KAFKA: THE DECISIVE YEARS


By Reiner Stach


Translated by Shelley Frisch (Harcourt, 581 pp., $35)






THERE IS A TANTALIZING gap between our increasingly detailed knowledge of Kafka's life and our imperfect understanding of his achievement as a writer. His work seems to cry out for biographical readings and has often been subjected to them, characteristically along psychoanalytic lines. Yet the obvious connections between life and work have not explained much about the work. Kafka's tormented relationship with his father, for example, disturbingly etched in that strangest of autobiographical documents, "The Letter to His Father," would seem to be directly reflected in his story "The Judgment"; but the hypnotic power of the story, a breakthrough for Kafka in 1912, resists reduction to the writer's all-too-evident sense of guilt and inadequacy.

Kafka abundantly documented his own life in his diaries and in his voluminous correspondence, and many of those who knew him have left testimonies of various sorts. As a result, a great deal is known in purely factual terms about the circumstances of his life, from early adulthood until his death of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of forty-one--his work as a mid-level legal bureaucrat in the Prague office of the Hapsburg state insurance company; his circle of literary friends; his flirtation with Zionism and with the culture of East European Jewry; his on-again, off-again engagement to Felice Bauer; his maniacal pursuit of health at sanatoria and through vegetarian diets, exercise regimens, occasional nudism, and much else; his asceticism; his nocturnal schedule as a writer. And yet no satisfying general biography of Kafka has appeared, until now.

In German there are some excellent studies of particular episodes or aspects of his life, as there are, to a lesser degree, in French. The early biography by his friend and literary executor Max Brod, which appeared in 1937, mainly illustrates how little Brod fathomed the man he thought of as his intimate. (Walter Benjamin famously remarked that of all the enigmas of Kafka's life, his friendship with Brod was one of the greatest.) The two biographies written in English leave much to be desired, for different reasons: Frederick Karl's Franz Kafka: Representative Man evinces, beginning with the title, the lackluster quality of the sundry literary biographies that he churned out year after year, and Ernst Pawel's The Nightmare of Reason is vitiated by unwarranted inferences and is guilty of the ultimate vulgarity of making Kafka a prophet of the Holocaust. (This is a distortion that the incorrigible George Steiner continues to peddle.)


AGAINST THIS SPOTTY background, the new volume by Reiner Stach, which appeared in Germany a few years ago and is felicitously translated by Shelley Frisch, can be welcomed as a scrupulous, discriminating, and highly instructive account of Kafka's life. Stach, who was involved in the new and painstakingly established German edition of Kafka's works that appeared during the 1990s, and who has previously published criticism about Kafka's work, is a biographer unwilling to take a step unless he can document it with authentic primary sources. This commitment leads him to begin his story not with the subject's childhood but in 1910, and to concentrate especially on the next five years, for which abundant documentation is available, particularly in Kafka's letters to Felice Bauer. (He will deal with the remaining nine years of Kafka's life in two more projected volumes.) This procedure creates the effect of a narrative of the life in slow motion. Were Stach to have treated the entire life from early childhood to the end at this pace, the resultant biography would have exceeded three thousand pages. But his intelligence, his perceptive understanding of the fiction, and the sheer mass of information that he commands (not only about Kafka but also about the social history of Kafka's time and place) make this a book that rewards patient reading.

Intellectual modesty is a virtue less common among biographers than it should be, but Stach exhibits it in a variety of admirable ways. "Anyone who tackles [Kafka]," he says at the outset, "has to anticipate failing." A couple of pages later, he lays out in an aphorism the challenge that he faces: "The biographer's task is to explain how a consciousness that is set thinking by everything could evolve into a consciousness that set everyone thinking." As he proceeds, Stach is constantly aware that the mass of "indicators of the genesis of texts" does not necessarily deliver to us their meaning and may not even help us to read them: "Circumstantial evidence, particularly when a significant amount is gathered, carries with it a promise of comprehension and clarification that it cannot possibly fulfill." But the circumstantial evidence may nonetheless lead us to ponder the enigma of Kafka's genius in a new way, even if the mystery will stubbornly persist.

