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The Disgraceful Lowlands of Writing

By (February 1, 2017) 3 Comments

Kafka: The Early Years
Kafka: The Decisive Years
Kafka: The Years of Insight
By Reiner Stach, Translated by Shelley Frisch

In 1917, one of Franz Kafka’s few readers sent him a letter. It was a rare taste of recognition. This reader, Dr. Siegfried Wolff, wanted something. Not an autograph, a signed book, or a manuscript page. He wanted answers. He had bought a copy of “The Metamorphosis” for his cousin, who passed it to Wolff’s mother, who passed it to another cousin. None of them could figure out what it meant. Dr. Wolff read the story for himself and came away equally confused. “Only you can help me,” he wrote to Kafka. “You have to, because you are the one who landed me in this situation. So please tell me what my cousin ought to make of ‘The Metamorphosis.'”

The supplicating Dr. Wolff came at the head of a long line of readers who would be stymied by Kafka’s stories. Not having Kafka around to pester for answers, many of the perplexed wrote their own guides. Perhaps no modern author has initiated such a frenzy of interpretation with so slender and fragmentary a body of work. Three unfinished novels, one volume’s worth of shorter pieces, some aphorisms: even if we include his journals and letters, Kafka’s work would fill a very small shelf, yet it bears the weight of a whole scholarly industry. Despite this glut, there have been comparatively few full-dress biographies. (A notable exception is Ronald Hayman’s K: A Biography of Kafka.) For many years the owners of the best collection of sources on Kafka’s early life, the literary estate of Max Brod, refused access to researchers. Even for those interested in a biographical approach Kafka remained frustratingly inaccessible, and the best work on his life has been partial, like Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial about Kafka’s engagement to Felice Bauer.

These barriers were still in place when Reiner Stach decided to enter the field. He had to compose his three-volume biography of Kafka out of chronological order, hoping that Brod’s estate would eventually be opened to him. Volume two came first, treating Kafka’s middle years, then volume three, carrying the story to his death, and now, at last, volume one, about his youth. Given the state of the field, with Brod’s archives only recently opened, Stach’s completed trilogy has no competition as the definitive biography: nowhere else, at this point, can you learn so much about the life and times of Kafka. But even apart from any temporary preeminence, Reiner Stach’s biographical trilogy belongs in the company of the masterpieces of literary biography. Like Leon Edel’s Henry James, Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, it is comprehensive but raised above mere competency through astonishing architectural beauty. Thanks to the superb work of Stach’s translator, Shelley Frisch, the trilogy also stands out in English at the sentence level, for the unbroken clarity, verbal ingenuity, and unflagging momentum of its prose.

Stach’s overarching goal is to answer Dr. Wolff’s question: what are we to make of Kafka’s texts? In the preface to book two (which, due to publication order, is really the preface to the whole work), Stach writes that upon reading Kafka,

Two questions come to the fore: “What does all this mean?” and “How does something like this come about?” Pursuing the first question, readers wind up in a jungle of textual interpretation; pursuing the second, they toil at a biographical crossword puzzle that cannot be completed.

Stach manages to avoid both forms of futility. His innovation is a new angle on the old question. He announces: “How it happened. That ought to be the starting point.” The question that should primarily engage us in a literary biography, he suggests, is one of production. He approaches Kafka’s texts not as ciphers he will decode, but as artifacts whose making he will describe. By focusing on the act of writing, he fashions into a coherent whole a long and detailed trilogy, written over the course of decades. It carries us through explorations of everything from the history of Prague to the sociology of letter-writing to the architecture of bathing pools. All of it subtends the goal of discovering what conditions could foster a writer who worked like Kafka.

Perhaps this succeeds because few writers have worked like Kafka. Stach describes it:

If we were to observe the ebb and flow of Kafka’s literary productivity from a great height, we would see a wave pattern: an initial phase of intensive, highly productive work that comes on suddenly and lasts several hours a day, followed by a gradual decline of his powers of imagination, lasting for weeks, and then finally, in spite of his desperate attempts to fight it, a standstill and feelings of despair for months on end.

Proof of the swift ebbing of creativity that Stach describes are the three unfinished novels (The Man Who Disappeared, The Trial, and The Castle) that rise like shipwrecks on Kafka’s shore. “It is […] a legend,” Stach writes, “that Kafka regarded the failure in general and the fragmentary character of his novels in particular as the appropriate expression of his aesthetic desire or even of himself.” No, he simply failed to carry his projects to their desired conclusion. What restrained him from working regularly? Why did his creativity seem to dry up prematurely every time? These are the mysteries Stach requires three volumes to explain.

