The final installment in German scholar Stach’s magisterial three-part biography (Kafka: The Years of Insight, 2013, etc.), covering, in appropriately Kafkaesque nonsequential fashion, the writer’s childhood and youth.
A preface by Frisch, the superb translator of all three volumes, explains that the peculiar order was dictated by lack of access to the archives of Max Brod, close friend and literary executor, whose extensive diaries concerning the crucial years of Kafka’s formative literary efforts only became available recently. Stach makes astute use of this material to assess the complicated relationship between Kafka and the gregarious, ambitious Brod, who could never understand why his talented friend was so reluctant to publish and agonizingly slow to produce. Stach’s examination of the years before the men met at university in 1902 suggests a few reasons, most having to do with the pressure to achieve placed on young Franz by his overbearing father, Hermann. This analysis is sometimes swamped by the enormous amount of background on everything from anti-Semitism as a function of rising Czech nationalism to the nature of education in the late 19th-century; these and other highly relevant subjects could have been covered more cogently. However, the abundance of detail enables Stach to paint a vivid picture of the history and culture of Prague, Kafka’s hometown and lifelong residence. His portrait of the artist is intimately knowing: Kafka seizes our attention as a man neurotic yet deeply self-aware, frail yet devoted to swimming and hiking, always holding himself at a social remove yet a frequent visitor to Prague’s wine bars and coffee shops. Most importantly, the author makes palpable Kafka’s perfectionist striving for a prose of surreal clarity, “the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
The inaugural book, on the remarkable half-decade that produced The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and “In the Penal Colony,” is still the best, but this slightly overstuffed volume completes an indispensable work about a key figure in 20th-century modernism.