Is that Kafka? by Reiner Stach (tr. Kurt Beals). New Directions. $27.95, 352 pp.
The first volume of Reiner Stach’s monumental, three-volume biography of Kafka was published in Germany about fourteen years ago. The second came six years later, in 2008. Is that Kafka?, which isn’t one of the three volumes,appeared in 2012, the same year that a decades-long legal battle finally made a trove of papers belonging to Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, available to the public. Presumably this fortuitous ruling allowed Stach to write, at last, the final volume of his big, widely praised biography—funnily enough, the volume that addresses the first part of Kafka’s life. That book, Kafka—The Early Years, was published in 2014. (An English translation is forthcoming.)Even if Is that Kafka? was a kind of stopgap that kept Stach contemplating Franz while he awaited the release of key documents, it’s also an unconventional work of biography-by-collage in its own right. Its subtitle, 99 Finds, points to the raw material of the project: surprising discoveries made in the course of an epic research process.
Underlying all of this biographical work is a desire to complicate received ideas about the author. In his introduction, Stach describes the enduring image of Kafka in characteristically clear-eyed terms: even though “decades of international, interdisciplinary research” have given scholars a more nuanced picture of Kafka and his times, he has persisted in the popular imagination as ” “the quintessential archetype of the writer as a sort of alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick—an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things.” Stach’s aim is to “destabilize” these images by introducing “counter-images” in which he emphasizes the unexpected and the overlooked to help “quietly divorce us from clichés.” Implied here is the conviction that clichés about an author’s life obstruct appreciation of their work. Why else bother to challenge them?
It is often amusing to watch Stach’s destabilization in action. Chapter heading likes “Kafka’s Exercise Routine” or “Kafka Writes a Poem and Loves It” are the norm here; in “Kafka Cheats on his Exams,” which is drawn from the unpublished memoirs of a school classmate, we’re given an appealing sketch of students plotting to steal an instructor’s notebook in order to pass their Greek oral exams—an ultimately successful bit of cheating for which young Kafka served as copyist.
Further oddities and amusements compound: Kafka beginning the daily practice of a fitness routine and breathing exercises created by the Danish athlete (and author of the best-selling My System)Jorgen Peter Muller; Kafka, who seems to have hated lying, failing to respond to pleas from Milena Jesenská, a journalist who had a “short but intense relationship ” with him (and who also translated his work into Czech), to invent a fake uncle’s death in order to go see her in Vienna; a couple of letters sent from a sanatorium attesting to his love of a song written in 1933 called “Now Farewell, You Little Alley”:
Now farewell, you little alley
now adieu, you quiet eaves!
Father, Mother watched me sadly
and my dearest watched me leave.
In the distance now I tarry,
for my home I sadly long!
My companions’ song so cheery,
but it is a lying song.
There are other little cities,
other ladies here to see;
Ah, but only other ladies,
not the only one for me.
Other cities, other ladies,
I stand silent, looking round!
Other ladies, other cities,
I wish I were homeward bound.
Each turn Stach makes adds nuance to his skillfully collaged portrait of Kafka. We see Franz writing postcards and diary entries about bordellos (chapter title: “Going Whoring”) and reading his then-unpublished story “In the Penal Colony” to an audience at the Goltz Bookstore and Gallery in Munich. Particularly entertaining and touching are the chapters in which he and Max Brod get up to some mischief together. “How Kafka and Brod Almost Became Millionaires,” for example, details a scheme the two had for a new type of travel guide. Stach quotes Brod:
It would be called Billig (On the Cheap) . . . Franz was tireless and got a childlike pleasure out of elaborating all the principles down to the finest detail for this new type of guide, which was supposed to make us millionaires, and above all wrest us away from our awful office work.
Brod also drafted a memorandum for this project. It reads:
Our Plan to Make Millions: On the Cheap
On the Cheap through Italy, On the Cheap through Switzerland, On the Cheap in Paris—On the Cheap in the Bohemian Spas and in Prague
Can be translated into every language.
Motto: Just Dare.