Kafka was born in Prague and continued to live there for most of his life. His father, Hermann, was a first generation city-dweller. He never forgot that he had escaped the toil and uncertainty of a village. “For Hermann Kafka,” writes Stach, “mistrust, combativeness, and crude utilitarianism were lofty virtues that he sought to inculcate in his children to make them fit for survival in a dog-eat-dog society.” He was an impatient and quick-tempered man, and his effect on the sensitive, physically weak Franz was devastating. In an undelivered letter that Kafka wrote as an adult to his father, he recalled a specific incident that encapsulates the psychic wound. Once, when tiny Franz tried the bedtime avoidance technique of asking repeatedly for a drink of water, Hermann ran out of patience, dragged him onto a balcony, and locked him outside in the dark. This is the archetype of Kafka’s nightmare. He always felt disproportionately condemned by unreceptive judges; he worried that the surest human bond could suddenly disintegrate; and he felt alienated from normal social existence, locked forever on an existential balcony in a spiritual night.

This almost mythopoetic version of Kafka’s origin story — or at least the origin story of the particular neurotic sensibility subsequently named “Kafkaesque” — has often born too much explanatory weight, not least because it feels tailor-made for psychoanalysis. While Stach gives the father-son relationship its due, he refuses to stop there. Plenty of other things in Kafka’s circumstances were conducive to anxiety and alienation.

For example, Kafka was born to a Jewish family in Prague. The Jewish population of Prague was mixed up in a centuries’ old antagonism between the German and the Czech populations. Jews were distrusted, often hated, associated with the Habsburg regime that had suppressed Czech nationalism — so the story went — ever since the defeat of the Bohemian revolt in the 1620s. In Kafka’s lifetime, after the first World War destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the embers of Prague’s stale grudge were fanned by new racism and ancient religious bigotry, bringing the city to the verge of pogrom. Kafka did not live to see the conflagration; but all three of his sisters died in concentration camps. Even without an angry and overbearing father, Kafka’s life would not have been free of paranoia in Prague.

Fortunately, even beneath cruel patriarchs and among the oppressed, there is life. And Stach’s Kafka is more alive than he has ever been in a biography. We learn about his love for books and friendship and nature and travel and swimming. With the care of an archeologist, Stach picks up each available piece of Kafka’s history, habits, and personality, brushes off the dust, holds it to the light, and turns it carefully to examine every side.

Kafka’s swimming is a perfect example — a small thing, it might seem, a mere recreational tributary to the torrent of a life. But Stach begins by exploring its somatic and symbolic dimensions:

Swimming is an archaic activity that taps into deep, preponderantly unconscious realms of experience. It is an exceptionally intense and multi-layered, yet easily achievable physical and mental state of being, comparable only to sexuality.

From such lyrical abstractions, Stach circles in to mention virtually every major passage in Kafka’s texts that pertains to swimming (his story about a man who wins an Olympic medal for swimming despite not knowing how to swim, passages from his letters). He speculates on the psychoanalytic explanation for Kafka’s love of floating. He briefly summarizes Kafka’s prospects for swimming-places over the course of his life. Then he continues to weave appropriate references to Kafka’s aquatic disporting through the whole of his narrative. All of this sets up the moment when Stach will address one of the most famous sentences in Kafka’s writings, a line in his journal with which he commemorated August 2, 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia — went swimming in the afternoon.” This passage has been held up as an illustration of Kafka’s self-absorption and unworldliness. Stach touches it lightly, and merely notes why it has been over-quoted. But in the context of his tender inquiry, the reader of this biography understands at once how profound a response it was for Kafka to swim on the first day of the war. Stach lays the groundwork for such epiphanies everywhere. When you consider how long it took to write the volumes of this biography, and that they were written out of order, such an architectural achievement becomes truly remarkable.

Of course, what the reader of any biography of Kafka most keenly desires to see is an explanation for another activity he enjoyed: writing. Like most writers, Kafka seems to have acquired his vocation by reading. Yet even as Kafka’s inner life turned more and more in the direction of literature, his outer life turned away from it.

Kafka’s family pressured him to find work with good prospects. Reluctantly, he studied law and got a job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute. He despised it. Stach reveals that he was also exceptionally good at it, quickly rising to handle the most sensitive legal correspondence and enjoying the unstinting trust of his superiors; but in diaries and letters we find a near constant litany of complaint. Stach explains that,

Kafka knew precisely what he did not want: he did not even consider becoming an attorney or using his linguistic gifts to earn a living. Having his afternoons free was more important to him than the prospect of bourgeois prosperity […] and he never shared in the joys of business transactions.

If only he could get out of the office and find the time to write. As it was, he tried to carve out time by taking long afternoon naps and then staying up late into the night — sometimes all night — to work on his stories and write in his diary. This unhealthy schedule seemed necessary to him not just because of the day job, but because he lived in the same house as his parents and sisters, and he was unusually sensitive to noises. Almost no one in his family understood this lifestyle; his father complained about it at the table; only his youngest sister Ottla was on his side.

