Reiner Stach: Kafka Biography

A Kafka industry exists. Yet, of the two guides I spoke to in Prague this year, the first informed me that Kafka had never been published, the second that Kafka lived most of his life in Paris. Why of all writers does Kafka return to us in so many different ways? Do the contradictions and ambiguities of his extraordinary stories somehow feed a Kafka mythology that turns him into an allegorical figure living on the threshold between life and death? “Life is a state of being, not an activity,” writes Reiner Stach, “You find out only at the end whether you had a life.”

This year provided the third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Franz Kafka, chronologically the first. The order of publication was dictated by legal wrangling, availability of sources and doesn’t particularly matter. Stach’s achievement is to have written, eventually, the only definitive biography of Kafka. This is an odd assertion, and there are indeed some attempts at biography. As a Kafka completist, I’ve read all those in print in English language. Stach would possibly argue with the term ‘definitive”. He writes, “The real life of Franz Kafka? Certainly not. But a fleeting glance at it, or an extended look, yes, perhaps that is possible.”

Stach’s book is strange in wonderful ways. There are some magnificent literary biographies, of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Samuel Johnson, and Jacques Derrida. Stach does something different and in doing so raises the bar for how biographers can give readers a sense of where a writer’s sense of vision emerges from. By presenting Kafka’s life as a succession of forces–historic, literary, places, personal encounters–and setting these collisions within a context of time, environment, social milieu and class, Stach brings readers closer to understanding how these forces impacted and shaped his thoughts and writing.

Like any capable biographer, Stach uses Kafka’s extensive literary legacy of letters, diaries and primary works, but also, especially for this newly published Early Years edition reads against the grain and interrogates material found in school friends’ diaries, educational and employment records, and newspapers of the day. Often the literary biography of a favourite writer reflects our desire to continue our acquaintance with a writer after exhausting their primary work. Stach’s biography is more interesting and provides another centre of gravity to understanding Kafka’s sensibility. Although there are always the texts a biographer cannot alter, the very best literary biographies allow us to return to a writer’s work with greater sensitivity and reflectiveness. With Stach’s biography of Kafka, the more reductive linear inventory of facts that claims to constitute a biography is now exhausted as a sub-genre.

Of course, of paramount importance in bringing this colossal biography to the English-speaking world is the work of translator Shelley Frisch. Her close collaboration with Stach over almost two decades makes it possible for readers to now read a life of Kafka from the Early Years, to the end of his forty or so years of life. In his closing words, Stach thanks Frisch for her translation that he says is, “without any loss of textual precision and in a marvellously elegant linguistic form”. Michael Hofmann once described the translator as a conduit, writing “It is an urgent, interior, invisible and, if things are going well, (in detail) unnoticed activity …” Frisch’s sensitive and intelligent work demonstrates that great translation is not only invisible but indivisible: great translation is great literature.

18 thoughts on “Reiner Stach: Kafka Biography

  1. It must be a good thing at one level, that I imagine writers are writing more these days, all that incidental material (photos, blog posts, messages on various social media etc.) On the other hand, what of it will be of value? I’ve unfollowed a huge number of writers on Twitter because of the crap they post. If I was one of their readers, their social output would have deterred me from reading further.

    You get the feeling with Kafka that he put just as much thought into the letters and diaries as the fiction.

  2. I’ve read all three volumes: they are too fantastic for words – utterly superb, and a most gripping read. I wish there was a fourth volume coming! Stach has written a masterpiece in three volumes, which makes Kafka and his times extraordinarily alive and close to the reader. An amazing literary and biographical feat – unmissable. I could go on and on 🙂

    • Have you read Reiner Stach’s “Is That Kafka? 99 Finds”. Is it sort of the fourth volume, all the material that didn’t quite fit. They are wonderful, a new standard of biography.

      • Yes I have! 🙂 wonderful, though a few things were also present in the biographies. I loved it and I also loved the cover!

          • Agh, I haven’t read any of the Calasso book, though I’ve read Max Brod’s bio of Kafka. Also, I’ve tried to read Kafka’s letters to Milena but I’m ashamed to say I soon gave up…I could make no sense of them. They were of course meant to make sense to Milena, not to me! now I’ve ordered the Diaries, partly because of the many tentalising bits in Stach’s work.

          • The diaries are possibly my favourite Kafka, though the Felice letters are good, and make more sense than the Milena letters. The Zurau aphorisms are unbearably sad.

          • Wow, thank you – I now can’t wait for the Diaries! I’ve read every published Kafka prose, I believe. Not read the aphorisms…why unbearably sad? did he write them towards the end?

          • They were written after the tuberculosis diagnosis, when his sister took him to a farm for some fresh air. They concern metaphysics, in a way, but there is a plaintive note to them.

        • I could only recommend mine, a Schocken Books edition (1973) translated by James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth. I bought it six years ago via Abebooks.

          • Ah great, thanks, I think I saw it on recently. Also the Aphorisms (‘unbearably sad’ speaks to me!), I’ll get them, same publisher I see.
            As you seem a huge mine of Kafka-related information, may I also ask you if you ever found a biography or autobiography of Max Brod – again, in translation? (I do wish I spoke German!) Brod seems to me a fascinating and ultimately elusive character, I’d love to know more about him.

          • Schocken are always my default for Kafka.

            I’m not aware of a Brod biography in English translation. I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a fraud, in the same sense of Stefan Zweig, what we might consider today a networker or a schmoozer, not really the real deal.

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