An astute analysis, by the German editor of Kafka’s collected works, of the remarkable half-decade in which the Prague-based modernist wrote his best-known stories.
Given the impact of Kafka’s fraught relations with his family, especially his father, on his writing, it’s odd that Stach chooses to begin this first entry in a projected three-volume biography in 1910, when Kafka was 27 years old. His days were passed as an insurance official, a commitment he dutifully fulfilled while devoting his nights to his art. Stach ably delineates the writer’s peculiar personality—vegetarian, hypochondriac, utterly estranged from the bourgeois preoccupations of his Jewish relatives, yet unable to even move out of the family apartment—without ever exploring the childhood roots of his stunted character. This major caveat aside, the biographer does a brilliant job of examining in depth the adult Kafka’s transmutation of his neuroses into exacting, unsettling fiction that captured the unease of a world confronting modernity but still constricted by 19th-century conventions. Discussing “The Metamorphosis,” The Trial and “In the Penal Colony,” Stach pays equal attention to themes, autobiographical content and Kafka’s precise prose and resonant metaphors. He also acutely examines the writer’s on-again-off-again romance with Felice Bauer, conducted primarily through letters (this up-to-date career woman had a demanding job in Berlin and her ambivalent suitor seldom left Prague). Though Kafka rarely noted world events in his diaries and letters, he was deeply affected by the Yiddish theater and Zionism; Stach assesses the influence of these historical trends as ably as he delineates the vibrant German-language publishing scene. This vivid recreation of a complex man and his milieu closes at an appropriately uncertain moment: one year into WWI, which spurred Kafka’s strongest efforts yet toward autonomy and a life dedicated wholly to literature, even as it made such a life virtually impossible.
A judicious, balanced assessment that makes palpable both Kafka’s personal weirdness and his artistic mastery.