, for instance –  so that we have neither traditional plot nor central protagonists distinct from the author’s life and voice.

Amongst 20th century modernist writers, Kafka, along with Robert Musil, was the most brilliant exponent of these forms. In the first place Kafka was a committed and determined un-finisher, which meant that the idea of plot, or plot resolution, is a non-starter in the majority of his works. Like life itself, most of Kafka’s stories peter out, some in mid-sentence, some in mid-thought, some in both. Nothing is rounded off, nothing resolved, and Kafka seems not to care, even if he might once have had an intention of completion.

Where Musil bails out of endings on a grand scale, Kafka is an exquisite miniaturist. He can fail to conclude in five pages, twenty-five pages, or even a few lines. In fact, ‘Metamorphosis’, his best-known work, is unusual in this respect. The story has a decisive beginning and end; it’s a cradle to grave story, even if the cradle is mid-way through the protagonist’s own life. The Trial, The Castle, ‘The Burrow’ and other brilliant stories such as ‘Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor’, are all unfinished. Blumfeld, like the balls he finds bouncing in his apartment, jumps from the marvellous explication of this event into a bizarre and rambling disquisition about the difficulties of his work, before stopping abruptly, perhaps in mid-flow.

Illustration for the novel The Trial, 1905, in the collection of the Franz Kafka Museum, Prague (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

That’s another thing Kafka always delivers, in contrast to the usually grave (or fey/Faye as she acknowledges with the name of the narrator of her latest trilogy) Cusk and the funny and hyper-real Knausgaard: the bleak joke of life itself. Kafka is a master of the ineluctable juxtaposition of the cataclysmic and the banal. Hence the laconic diary entry for August 2, 1914: ‘Germany has declared war on Russia – Swimming in the afternoon’. Kafka is seriously absurd, neurotically hilarious and playfully paranoid; in every line of his work these different levels of tone are constantly in play. His work is central European to its core in this way, keeping company with Leoš Janáček (think of The Cunning Little Vixen), Antal Szerb, the Hungarian author of a series of darkly surreal comedies in the 1920s and 30s and Karel Čapek, author of The Makropulos Affair (Janáček again) and War with the Newts.

Secondly, as with today’s auto-fiction, life and work in Kafka are always in dialogue, no matter that many of his protagonists are creatures or animals. We easily accept the narrating voices as both Kafka’s and not Kafka’s; the situations and imaginative worlds of his protagonists likewise. Most of them are labouring at something, and so was Kafka. Kafka had a day job, and his work is inextricably woven into his literary endeavour. Kafka’s paper, with its doomy title, ‘Accident Prevention in Quarries’, sounds like one of his stories, (‘A Report to an Academy’, for instance) but is in fact a report that Kafka wrote in his capacity as an official in the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague.

His late work ‘The Burrow’ is a report too, narrated by a creature who quarries out an underground world in paranoid expectation of accident or disaster. The language and surface tone of the story, like those in many of Kafka’s stories, are simple and workmanlike. One kind of work spins out of the other, and we accept that the creature is a kind of quarryman, with an essentially human mind and feelings.

But work about what, exactly? Kafka is a mysterious writer. His stories and novels are easy to read, but are not susceptible to fixed meaning or definitive interpretation. Hilariously deadpan and funny – and then frightening and not funny – his works resist allegory because their set-ups present as perfectly normal. Kafka’s protagonists are ordinary men (or bugs or creatures) who pedantically and methodically try to deal with absurd or frightening situations or demands, often weighted by a sense of their own guilt and exclusion. Despite their constant humour, Kafka’s stories seem to speak to an idea of humanity’s flaws and to the sadness, absurdity and aloneness of the human condition. His work emanates feeling; it produces recognition.

In a sense Kafka’s preferred fictional mode, the unfinished surreal, the formal or existential crisis, or all three, is the very opposite of biography, a form that is traditionally set up to deliver a beginning, a middle and an end. But if the biographical form seems inappropriate to Kafka, Stach’s monumental trilogy more than triumphs over the dissonance.