The years from 1910 to 1915 are properly called "decisive," for it was in this period that Kafka discovered himself as a writer. In the fall of 1912 he wrote "The Judgment" on a long feverish Yom Kippur night. In late September of the same year he began to make rapid progress on his first novel, The Man Who Disappeared. (This is the book that Max Brod would decide to call Amerika.) Like his two other novels, it was to remain unfinished. In November 1912, he wrote "The Metamorphosis." In the summer of 1914, just as Europe was convulsed by war, he launched work on The Trial, and late in that year he produced "In the Penal Colony," which is, along with "The Judgment" and "The Metamorphosis," among his most disturbing stories.

The bizarre synchronization of the Great War and this surge of creativity in Kafka had a negative side, like most of the expressions of self-affirmation in his life. As Stach observes, "He would be trapped in Prague, not just emotionally but in every way"--unable to implement his plan of leaving his parents' home, impeded from crossing the border to visit Felice in Berlin and even from making phone calls to her, and cut off from the journals where he might have published because they were either silenced or caught up in the general war fever.

The focus on the period from 1910 to 1915, with a particularly detailed treatment of the span from 1912 to 1914, has the effect of vividly highlighting Kafka's well-known neuroses, chiefly because this was the period of his anguished, self-defeating courtship of Felice. That relationship was the most peculiar extended episode in Kafka's peculiar life, and Stach's account helps make sense of it. "Kafka yearned for lasting intimacy," he comments, "but this intimacy seemed possible only with a woman who was equally removed from the two neurotic archetypal images of the feminine--mother and whore." In fact, Felice does not appear to have held any sexual attraction for Kafka, and the equine features that she exhibits in her photographs suggest that she was no beauty. The lack of sexual appeal in this woman who was practical, business-like, independent, and a Zionist to boot may have actually drawn Kafka to her, for at least initially he had no compelling reasons to think about carnal consummation, which was something that clearly worried him.

In the event, when they became engaged, Kafka would have to face the prospect of conjugality, and in Stach's persuasive account, his fear of being sexually inadequate was a principal motive in his repeated centrifugal movements from his fiancée in Berlin. When the two met in a hotel in a town on the German-Austrian border at the end of 1914, Felice was evidently ready for sex, or she would not have permitted herself to go to a man's hotel room, but Franz was not. What he did instead, astonishingly, was to read out loud to her, from the manuscript of The Trial, the episode "Before the Law." Stach tartly observes: "Was he not also standing before an open gate? And not entering. Instead he read her a story about entrances, doorkeepers, and waiting in vain."

Kafka's letters to Felice are surely among the strangest letters a suitor ever sent to his beloved. Since they had spent only one evening together when they first met during a visit she made to Prague in 1912, the subsequent emotional relationship between them was essentially generated through their correspondence. For many months the written exchanges were daily, and through the safe distance of a purely epistolary intimacy, Kafka could experience a consuming sense of devotion to her. But his ambivalences were altogether violent, and his brief frenetic visits to Berlin were a compound of sad farce and frustration. Many of his letters are filled with expressions of self-abasement that might seem designed to drive a woman to the other end of the world: "Often--and in my innermost self possibly all the time-- I doubt that I am a human being." "Haven't I been squirming in front of you like something poisonous for months." And even a frank confession of anxiety about impotence: "My real fear…is that I will never be able to possess you. That at best I would be confined to kissing your absentmindedly extended hand, like an unthinkingly loyal dog." We may wonder what led Felice to stick to this relationship. One suspects that she was drawn to the idea of Kafka as a genius--a dangerously seductive idea for some women. Perhaps the sheer momentum of the bond woven through Kafka's epistolary initiative imposed a sense of obligation on her. And perhaps he was, after all, the one prospect that had presented itself, with no others in view.

The multifarious manifestations of Kafka's neuroses beyond the sphere of betrothal and sexuality are familiar to anyone who has read his diaries and letters, though it must be said that Stach provides an unsettlingly vivid and detailed account of them. These include his dedication to a system of "Fletcherizing" his food (chewing each mouthful more than fifty times), which must have made him a charming table companion; his practice of exercising nude before an open window, even in coldest winter; his inability to stand up to his overbearing father; his obsessive self-doubting; his renunciation of food to the verge of fasting (which he would memorably transpose into "The Hunger Artist"). Stach persuasively suggests that Kafka was fixated on an ideal of "purity," which for him meant an ascetic withdrawal into the realm of art from both the pleasures and the messy complications of ordinary life.

