Someone must have been telling lies about K., for the popular image of him as the great Gloomy Gus of 20th-century letters (close rivals: Beckett, Cioran, maybe Céline) does not bear very much scrutiny. Consider this incident, which took place as he was dying of tuberculosis, and knew it. One day, when he was walking in a Berlin park, Kafka saw a little girl crying. He asked her why she was sad and she told him that she had lost her doll. Oh no, Kafka said, her doll was not lost – the toy was simply off on an exciting adventure. Understandably sceptical, the girl asked for proof. So Kafka went home and wrote a long, detailed letter from the doll, and gave it to the little girl the following day. Then, every day for the next three weeks, he gave her an additional letter. It seems that the doll had met a boy doll, and become engaged, and then married. By the end of the three weeks, the doll was setting up her marital home and the little girl no longer missed her mute companion.
This is hardly the sort of thing you would expect of the fellow who wrote The Trial or The Castle or ‘In the Penal Settlement’ (one of the most horrific short texts ever to have sneaked its way into the literary canon), and it is poignant as well as charming, not least because in our own climate of nervy erotic suspicion a middle-aged male writer who attempted such kindliness would have the social services or police on him like a shot. But the story of Kafka and the Lost Doll is instructive as well as surprising.
It explains to the neophyte what an unusually kind and thoughtful man he could be, even when he was drawing his shallow breaths in sharp pain. Some of his fans think that – again like Beckett – he bordered on the saintly. But it also hints at Kafka’s knowledge of the power that lies in stories, his own stories in particular. Stories can cure the sadness of small girls. They can also frighten, console, give courage. They can help even a sick and dying writer make some sense of what remains of his short life. Kafka seems often to have thought of writing as a curse or (to borrow a term from the literature of shamanism) a sickness vocation. And yet the thing that makes you ill may also, from time to time, make you powerful.
Some of Kafka’s greatness is due to the fact that his work belongs as much to the very long history of storytelling as to the relatively short history of Western literature. On the whole it is plain, simple, direct and tantalisingly cryptic. His stories worm their way under your skin and stay there until you itch. They make some people itch so badly that they have to start telling their own stories about K. In the years when his reputation first began to take off, after the Second World War, he was mainly revered as Kafka the prophet, the man who had read the entrails of his age and foreseen, first, the rise of totalitarianism, secondly the cancer-like proliferation of faceless officialdom, thirdly ‘alienation’ and finally, especially, the death camps in which most of his close family and lots of his friends were murdered.
That story of dark prophecies is still being passed around, despite its many and increasingly evident flaws. In the last few decades, though, it has had no shortage of competition. Despite the curious fact that Kafka’s body of fictional work is slender – three unfinished novels, a clutch of short stories, some prose fragments – it has generated such a gigantic industry of comment that only an eternal graduate student could possibly keep up with the output. Among the regiment of Kafkas now stalking the world, we have Kafka the Christian mystic (though he wasn’t a Christian), Kafka the Jewish mystic (he had bafflingly complicated views about Jewish identity and religion), Kafka the Zionist, Kafka the sexual inadequate, Kafka the wicked capitalist (he co-ran an asbestos factory), Kafka the vegetarian, Kafka the socialist, Kafka the social butterfly and laugh riot, and, in Saul Friedländer’s new essay – a very good and sane little book, which may safely be put into the hands of newcomers – Kafka the poet of shame and guilt. Having noted how often Kafka writes about canine encounters, I am myself tempted to write a monograph entitled Wie ein Hund: Kafka and Dogs. But it’s a fair bet that someone will have beaten me to it.
In short, we need more Kafka commentary about as much as we need more asbestos factories. Kafka biography is a different matter, and Reiner Stach’s thumping two-volume account of Kafka’s life from late adolescence to early death – a third volume, on his childhood, is apparently in the works – is a superlative, readable and occasionally genuinely gripping addition to the giant scrap heap. Stach’s achievement is not so much in having turned up new material (though he has), or in making an all too familiar narrative bright and fresh (though he does). What he has achieved is to make you feel, by the end of the book, that Kafka is someone you now know very well, perhaps almost too well.
There are no big surprises here, just hundreds of small ones. The Kafka and the Lost Doll story is well enough known to buffs; Stach pairs it with a second story of a child and gives it in Kafka’s own words. During another walk in the park, Kafka saw another little girl, this one very pretty and coquettish. She smiled at him.