Hounded by interruptions at work and at home, given to depression and mental paralysis, it’s a wonder Kafka managed to write anything at all. He found it difficult even to begin, despite an enormous internal pressure to do so. Most of the time the best he could manage were exquisite, scenic diary entries. “[H]e was like a photographer,” writes Stach, “who spends the evening sorting through the optic yield of the day.” When he did assay a burst of real creation, almost always it marked the failure of a major attempt to break out of his grim rut.

Several of those attempts took the form of love. Kafka’s two engagements and a handful of love affairs were all (with one exception) precipitous, disastrous, and largely epistolary. Perhaps the closest thing to a complete novel in his work is the collected letters he wrote to Felice Bauer. He met her one evening at the home of his best friend, Max Brod, wooed her by letter (after first re-introducing himself, since she’d barely noticed him as he was falling for her), and, with many misgivings, initiated the formal engagement proceedings. Meeting her and opening their correspondence fueled his first major artistic breakthrough, the short story “The Judgment.” Losing her — in a most Kafkaesque manner — precipitated The Trial and “The Metamorphosis.”

Kafka came to suspect there was an inverse relationship between his prospects for romantic fulfillment and his reservoirs of creativity. He struggled with the idea that a commitment to literature entailed a commitment to almost metaphysical bachelorhood, bachelorhood not merely as alienation from the nuclear family but as alienation from the human race. Would he always be the gargoyle watching from the cornice?

Stach tells us that a joint vacation Kafka took with Max Brod first brought this problem home to him. They had decided to keep travel journals. The idea excited Kafka because note-taking seemed a better way of taking something genuinely personal home from the trip — his impressions — than buying souvenirs or taking photographs. “But Brod was skeptical and instantly put his finger on the drawback,” writes Stach:

The danger of taking such extensive notes is that one misses out on many impressions that one might have made for even more interesting notes. Isn’t writing while traveling like closing one’s eyes, Brod wondered, after which one has to keep refocusing one’s attention.

Kafka appears to have recognized that this problem is more universal than travel writing: it applies to life itself. Could he commit to literature in a serious way and still participate in life? Wouldn’t it be like closing his eyes? In fact, as he slept his afternoons away and retreated from the life of his family into the silent watches of the night, hadn’t he closed his eyes already? Such thoughts could lead to fearful reflections, like this passage in a letter to Brod:

[W]hat frail or even nonexistent ground I live on, over a darkness from which the dark power emerges according to its will and, heedless of my stammering destroys my life. Writing sustains me, but isn’t it more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life? […] Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child’s visual instruction, that it is the reward for serving the devil.

This sort of intensity about anything, even literature, can make Kafka seem genuinely alien. But one of the major triumphs of Stach’s biography is to show that much of Kafka’s intensity was, in fact, a result of conscious choices he made about his lifestyle and his aesthetic goals. It would be a disservice to the edifice of life and literature that Kafka constructed to treat him as a cringing freak, helpless before his own identification with writing.

Early in his life, Kafka made the choice to make choices. The details of everyday life and his most basic functions would be consciously determined and aesthetically arranged. He longed for purity: for a life of total aesthetic coherence, in which everything from washing his face in the morning to the posture in which he lay in bed would express the truth of his nature. “Truth” in this sense — as total aesthetic consistency — was more important to him than truth in the ordinary sense of correspondence to reality. Stach offers this summation of what Kafka meant by “truth”:

Kafka had been convinced for quite some time that truth could not be the extract of philosophical or religious judgments but rather had a fundamentally moral and social dimension. Truth cannot be taught; it has to be lived. […] Kafka [focused] his attention not on the avowal of an issue or its practical application but rather on a stance of absolute authenticity, which lent substance and weight to avowals of any sort. Authenticity was a seamless accord, free of outside interference and catchphrases, an accord of thinking, feeling, and acting: harmony with oneself, and truthfulness. Kafka found examples of this truthfulness in the oddest places, irrespective of his own convictions

In other words, Kafka didn’t admire any particular ideology, but rather wholeheartedness itself. This attitude could be a great tribulation to his friends, who were always disturbed to see him lend an ear to an authentic-seeming — and therefore admirable, by Kafka’s lights — enemy. Max Brod unwisely picked a fight with the sharp-tongued Viennese intellectual Karl Kraus, and found Kafka’s ongoing appreciation for Kraus’s truculent journalism a bit disloyal. Where was his Prague spirit, or, more to the point, his solidarity with his best friend? But Kafka admired people in a dispassionate way; he found authenticity (even if it entailed hostility to himself and his friends) irresistibly seductive. Even so, no one can live by substituting an empty formal appreciation of authenticity for actual commitments of their own. What did Kafka take to be true?

