Kafka's metamorphosis

Before man-sized insects and ghastly bureaucratic punishments, he had rather different plans for his writing
December 12, 2016
Kafka: The Early Years, Volume Three by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch, Princeton, £24.95 

Is that Kafka? 99 Finds by Reiner Stach, translated by Kurt Beals, WW Norton, £19.99

In the summer of 1911, on holiday in Switzerland, Franz Kafka was working on a string of bestsellers. With his friend Max Brod, the 28-year-old writer devised the plan for a quintessentially modern set of books, which could be “translated into every language,” would “energise the whole person” and would provide their creators with “a business venture worth millions.” None of them would contain the man-sized insects, opaque legal machinations, ghastly bureaucratic punishments or anything else for which the name Kafka later became famous. Instead, they were to be a series of stripped-down travel guides for tourists on a budget, which Kafka and Brod intended to call Billig, or On the Cheap.

Armed with a volume of Billig, frugal travellers would enjoy straight talk from Kafka and Brod about decent hotels, fast trains and clean brothels as they travelled “On the Cheap Through Italy,” “On the Cheap Through Switzerland,” “On the Cheap in Paris” or “On the Cheap in the Bohemian Spas and Prague.” “NB the candour of our guide,” wrote Brod in his business plan, next to excited notes on buying “pineapples and madeleines” in the French capital and blagging free exhibition tickets “like a local.” Kafka, meanwhile, promised in his cautious, spidery handwriting that “exact tipping amounts” would be noted throughout.

The “On the Cheap” books were never written. Brod mangled the publishing negotiations, and his friend Franz soon had other things to distract him. The following year he would write The Judgment, his first mature story, and meet Felice Bauer, a tango-dancing marketing rep with whom he pursued a bizarre epistolary courtship that lasted five years; it produced more than 500 letters, two broken engagements, a bare handful of meetings and some of the most famous literary works of the 20th century. Those who regard Kafka as a prophetic writer, however, may care to note that a travel book called Across Asia on the Cheap, published 62 years later, was the first of what we now know as the Lonely Planet Guides.

Kafka’s brief alternative-history as a travel hack isn’t the only strange insight to emerge from this final instalment in Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography. Here are some more. He spoke German with a Czech accent and Czech (a language in which his name meant jackdaw) with a German accent. He loved swimming but didn’t play football. As a teenager he sauntered around town with his arms crossed behind his head to get attention; in his twenties, he still dreamed about becoming a “Red Indian.” He didn’t like museums or the theatre, preferring films (The Dog as Thief, Abducted by a Bedouin) and nightclubs full of prostitutes. He was an appallingly bad timekeeper. He went to hear Einstein lecture; he drew a frontispiece for a collection of erotic fiction. On holidays he led river-swimming expeditions, hiked for days and zoomed around on a motorbike with his girlfriend.

In short, Kafka had a life, which is only surprising because he spent so much time denying it. Writing to Bauer, he would paint grim pictures of the existence they could expect if she married him: “The life that awaits you is not that of the happy couple you see strolling before you in Westerland,” he suggested, “but a monastic life at the side of a man who is peevish, miserable, silent, discontented and sickly,” who is “chained to invisible literature by invisible chains and screams when approached because, so he claims, someone is touching those chains.” He might do his best writing, he added, if confined to a “spacious locked cellar” with paper and a lamp; she would be allowed to bring down his meals and put them outside the door.

History has often taken Kafka at his word. And why not? The themes of his writing—thwarting, despair, the iron law of heredity, the bleak conspiracy of fate—can be mapped with apparent accuracy on to what he recorded of his life. Brod’s decision not to burn the Kafka papers at his death, and the overwhelming nature of his posthumous fame, mean that readers of the work are likely to ingest a certain amount of Kafka-on-Kafka at the same time: my copy of The Metamorphosis is bundled with the merciless “Letter to his Father,” written in 1919, and the love letters to Felice Bauer and Milena Jesenská appear in the same paperback imprints as his novels and stories. Because of what Stach calls Kafka’s “deliberate, controlled and habitual strategy of giving linguistic and aesthetic expression to experiences”—his habit, in other words, of obsessively turning life into literature—these documents tend to present a united front.

This is why it feels odd to think of him reading his work to friends and howling with “uncontrollable” laughter, or to imagine him pottering in the vegetable garden and chopping wood on his sister’s farm. The monochrome image of the writer we have, as what James Hawes once called “the patron saint of Pale and Interesting,” is itself an outgrowth of the Kafkaesque.

Reiner Stach has spent years digging through Kafka’s life for a clearer picture, and has found enough data not just for three volumes of biography but also for an amusing short book, Is That Kafka?, which presents 99 unlikely Kafkan moments. Here is Kafka the schoolboy bribing a teacher’s housekeeper for a look at an exam paper. Here is Kafka the middle-aged writer, banishing himself to the bucolic peace of the countryside and being driven mad within a day by the noise of children playing. Here is Kafka excitedly opening a fan letter, only to find that the correspondent wants help with the plot of The Metamorphosis (“My cousin gave it to her mother, who doesn’t know what to make of it either”). Here is Kafka deciding, with a perceptible clang of cosmic irony, that the motto for his set of travel guides should be “Just Dare.”

