Kafka: The Years of Insight, by Reiner Stach
Reviewed by Denis Donoghue
Kafka: The Years of Insight
Princeton University Press
The word “Kafkaesque” entered the English language, if the Oxford English Dictionary has it right, on January 4th, 1947, when the New Yorker magazine referred to “a Kafkaesque nightmare of blind alleys”. In 1954 Arthur Koestler invoked a time “long before the Moscow purges revealed that weird, Kafkaesque pattern to the incredulous world”.
The Soviet pattern was enforced between 1936 and 1938 when Stalin ordered the arrest of the remnants of the Bolsheviks who had turned against him. Torture led to false confessions and show trials in which Stalin invited the world, credulous and incredulous, to witness the righteousness of the Soviet regime.
Executions followed as night the day. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s Animal Farm concentrated the minds of English-speaking readers on issues of totalitarian violence. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror performed a similar exercise, more philosophically, in French. “Kafkaesque” is often used loosely to refer to any damned stuff that happens; more strictly, to official, impersonal terror.
Triumph of retribution
Franz Kafka was born in Prague on July 3rd, 1883, to quite well-off, assimilated Jewish parents. He died of tuberculosis of the larynx in a sanatorium in Austria, a month short of his 41st birthday, on June 6th, 1924, and was buried in Prague. His father, Herman, was a rough-and-ready fellow, aggressive, thick, but a competent man of the world who made money in a fancy-goods store. He knew that German, not Czech, was the language of advancement in Prague, so he kept his eyes on that object.
He had no interest in his son’s writings: when a new book or a story appeared he told Franz to leave it on the side of a table. Kafka paid off many an old score by writing his first irresistible short story, The Judgment (1913), and Letter to My Father (1919), a triumph of retribution. But he also acknowledged that “as a father you were too strong for me”. His mother was more accessible.
Kafka wrote three novels, The Trial, Amerika and The Castle, none of them satisfactorily completed. His shorter fiction consists of many parables, fables, aphorisms and stories, the most famous being The Metamorphosis, The Great Wall of China and In the Penal Colony. He was not a full-time writer. He worked first for an Italian insurance company in Prague and later for a trade-union insurance company, also in Prague, that employed him to deal with industrial accidents, employment in which he excelled.
As a sideline he became a partner in an asbestos factory that his brother-in-law set up, but he rarely went inside the building or fulfilled any of his duties. However, much as he complained of not having enough time to write, he didn’t seriously think of giving up his insurance job until near the end, when he was wretchedly ill.
Tall and strikingly good-looking, Kafka was appallingly attractive to women, and spent a lot of time and energy writing to them. I think he was a voluptuary of letters. He consumed five years explaining to Felice Bauer by letter why he could not contemplate marriage. Besides, it was easier to express his passion in letters when the woman in the case was not around. His diaries, which he kept from 1910 to 1923, contain some of his most memorable sentences, most of them notations of trouble. “I have always been discontented,” he wrote, “even with my contentment.” But he must have been occasionally serene, for he loved his sister Ottla and had several lasting friends. “The distance to my fellow man is for me a very long one,” he confided to one of his notebooks, but sometimes he was prepared to go the distance.