What type of person comes to mind when you think of Franz Kafka? How about:
. . . over six feet tall, handsome, elegantly dressed; an unexceptional student, a strong swimmer, an aerobics enthusiast, a vegetarian; a frequent visitor to movie houses, cabarets, all-night cafés, literary soirées and brothels; the published author of seven books during his brief lifetime; engaged three times (twice to the same woman); valued by his employers, promoted at work. (Changing My Mind – Zadie Smith)
Not quite the Kafka that emerges from Max Brod’s 1947 biography. Louis Begley’s biographical essay is an essential complement to Brod’s book. It strips away both the banality and the mystique of Kafka, the man, the genius and the writer.
Kafka’s life so imperatively commands our interest because his short stories and novels stand among the most original and greatest works of twentieth-century literature. Without them, there would be little to remember him for . . . . Apart from moments of triumph, when a work he had completed met his superbly exigent standards, the only significant events in his private and humdrum life were occasional infatuations and the ups and downs of his relations with Felice and Milena . . . . and, of course, the milestones marking the progress of his illness.
Begley has drawn from Kafka’s letters and diaries an interpretation that makes Kafka accessible as a complex but understandable person, living through difficult personal and historical circumstances. In doing so he makes possible a refreshed reading of Kafka’s incredible stories. Zadie Smith again: “But if we’re not to read Kafka too Brodley, how are we to read him? We might do worse than to read him Begley.”