This volume of Stach’s biography, first published in German in 2013 and now translated to English by Shelley Frisch, provides a further contortion by offering the first, not the last, instalment in the chronological record of the writer’s life. The explanation for this, too, has a Kafkaesque element. Brod took the Kafka papers with him when he and his wife Elsa fled Prague for Tel Aviv in 1939. On Brod’s death in 1968, they passed to his secretary Esther Hoffe, with a request that they be donated to a university or a library; instead, Hoffe kept them, and bequeathed them to her daughters in the late 2000s after selling the manuscript of The Trial. So, as the papers languished in a suitcase in a Tel Aviv apartment, attended by the surviving Hoffe sister and a vast menagerie of cats, a final trial began for the ownership of Kafka’s work. It culminated in an Israeli supreme court ruling this August that these final remnants belonged in the National Library.

Stach’s book is the first biography to draw on these materials, even if his access was limited, as Shelley Frisch reveals in her translator’s introduction, to three volumes of Brod’s diaries and an inventory of the archive. The result, Kafka: The Early Years, follows the writer from his birth in Prague in 1883 through to the age of 29, when it takes leave of him in a Swiss sanitorium. By then Kafka was a published writer but, despite the enthusiastic promotion of his friend Brod (who was already comparing him in print to Heinrich Mann and Frank Wedekind), far from a famous one. Almost all his great work would be written in the next decade, before his death at the age of 40 from tuberculosis.

Stach’s account of Kafka becoming Kafka is dotted with unlikely epigraphs (Laurie Anderson, Devo, the Human League) and written with pace and dry wit. He shows us Kafka growing up in a vigorously bilingual Prague where the streets and neighbourhoods encoded both social status and ethnic identity: the Old Town a museum of German-influenced history, the expanding suburbs and industrial areas a symbol of electrified, modernising Czech progress.

He shows us Kafka the Jew, developing his paranoid convictions about the inevitability of inherited identity against a backdrop of casual anti-Semitism, where the pogroms of the Middle Ages seemed only a hair’s breadth away. He also shows us Kafka the literary modernist, professing himself the “spiritual son” of Flaubert and disdaining the historical trappings of his generation of Prague-lit, instead writing in icily analytic German about modern people stuck in techno-bureaucratic nightmares of their own devising.
"There is no father in The Trial; no Jews anywhere. Kafka makes a point of avoiding things that are too close to home"
Stach is an alert reader of the work, continuously on the prowl for aspects of Kafka’s life that may shed light on his preoccupations. He points out the “chilly social milieu” that Kafka’s shopkeeper parents inhabited, where hard work was all-important and “altruistic solidarity occurred merely as a dream.” He notes the veneration for uniforms and official symbols that lingered in Prague, colouring Kafka’s outlook (there’s a very funny glimpse of the young Franz proclaiming his “loyal German outlook” at a university society and being awarded a Ruritanian sash for the privilege). He digs up a schoolteacher’s comment that learning the classics meant devoting all one’s time and energy to something one would never fully understand, suggesting another tendril in Kafka’s growing obsession with punishment and impossible tests.

But he also brings a beady critical eye to the trouble spots and lacunae in the work. He is particularly good on Kafka’s strange combination of progressiveness and stolidity: although fascinated by technology and living in a rapidly changing city, he remained obstinately convinced that human character was fixed by heredity and upbringing and that people—himself particularly—could never change.

He read Freud, kept a dream diary and acknowledged the ability of psychoanalysis to map the human psyche, but resisted with horror the implication that it could change the features it revealed. “I consider the therapeutic part of psychoanalysis a helpless error,” he wrote. Stach goes further: “It seemed to him that the essence of a human being could not be touched by ‘progress’ of any imaginable kind, and any ‘developed’ or ‘evolved’ identity rested on an unalterable, indestructible foundation.”

This is as valuable an insight about the work as it is about the life; so, too, is Stach’s observation that the rigorously-organised spaces of Kafka’s prose, far from being confessional, represent someone asserting “interpretive authority over their own life.” There is no father in The Trial; no Jews or Jewishness anywhere. Throughout the work, Kafka makes a point of avoiding things that are “too close to him to address.” Instead his narrative, Stach writes, functions “like a supra-individual eye, rendering highly nuanced sensory impressions without ‘wanting’ anything beyond them.”

Stach’s book succeeds because it concentrates less on reducing Kafka to psycho- biographical truisms than on ushering us into his company. He digs up a blind man’s record of hearing him read—“a sometimes dizzying rapid-fire pace, an absolutely musical breadth of phrasing with an infinitely long breath and powerfully rising crescendi of the dynamic plateaus.” He shows us Kafka at an air show with Brod, identifying the two men in a miraculously surviving photo from the backs of their heads alone, and at the Folies-Bergère in Paris, where they watched an English actor who did “an amazingly realistic imitation of a dog, and a clown acrobat named Humpsti-Bumpsti.” Passages like this don’t tell us who Kafka was, but they show us what it was like to be around him.

And, sometimes, to be him. In one startling passage, Stach compares the diaries written by Kafka and Brod on the same holiday. “To Riva with Kafka; Otto came later,” Brod writes cheerily. “Nice vacation! The lido!”—and so on. On his side of the room, Kafka is also scribbling in his diary, constructing passages that are a crafting-house for his own strange style: “a secret writing school,” as Stach puts it, “with only a single pupil.” These excerpts have a chilly, lunar detachment; suddenly, we have stepped out of the Italian boarding-house and into the strange space of the writer’s head. “In a dream I asked the dancer Eduardova to dance the Csárdás one more time. She had a broad streak of shadow or light across the middle of her face between the lower edge of her forehead and the cleft of her chin.”