Naturally I smiled back at her in an overly friendly manner, and continued to do so when she and her girlfriends kept turning back in my direction. Until I began to realize what she had actually said to me. ‘Jew’ is what she had said.
There is a good deal about Kafka’s Jewishness in Stach’s pages, and he is lucid and enlightening about every aspect of this thorny and tangled area, from Kafka’s study of Hebrew to his fascination with the disreputable Yiddish theatre, from his ambitions (realistic enough despite his ill health) to settle in Palestine to his charming but hopelessly impractical dream of opening a restaurant there, in which his girlfriend Dora would run the kitchen and he would be the waiter. But there is much else here too and almost all of it is top quality.
Stach manages to recreate the worlds through which Kafka moved and in which he suffered in a manner that reads more like high-quality fiction than a regurgitation of excessive research. He puts us inside the famously cramped apartment in which Kafka the impossible son scraped against the rough surfaces of his angry father; inside the insurance offices in which Kafka worked, and worked very well; inside the back-biting, log-rolling, blatantly ambitious circles of young Czech writers; inside sanatoria; inside the brothels Kafka patronised when his need for sex overpowered his dread of women.
Stach is a first-rate scholar and, unless his German prose has gained in the translation by Shelley Frisch, a fine writer who can be a little too show-off at times (‘the fearless dance over the abysses of life that this golden couple celebrated’) but is more often, like his leading character, content to be simple: ‘Women appreciated that.’ The biographer has entertained the biographee in his mind so long that Stach’s summaries command assent where a less devoted writer’s words might seem merely impertinent: ‘He tried to limit any movement or change, like a wounded man who fears pain so much that he stays in whatever position he is in, no matter how uncomfortable.’
Above all, Stach is brilliant on Kafka’s love life, a topic that might seem like a candidate for one of those ‘World’s Shortest Books’ jokes, but is in fact as rich as it is strange. As usual, Kafka does not come out of these amorous scrapes at all well: lots of commentators have found his long and mostly epistolary courtship with Felice Bauer creepy to the point of ‘vampirism’, and he dumped one of his last girlfriends as summarily as any heartless rakehell. His affair with Milena Jesenská, more than eventful enough for a downbeat date movie, is exceptionally well told here; you can almost feel Stach’s hands trembling with exasperation as he is obliged to show how Franz manages to botch his best chances for a few years of common happiness with a vital, passionate girl.
Nor is this a book solely for the Kafka fan club. By filling in the details of Kafka’s Prague (and Berlin, and the High Tatras), Stach has created a valuable new account of a world that was about to be destroyed. Anyone interested in the Europe and Middle East of the early 20th century would find it engaging. There are good things in every chapter, including the reactions of Kafka’s contemporaries to this polite and curious being in their midst. Here is the satirist Franz Blei, in 1922: ‘The Kafka is a very rare magnificent moon-blue mouse that does not eat meat but feeds on herbs. It is a fascinating sight because it has human eyes.’
And here is Kafka on Kafka:
Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child’s visual instruction, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place down below, which is unknown to those up above, writing their stories in the sunlight. Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind; at night, when fear prevents me from sleeping I know only this kind.
Stach does not venture much in the way of criticism and interpretation, but he does offer sensible observations now and then. ‘In Kafka’s late work, guilt and punishment would no longer have a prominent role.’ Just so. Those late stories, including the curious animal fables ‘Josefine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk’, ‘The Burrow’ and ‘Investigations of a Dog’, will remain enigmatic forever. That is part of their magic. But thanks to Stach, Kafka is now much less of a puzzle, if no less of a wonder.
A final note of encomium: Stach on Kafka is more than worthy to be put on a shelf of the magisterial literary biographies of the last few decades, next to, say, Ellmann on Joyce and Wilde, Holmes on Coleridge, Walter Jackson Bate on Johnson, Tomalin on Pepys, Bellos on Perec, Hilton on Ruskin, Steegmuller on Cocteau, Nicholl on Marlowe, Rimbaud and Shakespeare, Morgan on Burroughs, Brotchie on Jarry, Miller on Foucault, Rukeyser on Hariot, Monk on Wittgenstein and Russell, Roudinesco on Lacan… When the third and final volume appears, Stach’s work may well come to be seen as one of the very best of this distinguished company. It is quite splendid.