In one of his letters to Felice, he spun out a fantasy of inhabiting "the innermost room of a locked cellar," entirely isolated, with nothing by him but his writing implements and a lamp, his food silently brought to him by invisible attendants. This prospect as he describes it is not bleak but rather exhilarating, an opportunity to give himself over with no possibility of interruption to the vocation of his art. The ideal of existential purity, Stach contends, uncannily issued in the remarkable purity of Kafka's prose: "the pure, clean language that Kafka strove for did not come across as sterile and bloodless, but unleashed tremendous aesthetic energy, thereby proving that the symbiosis of literature and asceticism could be made productive for the world--breathtakingly so."


IN THIS WHOLE NOTION OF THE renunciation of life for the sake of art, Kafka hews close to Flaubert, who was one of four leading writers in his private literary pantheon. (The others were Kleist, Grillparzer, and Dostoevsky.) Flaubert, like Kafka, had intended to study law, but an attack of epilepsy (his equivalent of Kafka's imagined and then real disease) after he had begun his course of study in Paris led him to retreat to his mother's house in the little Norman town of Croisset. There, despite occasional forays to the capital city, he became a hermit of literature. (S.Y. Agnon, in a droll adaptation of a rabbinic idiom, wrote to Salman Schocken in 1915 that Flaubert "used to slay himself in the tent of poetry.") Ensconced in rural isolation, a setting akin to Kafka's fantasy of a sealed basement chamber, Flaubert almost single-handedly invented a new model of prose writing, aiming at a polished style produced through painstaking labors of revision that would have the formal perfection, the lexical precision, and the rhythmic magic of the most gem-like poetry.

Although Flaubert's verbal palette was much richer than that of Kafka, whose language was tautly understated and astringent, the French novelist's ideal of prose was essentially the one that Kafka embraced. His style, as Stach notes, "is like polished marble…it makes both things and people emerge in exaggeratedly sharp contours, as though seen under neon light." In more technical terms, Kafka also made strategic use of le style indirect libre, the narrative technique that Flaubert brought to a state of perfection. Kafka's famous declaration, "I am made of literature," is a motto that Flaubert could have easily adopted for himself.

One should be careful not to think of either Flaubert or Kafka as an exemplary figure. The nexus between art and neurosis, though common enough, is by no means inevitable, nor is art--even "high" art--necessarily achieved through the renunciation of life. Nabokov, who was a great admirer of Flaubert and held at least some of Kafka's fiction in high esteem, pursued a Flaubertian ideal of finely wrought fictional artifice without feeling any need to give up the pleasures of married life, the delights of devotion to science and natural observation, an exuberant sense of playfulness in social intercourse, and the sustaining recollection of what appears to have been a genuinely happy childhood.

In Kafka's case, the neuroses were both a profound resource and a crippling impediment. On the negative side, they led to the condition of incompletion that was the fate of all his larger writing projects. He committed thousands of manuscript pages to the fire, and at the end of his life he famously asked Max Brod to do the same with what remained. All three of Kafka's novels broke off without satisfactory resolution. He finished nothing on a large scale chiefly because of his corrosive self-doubt, because he felt he could not realize the ideal of seamless artistic perfection he had inherited from Flaubert. Stach also proposes an unresolvable tension in his writing between Flaubert's realism and his own increasing commitment to fantasy, as well as between an ideal of the inspired word (one recalls the dream Kafka mentions in his diary of creating a new Kabbalah) and the perfectly crafted word.

YET THE GREAT PARADOX OF Kafka's career is that he also managed to transmute his own extravagant neuroses--in their sheer bizarreness surely anything but those of a "representative man"--into certain indelible fictions that have universal resonance, and that have been widely seen as strong paradigms for some of the underlying dilemmas of modern existence. No confident explanation for the alchemy of this transmutation is possible, but one might begin by observing the powerful concreteness and the meticulous fidelity to detail with which Kafka, even in minimalist notation, imagined narrative situations, spatial and physical circumstances, and sometimes the appearance of characters. Many of his fictions are built around a single arresting image elaborated through a compelling imaginative logic, becoming, as Stach aptly observes, "a demonstration of what an image can yield": a man turned into a bug, a hunter's boat drifting for all eternity on endless rivers, a castle half-hidden in snow and fog, an elusive court that manifests itself in a series of dirty, airless attics.

