Now the German scholar Reiner Stach's excellen Biography of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) filled in a lot of gaps. Stach spent 20+ years working on Kafka’s life, translated into English. The biography started with Kafka’s childhood in the dying days of the Hapsburg empire in 1883: family life in the Prague flat, schooling, law studies at university and career as an insurance clerk. Alas young Franz’s relationship with his overbearing father was horrible. Hermann Kafka was a stocky, ambitious and successful merchant, while his only son was tall, thin and fragile. So they were physically, emotionally and intellectually opposed.
Biography of Franz Kafka: Vol. 1 The Early Years, Vol. 2 The Decisive Years and Vol. 3 The Years of Insight
Kafka knew himself well. He wrote “The way I am, I am as the outcome of your (father’s) upbringing and of my compliance.” He was reflective and introspective, and saw the way that confrontation sank into him. A crucial night occurred when his father locked the child outside and refused his pleas for water. The impact of this traumatic scene repeated itself through Kafka’s life.
For young Kafka, Yiddish was his family’s spoken language at home and German was his medium for school and written work. Yet Czech was the affectionate language used by his caregivers in childhood. So Stach emphasised that Kafka was a German-speaking Jew who matured in Prague at the end of the brilliant Austrian Empire. He noted the dress conventions of the Bohemian capital in Kafka’s writing and the cultured life of the coffee houses where writers/artists got together, using local Czech and elite German.
The divide between the two cultures of Prague was replicated in Kafka’s mind, even as the heart of old Prague was being reshaped. The medieval Jewish ghetto was replaced with smart avenues and smart architecture. But a crazed mob of German students late in 1897 targetted the Jews. They looted homes, shops and Kafka’s school. This in turn provoked a counter-surge of Czech nationalist riots targetting German shops, clubs and businesses in the capital.
For Kafka, the Prague Riots created something menacing in his city. The teenager was also increasingly fearful at school. For all his brilliance in high school, he feared examinations and assessments.
Even at university, Kafka was very intellectual but lacked confidence. He recognised that life trapped him yet he was certain that he could use his ideas to free himself. Kafka was a full-time Law student, writing on weekends at the Reading and Lecture Hall of German Students. It was here, in 1902, he met Max Brod.
Max Brod and Franz Kafka (above)
Photo credit: Czech radio
and with Felice Bauer, 1917 (below)
Photo credit: The Guardian
Stach said that Brod was a young self-promoter, net-worker and fashion-courting boulevardier. Yet on first meeting with Kafka, Brod saw something special. He began urging editors to print Kafka’s early works. The pair shared ideas; they travelled together through Switzerland, Italy and France.
Kafka was exempted from WW1 service at the front because of TB, yet he was witness to unspeakable misery. In fact the diagnosis of his TB and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire constituted a double shock for Kafka. He lost the financial security he had been counting on to survive as a writer. He began to pose broader existential questions, and his writing grew jagged and more reflective.
Kafka gave a vigorous nod to his literary models and heroes — Friedrich Hebbel, Thomas Mann, Charles Dickens and above all Gustave Flaubert, the cool writer who Kafka and Brod read together, in French! And although he had written several prose pieces since graduation, it was only with The Judgment, written in 1912, that Kafka felt he had made his breakthrough. Note that the story dealt with a young man who was condemned to death by his father!
Was Kafka unknown in his lifetime? No! Publishers printed his books and begged for more, and he belonged to an influential band of writers who met in Prague’s coffee shops. But he was difficult to socialise with. He suffered from:
total lack of confidence in his own skills,
disease and fear of disease,
very strange diets and exercise fads and
a particularly unskilled love life.
Brod introduced Kafka to his Prussian Jewish cousin Felice Bauer in 1912. She became the writer’s long-suffering fiancée, but when he contracted the TB that led to his death, Kafka broke off the engagement. When he eventually felt obliged to marry Felice, he did so in an 18-page letter that included a pathetic marriage proposal. Felice did recognise his miserable selfishness, and finally run away. Nonetheless she held onto Kafka’s 500 deepest confessional letters! Sometimes daily letters! Stach wrote tellingly of this strange literary friendship and its usefulness for Kafka.
How sad that Kafka finally met the right woman when he was 40 years old. Had he met Dora Diamant earlier, he might have finally been happily married.
Kafka was resting at a sanatorium on Lake Zurich, a time that became typical of the long stays he spent at health clinics across Central Europe. He died of consumption at 40, and was buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague.
Was Max Brod clever and insightful, or a mere hanger-on? Of one thing I am certain: Brod, who revered Kafka and adored his work, HAD to became the literary executor. Because very little of Kafka’s writing was published before his death in 1924, he luckily left his letters, diaries and early writings to Brod, instructing him to burn the documents unread.
If Brod had not refused Kafka’s direct instructions to destroy the unpublished manuscripts, we probably would not know Kafka’s name today. And not surprisingly it was Brod who wrote the first biography of his friend and prepared Kafka’s posthumous works for publication. Brod actually collated, edited and published Kafka’s writing, including The Trial and The Castle – now literary classics. When Brod fled Germany for Israel in 1939, he took the documents with him. The two men's friendship was more important for us than for Kafka.
"Kafka, The Early Years" was written by Rainer Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch and published by Princeton University Press in 2016. The other volumes were published separately.