Stach’s destablization works its magic here. His arrangement of finds presents a writer who could be, among other things, playful, gullible, funny, entrepreneurial, and kind. And by briskly leading the reader through a life of Kafka so varied in texture, he awakens a longing to turn from the biography to the stories and novels while this openness to nuance lasts. Clichés, as promised, quietly fall away; in their place, Stach seems to suggest, fresh engagement waits.
Stach also artfully manages, in his collaging, to introduce a certain amount of historical and social context. In “Is that Kafka? (I),” a chapter in which he attempts to identify Kafka and Brod by the back of their heads in a photograph at the Montichiari airfield near Brescia, we learn that the author of “The Metamorphosis” attended an air show there in 1909, seeing airplanes for the first time. (Many had flocked to see the French pilot Louis Bleriot, who’d become the first person to fly across the English Channel.) Elsewhere, we learn of doctor Hugo Hecht, a former schoolmate of Kafka’s who, in the early 1960s, began researching the fate of his graduating class. “It is a gruesome record,” recalls Hecht, “more than a third of the class died a violent death.” Due in large part, Stach notes, to the persecution of Jews by the Nazis, as well as other events related to the war.
Perhaps the most defamiliarizing chapter is “Kafka as Ghostwriter.” Here we glimpse Kafka writing a series of letters in the voice of a doll in order to soothe a child he meets in passing. This description comes from the memoirs of Dora Diamant, who Kafka lived with in Berlin for half a year:
When we were in Berlin, Kafka often went to Steglitzer Park. Sometimes I went with him. One day we met a little girl who was crying and seemed to be completely distraught. We spoke to the girl. Franz asked her what was wrong, and we learned that she had lost her doll. He immediately came up with a plausible story to explain the disappearance: “Your doll is just on a trip right now, I know because she sent me a letter.”
. . .
She promised to write every day—and Kafka actually then wrote a letter every day, reporting each time on new adventures, which unfolded very quickly, keeping pace with the special rhythm of the doll’s life. After a few days, the girl had forgotten about the real toy that she’d lost, and she was only thinking about the fiction that she’d been offered as a replacement. Franz wrote every sentence of this story in such detail, and with such humorous precision, that it made the doll’s situation completely understandable: the doll had grown up, gone to school, met other people. She always reassured the child of her love, but made reference to the complications of her life, her other obligations and interests that prevented her from returning to their shared life right now. She asked the little girl to think about this, and in doing so she prepared her for the inevitable, for doing without her.
Though colored by Diamant’s adoration, there is evidence of tenderness here, of care for innocents taken to a moving and comic extreme. The absurd lengths to which the young writer goes are, indeed, “Kafkaesque” in a faintly familiar way. All the more disarming, then, to glimpse that same capacious imagination spurred on by sweetness and concern at the same time: Kafka applying his literary talents to a spontaneous fiction intended solely to soothe a child.
If Is that Kafka? were made up only of this kind of anecdote, it would have failed in its stated mission. It would have left us with a new set of clichéd images—a kinder, gentler, more “accessible” Kafka, and still a saint. Fortunately, even Stach’s counter-images have their counter-images; for every “Kafka as Ghostwriter,” there is a “Kafka Spits from the Balcony.” The sum effect is to bring the reader closer to a vivifying paradox: that the more one learns about the life of Kafka, the less stiffly certain one feels about what he, or any one of us, is.
This is a worthy achievement, for it encourages the reader to approach Kafka’s literary output with renewed curiosity, a renewed appreciation for its potent mysteries and trenchant humor. For Kafka’s work is wonderfully destabilizing in its own right. Stach knows this; one can almost see Is that Kafka? as an amused, patient rejoinder to the all-too familiar plea captured in a letter from one Dr. Siegfried Wolff, which he reproduces in “Kafka Gets Mail from a Reader.” Its final paragraph:
Only you can help me. You must; because you’re the one who got me into this mess. So please tell me what my cousin is supposed to think when she reads The Metamorphosis.
Evan James has written for Oxford American, The New York Observer, The New York Times, Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Paris Review Daily.
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