KAFKA: THE EARLY YEARS ISBN 978 0 691 15198-4



By Reiner Stach

Princeton University Press

Reviewed by Alan Dent


            The  final volume of this almost 1,700 page biography covers Kafka’s childhood and early life, the first, his later years. Stach has devoted decades to the study. To have all three books and to be able to read them in chronological order satisfies a long-held anticipation. It is redundant to point out that this is the indispensable life and is likely to remain so for a very long time. Stach is exemplary in every regard. His scholarship is flawless, his attention to detail unfaltering but above all his style thoroughly appropriate. Like his subject, he has no time for flamboyance or sensation. There are no exclamation marks. He has absorbed some of Kafka’s extraordinary discipline and capacity for objectivity. The three tomes coalesce into an image of his subject’s life. They are an appropriate complement to Kafka’s fiction, refusing attention-seeking in a world dominated by mirror-gazing.

            Hermann Kafka wasn’t the kind of man who might be expected to produce a sensitive and insightful literary genius. He was born the son of a butcher in 1852 in the village of Wosek. That his birth was legitimate was thanks to a change in the law three years earlier which granted significant legal equality to Jews. Hermann’s childhood was pinched but not impoverished, which didn’t prevent him later from berating his family with exorbitant claims of hardship. He may have been no more than a commonplace domestic tyrant, but to a child like Franz his tyranny was excruciating and ruinous. Stach argues that in his letter to his father, Kafka was not accusing Hermann of making him what he was but asserting rather: “You were not able to make anything out of what I was; it did not interest you, it seemed inadequate to you, and hence there was no encouragement, no approval, no bolstering of my self-confidence.” Kafka understood intuitively and through introspection that he couldn’t make himself. His work is a refutation of the myth of individualism; that is, the illusion that we construct our minds entirely through our conscious processes. His tragic vision is rooted in the recognition that we make one another. The fact of childhood makes us dependent on those who raise us for our very sense of self. Kakfka’s charge against his father is that he had a child whose endowment meant nothing to him, so  by neglect he starved him of what he needed to fulfil his nature.

            Hermann married Julie Löwy who grew up with five brothers, lost her mother at the age of four and her grandmother through suicide shortly after. Self-sacrificing and warm-hearted she possessed the capacity to attenuate her husband’s vulgarity. He seems to have restrained his bombastic traits and resisted the worst of his crassness in her presence. If Kafka learned self-forgetfulness from her, he didn’t imbibe an ability to think unconventionally. She was an attentive mother but within a narrow circle. She had little capacity to find her way through the kind of inner conflicts which tortured her boy.

            His family was the primary nexus out of which Kafka evolved his imaginative vision. At its heart is the image of the creature whose nature can’t be accepted by those whose moral responsibility it is to nurture. Expanded from the domestic to the social, this becomes the image of a culture dominated by Hermann Kafka-like narrowness, self-regard and self-pity; a culture which destroys the lives of its citizens because it can’t accept  what they are, in their multiple uniqueness. His father’s moral duty was to encourage and bolster his nature, however baffling and alien it might seem to him. The same moral duty is imposed on social institutions. Hermann’s  moral failure was his insistence on suppressing those traits in his son which clashed with his assumptions ( hardly a rare phenomenon among parents). The same moral failure is replicated in social institutions which insist on supressing whatever does not fit their evolved view, which by its very nature must be partial, limited and provisional.

            Kafka wasn’t a physically tough boy. His parents had the cook take him to school and pick him up, the only boy in the first class who didn’t make his own way. On the one hand, neglect of his nature, on the other, excessive supervision. Kafka had difficulty with plans. He wrote to Felice Bauer:

            “Naturally, I have no plans at all, no prospects at all. I cannot step into the future; crashing into the future, hurling myself into the future, stumbling into the future, those are things I can do, and best of all, I can lie still.”

Such alienation from the commonplace go-getting of the modern world is part of what made him the most relevant of modern writers.

            He lacked confidence at school, was always sure he would fail in spite of his excellent performance. He compared his interest in school, and indeed in everything around him in his childhood, to the attitude of an embezzling bank-clerk for whom the every day business of the bank is nugatory as he waits in terror to be discovered. The purity of the image is the essence of his literary perfectionism. Image over idea was the abiding rule.

            Kafka could never accept that school grades were no more than an assessment of competence in particular areas. For him, they were part of the “human tribunal” he dreaded. It’s easy to dismiss this as neurotic, but Kafka’s anxiety was well-placed: not only the Nazis sterilised people considered to be sub-normal and being top of the class all too easily leeches into a belief in your intrinsic superiority. “Every human is peculiar” he wrote. He knew that grading systems turn peculiarity into humiliation.

            Kafka had three younger sisters. In his later years he depended on the much more conventionally competent Ottla. In his letter to his father he wrote this of Elli:

            “She was such a clumsy, tired, feeble, peevish, guilt-ridden, over-meek, malicious, lazy, voracious, miserly child, I could hardly look at her…”

He observed (it was an observation not a complaint) that he had no family life. His family was the primary site of his alienation. His family wasn’t a refuge from the grasping, vicious, self-seeking of the economic system, but a milieu dominated by it. Hermann, the businessman anxious for his profits who viewed his employees as enemies insisted that his family serve his business. There was no room for an emotional tenor not adjusted to the balance-sheet.

