There are few writers as highly regarded as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Even people who have not read Kafka understand his blend of the sinister and absurd. Despite the reputation of being a high-brow, intellectual author, Kafka wrote bewitching tales in clear prose. Indeed, his stories are often short and ostensibly easy to understand even if the allusions and implications are complex. And his writing is often shot through with humour – not just absurdity, but also comic misunderstandings and dry irony.
A recently completed three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, superbly translated from German by Shelley Frisch, uses newly discovered sources to capture Kafka’s life and reflect on the origins and meaning of many of his writings. Stach takes time to correct previous biographical misconceptions, and observes that while there are mountains of academic, theoretical and literary overviews of Kafka, there are few biographies.
Stach attempts to be scrupulously fair to Kafka’s parents. Hermann Kafka was a self-made proprietor of a fancy-goods store in Prague, selling fabrics, clothes, household goods and toys. Kafka considered him something of a boastful tyrant who dominated the family with angry tirades and unreasoning selfishness. To his son, Kafka senior seemed the epitome of a crass materialism and social obsequiousness. Stach points out that Hermann Kafka’s childhood was a tough one. Hermann showed considerable wiliness and self-reliance – as well as stamina and acumen, speaking fluent Czech and German – to establish his shop, manage staff and support his family. There could only have been a gulf of incomprehension between the introverted, intellectual, artistic son and the assertive, pragmatic, brusque father. Kafka’s mother was a peacemaker who attempted to bridge the gap between father and son. Calm, resourceful and down-to-earth but intellectually incurious and firmly conventional, Julie Kafka – like her husband – had no real comprehension of her only son’s outlook and ambitions. Living under a capricious all-powerful authority, who meted out punishment unpredictably, provided a blueprint for the situation of Josef K in The Trial.
Kafka’s early schooling was inadequate. The Czech nationalist government of Prague was attempting to suffocate German-speaking schools, and classes in Kafka’s school were as large as 100 pupils per teacher due to teacher restrictions. Yet, despite the shortcomings of teaching and the young Kafka’s natural timidity, he received high grades and developed an appetite for learning. Kafka studied law, attained his doctorate and began work in the state insurance firm. His fluency in Czech as well as German proved essential. His work was often routine, dry and dull, and frequently required him to travel occasionally to inspect workplaces and interview people. He wrote reports that were clear and logical and described situations with unusual clarity.
The contradictions, paradoxes and submission to obscure sources of authority that one finds in Kafka’s writings derive – in part – from the society he lived in
The provision of insurance by the Austro-Hungarian state was both a progressive and necessary measure taken by a rapidly industrialising economy and a bitterly contested field afflicted by political infighting, nationalist division and unclear legislative authority. It was the empire in microcosm. The contradictions, paradoxes and submission to obscure sources of authority that one finds in Kafka’s writings derive – in part – from the society he lived in.
Despite drifting into his job (which he kept until his retirement due to ill health shortly before his death), Kafka worked diligently, earning the admiration of colleagues and the respect of professional acquaintances. Yet he accepted his rises in pay and status with near indifference. By the time of his retirement he was head of the legal department. ‘He was largely immune to the temptation of buttressing his security by means of personal possessions’, writes Stach. ‘He could not “possess” either women or things. There is not a single known episode in his life in which he displayed possessiveness. […] He was impervious to the joys of collecting things.’ For Kafka the life of the mind was simply that – with no attachment to books, pictures, letters or the physical objects which stimulate the mind.
Kafka spent most of his nights writing stories. ‘I have no literary interests’, he wrote; ‘I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else’.