I am literature – Kafka’s life and extreme ambition

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Reiner Stach: Die Kafka-Biographie in drei Bänden (English titles: Kafka: The Early Years, Kafka: The Years of Insight, Kafka: The Decisive Years). ISBN 978-3-10-397256-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Few non-fiction works have given me the satisfaction that this biography of Franz Kafka gave me. The original German edition counts some 1800 pages, spread over three volumes, and each page was an adventure. Rainer Stach combines a thorough scientific study of Kafka’s life and works with masterful story-telling. His sound knowledge of the history of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire allows him to put Kafka’s life in a precise philosophical, political and sociological context. And Stach’s outstanding literary talent made it possible to write a witty, emphatic biography while maintaining the necessary distance to the subject at the same time.

What shall I say? This is certainly the best biography I have read so far and most likely one of the best books I have read. What impressed me, was the consistency of the ideas that guide the reader through the three volumes. Kafka was an enigmatic person, no doubt, but it is possible to decrypt both him and his works, if not to the last detail then at least well enough to understand Kafka’s states of mind, his motives, his ambitions and the obstacles that prevented him from becoming a successful author during his lifetime, obstacles he set up mostly himself.

The second and third volume are brim-full of bookmarks and annotations of mine, so where should I start? Perhaps with Kafka’s ambition which at the same time was what he considered the purpose of his life. Kafka was looking for the utmost depth of his soul, the hidden truths inside himself, pure and therefore honest. He looked so hard that on many occasions he lost himself. Catapulted into a state of extreme introspection, he found bits and pieces of his essence at the level of his subconsciousness. He combined this with a precise observation of his environment, the society of Prague, the psychological workings of his dysfunctional family and metaphors they inspired to him. And just like in a black box, through an unintelligible process, out came a book, a letter, a note in one of his many drafting booklets.

It could take years until a coherent text took shape, but once the black-box was triggered Kafka would write day and night until total exhaustion. As you may know, he almost never finished a text. Most of his novels end abruptly and leave the reader somewhat speechless, like “The Castle”. Sometimes Kafka wrote chapters for a novel without knowing where to insert them. I remember the chapters at the end of  “The Trial”. They illustrate certain parts of the plot, but you can either read them or not. Kafka himself was unsure.

Kafka intended to replicate life in literature and at the same time literature was his life. As Stach writes, one of the forces that propelled Kafka’s writing forward was “the reciprocal concentration of fantasy and reality”, well visible in Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis”. This however was an extreme challenge, as Kafka recognized himself. To his fiancée Felice he once wrote: “The outer world is too small, too obvious, too authentic to hold all that is encapsulated in one human being.”

One of Kafka’s central issue was the subject of social exclusion. He always felt like the odd man out – in his family, at school, in his job as an insurance expert, in the literary scene of Prague, in the Jewish community, a stranger among humans. And this was by no means just an attitude. Stach describes it as an affliction, a lifelong burden and a lifelong source of inspiration. More than once Kafka feared to turn mad, trapped by the conflicting forces that tore at his soul, but suicide was never an issue as this would not have been compatible with his ambition. He could not withdraw from the life-long experiment labeled “I am literature”.

Kafka’s desire to write something completely truthful, perfectly reflecting his ideas and emotions let him to hone his writing skill over decades, leading to an aesthetic concept marked by an extreme density, a meticulous choice of words and metaphors and a stark, sober style when it came to descriptions. It was Kafka’s language that enthralled me, it was his symbolism that captivated my mind and it was Stach’s biography that helped me understand both the man and his works. With Kafka I discovered a whole world, his world, and at the same time I received a code to decypher modern-day sociological issues that are not very different from the issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kafka had no interest in classical music and told his friend Max Brod he could not distinguish Franz Lehar’s operette “The Merry Widow” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. Prague was the geographical centre of Kafka’s life and so I’d like to link this outstanding biography to an outstanding Czech composer, Leos Janacek, who benefited of Brod’s support, and his String Quartet No. 1:

Entangled in Janacek’s tragedies and love affairs