Countless books have been written about Kafka’s life, beliefs and sexuality (the latter a subject which Stach seems to have decided largely to avoid). Countless theories have been advanced about the meanings of his (mostly posthumously-published) work; but there cannot be a more loving and empathetic account of the relationship between the two. Stach’s biography is a miracle of patience and understanding, of scene setting and characterisation. He takes Kafka kindly, and seriously, but he is never dull or over-scholarly himself.

The first chapter of Volume One, entitled ‘Nothing happening in Prague’, and the very first sentence, describing the ‘clear, pleasant summer’s day’ in the city of Prague on the day of Kafka’s birth, 3 July 1883, are both humorous nods to the first chapter of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, titled ‘From which, remarkably enough, nothing happens’, and its famous first and last sentences, ‘A barometric low hung over the Atlantic…. It was a fine day in August 1913.’ And so we set out in the long journey, knowing we are the very best of hands, immersed immediately in the resonances and history of Kafka’s life and work.

Franz Kafka monument at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Probst/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

It’s clear from the outset, then, that Stach’s masterwork isn’t just an exhaustive biography of a great literary figure. It’s a picture and a history of a world, slowly built through the life of a man and the story of everyone he knew. And strangely enough, given the singularity of his temperament, Kafka is the ideal figure for this treatment. Literary lives, unlike the lives of spies or politicians, are very often sparse on action, and this is certainly true of Kafka, who lived and worked almost all his life within the confines of Prague and its surrounding countryside, only making a break for Berlin when he was too ill to make it permanent. In this way Kafka was a kind of everyman, a product of his particular age and milieu. At the same time, though, he sent thousands of letters which were remarkable enough that their recipients kept them, and, when he died, left diaries, unfinished stories, fragments in notebooks and his huge unsent letter to his father to his friend Max Brod, so that there is a wealth of material to draw on.

Brod is a presence throughout this work, a constant counterpoint to Kafka in his command of the social world, his marriage and mistresses, his unquenchable sexual and literary activity, his networking, novels, article writing, Zionist zeal and campaigning, and in the decisiveness which eventually saved him when he escaped from Prague in 1939. Stach skilfully moves us through annoyance with Brod’s overbearing, under-talented competence to an acceptance of his steady presence and finally, as he visits Kafka in May 1924, a month before he died, to an appreciation of his sensitivity and kindness. It is the joy of a work as long as this that there is space for the transformation not only of its protagonist but also of his friends and relationships.

Kafka was at once solitary and sociable; he lived in a bustling and demanding family and had not only a group of close friends from his school and university days onwards, but also eager women who came to him, and tended to be abandoned or slipped away from, work and standing as a state official, literary contacts throughout German-speaking Europe and several more or less persistent acolytes. Stach’s great work is therefore as much a chronicle of an age and a particular group of people – the German-speaking Jews of central Europe – and their world on an unstable fault-line of an imploding empire, as it is the story of an individual life.

Kafka lived through three connected upheavals in this world: the First World War, the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, and the creation of several independent nations from its ruins. In common with most bourgeois Jews of Austria-Hungary, Kafka had several overlapping and co-existent identities. He was born Austro-Hungarian, a Czech (or Bohemian) subject of the Emperor Franz Joseph (and named after him). After 1918 he became a citizen of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, subsequently the Czechoslovak Republic. He was a Jew who studied Hebrew, became fascinated with the Yiddish-speaking world of eastern Europe and was attracted to the Zionist cause. He was a native speaker of German, though his parents were prescient enough to make sure he could not only speak but also write Czech. German was the language of his education, his thoughts and dreams, and the language of the active literary circles he belonged to.

But the boundaries were always blurred. At home, the Kafkas spoke what was called Prague German, but they might slip in a bit of Czech here and there, and Kafka himself wrote, admittedly when he was cosying up to his Czech lover Milena Jesenská, that German was his ‘mother tongue’, but that he considered Czech ‘more affectionate’. The two were not ever completely separated, and by the same token his identities as German, Austro-Hungarian, Czech, Jew were not necessarily played off against one another, but co-existed in the kind of cultural-linguistic-ethnic soup that was common throughout central Europe.