Perhaps the most mesmerizing of all these defining images in Kafka's stories and novels is the infernal machine of perfect punishment that looms at the center of "In the Penal Colony." It is all too easy to trace the links between this dark fiction and Kafka's unresolved feelings of guilt and acute vulnerability. The officer in the penal colony who is explaining to the baffled explorer the novel system of justice practiced there announces, "My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted." This appalling principle, of course, governs the world of The Trial, as it does "The Judgment." In all three of these texts, the central figure is implacably sentenced to execution (the officer of "In the Penal Colony" ends up essentially embracing his own sentence, not unlike Joseph K. and Georg Bendemann), and Kafka actually planned the same fate for Karl Rossmann in The Man Who Disappeared.

A literalist biographical critic would also be tempted to draw a direct line between the Old Commandant, now deceased, who contrived the fearsome machine that inscribes the crime of the condemned man on his body, and Hermann Kafka. It is reasonable enough to concede that no one but a person with Kafka's deep-dyed neuroses could have imagined this scary story, yet the story manages to be a good deal more than the bits and pieces of its biographical sources; and it does so, I would argue, without being either a theological allegory (the old and the new dispensation) or a "prophecy" of the state terror that would dominate Europe not many years after Kafka's death.

Before all else, a story, imagined through and through as Kafka's best fiction is, must have a local place and habitation that engage us as readers with their distinctive authority of invention. "In the Penal Colony" begins with the officer addressing the explorer, who has come to this evidently tropical island to witness an execution. It is worth observing the deftness and the vivid efficiency with which Kafka sets the scene in the first paragraph (given here in Willa and Edwin Muir's translation):

At least, in this small sandy valley, a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags, there was no one present save the officer, the explorer, the condemned man, who was a stupid -looking, wide-mouthed creature with bewildered hair and face, and the soldier who held the heavy chain controlling the small chains locked on the prisoner's ankles, wrists, and neck, chains that were themselves attached to each other by communicating links. In any case, the condemned man looked so like a submissive dog that one might have thought he could be left to run free in the surrounding hills and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin.

One element in the wonder of Kafka's prose is his ability to deploy a rapid notation that nevertheless conveys a sense of descriptive fullness. The sandy valley surrounded by bare crags at once evokes the isolation of the penal colony with the Old Commandant's terrible machine at its heart and creates the setting for a starkly pared-down constellation of characters, "as though seen under neon light," outside of which nothing seems to exist: the officer, the explorer, the prisoner, the soldier, and the dead Commandant who continues to exert an uncanny power from his grave. The portrait of the condemned man, about whom we will learn very little beyond the fact that he has been sentenced to die, is drawn in three quick epithets, and it is uncannily memorable. His canine submissiveness--though the German says not "submissive," but only hundisch--is a characteristic that makes him one of the two Kafka surrogates in the story (the other is the officer, who throws himself into the mangling teeth of the machine), for Kafka in his impulses of self-loathing not infrequently likened himself to a dog, as we saw in his fantasy of being able to do no more with Felice than fawn at her hand. Still, such biographical identifications tell us very little about the power of the story as an original narrative invention or about what it might mean.

It is also worth underscoring in these opening sentences the attention devoted to the complicated system of chains that entrammels the prisoner. Kafka is especially good at imagining mechanical devices, both real and fantastic--one thinks of the writing desk with its "regulator" in Uncle Jacob's apartment in The Man Who Disappeared; the mesmerizing interior of Klamm's carriage in The Castle; and in this story, of course, the dread machine with its business end called the Harrow, of which these chains at the beginning are a kind of anticipation. Kafka lived in an era of mechanical innovation, an era of new contraptions, one might say, that was a clanking cast-iron precursor to our own age of constant innovation in electronic technology. (Felice Bauer's professional responsibilities included the promotion of a dictaphone device, and Kafka seems to have taken a certain interest in the apparatus.)

The central image of the execution machine demonstrates Kafka's inimitable ability to play out fictional inventions that have a riveting power that quite transcends any psychobiographical sources one might propose for them. The machine of judgment, one recalls, is a kind of Rube Goldberg device with cogwheels and rods and gears, equipped with a sharp-needled Harrow that slowly inscribes on the body of the condemned man the precise nature of his transgression. In the sixth hour of exquisite suffering (vividly described in the story), the prisoner is meant to experience a grand illuminating understanding of his own crime, upon which he expires. It is, in the view of the officer, a sublime death, and it is because he is possessed by this idea that he finally leaps under the Harrow himself, replacing the condemned man.

