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How Kafka Actually Lived

He did not transcend his Jewishness, no matter what Updike claimed

akg-images/Archiv K. Wagenbach

Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (Princeton University Press)

How, after all, does one dare, how can one presume? Franz Kafka, named for the fallen crown of a defunct empire, has himself metamorphosed into an empire of boundless discourse, an empire stretched out across a firmament of interpretation: myth, parable, allegory, clairvoyance, divination; theory upon thesis upon theophany; every conceivable incarnation of the sexual, the political, the psychological, the metaphysical. Another biography? Another particle in the deep void of a proliferating cosmos. How, then, does one dare to add so much as a single syllable, even in the secondary exhalation of a book review?

One dares because of the culprits. The culprits are two. One is “Kafkaesque,” which buries the work. The other is “transcend,” which buries the life. A scrupulous and capacious biography may own the power to drive away these belittlements, and Reiner Stach’s mammoth three volumes (only the second and third have appeared in English so far) are superbly tempered for exorcism. With its echo of “grotesque,” the ubiquitous term “Kafkaesque” has long been frozen into permanence, both in the dictionary and in the most commonplace vernacular. Comparative and allusive, it has by now escaped the body of work it is meant to evoke. To say that such-and-such a circumstance is “Kafkaesque” is to admit to the denigration of an imagination that has burned a hole in what we take to be modernism—even in what we take to be the ordinary fabric and intent of language. Nothing is like “The Hunger Artist.” Nothing is like “The Metamorphosis.”

Whoever utters “Kafkaesque” has neither fathomed nor intuited nor felt the impress of Kafka’s devisings. If there is one imperative that ought to accompany any biographical or critical approach, it is that Kafka is not to be mistaken for the Kafkaesque. The Kafkaesque is what Kafka presumably “stands for”—an unearned, even a usurping, explication. And from the very start, serious criticism has been overrun by the Kafkaesque, the lock that portends the key: homoeroticism for one maven, the father-son entanglement for another, the theological uncanny for yet another. Or else it is the slippery commotion of time; or of messianism; or of Thanatos as deliverance. The Kafkaesque, finally, is reductiveness posing as revelation.

The persistence of “transcend” is still more troublesome. What is it that Kafka is said to “transcend”? Every actual and factual aspect of the life he lived, everything that formed and informed him, that drew or repelled him, the time and the place, the family and the apartment and the office—and Prague itself, with its two languages and three populations fixed at the margins of a ruling sovereignty sprawled across disparate and conflicting nationalities. Kafka’s fictions, free grains of being, seem to float, untethered and self-contained, above the heavy explicitness of a recognizable society and culture. And so a new and risen Kafka is born, cleansed of origins, unchained from the tensions, many of them nasty, of Prague’s roiling German-Czech-Jewish brew, its ambient anti-Semitism and its utopian Zionism, its Jewish clubs and its literary stewpot of Max Brod, Oskar Baum, Franz Werfel, Otto Pick, Felix Weltsch, Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Weiss. In this understanding, Kafka is detached not from the claims of specificity—what is more strikingly particularized than a Kafka tale?—but of a certain designated specificity.

Illustration by Boris Pelcer

In an otherwise seamless introduction to Kafka’s Collected Stories, John Updike takes up the theme of transcendence with particular bluntness: “Kafka, however unmistakable the ethnic source of his ‘liveliness’ and alienation, avoided Jewish parochialism, and his allegories of pained awareness take upon themselves the entire European—that is to say, predominantly Christian—malaise.” As evidence, he notes that the Samsas in “The Metamorphosis” make the sign of the cross. Nothing could be more wrong-headed than this parched Protestant misapprehension of Mitteleuropa’s tormented Jewish psyche. (Danilo Kiš, Isaac Babel, Elias Canetti, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth: from these wounded ghosts, a chorus of knowing laughter.) The idea of the parochial compels its opposite: what is not parochial must be universal. And if the parochial is deemed a low distraction from the preponderant social force—“that is to say, predominantly Christian”—then what is at work is no more than supercilious triumphalism. To belittle as parochial the cultural surround (“the ethnic source”) that bred Kafka is to diminish and disfigure the man—to do to him what so many of Kafka’s stories do to their hapless protagonists.

