Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Early Years

We end at the beginning. The third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s ambitious biography, Kafka: The Early Years, takes a look at the period between birth and early adulthood, encompassing Kafka’s childhood struggles for recognition within his family, his formal schooling, and his decision to become a writer. This structure is no accident: Stach was hoping to gain access to never-before-seen documents held in trust by the estate of Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend and literary executor, that offered, at times, the only extant record of Kafka’s early life, since his own diary entries only begin in 1910, when he is already in his late twenties. Stach’s ultimate success has given us entirely new biographical material with which to assess Kafka’s life, and a more complete understanding of the genesis of one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic geniuses.

Kafka was the first-born son of the burly, headstrong Herman Kafka – a hard-working salesman whose standard of success in life was essentially materialistic: the location of your apartment, how often you could afford to eat meat – and Julie Löwy, a well-educated and no less hard-working wife, whose primary attractiveness to Herman rested with her sizeable dowry and her willingness to help him build up his retail business. Two more sons, Kafka’s brothers, quickly arrived, but both died in infancy, before Kafka turned seven; they were replaced by three daughters: Ellie, Valli and Ottla. Stach gives as much attention to setting as he does to his characters, arguing that the city of Prague was not only steeped in history but trapped in it. “No intellectual biography that is situated in the Bohemian metropolis,” he tells us, “is comprehensible without the history of the city and the surrounding region.” Kafka, it seems, was in agreement: “Prague doesn’t let go,” he wrote to a friend. “This little mother has claws.” And so Stach gives us a history of the city, dating back to the early 17th century and the famous Battle of White Mountain – truthfully more of a skirmish, lasting less than two hours – that resulted in centuries-long Catholic domination of previously Protestant Czech lands. The Czechs experienced this less as a religious defeat than a national one, a conquest of the German minority over the Czech majority, culminating in the public beheading of 12 of the perceived leaders of Protestant faction, on a scaffolding erected in the middle of the Altstädter Ring, the fashionable center of Prague’s oldest area, where the Kafkas would eventually reside. What was it like for Kafka, a German-speaking Jew, to grow up in Czech Prague at a time of religious and national upheaval? He was an outsider across multiple dimensions, and the ancient city served as a constant reminder of the weight of the past. “It was as though one were living atop the accumulated rubble of dozens of past generations,” Stach tells us, “whose destinies, sufferings, and achievements kept one’s own thoughts under a spell.”

A further separation came at home, and from a very young age. Kafka’s parents were fixated on their family business, with the hope of successfully entrenching themselves in Prague’s middle class, but that meant that weekdays and weekends were spent in the store, with little time left over for their hyper-sensitive, hyper-perceptive young boy. They hired a series of young servants to do much of the care-taking, but the consequences to Kafka were, Stach speculates, dire. He invokes the French Swiss psychoanalyst Germaine Guex, whose most famous work, Le Syndrome d’abandon, has given us the diagnosis of abandonment syndrome. Was Kafka a victim of this particular neurosis? Stach makes a strong case. “The parallels between her clinical picture of the ‘abandonic’ and the distinctive features of Kafka’s psychosocial makeup are startling,” he argues.

Guex wrote that the abandonic’s failure stems from the unconditional claims he places on relationships and seeks a perfect blend – all or nothing – while experience tells him that seamless symbioses occur only in dreams. He places most of the blame for this dilemma on himself: He is not worthy of being loved, and if he is loved, the partner must be deeply deluded, which he tries to prove by means of repeated, increasingly refined ‘tests.’ The abandonic experiences intense feelings; he is emotionally insatiable, cannot endure relativity, and his compassion can easily tip into tyranny. He does not take what he needs, but rather waits for it to be handed to him, in a basic attitude that strikes the analyst as passive and masochistic. The end result is failure, which in turn reinforces negative self-image. Generally the abandonic is caught in a defensive stance, avoiding confrontations and dealing with emotional conflicts on the level of physical ailments. He has a heightened sense of misfortune and eschews autonomy and responsibility, yet keeps an eagle eye on his surroundings and develops a pronounced ability for empathy as well as a perspicacity for magic and seeks ‘signs’ everywhere. He thinks too highly of others and may wind up unable to feel hatred – while regarding himself as excluded, left out, superfluous. Even so, he often ops for isolation, because any spontaneous approach to others arouses overwhelming fears of rebuffs and disappointments. These fears consume him and impede his ability to live his life.

I quote this lengthy passage in full first because Stach is convinced that it represents a strikingly apt diagnosis of Kafka’s condition – most evident in his relationships with women, his greatest challenge – and because he goes on to argue, convincingly, that Kafka transcended his diagnosis by reclaiming “interpretive authority over his own life.” That, in part, was the impetus behind Kafka’s famous “Letter to his father,” a 100-page attempt to put in narrative form – and therefore, in some sense, to explain – the difficulties of his childhood, and how they both caused and exacerbated the fractured relationship he had with his father. “My writing was all about you,” Kafka writes, in the unsent letter to his father. “All I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast.”

You can scarcely imagine what kind of courage such an undertaking demands. Most people spend their lives running from the catastrophe of their characters; Kafka’s own father immersed himself in work. Instead, the supposedly weak Kafka, chronically ill and under-weight, spent his nights either reading by gas light – his frustrated parents frequently resorted to shutting off the gas, in the hopes of forcing him to sleep – or scribbling away in his diaries or at a blank page, giving shape to his inmost thoughts and fears. “If we are to believe his own personal mythology,” Stach writes, “he drifted out of life and into literature, never to return.” This is the vision of Kafka the consummate artist, sacrificing all to his craft. “But what if it was the other way around; what if literature was the only feasible way back for him?” Stach offers us an updated vision of Kafka, based not in weakness but in strength, with the biographical material serving only to expand upon our appreciation for what he accomplished.