Reiner Stach, in the middle entry of his three volume biography of Franz Kafka, writes, “Anyone who studies bibliographies today will envy Kafka’s earliest readers, who knew very little about his life and could enjoy his work as literature and not as an accumulation of autobiographical codes.” (186) Stach’s biography (and its beautiful translation into English by Shelley Frisch) seems to give us Kafka as if from that very perspective: for while Kafka’s life and writing are clearly interwoven, there is no sense of stretching or forcing the life or the writing over each other. The second volume at least is less concerned with “what of the life got into the writing” than it is with “what kind of life did the writing emerge from,” and for that and many other reasons is easily one of the most enjoyable biographies I’ve read in a very long time.
My earliest reading of Kafka included this remark from George Steiner, on Kafka’s fable “Before the Law”: “The knowledge that it was written … by a gentleman in a bowler hat going to and from his daily insurance business, defies my grasp.” Stach’s book allows that defiance to continue, and deepen, and is just as much the biography of a writer as it is of a young man from Prague in the years leading up to World War One, as he struggles with the pressures of family and career, and the possibility of marriage. Stach uses the word “uneasiness” to describe Kafka’s work, and does not allow biographical details to assuage that unease:
Bits of information of this sort, when considered outside the context of research that is an end in itself, are ridiculous in that they are so dull when compared to the sustained uneasiness that emanates from Kafka’s stories. They create no insights. They contribute nothing to resolving the enigma offered by these texts, which stand on their own as aesthetic constructions even as they are filled with exceedingly private allusions. (190)
And so here are a few other of Stach’s most revealing remarks, first on the “unfinished” The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika; and then on the supposed “prophetic” nature of those novels, foretelling as they seem to do the nature of twentieth-century totalitarianism:
It is also a legend—catering to the pseudo-Romantic concept of literature—that Kafka regarded failure in general and the fragmentary character of his novels in particular as the appropriate expression of his aesthetic desire or even of himself. The opposite is true. He greatly admired perfect formal unity and was determined to achieve it, a resolution evident in every one of his endeavors. His pursuit of formal perfection meant that his literary texts had to develop organically from their fictional and visual seed. There could be no arbitrary plot twists, formulas, unmotivated surprises, superfluous or distracting details, or other impurities of that sort. He considered this imperative to achieve purity so vital that he never provided reasons for it; he had neither the desire or the ability to develop any fully articulated aesthetics. All his remarks on this subject, however, point in the same direction. His expression of admiration for Werfel’s poetry not long before breaking off his work on The Man Who Disappeared is characteristic: ‘How this kind of poem, carrying its intrinsic end in its beginning, rises with an uninterrupted, inner, fluid development—how one’s eyes open wide while lying scrunched up on the sofa!’ By the same token, his dissatisfaction with the ending of ‘The Metamorphosis’ begins to make sense when we consider that he had to disrupt the first-person perspective after Gregor’s death, which disturbed his sense of formal symmetry. He considered the conclusion of ‘In the Penal Colony’ equally unsatisfactory, most likely for the same reason. (242-3)
Kafka suffered not from a lack of ideas but from a lack of continuations. Unlike so many writers who were just as fragile psychologically, he came up against failure again and again when facing the hurdle of narrative technique. The problem was not the fading away of inspiration or his dependence on his moods but the magnitude of his self-assigned task. He demanded much more from his texts than formal unity; he sought a seamless linking of all motifs, images, and concepts. Beginning with “The Judgment,” he was generally able to achieve this unity in the stories he completed. These writings leave no narrative residues or blind alleys. Not one detail of Kafka’s descriptions, whether the color of a piece of clothing, a gesture, or simply the time of day, is merely illustrative. Everything carries meaning, refers to something, and recurs…. when readers are struck by the stunning perfection of Kafka’s texts, they are reacting in part to their formal qualities….
Such intensity, which stretches the limits of human language and succeeds very rarely even in poetry, poses immeasurable technical difficulties in the vaster space of the novel. The novel requires a steadily increasing level of attentiveness; more and more threads have to be grasped and intertwined. The more tightly they are woven, the more craftsmanship, precise flashes of insight, unrelenting supervision, and sober assessment are needed. The further the story progresses, the lower the probability that a spontaneous idea will “fit” where it emerges.
The moment at which the technical effort threatens to suffocate the creative element is the crisis of creativity. Kafka had reached this point several times in his life but never went beyond it. The creative side of his writing had simply reached its limit. The failure is tragic in the strictest sense of the word. It means that the two guiding principles of linguistic artistry, the inspired word and the perfectly crafted word, are mutually incompatible and in the long run cannot even coexist. Each pole is attainable but not, as Kafka believed, on one and the same expedition. (246)
Selective in his dealings with people and so bored by literary repartee that he had begun to avoid cafes where he was likely to find it, Kafka was spellbound by the isolated but active nature of a mind no longer dependent on confirmation from others. (212)
The complete exposure of the victim [in The Trial] has often been taken as prophecy, and it is indeed remarkable how close Kafka’s depictions come to the inner state of societies under totalitarian rule, especially in their atmospheric aspects. He saw this two decades before the Gestapo and Stalinist purges made so many millions of people freeze in fear. The nightmare of The Trial captures a fundamental sensibility of the twentieth century … But The Trial is not driven by attempts to diagnose the era or to send coded messages to the reader…. Kafka introduced into the novel not only the accumulated humiliations of an entire year but also innumerable particles of experience on a one-to-one scale…. But we should not confuse genesis and truth…. readers remain blind to these works if they do not give full due to Kafka’s extraordinary ability to use facts that have shed their material origins. (474) ….Here Kafka’s private dream merges with the nightmare of modernity: the virtual expropriation of life taking place behind all our backs. No matter what choices we make, we remain a “case” for whom rules, regulations, and institutions already exist. Our most spontaneous stirrings remain within the cage of a world that is thoroughly organized and determined. (476-7)