Reiner Stach will have none of this. Nowhere in The Decisive Years or in The Years of Insight does he impose on Kafka an all-encompassing formula. He offers no key, no code, no single-minded interpretive precept: the Kafkaesque is mercifully missing. Instead he allows Kafka’s searing introspections, as they emerge from the letters and diaries, to serve as self-defining clues. Kafka saw his stories not as a reader or a critic will, but from the inside, as the visceral sensations of writing. “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else,” he announced to Felice Bauer, the woman he would never marry. It was a statement meant not so much metaphorically as bodily. At twenty-nine, on September 23, 1912, he exulted in his diary as an exhausted but victorious long-distance swimmer, on completing a marathon, might:

The story, “The Judgment,” I wrote during the night of the 22nd, from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M., in one sitting. I could hardly pull my legs out from under the desk; they had become stiff from sitting. The frightful exertion and pleasure of experiencing how the story developed right in front of me, as though I were moving forward through a stretch of water. Several times during the night I lugged my own weight on my back. How everything can be hazarded, how for everything, even for the strangest idea, a great fire is ready in which it expires and rises up again.... At 2 A.M. I looked at the clock for the last time. As the maid came through the front room in the morning, I was writing the last sentence. Turning off the lamp, the light of day. The slight pains in my chest. The exhaustion that faded away in the middle of the night.... Only in this way can writing be done, only in a context like this, with a complete opening of body and soul.

Stach will go no further than Kafka’s own reflections and admissions. In this restraint he follows Kafka himself: on no account, he instructed the publisher of “The Metamorphosis,” should the insect be pictured. He saw explication as intrusion, and willful interpretation as a false carapace. A premonitory authorial warning: he was already warding off the Kafkaesque.

In refusing the critic’s temptation, Stach is liberated as biographer. Open to him is the limitless web of the societal, the political, the historical, the customary, the trivial; everything material, explicit, contemporaneous—sometimes day by day, on occasion even hour by hour; the trains and the telephones; the offices and the office machines; the bureaucrats and their litigations; the apartment and the family’s noises. In brief: the parochial, in all its dense particularity. The biographer excavates, he does not transcend; and through this robustly determined unearthing he rescues Kafka from the unearthliness of his repute.

Foremost is the question of language. In Prague, Czechs spoke Czech, Germans spoke German, Jews spoke German. Kafka’s ruminations on his relation to the language he was born into are by now as familiar (or as overfamiliar) as his face in the photographs, and equally revealing of shrouded pain. Jews who wrote in German, he lamented, resembled trapped beasts: “Their hind legs were still stuck in parental Judaism while their forelegs found no purchase on new ground.” They lived, moreover, with three impossibilities: “the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently.” To which he added a fourth, “the impossibility of writing.”

Kafka’s prose has been universally lauded as spare, somber, comic, lucent, almost platonically pure; but many of those who acclaim it are compelled to read through the art of the translator. Shelley Frisch, Stach’s heroic American translator, movingly reproduces his intended breadth and pace and tone, though now and again she is tempted to transmute his turns of phrase into popular local catchwords (“tickled pink,” “thrown for a loop,” “let off steam,” “went to temple,” “right off the bat,” and many more). This is not altogether a failing, since it is Stach, not Kafka, whom these displaced Americanisms represent; but at the same time they serve to remind us that the biographer, whose Muttersprache is German, comes to Kafka’s idiom with the deep linguistic affinities that only a native German, one who is also a literary writer, can assert. It is with such felt authority that Stach looks back at Kafka’s writing—not to say how and what it is, but rather how and what it is not: “There were no empty phrases, no semantic impurities, no weak metaphors—even when he lay in the sand and wrote postcards.”

Yet there is another side to Stach’s closeness to Kafka’s rhetoric. When Kafka declared the impossibility of writing German, it was plainly not the overriding mastery of his language that was in doubt, but its ownership—not that German did not belong to him, but that he did not belong to it. German was unassailably at the root of his tongue: might he claim it societally, nationally, as a natural inheritance, as an innate entitlement? The culture that touched him at all points had a prevailing Jewish coloration. Family traditions, however casually observed, were in the air he breathed, no matter how removed he was from their expression. His most intimate literary friendships consisted entirely of writers of similar background; at least two, Max Brod and Hugo Bergmann, were seriously committed to Zionism. He studied Hebrew, earnestly if fitfully, during various periods of his life, and he attended Martin Buber’s lectures on Zionism at the meetings of Bar Kochba, the Association of Jewish University Students. Unlike the disdainful Jewish burghers of Prague, who had long ago shed what they dismissed as an inferior zhargón, Kafka was drawn to a troupe of Yiddish-speaking players from Poland and their lively but somewhat makeshift theater. He was a warm proponent of the work of Berlin’s Jewish Home, which looked after the welfare and education of impoverished young immigrants from Eastern Europe. He read Heinrich Graetz’s massive History of the Jews; he read Der Jude, the monthly founded by Buber; he read Die Jüdische Rundschau, a Zionist weekly; he read Selbstwehr, yet another Zionist periodical, whose editor and all of whose contributors he knew. He also read Die Fackel, Karl Kraus’s scourging satiric journal.

