The Statue of Liberty holding not a torch but a sword. A massive insect on its back in an apartment bedroom. A decaying machine designed to inscribe a prisoner’s sentence into the skin of his back. These images, like so many others from Kafka’s mind, are so strange and immediate as to belie their age. His stories seem disturbingly contemporary, as if they had not been written by an author who died nearly a century ago. To enter Kafka’s cosmos is to enter a space of unease, one that retroactively casts our own world in an unfamiliar light.
The urge to explain how anybody might possibly conceive these seemingly inconceivable stories is overwhelming. Was Kafka estranged from daily life? Was he deformed or antisocial? Not at all, says Kafka’s biographer Reiner Stach. “Kafka’s social life is striking for the fact that he was generally well received by all,” he tells us at the start of an anecdote about the one person who bore him any ill will. “In his everyday life, Kafka was friendly, helpful, charming, a sensitive listener, but also discreet.” This veneer of innocence is every bit as evident in his prose. Sentences that were characterized by Hannah Arendt as “the purest German prose of the century” and by George Steiner as “stainless quiet” only serve to underscore how sinister, how nastily vivid Kafka’s visions were. All these innocuous attributes, like the Kafka we see in his photographs—his distinctive hair, those piercing eyes, that calm expression—simply feel like a façade.
Those who would delve deeper to seek explanations must turn to Reiner Stach’s magisterial biography, which has come out, part by part, over the past 14 years. Due to various complications, including a trial around the ownership of Kafka’s papers (which Judith Butler discussed at length in the London Review of Books), Stach was forced to postpone completion of the first volume. In the meantime, he published the second volume—covering 1910 to 1915, the five years when Kafka’s best-known books were written—in 2002, and the third volume—from 1916 to 1924, the year he died—in 2008. The long-awaited first volume, covering the 27 years from Kafka’s birth in 1883 to 1910, was finally published in German in 2014; the English edition (which Princeton-based translator Shelley Frisch has been translating nearly simultaneously with Stach’s writing thereof) is currently anticipated for this fall.
Two years before readers in Berlin and Vienna could finally buy this literary equivalent to a foundation stone, Stach’s German publisher put out Ist das Kafka?: 99 Fundstücke, a textual cabinet of curiosities displaying 99 “finds” from Stach’s extensive research. This book, now metamorphosed into English by Kurt Beals as Is that Kafka?: 99 Finds, offers extracts from Kafka’s octavo notebooks; musings on beer drawn from the full breadth of Kafka’s correspondence; an investigation into various reports of the color of Kafka’s eyes; and even an explanation of how Kafka once schemed (and failed) to become a millionaire. Somehow, this surprisingly hefty book of trivia does not feel like a gimmick. Its various components, rather, present many different facets of this writer who was anything but anodyne. We are introduced to a complex figure who, for example, struggled mightily to tell a single lie for his own sake (as we learn in Find 8), but who (in Find 70) overcame this reluctance to console a little girl who had lost her doll, telling her a stream of invented stories from the doll’s new life.
There is a delightful variety in what Stach chooses to discuss. As befits any physical or literary Wunderkammer, some of the finds strain toward hyperbole (Find 66, “Kafka Invents the Answering Machine”) or seem consciously keyed to contemporary concerns (Find 28, “Was Kafka Anti-Vaccinations?”). But on the whole they aim to illuminate the truths of Kafka’s biography. In Find 40—“Casualties at a Kafka Reading?”—Stach shares the oft-repeated story of a reading that Rilke supposedly attended. One attendee, Max Pulver, had subsequently written of it that “an unconscious woman was carried out ... Two more people were laid low by [Kafka’s] words.” Stach methodically takes apart this alluring bit of apocrypha, showing how this tale of three people losing consciousness from listening to Kafka likely never happened.
The finds also allow Stach to share some tangential insights and discussions of his research process that perhaps would have been buried in his biography’s footnotes. A frequent pitfall of historical research is that sometimes, quite simply, there is no full explanation possible. In Find 33, Stach discusses a poem Kafka wrote and eventually memorized. But how exactly the paper with his poem ended up hidden in a notebook he used later in life is unclear. “Kafka may have placed the page there while he was using the notebook,” Stach muses. “Or it may have accidentally been placed in the Zürau notebook while Max Brod was working on Kafka’s papers after his death.” Is the difference crucial? No, but Stach’s admitted uncertainty amounts to a metaphor for the uncertainty that surrounds even a project as scrupulously researched as his.