Some interpreters of the story, ignoring many details inconvenient to their reading, have seen it as an adumbration of totalitarian terror, which is as crudely reductive as to read it as a naked expression of Kafka's feelings of guilt in relation to his father. Kafka was repeatedly drawn to the idea of the Law. (In his case, when one transposes das Gesetz into English, it almost demands the capital L.) His preoccupation with the Law is correlated with guilt because you need prohibitions violated or imperatives unfulfilled in order to feel guilty. Kafka was haunted by the idea that any law available to us might be merely arbitrary or downright perverse, perhaps even corrupt, just as he was fascinated by the idea in Jewish tradition of a Law absolutely authorized in all its minute details by divine will. In this story, the Old Commandant designs a machine that will be the perfect implementation of the unquestionable rightness of the Law, compelling the transgressor to experience somatically, through writing, the unswerving justice of his sentence. This idea exerts a powerful attraction for Kafka because it would confirm, however grimly, a harmonious moral order in the cosmos, answering the question of intolerable human guiltiness and suffering not through a paradoxical divine revelation, as at the end of Job, or through a divine sacrifice on behalf of sinful humankind, as in Christ on the cross, but through an overarching system of just law that exacts from every man nothing but the price of punishment he deserves.

Yet Kafka realizes that this whole idea is a painful delusion, and this realization explains the dialectical strength of the story. The Old Commandant, despite the messianic hopes of his remaining followers that he will "rise again," is only human, and the elaborate contraption that he has devised, even if one granted the mad assumption that it could achieve its purpose, is, like the mechanical devices of the early twentieth century with which Kafka was familiar (not least professionally, in his oversight of worker safety in factories), subject to breakdown. The most horrific moment of the story, after the officer has taken the place of the prisoner under the Harrow, is when the machine goes to pieces: "The Harrow was not writing, it was only jabbing, and the Bed was not turning the body over but only bringing it up quivering against the needles." The mangled officer dies not in a moment of redemptive revelation but rather like Joseph K. at the end of The Trial, who is stabbed by a butcher's knife--like a dog. One could scarcely find a better illustration of Stach's principle that Kafka's fiction unfolds through the exploration of the full range of consequences of one central image. The image is founded in fantasy, and yet, as in Swift, it is worked out meticulously through the logic of an inexorable realism.

As a complement to the evocation of place and personages at the beginning of the story, it is worth recalling the strong gesture at the very end. The explorer has boarded a rowboat that will take him out to his steamer. The two remaining characters from the beginning of the story, the soldier and the condemned man, rush down the steps of the quay with the intent of climbing into the boat with him: "They could have jumped into the boat, but the explorer lifted a heavy knotted rope from the floor boards, threatened them with it, and so kept them from attempting the leap." The rope ready at hand to serve as a whip is an eminently Kafkan moment, for he is especially notable in imagining gestures of violence, particularly punitive ones. We have learned very little about the explorer, who is obviously a mediator between the readers and the world of the penal colony, except for his curiosity. Now, at the end, he exhibits a surprising access of violent resolution, in a way continuing to act on behalf of us as readers by driving back the denizens of the island of horror. The nightmarish realm of the penal colony must be left behind. (This, of course, is not true of other fictional nightmares in Kafka.) Anyone connected with it, whether enforcer or victim, must be beaten back with the stout hemp of a knotted rope: the writer's commitment to an arresting concreteness of imagination prevails even in the movement of separation that marks the conclusion.

The example of "In the Penal Colony" argues for the appositeness of Stach's biographical humility. An investigation of the minute circumstances of Kafka's life, highlighting his extravagant capacity for self-flagellation and the deep reservoirs of his guilty sense of inadequacy, may help us understand how he could have conceived such a story--indeed, how no one but he could have written it. Yet the story achieves its own imaginative integrity, and its meanings are never reducible to Kafka's neurotic torments. In the medium of fiction, he was able to attain what he could not attain elsewhere: the exercise of mastery, in which the beautifully articulated formal elements of the story lock together in an absorbing narrative whole. Like the best of his fiction, it moves beyond the prison house of the author's self to achieve universal sweep, in this case probing human dreams and delusions about justice and law and pondering an idea of writing as a painful revelation that collapses into murderous chaos.




This article originally ran in the March 6, 2006, issue of the magazine.