If Kafka’s profoundest conviction (“I am made of literature”) kept its distance from these preoccupations and influences, he nevertheless felt their pressure in the way of an enveloping skin. His commanding conundrums, including the two opposing impossibilities—writing and not-writing—are almost suffocatingly knotted into Jewish insecurities. Zionism was one symptom of this powerful unease; and so was Kraus’s repudiation of Zionism, and his furious advocacy of radically self-obscuring assimilation.

It is difficult to refrain from pondering how a biographer (and a biographer is inevitably also a historian) will confront these extremes of cultural tension. Every biography is, after all, a kind of autobiography: it reveals predispositions, parallels, hidden needs; or possibly an unacknowledged wish to take on the subject’s persona, to become his secret-sharer. The biographer’s choice of subject is a confession of more than interest or attunement. The desire to live alongside another life, year by year, thought for thought, is what we mean by possession. And for Stach to be close, both as a given and as a fortuity, to Kafka’s language can hardly reflect the full scope of his willed immersion. He must also come close to Jewish foreboding—a foreboding marinated in the political and tribal and linguistic complexities of Austria-Hungary at the turbulent crux of its demise.

Much of Kafka’s fiction—The Trial, The Castle, “In the Penal Colony”—has too often made of him a prognosticator, as if he could intuit, through some uncanny telescope, the depredations that were soon to blacken Europe in the middle of the twentieth century. But the times required no clairvoyance; Jewish disquiet was an immediacy. At fourteen, Kafka witnessed anti-Semitic rioting that had begun as an anti-German protest against the Habsburg government’s denial of Czech language rights. At thirty-seven, three years before his death, and with The Castle still unwritten, he saw Prague’s historic Altneu synagogue attacked and its Torah scrolls torched. “I’ve been spending every afternoon outside on the streets, wallowing in anti-Semitism,” he recounted. “The other day I heard the Jews called Prašivé plemeno [mangy brood]. Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated? ... The heroism of staying on nevertheless is the heroism of cockroaches that cannot be exterminated even from the bathroom.” 

Post-Holocaust, all this must sting a susceptible German ear; note that Zyklon B, the genocidal gas of the extermination camps, was originally used as an insecticide. Yet there are reminders still more unsettling. Since a biography of Kafka will perforce include minor characters—his sisters Elli, Valli, and Ottla, for instance—it must finally arrive at Kafka’s afterlife, the destiny he did not live long enough to suffer: that zone of ultimate impossibility wherein all other impossibilities became one with the impossibility of staying alive. Between 1941 and 1943, all three sisters perished, Elli and Valli in Chełmno, Ottla in Auschwitz. They hover over Kafka’s biographies—this one, and all the rest—like torn and damaged Fates. Stach is never unaware of these points of connection; at first, uninvited, sotto voce, behind the scenes, in quiet recognition, they pierce the weave of his narrative. But by the time he attains his coda, Stach’s watchful voicing of the fraught history of the Jews of central Europe during the passage of Kafka’s life will have risen to a thunder.

And while a biographer may be willy-nilly a historian, and subliminally an autobiographer, he is, even more so, a species of novelist—of the nineteenth-century, loose-baggy-monster variety. He is in pursuit of the whole trajectory of a life, beginning, middle, end: chronology is king, postmodern fragmentation unwelcome, landscapes lavish, rooms and furnishings the same, nothing goes unnoticed. The biographer is a simulacrum, say, of George Eliot, who places her characters against the background of a society rendered both minutely and expansively, attending to ancestry, religion, economic standing, farming, banking, business, reading, travel, and more. Stach, in this vein, is doubtless the first to give so plentiful an account of the activities of the Prague Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, the government agency where Kafka was employed as a lawyer from 1908 until 1918, when advancing tuberculosis forced his retirement. That he divided his day into office and work—by declaring them antithetical—is itself a type of credo; but Kafka’s exalted literary image has too readily obscured the press of the quotidian. What did Kafka do, what were his everyday responsibilities? Stach lifts the dry-as-dust veil:

If an industrialist submitted an appeal, the office had to establish proof that the safety precautions of the firm in question were not up to the latest standards. But what were the latest standards? They could not be definitively stipulated with ordinances; they had to be continually reestablished, if possible by personal observation. Kafka, who already had legal expertise, quickly acquired the technical know-how; he attended courses and traveled through northern Bohemian industrial cities. Next to the swaying stacks of appeals on his huge office desk there was an array of journals on accident prevention ... in the areas in which he specialized—particularly the woodworking industry and quarries.