Kafka’s slips of the pen are another locus of ambivalence and, as we are told in Find 37, could be read as “momentary lapses of conscious control.” There are reproductions of Kafka’s hasty corrections in his manuscript of The Trial of “F.K.” to “F.B.,” his shorthand for the character Fräulein Bürstner. Stach floats a few theories about this “F.K.” he accidentally wrote down: “Franz Kafka, Felice Kafka, Fräulein Kafka . . . His engagement to Felice Bauer had been dissolved a few weeks earlier.”
Still, sometimes mistakes are nothing more than that. In Find 55, for example, the statement “Kafka left a copy of The Trial ... for his sister Ottla” faces a page showing a facsimile of that inscribed title page—but the book is actually “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”). No special interpretation applies here; the labor of translation inevitably entails such slips, which are as easily corrected as Kafka’s incorrect initialisms. In the end, the German professor Kurt Beals, a former editor at New Directions, has produced a carefully polished prose to mirror Stach’s—and Kafka’s—own.
Finds 76 and 79, both titled “Is that Kafka?,” question whether or not the man is visible in specific pictures of crowds. Find 82 presents the one surviving letter that Kafka got from a reader: a complaint about not being able to make sense of “The Metamorphosis.” There is no annotation by Kafka, nor record of a reply. Find 90 is a questionnaire from Max Brod about Kafka’s health in his later years, since he resisted speaking straightforwardly about the subject; his answers (“doctor’s secret, supposedly favorable,” “not good, almost like winter on cold evenings”) are still cryptic. Every new section of Is that Kafka? makes it increasingly clear that the man under the biographer’s microscope refuses to come into clear focus.
But how could Kafka be understood, if not by images? A story plucked from one of Kafka’s blue octavo notebooks anchors Find 54. It starts without preamble—“My two hands began to fight”—and plunges us into a world where the narrator seems to be a passive, unconcerned observer of his two hands at war. This strange scene, in which it is entirely possible that “the left hand would have broken from its wrist and hurtled to the floor,” is every bit as vivid as all the other images to which Kafka owes his fame. The story barrels forward, its readers torn between the hands’ thoughtless violence and the narrator’s calm awareness that “I can pull them apart with a gentle tug and put an end to the fight and the adversity.” Then, suddenly, there is an end: “But instead, the two now lie on top of each other, the right hand stroking the back of the left, and I, the dishonest referee, simply nod.” The story is simultaneously resonant and dissonant: We have all experienced moments when our body was out of our control—but never to this degree, never with this much indifference. Stach’s mention of a different ending to the story proves Kafka to be truly beyond anyone’s ken.
And similarly, to turn the pages of Is that Kafka?—from the childhood story of his giving coins to a beggar, all the way to the obituary Milena Jesenská wrote upon his death—is to feel equally close to and distant from the man in question. Like the two warring hands, these facts jostle against each other, clamor for our attention, but ultimately are vignettes firmly set within a larger history of which we can only glimpse a small portion. The man behind all these stories is only partially illuminated by these 99 finds, which chip away at the monolithic image of him as a calm figure generating unimaginable stories; we are scarcely closer to any complete insight (if one can ever be had) of this strange and difficult genius. “It’s hard to argue against images,” Stach acknowledges in his introduction, “but counter-images can help us to destabilize their monopoly somewhat.” Is that Kafka? purports to present 99 “finds,” but these could also be 99 different perspectives on the same scene, or 99 peepholes through seemingly impenetrable doors.
Is that Kafka? is a beautiful display of unexpected wonders and curiosities, each one glittering with light from a source that will never be understood. In some ways, it is a delightful little objet d’art for readers intrigued by the author. But more than anything, it is an enticement to delve into all three volumes of Reiner Stach’s painstaking biography of Kafka, and to ponder an image as strange as any Kafka dreamed up: a man who, as we look at him, grows less and less decipherable.