Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Decisive Years

From the time Reiner Stach’s publishers accepted his proposal for a Kafka biography to the time he delivered his manuscript for editing, a decade elapsed, and the original one-volume work ballooned into a trilogy. Kafka: The Decisive Years, published in German in 2002 and in English in 2005, was the first of these works to appear, and though it stretches to nearly 600 pages, it covers just five years of Kafka’s life, from 1910 to 1915 – the period encompassing the composition of some of his most famous works, from “The Metamorphosis” to The Trial. Kafka’s later years, leading up to his death, were saved for the next volume, and his earliest years – the normal beginnings of most biographies – saved for last, in the hopes that important documents sealed by the estate of Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend and posthumous editor, might be made available.

In his introduction, Stach shares some of the difficulties of writing a biography of one of literature’s most enigmatic figures, and anyone even remotely familiar with Kafka’s work is predisposed to sympathize. We have notes, journal entries, letters and compositions amounting to thousands of pages, and yet Kafka seems to recede from us even as we approach him. From every black and white photograph, including the cover image, the face that stares back at us, sometimes deadpan, sometimes with a sly smile, remains fundamentally unknowable. Perhaps, paradoxically, that is the first thing we ought to know about him. “The richness of Kafka’s life developed primarily in the unseen sphere of his psyche, in a vertical dimension that appears to have nothing to do with the social landscape and yet penetrates it everywhere and in every way.” And yet, thanks to those aforementioned diaries and letters, we can follow his movements with incredible precision, sometimes on an hour-by-hour basis. Stach raises the curtain on May 18th, 1910, the night of the return of Halley’s Comet. At this point, Kafka is 27 years old, with just 15 published pages to his name. He works as an insurance agent in a managerial capacity, returning from the office each day in the early afternoon to his family’s apartment, where he lives with his mother, father, and sisters in cramped quarters. “I live in my family with the best and most loving people – more estranged than a stranger. In the last few years I have barely exchanged an average of twenty words a day with my mother, and with my father little more than a greeting here and there… I lack any sense of family life.” To take Kafka at his word, he reserved his truest self for his writings, and we get some sense of the importance of his work when we glimpse his daily schedule:

From 8 to 2 or 2:30 the office, lunch until 3 or 3:30, from then on sleeping in bed… until 8:30, then 10 minutes of exercise, naked at an open window, then one hour of walking alone or with Max or another friend, then supper with my family… then at 10:30 (but often even at 11:30) sitting down to write and remaining at it according to my strength, desire, and luck until 1, 2, 3 o’clock, once even until 6 A.M.

The odd hours were a necessity, for only at night could he find the absolute quiet needed to compose, but the naked exercise is pure eccentricity – one of many, in fact, all designed, in his mind, to support his devotion to his craft, to prepare him, body and soul, for his nightly battle with the blank page. A personal favourite of his diary entries, unquoted by Stach, describes a series of failed attempts at writing: “Complete standstill. Unending torment.” Stach goes into greater detail about Kafka’s struggles with writing:

Writing, for him, presupposed resoluteness. It was a precarious act of discipline; willpower was needed for one who had to ward off not only chronic depression and the mental inertia that accompanied it but also a flood from within that was not stimulating but destroying. It was difficult to open a notebook, stay at his desk, concentrate, waiting for inspiration to come, day after day, week after week, despite all the inner turmoil and outside interruptions and with no guarantee that success would follow.

Such are the joys of the craft. Kafka received a jolt of inspiration from one of the few major loves of his life, Felice Bauer, with whom he struck up a lengthy correspondence, and much of The Decisive Years is spent charting the ups and downs of their relationship, and how it influenced Kafka as a writer.

Felice had a successful job as a marketer and saleswoman for a dictation machine company based in Berlin, while Kafka’s family and profession kept him in Prague, and so letters became the vital link by which they communicated. Over the course of four years, Kafka sent her more than 500 letters, which did not find their way into the hands of publishers until the late 1950s, and did not reach English-speaking audiences until the early 1960s. As painful as long distance relationships are, it seems strictly natural that Kafka’s greatest love affair should transpire almost entirely through the medium of language. “I have no literary interests,” he wrote to her. “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.” It was not just a statement of fact, but a warning: Kafka could communicate his being through language, but when it came to the real world, to the physical demands of a relationship, he knew himself to be inadequate.

My whole being is directed toward literature; I have adhered to this direction up to my thirtieth birthday; if I leave, I cease to exist. Everything that I am, and am not, follows from that. I am taciturn, unsociable, glum, self-serving, a hypochondriac, and actually in poor health. I am not really complaining about any of that; it is the earthly reflection of a higher necessity.

This is from a letter, not to Felice Bauer, but to her parents, warning them about what an engagement to him – to someone “directed toward literature” – might mean. Neither they nor Kafka’s own parents could understand, and try though he did, it’s unlikely he ever succeeded in communicating the truth of himself to Felice. No doubt much of Kafka’s famed unknowability was a construction of his own mind; after all, his friends certainly felt they knew him, or a version of him. But if we take him at his word, if we accept that his essential being was made of and for literature, then it follows that the only place we can approach him is in his writings, and the incredible reception they have had – a strong case can be made that Kafka is the 20th century’s most influential writer – suggests that the psychological depths he concealed from friends and family nonetheless resonated with millions. This is the final Kafka irony: that the most private of men found the widest of readerships.

Readers of Kafka will perhaps be disappointed by how comparatively little space Stach devotes to close textual analysis, preferring to outline for us, as far as possible, the relevant social and historical context of Kafka’s life: Berlin, Prague, and Europe in the few short years before the First World War upended everything. He makes up for this, however, with a wealth of biographical detail, made possible by his exceptional devotion to the Kafka archives over many years. The result is one of the finest literary biographies I have ever read, and a summons for me to return to Kafka’s works.