And so on and so on. An annual report, ostensibly submitted by Kafka, is titled “Accident Prevention Rules for Wood Planing Machines,” and recommends the use of a cylindrical spindle. It is accompanied by illustrations of mutilated hands. In the wake of World War I, with its tens of thousands of maimed and shell-shocked soldiers, he was to see far worse.

For Kafka, none of these lawyerly obligations, however demanding, counted as work. No matter that his acumen and skills were regularly rewarded with promotion by the pair of bookish and obliging men who were his superiors, and though he was deemed so valuable that they contrived to have him exempted from military service, he felt depleted, and even assaulted, by the very papers his own hand produced. Of this necessarily official language he wrote bitterly, “I am still holding all of it in my mouth with revulsion and a feeling of shame, as though it were raw flesh cut out of me (that is how much effort it cost me) ... everything in me is ready for lyrical work, and a work of that kind would be a heavenly resolution and a real coming alive for me, while here, in the office, because of such a wretched document I have to tear from a body capable of such happiness a piece of its flesh.” And again, with the emphasis of despair, “real hell is there in the office; I no longer fear any other.” And yet another tightening of the vise: “For me it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no way out except insanity.”

At two o’clock in the afternoon, at the close of the six tormenting hours in the office, he escaped to the family apartment, a noisy and crowded habitat that was less a refuge than a second entrapment. Seven persons occupied these cramped and untranquil rooms: the blustering bullying paterfamilias, the compliant mother, the three daughters, the discontented son yearning for privacy and quiet, and a live-in maid. Kafka’s bedroom, the burning vortex of his nocturnal writing, lay between the parlor and his parents’ room; it was a passagewayfor his father’s comings and goings, early and late, trailing his bathrobe. And the apartment, like the office, had its own distinct raison d’être: it was the ground, the support, and the indispensable source of administrative personnel for the family shop, a successful fancy-goods emporium with numerous employees. Since both parents put in many hours there, and all family members were obliged to do the same, in this way the shop fed the apartment, and the apartment fed the shop.

Hermann Kafka, the son of a shochet—a ritual butcher—had risen from a burdened childhood in a backward rural village to bourgeois respectability, and was impatient with any deviation from conventional expectations. Ottla, the youngest daughter, was attracted to the countryside and aspired to farming—a far cry from her duties in the shop. Franz was still another riddle. At the dinner table he confined himself to an ascetic diet of mainly fruits and nuts, masticating each mouthful thirty-two times, according to the nutritional tenets of Fletcherism. But his most controversial habit was sleeping in the afternoon after leaving the office: this was to secure a usable wakefulness for the sake of his work—his true work—in the apartment’s welcome middle-of-the-night silence. Sleeping in the afternoon, during shop hours? To the business-minded father, this was incomprehensible; it was delinquent.

Kafka’s delinquency became still more scandalous when he was recruited to take on the ownership and management of an asbestos factory, in partnership with the ambitious husband of his newly married sister Elli. Hermann Kafka approved of his son-in-law’s entrepreneurial plans, but since family money was being dedicated to this enterprise, and the young man was an untried stranger, it was imperative that a blood relation contribute to the stability and probity of the business. At first Kafka attempted to fulfill a commitment he had never sought—the literature-besotted son as industrialist!—and grudgingly gave his afternoons to the factory, which meant sacrificing his nights. But despite his father’s irritable proddings, he could not keep up even a pretense of interest (he was at this time far more absorbed in the precarious fortunes of the Yiddish players he had befriended), and at length the business failed.

The record Kafka left of it is oblivious to product and profit-and-loss; and though conceivably he might have appraised the factory and its perilously superannuated machines through the eyes of the workers’ accident official, it was instead the fevered midnight writer who observed “the girls in their absolutely unbearably dirty and untailored clothing, their hair unkempt, as though they had just got out of bed, their facial expressions set by the incessant noise of the transmission belts and by the separate machine that is automatic but unpredictable, stopping and starting.” “The girls,” he went on, “are not people—you don’t say hello to them, you don’t apologize for bumping into them; when you call them over to do something, they do it but go right back to the machine; with a nod of the head you show them what to do; they stand there in petticoats; they are at the mercy of the pettiest power.... When six o’clock comes, however, and they call it out to one another, they untie their kerchiefs from around their necks and hair, dust themselves off with a brush that is passed around the room and is demanded by the ones who are impatient, they pull their skirts over their heads and clean their hands as well as they can; they are women, after all; ... you can no longer bump into them, stare at them, or ignore them; ... and you do not know how to react when one of them holds [your] winter coat for [you] to put on.”