            “Children,” Kafka wrote to Felice, “should not be pushed into things that are utterly incomprehensible to them.” He recognised doing so could bring good results, but he was remined of a former teacher who, while teaching his class Greek literature, disdained them for their unworthiness. He was forced to obey what humiliated him and to obey without understanding. This later became the fate of Josef K who complies with every demand but is still destroyed.

            In early adolescence Kafka exhibited that falling off from excellence which is often found in over-obedient children. Not that he was turning away from books or literature. On the contrary, he was reading till the early hours and had begun to write. He decided by the age of thirteen he wanted to be a writer. By this he didn’t mean he wanted to write books for money or fame, but that his life’s work would be the pursuit of a pure from which could express the truth of his inner conflicts. His family offered no recognition of his literary ambition. On a visit to his grandparents when he had just begun working on his idea of two brothers, one of whom goes to America, he was writing a few lines at the table when his uncle peered over, picked up the paper and declared “the usual stuff”. Kafka remarked: “I got an insight into the cold space of our world which I had to warm with a fire that I first wanted to seek out.”

            He experienced anti-Semitism early. The Young Czech movement, among other forces, was adopting an explicitly anti-Semitic rhetoric in Kafka’s childhood. In 1897 came the German Storm. Nothing identified as German was safe from attack. Fortunately, the Kafkas were fluent in Czech. The Jews weren’t the primary target, but inevitably they were attacked. Kafka never wrote about the incidents, but that they must have affected him is beyond doubt. This atmosphere of threat, added to his alienation from his family engendered the sense, as Stach puts it, that “…from one hour to the next, everything could come to an end.” Later, as a result of his relationship to Felice Bauer who he met on 13th August 1912, he came to understand further how social institutions can close against individuals. The self-protection of the Jewish family, modified by its absorption of many bourgeois Christian values, the need of the social institution to isolate and diminish whatever threatened its existence, was brought home powerfully by Felice Bauer’s mother. Her husband left her for another woman but returned to her when she died. Ferri, Felice’s older brother was an unbalanced con-man. Family loyalty, the ancient adherence to the rights of the institution over those of the individual meant these scandals were wrapped in silence. The women closed ranks, clammed up and hid the cracks in the walls of the edifice of the Jewish family. As Stach argues, this became a central motif of his fiction. In both The Trial and The Castle, the protagonist is helped by women until the law draws them away. Then he is abandoned.

            In a sense, Kafka exposes what goes on behind open doors. The institutions which destroy people are apparently legible. Yet at just the moment when the serious questions are asked they become opaque. In recent years, we have seen ample evidence of what happens when the innocent aren’t listened to and the assumption is abroad that those sustained by an aura of respectability and power must be beyond suspicion. It’s often said that Kafka prefigured fascism but it’s more pertinent to suggest he opens our eyes to how democratic institutions enfold totalitarian elements.

            “I don’t want to develop in any particular way; I want to go to a different place…” Kafka wrote. He was attracted to both Zionism and socialism, yet could never fully identify with either. By the age of fifteen he had worked out an atheist response to deism. The book he most often offered as a gift was Lily Braun’s Memoirs of a Socialist (it’s unlikely he admired it for its literary merits). Socialism provided an example of how the powerless could stand up for themselves and one another. That the creed embraced the idea of helping those weaker than yourself even if it involved sacrifice, seems to have provoked life-long admiration. Yet he was unable to sink himself in the socialist movement. He was a writer. Activism as a way of life was for others.

            Further, Kafka was acutely aware of the tendency of power to attract identification. He was no student of Marxism with its glib characterisation of the working-class as revolutionary by nature. Rather, he understood power as fatally attractive and allied to this the tendency to elaborate an identity by disparaging others. Kafka resisted this with his iron will. It wasn’t that he was incapable of recognising moral failings, but he refused to build a sense of self out of looking down on those weaker than himself in any respect. His fiction is almost unique in its recognition of how common this is, and how destructive. When Kafka said: “The only fit thing for a man to eat is half a lemon,” he was pointing metaphorically to the extraordinary moral strength required to resist the self-indulgence and self-complacency which too easily become the bloated egos of those who have no insight into the needs of others.

            At sixteen, Kafka read the Darwin-influenced Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe in which he calls god a “gaseous vertebrate”.  He appears to have enjoyed its iconoclasm and the excitement of the late-nineteenth century intellectual revolution it was part of; but he wasn’t intent on questions of how species evolved. He was obsessed with the mystery of his own identity. He was, however, attracted to the Lebensreform movement, its return-to-nature orientation and became a life-long vegetarian. His attraction to simplicity ties in to his dislike of l’art pour l’art, self-conscious literary embellishment and the impenetrable obfuscations of Symbolism.