For one thing, Stach reveals that Kafka was a surprisingly enthusiastic proponent of Lebensreform, a back-to-nature movement. Kafka followed a daily regimen of naked calisthenics in front of an open window, made sure to chew each bite of food one hundred times as per the instructions of Horace Fletcher, and even spent a vacation at a nudist sanatorium. Stach argues that he was practicing a kind of asceticism:

Asceticism is a process of self-regulation and self-formation based on the utopian notion of attaining complete control over one’s body, self, and life. All Kafka’s interests, habits, and penchants were modified accordingly. A diet of nuts and fruits, a flawless method of chewing, devotion to calisthenics, and long walks.

So was Lebensreform Kafka’s “truth”? He remained fascinated by it, but as he grew older, and especially after the tuberculosis set in, some of his evangelical and self-improving fervor for it seemed to die down. Was Judaism his truth? Inspired by the rise of Zionism — not least in the person of Max Brod — Kafka worked to become fluent in Hebrew and made desultory plans to emigrate to Palestine; but he didn’t go. What about love? In a desperate moment he offered to his fianceé Felice Bauer to give up writing and make her his truth; but ultimately he traded their engagement for the brief incandescence of one of his bursts of writing.

Writing: that was it; always that. Writing was Kafka’s truth. And because of his strange ideas about truth, he had some strange ideas about writing. He thought that writing expressed authenticity — or, as Stach tells us Kafka liked to put it, “indubitability” — as if the act itself were a gesture rather than a discontinuous and patched together process whose meaning could be found in its product. “Kafka knew even as a child,” writes Stach, “that writing was not only an activity, but also a gesture.” In other words, writing was not just an act of communication, but the act itself communicated.

As a schoolboy Kafka once wanted to impress his relatives with his literary propensities. So he sat ostentatiously scribbling in the midst of a family gathering. At last his uncle picked up the notebook and glanced over the words. “The usual stuff,” he said, and tossed it back down, casually crushing the boy’s soul. This was only the first of many indications Kafka received from his family that they didn’t recognize or understand the significance of his writing. He had hoped for the very thing that happened, that his uncle would be intrigued by the focused activity of his nephew; but the casually dismissive response showed that the significance of what he was doing had been totally lost. We can relate: we’ve all been deflated by someone who failed to appreciate the dignity of what we were trying to do, by a failure to understand our gestures. Kafka didn’t give up the idea that writing was important primarily as a gesture, he just internalized it. The truth of writing — the indubitability of the gesture — would now be inscribed in the text itself.

The idea of writing as a gesture blossomed, according to Stach, when Kafka came in contact with the tradition of Japanese art. He didn’t encounter it directly. A traveler returned from the East displayed woodcuts in Prague that were based on paintings by Utamaro, Hiroshige, and Hokusai. These paintings,

were the result of hard work, yet they had a beguiling simplicity in which the technical aspect of art seemed to have been suspended: a single motion was evidently all it took to capture the essence of a person or a landscape, and the odd “flatness” of their pictures reflected a lofty refinement of extreme reduction.

Here was an aesthetic — art as the simple and complete gesture — perfectly adapted to Kafka’s longing for purity. Like everything else in Stach’s rich biography, this insight feeds directly back into his overarching inquiry into the act of Kafka’s writing. Kafka was trying to import the gestural aesthetic of Japanese art into the medium of literature. Each intense abortion of a novel, for example, seemed to falter in the same way a gesture would falter if it took too long, if it were interrupted by other movements. “I am in the disgraceful lowlands of writing,” Kafka once wrote in his diary, as the gestural energy of one of his attempts at a novel was beginning to peter out. “Only in this way can writing be done, only in a context like this, with a complete opening of body and soul.”

As a writer it’s easy to shake your head at a pronouncement like that, cast a pointed glance at Kafka’s fragments, and turn back to log your day’s five hundred words. But for those once exposed to Kafka’s writing at its finest, it can be hard to go back to the trivialities of loosely jointed narratives and creaky prose. If Reiner Stach’s biography does not exactly solve the mystery of an inscrutable oeuvre, it certainly clarifies the nature of the mystery. Stach may have given us the perfect, natural metaphor for Kafka’s writing: it is a gesture that does not communicate. The authenticity of the words hold our attention like the meaningful movements of a human body, but we don’t know these movements, and we watch in vain to understand.

We don’t know if Kafka ever wrote back to the confused Dr. Wolff about “The Metamorphosis.” If he did the letter has been lost. But I like to imagine Kafka settling into the silence of the Prague night, reading the letter and heaving a sigh. And then I imagine him picking up a pen and writing a response — in one complete and perfect gesture — that will cast his supplicant into even greater perplexities.

Robert Minto is a contributing editor of Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.