The kerchiefs, the skirts, the brush, the washing, the coat: Walter Benjamin, in his discriminating musings on Kafka, concludes that “the gesture remains the decisive thing.” “Each gesture,” he writes, “is an event—one might even say, a drama—in itself.” And it is the factory girl’s simple act of helping with a coat that has the power to embarrass, perhaps even to shame, the owner.

This drama of the minutely mundane was what Kafka demanded of Felice Bauer: it was an inquisition of the humdrum, a third-degree of her every movement and choice. He wanted a description of her blouse, her room, her reading, her sleeping; what her employment entailed; how she was occupied when at leisure (she liked to go dancing, she practiced gymnastics). He wanted to claim and envelop her altogether. He repeatedly asked for her photograph, and he repeatedly sent his own. When in their accelerating daily—sometimes hourly—correspondence she abandoned the formal “Sie” and addressed him familiarly as “Du,” he fell into a trance of happiness.

Felice, a distant relation of Max Brod’s visiting from Berlin, was introduced to Kafka at the Brod family dinner table. It was, apart from Brod’s parents, a meeting of young people. Felice was twenty-four, Max twenty-eight, Kafka twenty-nine. Stach announces this unwittingly portentous occasion with a trumpet blast: “The history of human events, like intellectual and literary history, highlights certain dates; these are engraved in the cultural foundation of future generations.... The evening of August 13, 1912 ... changed the face of German language literature, of world literature.” These grand phrases might have been applied to the somewhat more modest purpose of Kafka’s presence that night: he and Brod had planned to look over a collection of sketches that Brod had long been urging his reluctant friend to agree to publish. The final decision about the order of the pieces was consummated in a colloquy after dinner, and what was to become Kafka’s earliest publication, Meditation, was at last ready to be sent off. From the point of view of Kafka’s biographers, though, what changed the face of world literature was not this small book by a little-known writer too perfectionist to release his work without lacerating self-doubt. It was the face of Felice Bauer. If not for the blizzard of revelatory letters that swept over her, enraptured and entreating to begin with, and then dismissive and retreating, Kafka’s ponderings and sufferings during five crucially introspective years would have remained a vacuum: cries unheard, crises unrecorded.

Hers was a wholly ordinary face. Kafka, sitting across from the young woman from Berlin, at first mistook her for the maid. “Bony empty face,” he later wrote, looking back at his initial impression, “displaying its emptiness openly. A bare throat. Her blouse tossed on.... A nose almost broken. Blond, somewhat stiff, unappealing hair, and a strong chin.” He did not note the two black moles that are prominent in one of her photos, though absent in others, or, in nearly all of these, the bad teeth masked by closed lips. He learned that she worked for Parlograph, a firm selling dictation machines, having risen from typist to managerial status, and often traveling to trade fairs as company representative. If her looks and dress failed to attract him, her independence, reflected in her conversation, did. That she frequently read through the night impressed him. When she mentioned that she was studying Hebrew, he was captivated, and before the evening was over, the two of them were planning a journey to Palestine together—after which Kafka did not set eyes on her again for seven months. When he began to write to her, it was as a smitten and instantly possessive lover.

The Felice of Kafka’s tumultuous letters was an imagined—a wished-for—figure. The actual Felice was an intelligent, practical, reasonable, efficient, problem-solving, generous woman who soon recognized that she had been singled out by an uncommon rapture stirred by an uncommon nature. She was more than willing to respond, but every accommodating attempt resulted in a setback. He complained that she was not open enough—but according to the standards and constraints of the proper middle-class background that defined her, how could she be? Her father was living apart from his family, her unmarried sister was suddenly pregnant, her brother had to be shipped off to America to escape reckless money entanglements. When these secret shames were finally disclosed, they were scarcely what put off Kafka; her habit of silence would bring him a deeper dismay.

He sent her an inscribed copy of Meditation, and though he appealed to her, piteously, for a comment (“Dearest, look, I want to have the feeling that you turn to me with everything; nothing, not the slightest thing should be left unsaid”), she never replied. Perhaps she could not: what was she to make of writing so enigmatic? She went to the theater, she read Ibsen; still, what was she to make of, say, “Trees,” a story, if that is what it was, of four perplexing sentences? How was she to fathom such a thing?

