Book Review: Kafka – The Years of Insight
by Reiner Stach
Princeton University Press, 2013
The second volume of Reiner Stach’s epic biography of Franz Kafka begins in the year 1916 and ends with Kafka’s death in 1924 (in a slightly bizarre – almost Kafkaesque – sequence, the third and final volume will cover its subject’s boyhood and youth) and thus encompasses the two great impersonal upheavals of Kafka’s life: the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of the First World War, and the collapse of Kafka’s health due to tuberculosis, first diagnosed in the summer of 1917. These are years of intense personal upheaval as well, with Kafka shuttling almost frantically from one emotional relationship to another. His tortured dalliances with Grete Bloch, Julie Wohryzek, and Dora Diamant all date from this period, as well as his very strange and almost entirely epistolary passion for Czech journalist Milena Jesenski. And as if all that weren’t enough, these years also mark a deepening of both conviction and confusion in Kafka’s attempts at writing, with works like The Castle and “The Hunger Artist” achieving something like their present forms and a number of other works thinly emerging from sketches and notebooks.
It’s a tangle of counter-grained and often under-sourced life stories, but reading Stach’s magnificent narrative (wonderfully translated by Shelley Frisch) straight through brings death, not life, to the forefront. Stach is a compulsively readable writer – the book has many digressions but no longueurs – but he can only do so much to manage the essentially grim nature of his story: despite a string of health regimens, spas, and clinics, Kafka grows steadily sicker, until we wince whenever he ventures outside:
Four months later [November 1920], the streets of Prague were covered in grayish slush, and Kafka was feeling drained. He had been running a low-grade fever almost all the time, and he alternated between chills and sweating. He was short of breath, and if he fell into conversation with someone outdoors and breathed in too much cold air, a coughing fit was sure to follow. His coughing did not let up even at night, and it sometimes went on for hours on end. Everyone – his friends and family, and especially his youngest sister, Ottla – agreed that something had to be done.
The evaporation of the formal empire in which he’d lived his life deeply underscored Kafka’s sense of his own uprootedness, his feelings of being a stranger in the world. Stach very sensitively explores how this feeling may have intensified Kafka’s interest in his own Jewish heritage – and in the possibility of making a journey to the Holy Land, which Stach describes as a very different place from its 21st century counterpart:
In the fall of 1922, only 11 percent of the three million people living in Palestine were Jews, and the notion that Jews would reclaim Palestine with their hands – namely by acquiring and cultivating land – was no more than a collective myth. Only 3 percent of the landed property was in Jewish hands, and only about a thousand people lived in kibbutzim. The Jewish immigrants who came later crowded into the cities and even misstated their professions so that they would not be sent to the country.
The progress of Kafka’s illness is agonizing – for him thanks to the helpless state of medicine at the time, and for the reader thanks to Stach’s indefatigable research and passionate writing (as in the previous volume, the prose in The Years of Insight is supple and very appealingly complex – all of which, once again, is perfectly rendered by Frisch). In the end, the ravages of his throat make eating impossible and one of the seminal authors of the 20th century simply starves to death. But long before that point in his narrative, Stach has subtly shifted his emphases from life to legacy. What, ultimately, does Kafka mean?
It’s both haunting and more than a little funny that Stach seems to come up with an answer with which Kafka might have agreed:
Particularly in the early years of Kafka’s worldwide renown, his work, his achievement as a writer, was insistently categorized as “prophecy.” Kafka, it was said, was one of the first to predict and envision the anonymous violence of the twentieth century, and that was the primary reason for his overwhelming resonance. But this view overlooks the fact that Kafka was himself witness to the devastations of utterly depersonalized, technologically based violence, which was already claiming victims in his day. This lethal alliance of violence and bureaucracy burst onto the scene in August 1914 and was later called the “great seminal catastrophe” of the century. The world war was unthinkable without typewriters, files, index cards, and official seals – he knew that better than any of his writer friends.
Readers who’ve experienced the odd, jumpy, iron-grip spell of Kafka’s work will be nodding at that eloquent mention of “this lethal alliance of violence and bureaucracy.” Kafka himself would probably have smiled knowingly at “typewriters, files, index cards.”