Conclusion of a massive, comprehensive life of the famed Czech/German/Jewish writer, chockablock with neuroses, failures and moments of brilliance.
The editor of Kafka’s collected works in German, Stach (Kafka: The Decisive Years, 2005, etc.) delivers much that is known about the writer: his sexual insecurities; his fraught, near-paralyzing relationship with his father; the terrible fate of his beloved sisters in the Holocaust. We knew from Max Brod, to say nothing of Kafka’s own correspondence, that he could be clinically cold, and clinically odd, as when he wrote to his one-time intended Felice Bauer, “Your last letter said that a picture was enclosed. It was not enclosed. This represents a hardship for me.” Yet there are surprises as well: Who knew, for instance, that Kafka, though gravely ill, was still athletic enough to row a passenger across a swiftly flowing river? Kafka was, of course, ever anonymous in doing so: “It would never have occurred to the man that he might have been rowed by a thirty-seven-year-old with a doctorate in law, who served as head of his department and suffered from tuberculosis.” Stach also reveals Kafka’s efforts to join the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, thwarted by his employer, and offers a trove of observations on Kafka and the business of writing and publishing, with all the usual complaints about late and underpaid royalties and skewed contracts. Throughout, Stach considers Kafka’s flourishing as a writer, precise but deeply emotional, in a time of works such as The Castle and “The Metamorphosis.” He also sheds light on Kafka’s sometimes-tenuous Zionism, including his concentrated studies of Hebrew and on-and-off plans to relocate to Palestine.
An illuminating book built, like its subject’s life, on small episodes rather than great, dramatic turning points. Essential for students and serious readers of Kafka.