For we are like tree trunks in the snow. In appearance they lie sleekly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling. No, it can’t be done, but they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only appearance.

His passionate explanation—“I am made of literature and nothing else”—led to misunderstanding. Pragmatist that she was, she counseled moderation. And worse yet: it led to what she took to be understanding—she had begun to sense in him “seeds of greatness.”

And with all the sympathetic warmth of wishing to please him, she stumbled into a critical misjudgment—she offered to be close to him while he wrote—and lost him altogether. His shock at this innocent proposal turned into vehement resentment, bordering even on revulsion, as if she were intending to fleece him of his survival as a writer; and shock, resentment, revulsion culminated in one of his most wrenchingly monastic images of artistic self-entombment: 

Once you wrote that you wanted to sit by my side as I write; just keep in mind that I cannot write like that (even so I cannot write much), but in that case I would not be able to write at all. Writing means revealing oneself to excess, the utmost candor and surrender, in which a person would feel he is losing himself in his interaction with other people and from which he will always shy away as long as he hasn’t taken leave of his senses—because everyone wants to live as long as he is alive.... Anything that writing adopts from the surface of existence ... is nothing, and caves in on itself at the moment that a truer feeling rattles this upper ground. That is why one cannot be alone enough when one is writing; that is why it cannot be quiet enough around one; the night is not night enough.... I have often thought that the best kind of life for me would be to stay in the innermost room of an extended locked cellar with my writing materials and a lamp.... What I would write! From what depths I would draw it up!

Here he was assuring the woman who trusted she would soon become his wife that the prospect of her coming near would threaten his capacity to live, and that rather than have her sit beside him he would prefer to be immured underground. This ruthless detachment continued through two painful official engagements (the last embroiling him in the off-putting ritual of choosing the marital furniture and the conjugal apartment), until he had depleted Felice down to the very lees of her usable sustenance.

In the vista of Kafka’s life, Felice is a promontory, partly because she occupied so large a tract of it, but also because of a simple bibliographical datum: she kept his letters. (He did not preserve hers.) She kept them through her marriage, and through her emigration to America in 1936, when escape from Nazi Germany became imperative, until her unremarked death in 1960 in a New York suburb. Beyond—or below—the promontory are the foothills, lesser outcroppings that reflect the configuration of the greater. Or put it that the letters to Felice expose the template, the very genome, of Kafka’s character as it has revealed itself to biographers, and to Stach in particular; and by now they are themselves seen to be literature as much as the canonical work itself. They underlie a binding continuum: from the diaries to the letters to Felice to the letters to Milena Jesenská to the letters to Max Brod to the prodigious one-hundred-page letter to Kafka’s father—and even to a single sketch, ink on paper, drawn by Kafka. A stark black stick figure, stick elbows bent, stick legs outstretched among stick legs of table and chair, all of it spider-like. The spider’s body—a human head—rests on the table. It is an image of defeat, surrender, despair, submission.

Milena Jesenská came to Kafka as a translator; in every way she was what Felice was not. Her eyes were as pale as Felice’s, but rounder, and her nose was round, and her chin, and her mouth. Felice was a conformist: the furniture must be heavy and ornate, signaling a settled and prosperous marriage. Milena was a rebel, and to earn money in a lean time she was not above carrying luggage for travelers in the Vienna train station. She was a nimble writer and an ardent if contrarian spirit: “a living fire,” as Kafka described her to Brod. Her mother was long dead, and her father, an eminent professor of dentistry, recognizing her exceptional gifts, sent her to an elite high school for Czech girls, where the classics and modern languages were taught and the arts were encouraged and cultivated. She and a handful of like-minded classmates made it a habit to loiter in Prague’s literary cafés, where she encountered Ernst Pollak, ten years her senior, whom she eventually married. 

From her father’s standpoint the marriage was an insurrectionist act that estranged him from his daughter. The professor was a Czech nationalist, hostile to Germans, and especially averse to their Prague subdivision, German-identified Jews. After futilely confining Milena in a mental institution for some months, he dispatched her and the social embarrassment of her Jewish husband to Vienna—where, in a period of serious postwar scarcity, food was even harder to come by than in Prague. Only yesterday the capital of an empire, Vienna was now a weakened and impoverished outlier, despite its lively literary scene. It turned out to be an uneasy match: Pollak was a persistent philanderer and a dissatisfied writer manqué, impressively voluble in bookish circles but stymied on the page. It was he who introduced Milena to Kafka’s still sparse publications, which inspired her to render “The Stoker” into Czech—the story that was to become the opening chapter of The Man Who Disappeared, his abandoned early novel. Kafka was admiring and gratified (“I find there is constant powerful and decisive understanding,” he told her), and their correspondence began, rapidly turning intimate: Kafka’s second limitless outpouring of letters to a young woman who kindled his longings and embodied his subterranean desires.