            Kafka developed quite early a taste for Flaubert. He recognised in the master the ability to apply intense concentration to fleeting phenomena. Like Flaubert, he turned away from the law as a profession. His choice of insurance led him first to the Assicurazioni Generali then to the famous Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. He was remarkably capable. His attention to detail and his ability to frame letters which hit just the right tone brought him great admiration. He hated it. It was nothing less than torture. All he wanted to do was write:

            “My life consists and has essentially always consisted of attempts at writing, largely unsuccessful.”

            He began work at the WAII on 30th July 1908. On 19th February 1911 he didn’t come to work. His letter of apology began:

            “When I wanted to get out of bed today, I simply collapsed.”

He explained how the hours in the office tormented him. About his “other” work. The letter comes from a culture long disappeared. No employee could write such a thing today and not be sacked. Kafka had no ambition, in the conventional sense. He was not flattered by his superiors’ admiration of his efficiency. He didn’t relish money or status. He certainly had no wish to control others. His one intention, which it would be demeaning to call an ambition, was to find a pure literary form to express what was within him. When he was promoted along with two other clerks at the WAII, Kafka, embarrassed by the formality of the occasion, laughed in the president’s face.

            In The Man Who Disappeared/Amerika, Kafka offers what may be the first depiction in literature of the modern workplace: the office. It is an image of depersonalised efficiency. Workers have ceased to be people. They don’t greet one another. They look at the floor as they walk. The activity is that of the machine. He is also the first writer in German to have depicted a strike. He understood the dehumanizing power of mechanised work and the curse that inevitably accompanies the blessing of technology. The irony at the heart of the precision and ultra-efficiency of the machine world is that it generates anarchy. People plan themselves into inefficiency and disorder. Long before the digital economy Kafka had intuited a disaster far worse than that of Forster’s The Machine Stops: a world in which the machine can’t be stopped.

            Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, was considerably more successful in commercial and critical terms as a writer. By comparison to his friend, he seems vulgar. He would use any contact, any wile, any strategy to get his work into print and draw attention to himself. During his lifetime, he published much more than Kafka, but most of it is unread today. Brod was a writer of talent, Kafka of genius. The former are often more successful in common terms than the latter. Kafka had a difficult relationship with publishing. Writing was a search for inner truth. Displaying it to the world could be meretricious. Perhaps Kafka’s famous diary entry of 8th October 1917 about Dickens says as much as anything about his view of the relationship between writing and potential readers:

            Dickens’s opulence and great, careless prodigality; but in consequence, passages of awful insipidity in which he wearily works over effects he has already achieved, leaves one with a barbaric impression, because the whole does not make sense. There is heartlessness beneath his sentimentally overflowing style. These rude characterisations are stamped on everyone and without them Dickens can’t get on with his story, even for a minute.

            Dickens made a sentimental appeal to his readers and in doing so confirmed them in their heartlessness. Victorian Britain overflowed with sentiment as its masses sank in poverty. Kafka had a different view of literature:

                        “..a book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Taking an axe to that frozen sea for decades didn’t lead him to conclude he would find a big and ready audience. He never ceased to doubt either that most of his work might be too unachieved to be worth publishing. He may have intuited what is now almost uncontroversial: that language evolved to facilitate thought rather than for communication.

            In a letter to Felice Bauer on 11th December 1912 Max Brod wrote:

                        “He is never prepared to compromise….if he does not feel within himself the full power of writing, he is capable of not writing a single line for months…instead of being satisfied with writing what is only middling and so-so.”

As Stach remarks, Kafka would have shaken his head in disbelief: for him there was no middling or so-so writing. What was not successful should be thrown on the fire. He would have been more alienated than ever in our culture where scribbling fit for the grate is lauded as high literature.

            Jorge Luis Borges argued that Hawthorne’s Wakefield adumbrated Kafka because of the triviality of the protagonist’s response to the magnitude of his perdition. Triviality on the one hand, compliance on the other; these are the responses of Kafka’s characters to what will destroy them. Gregor Samsa goes acceptingly to death, rejected  by his family, disposed of like rubbish for the dustbin. This is what horrified Kafka and horrifies his readers: the ease with which a human being can be reduced to waste and thrown away and the terrifying submission of people to the process that does this to them.

            His three sisters died in concentration camps as did two of the women he was closest to. Otto Brod, Max’s brother, died in Auschwitz. The tally of people he knew well or in passing who were killed directly or indirectly by the Nazis is extensive. Yet, as Stach points out, it is not prophecy that is at the heart of his work: the horror was all around him, he didn’t need to predict it.

            It’s impossible to do justice to the scope of this biography in such a short review. In time, Stach may be updated, but he will never be surpassed, like his subject.

            After 8th November 2016, with Marine Le Pen set to win the first round of the coming Presidential contest, with Geert Wilders talking of “Moroccan scum” and the AFD wanting to rid Germany of Muslims, it’s time to read Kafka again and to think hard about the simple steps by which a human being can be reduced to garbage; and to ask ourselves whether, like Josef K and Gregor Samsa we are responding trivially and with compliance to impending perdition. And time too to read and re-read this biography.