"FRANZ KAFKA: REPRESENTATIVE MAN: Prague, Germans, Jews, and the Crisis of Modernism" by Frederick R. Karl
Kirkus Star

"FRANZ KAFKA: REPRESENTATIVE MAN: Prague, Germans, Jews, and the Crisis of Modernism"

Email this review


Immense critical biography that makes Kafka the ""representative man"" of the 20th century and places him at the center of High Modernism in Prague. Karl (William Faulkner: American Writer, 1989, etc.; English & American Literature/NYU) draws on a relentless tide of fact and historical reasoning to separate out Kafka's many variations on himself: as obsessive writer, episodic depressive, diarist, insurance agent, letter writer, family member, disease victim, lifelong hypochondriac, frequenter of gentile Czech prostitutes, and man who belonged to a despised German-speaking minority within a Jewish minority and felt he had no native tongue with which to speak his deepest feelings. But each time Karl quotes Kafka, the writer springs alive on the page and struggles against the biography hardening around his ankles. Is this nervous, evasive phantom at last to be set before us plain, his every private thought caught naked? Working in Karl's favor, once one accepts his unsmiling seriousness, is Kafka himself, a spellbinding creature. Working against Karl is his tie to the reader, who hopes for the comfortable familiarity of Brian Boyd on Nabokov or the artistry and fervor of Richard Ellmann on Joyce--but must settle for a faceless and not very graceful biographer intent on his cultural perspectives and on proving something many readers may not care about anyway. All this said, this is a generally gripping and edifying book. Fresh material comes from works in German unavailable to English-language readers, from what Karl ""discovered in Prague about Kafka's cultural activities,"" and from a newly unearthed batch of 32 letters Kaflka wrote to his parents near the end of his life. Karl is as rich with ideas and as fearless at entering Kafka's world as was Kaflka himself. Despite its flaws, then, an important biography and likely to become a standard critical biography of K.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1991
Page count: 768pp
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin