Is there any writer whose works and person has generated as much secondary literature as Kafka? For a writer that “left about forty complete prose texts […] nine [of which] can be called stories” the secondary outweighs the primary literature. As Reiner Stach says in the first volume of his work Kafka: The Decisive Years, “Indeed, it appears unlikely that if Kafka were to rise from the dead, he would be able to tell us something that has not already been discussed.”
Unlike so many of the speculative contributions to the cult of Kafka, Stach’s book (so far) has a different heft. Stach explains, “My biography of Franz Kafka does not fill in the gaps. All the details, even occurrences that are self-evident, are documented; nothing has been invented.”
Any reader of Kafka’s diaries or Brod’s biography of Kafka knows the importance to Kafka of his story The Judgement. Stach detects this as the text where Kafka’s dominant themes came together for the first time.
Suddenly-without guide or precedent, it seemed-the Kafka cosmos was at hand, fully equipped with the “Kafkaesque” inventory that now gives his work its distinctive character: the father figure who is both overpowering and dirty, the hollow rationality of the narrator, the juridical structures imposed on life, the dream logic of the plot, and last but not least, the flow of the story perpetually at odds with the hopes and expectations of the hero. Reinhard Baumgart has correctly noted that by comparison the short pieces in Meditation seem like “probationary prose,” writing that is still tentative in its radicalism and just manages to steer clear of struggle and catastrophe. Indeed, if we take literally Kafka’s famous sentence from the “Letter to His Father-“My writing was about you”-this writing dodged its central subject for a good fifteen years, which explains Kafka’s shock of recognition when he contemplated “The Judgement.” For the first time he had linked theme, imagery, and plot to ignite a spark between literature and life. He called the brightness of this spark “indubitability.”
This volume is the first of three written by Reiner Stach. Translated by Shelley Frisch, who is working on translating the second volume from German to English.
[Coincidentally Tales from the Reading Room is also thinking of Kafka today.]