In Paperback: Kafka – The Decisive Years
by Reiner Stach
Reiner Stach opens the first volume of his monumental projected three-volume biography of Franz Kafka, Kafka – Die Jahre der Entscheidungen (published in 2002, given a superb English-language translation by Shelley Frisch in 2005 as Kafka: The Decisive Years, and now reprinted in a handsome paperback by Princeton) with a disclaimer so long, so eloquent, and so all-encompassing that the average reader will have the last reaction they’d ever expect to have upon starting a long biography of a very intense young writer: outright laughter. Stach characterizes the whole biographical enterprise as a hopeless muddle, a futile and fraudulent attempt to impose order on chaos:
What is the cause, and what is the effect? The slightest shift of emphasis, and the picture changes. A conclusion can prove false or crumble. How much can a biographer afford to simplify? How far can a biographer go to reconstruct the bits and pieces in order to recount them? The sheer number of interrelations between the thematic honeycomb cells makes any narrative geometry impossible.
And if all those sines and secants of narrative geometry weren’t bad enough, their application to a life like Kafka’s makes things that much worse:
Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them … No definitive biography of Franz Kafka exists. Even the number of attempts at a comprehensive biography is unexpectedly limited, and to date there are no more than three or four introductions to Kafka published anywhere in the world that are worth reading.
“No definitive biography of Franz Kafka exists” is brutal if untrue and even more brutal if true; it’s the sort of thing writers only risk saying when they’re engaged in writing a multi-volume biography of their own. Even from a marketing perspective, they have to say it; no reader is going to undertake 1500 pages running the risk that what they’re reading isn’t definitive. This is especially true in Kafka’s case, where whole tranches of pertinent documents – the literary estate of Kafka’s lifelong friend and avid editor Max Brod – have been kept under vindictive lock and key for half a century by Brod’s former secretary and now by her daughters. Stach’s approach to circumventing this villainous obstruction has all the virtues of necessity: he’s saving Kafka’s early youth – about which, presumably, Brod’s diaries would give their best value – for the final volume of his trilogy. The first two volumes concentrate instead on Kafka the grown man, for whom there’s at least some sourcework that isn’t mildewing in a lock-box under somebody’s bed.
That adult life is, to put it mildly, well-studied, and if Stach is brutal to those previous biographies, he’s no less brutal to his subject:
All his literary projects that grew beyond the scope of a story failed Failure plagued his endeavors in other literary genres; the language of poetry was inaccessible to him; his plan to write an autobiography was never realized; and his halfhearted forays into dramatic writing yielded no tangible results. Let us imagine, as a comparison, that the works of a composer comprise just a few finished pieces of chamber music and dozens of fragmentary compositions, including three unfinished symphonies. Is the composer a failure? An incompetent? Brod tried to gloss over this lamentable situation by adopting a tendentious editorial strategy. Today, however, there is nothing left to conceal: the critical edition of Kafka’s oeuvre is available, and it is impossible to escape the impression that Kafka left a heap of rubble for posterity.
In this first volume, Stach sifts through that rubble with huge amounts of energy and discretion (and Frisch follows him without a misstep; it feels like exactly the same book I read ten years ago in its original language). The volume covers the years 1910 to 1915 and includes in-depth looks not only at such works as The Trial and “The Metamorphosis” but at the long and complicated course of Kakfa’s relationship with Felice Bauer and her family. His letters and journals are marshaled with sometimes breathtaking ingenuity, and the sheer scope of the work allows Stach to be expansive when painting his backgrounds. We get, for instance, every detail of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – and plenty of details about the war that assassination triggered:
But the Great War was different from anything people had been able to imagine up to that point. It went beyond any national or ethnic point of view. During the war, an average of 6,000 soldiers were killed each day, and 13,000 were wounded. The catastrophe of technologically sophisticated carnage that would last longer than four years – and there had been prophecies of that sort – was completely unanticipated by most people. Even those whose profession it was to make the inconceivable conceivable – intellectuals, writers, artists – were at a loss.
Always in these recountings, Stach is searching for his elusive subject, trying – as all previous biographers have tried, though none so well – to hear Kafka’s strange, singular voice in the noise:
Was Kafka immune to the war slogans? We would like to think so. Finding a voice that remained pure and authentic in the midst of this cacophony would be a consolation.
Kafka: The Decisive Years was greeted with a loud chorus of praise when it first appeared in English, and the passage of almost a decade has cast no doubt on that verdict. Princeton has re-issued this classic so that it can stand next to the following volume, Kafka: The Years of Insight, newly published in hardcover. No one interested in Kafka (or, by almost inevitable extension, 20th century literature) should miss either.