But if Felice had been a fabricated muse, as unresponsively remote from his idée fixe as a muse ought not to be, Milena was no muse at all. She provoked and importuned him from a position of equality; she was perceptive and quick and blunt and forward. Almost instantly she startled him: “Are you a Jew?” And though he had rarely spoken to Felice of the disquieting Jewish consciousness which perpetually dogged him (a self-punishing sensitiveness he and Brod had in common), to Milena he unburdened himself with a suicidal bitterness that in one ferocious stroke reviled and mocked the choking anti-Semitism he knew too well:

I could sooner reproach you for having much too high an opinion of the Jews you do know (me included) ... at times I’d like to stuff them all, as Jews (me included) into, say, the drawer of the laundry chest, wait, open the drawer a little to see if they’ve all suffocated, and if not, shut the drawer again, and keep doing this until the end.

She had to put up with this; yet she summoned him, and he came, and in the Vienna woods one afternoon they lived out an idyll, the two of them lying on the forest floor, he with his head on her half-exposed breast. Together they schemed how she might leave Pollak; in the end she could not.

He was himself not free. He was at this time engaged to be married to Julie Wohryzek, a young woman whom Hermann Kafka, threatening and berating, disapproved of as déclassé; unlike Felice, she was not suitably respectable. Her father was a penniless cobbler and the shammes of a synagogue—worse, she occasionally fell into a low Yiddish phrase, and still worse, she had a “loose” reputation. Kafka had met her at a boarding house passing for a tuberculosis sanitorium; like him, she was there to convalesce. When Milena swept in, he disposed of this inflamed but short-lived attachment as no better than a dalliance, to be blown away like a stray straw.

A space, then, was cleared for Milena: a landscape wherein the intellectual could be joined to the erotic. She filled it with her certainties and uncertainties, her conviction too often erased by ambivalence. Kafka’s uncertainties ran deeper, and his mode of retreat was well practiced: “We are living in misunderstandings; our questions are rendered worthless by our replies. Now we have to stop writing one another and leave the future to the future.” To Brod, Milena sent an epitaph to the marriage that both she and Kafka had evaded. “He always thinks that he himself is the guilty and weak one,” she wrote. “And yet there is not another person in the world who has his colossal strength: that absolute, unalterable necessity for perfection, purity, and truth.” Milena outlived Kafka by twenty years. In 1944, she was arrested for sheltering Jews and aiding their flight; she perished in Ravensbrück.

Despite three failed engagements, Kafka never married. Yet he was not without such confidential support; there were, in fact, three loyally solicitous persons who took on a wifely role: his sister Ottla; Max Brod; and, at the close of his life, Dora Diamant. Ottla and Kafka had, early on, an obstacle in common—Hermann Kafka and his resistance to their independence. The monstrous (in size and in force) j’accuse that the son addressed, but never delivered, to the father now stands as yet another canonical work. Ottla’s more quiet eruption came through stubborn acts of autonomy; unlike Kafka, she left behind both the family apartment and her role in the family economy. Hermann Kafka might mock his Czech employees as “my paid enemies,” but Ottla chose to marry a Czech. And when the domestic commotion became unsustainable for Kafka’s work, she gave him the use of the little neighborhood hideaway she had privately acquired. When his tuberculosis began to advance, and he declined to be admitted to yet another sanitorium (there were many such recuperative sojourns), she cared for him with wifely devotion at the longed-for farm she finally secured in the remote village of Zürau, where Kafka felt uncommonly serene. “I live with Ottla in a good little marriage,” he assured Brod.

Brod was Kafka’s confidant and champion, his first reader, and also his first listener: despite reticence and self-denigration, Kafka relished reading his work to friends. It was Brod who pushed Kafka to publish, pursuing skeptical editors on his behalf. “I personally consider Kafka (along with Gerhart Hauptmann and Hamsun) the greatest living writer!” he exclaimed to Martin Buber. “What I wouldn’t do to make him more active!” Brod was himself energetic on many fronts: he turned out novels, plays, polemics, political broadsides; he ran to meetings for this cause and that; he labored to bridge the divide between Germans and Czechs; he promoted Czech writers and composers; and with Kafka (though not so diligently) he studied Hebrew. The two friends traveled to Weimar to visit Goethe’s house, where each drew a sketch of the house and garden, and Kafka was all at once infatuated with the caretaker’s young daughter.