Franz Kafka Museum, Sculpture David Cerny (Photo by Aziz Karimov/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In the course of Kafka’s life, rigidity progressively set in, and the elements of such multiple identities were put into conflict with one another. With the disintegration of Austria-Hungary, German-speaking Jews from Prague to Brno and Budapest lost the linguistic and psychic lodes of German and Germany or Austria. They had to assimilate themselves more closely to their new nations, and though most identified as Czech or Hungarian, they may also increasingly have felt that their growing sense of exclusion as Jews was doubled by the loss of their linguistic world. Things got much worse in the two decades after his death.

Kafka’s protagonists sometimes appear prescient about all this in their travails with authority. True enough: the bureaucracies Kafka depicts are frightening and inefficient; his protagonists do not know why they are called before them or what their fate might be. Yet though they are bizarre and opaque, they were also Austro-Hungarian, and lacked the real-life chilling efficiency of the Third Reich. For this reason the weight of history does not hang over them in the same way that it hangs over Kafka’s own life story.

It is yet another strength of Stach’s book that through its great length, and its many diversions and excursions in time and place, we come to know Kafka’s parents, Hermann and Julie, his sisters Elli, Valli and Ottla. He was particularly close to Ottla, who had a rebelliousness and determination to escape the confines of bourgeois Prague that he admired and could never himself enact. We meet his hapless brother-in-law Karl Hermann, Elli’s husband, whose asbestos factory Kafka determinedly avoided helping to run or save from failure, his young nieces and nephew, and his friends Brod, Hugo Bergmann and Oscar Pollack, his doctors and disciples, his publishers and the important women in his life, Julie Wohryzek, Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenská and Dora Diamant. Bureaucracy closed in on them a decade after Kafka’s death. The worlds they once loved turned against them. When the Nazis invaded what was left of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Czech Jews could plead with their murderers in their own language.

Kafka did not live to see any of this. He died of tuberculosis in 1924; but only a decade later his world began to be dismantled. A decade after that it was gone, and his friends and family dead, murdered or fled. Kafka’s parents died before the Second World War, their last years darkened by persistent anti-Semitism. Some of Kafka’s circle emigrated to America, and we feel thankful for their survival. Kafka’s devoted disciple Robert Klopstock, who bravely injected the morphine that stopped his heart, made it out to New York and became a distinguished pulmonologist. Kafka’s famously on-off fiancée, Bauer, married, had children, fled Germany for Switzerland in 1930 and died in Westchester, New York, in 1960. Diamant and a clutch of others made it to Britain.

A few of his friends escaped as war closed in. Brod, with Kafka’s manuscripts in his luggage, got out to Palestine just in time. But many in Kafka’s family and circle stayed on, were deported after the Nazi invasion, and died in the camps. Stach’s book ends with a stark and heart-breaking list of them. Wohryzek died in Auschwitz, Jesenská a political prisoner in Ravensbrück. Kafka’s sisters Elli, Valli and Ottla were killed in the gas chambers, solid women, wives and mothers in their 50s.

And so, by 1945, this great flowering of pan-European and Jewish culture was destroyed. Perhaps one day, a different diaspora, from South-East Asia or, once again, the Middle East, will root and grow into another trans-national world that transforms our understanding of the human spirit. Until that day, it is Kafka’s world, which produced – to name only a few – Freud and Schoenberg, Musil and Roth, Mahler, Wittgenstein and Kurt Weill, Charlotte Salomon, Walter Benjamin, György Ligeti and Albert Einstein, that stands as its finest flower. It is the joy of Stach’s book that it doesn’t just concentrate on such extraordinary figures, but brings quite ordinary ones back into the light as well.

Stella Tillyard’s new novel, ‘The Great Level’, is published by Chatto & Windus