But increasingly Kafka’s excursions away from Prague were solitary journeys to health resorts and tuberculosis sanitoriums; and inexorably in step with these, Stach’s later chapters hurtle through harrowing episodes of fever, relentless coughing, days forcibly spent in bed, and finally, when the disease spread to the larynx, the threat of suffocation. Brod, always Kafka’s anxious guardian, pressed him from the first to see the proper specialist and undertake the proper treatment. Kafka himself was oddly unperturbed: he believed that a psychosomatic element was the cause, and that, as he wrote to Ottla, “there is undoubtedly justice in this illness.” As his condition worsened, he was compelled to give up his position at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute—which, like much of postwar Europe, was undergoing a political transformation. Habsburg officialdom was now replaced by Czech officialdom, in Munich swastikas were flying, and in Prague the decibels of anti-Semitism rang shriller. Hermann Kafka, uneasy in the company of his paid enemies, closed up his shop.

In the summer of 1923, Kafka—already seriously beginning to fail—entered into what can only be called a marriage, even if it had no official sanction and might never have been sexually consummated. It was his most daring personal commitment, and the only one untroubled by vacillation or doubts. Dora Diamant was twenty-five years old, the daughter of a rigidly observant Polish Hasidic family loyal to the dynastic rebbe of Ger. Though Zionism was frowned upon as dangerously secular, Dora found her way to the writings of Theodor Herzl, broke from the constrictions of her background, and settled in Berlin. Here she worked with the children of the Jewish Home, the very institution Kafka had been so moved by in the past (and had pressed hard for Felice to support as a volunteer). Berlin was in chaos, reeling under strikes, riots, food shortages, and massive inflation. Despite every predictable discomfort and gravely diminishing funds, it was into this maelstrom that Kafka came to join Dora for one of the most tranquil intervals of his life.

Half earnestly, half fancifully, they spoke of a future in Palestine, where, to make ends meet, they would open a little restaurant. But the fevers continued to accelerate, and while Dora nursed him with singular tenderness, it became clear, especially under pressure from the family in Prague, that Kafka was in urgent need of professional care. Another sanitorium followed, and then a hospital specializing in diseases of the larynx, always with Dora hovering protectively near. By now Kafka’s suffering had intensified significantly: unable to speak, he communicated on slips of paper; unable to swallow food, he was facing actual starvation, even as he struggled over proofs of “The Hunger Artist.” At the last he pleaded for a lethal dose of morphine, warning—Kafka’s deliberate paradox of the final paroxysm—that to be deprived of his death would count as murder. With Tolstoyan power, Stach carries us through these sorrowful cadences. The reader is left grieving.

Ottla; Hermann Kafka; Felice; Milena; Dora. They are, ultimately, no more than arresting figures in a biography. When the book is shut, their life-shaping influences evaporate. Not so Max Brod. He became—and remains—a lasting force in Kafka’s posthumous destiny. In disobeying his friend’s firm request to destroy the existing body of his unpublished manuscripts and to prevent further dissemination of those already in print, Brod assured the survival of the work of an unparalleled literary master. Solely because of this proprietary betrayal, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika (Brod’s title for The Man Who Disappeared) live on. Had there been no Brod, there would be no Kafka as we now read him. (And had Brod not fled German-occupied Prague for Tel Aviv in 1939, there would today not be a substantial cache of still unvetted manuscripts preserved in an Israeli national archive. It is from this trove that Stach’s yet-to-be-published final volume will be drawn.) Savior though he was, Brod also manipulated whatever came into his hands. He invented titles for what was left untitled. He organized loose chapters into a sequence of his own devising. Having taken on the role of Kafka’s authentic representative, he argued for what he believed to be the authoritative interpretation of Kafka’s inmost meanings.

Stach ventures no such defining conviction. Instead he ruminates and speculates, not as a zealously theorizing critic but as a devoted literary sympathizer who has probed as far as is feasible into the concealments of Kafka’s psyche. Often he stops to admit that “we cannot know.” In contemplating the work, he tentatively supposes and experientially exposes. He eschews the false empyrean, and will never look to transcend the ground that both moored and unmoored his subject. In this honest and honorable biography there is no trace of the Kafkaesque; but in it you may find a crystal granule of the Kafka who was.

Cynthia Ozick is the author, most recently, of Foreign Bodies (Mariner).