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.

What I’ve Been Reading

Valerio Adami
Valerio Adami

It’s a long time since I’ve begun to read a book with such expectation and hope as in reading The Last Samurai but I am greatly impressed with its brilliance, originality and construction. I’ve read comparisons between the writing of David Foster Wallace and Helen DeWitt but it seems to me that they do a great disservice to DeWitt, whose subtle allusion contrasts the excessively redundant exposition of Infinite Jest. DeWitt’s story is open-ended, often playful but dexterously peels layer after layer of cultural realities to question and subvert the meaning of education. A new edition of The Last Samurai is published by New Directions. The book deserves a wider audience for its uncommon, unsettling story.

I also read Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, a collection of his essays previously written and published. As always with such compilations, the quality is mixed, the most commendable being those on the subject of photography. Cole’s intellectual and visual sensibilities are acute and he draws together photography and politics to show how our world is shaped by images and their unreliability. In writing of photography’s slippery relationship with reality, Cole echoes Sontag’s description of photography as making works that are “no generic exception to the usual shady commerce between art and truth.”

I’ve been engrossed with Eva. K. Barbarossa’s Adelphi Project and the intriguing list of titles accumulated in the Biblioteca Adelphi, so I finally made time for Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, both elegant and insightful and further fuel for an imagination already fired by the Biblioteca series, birthed by Roberto Bazlen and now managed by Calasso. The greatest pleasure of Calasso’s essay compilation is his consideration of some of his favourite publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijević. What Calasso also gave me in this collection is this extraordinary Bazlen quote: ‘The world now is a world of death – formerly one was born alive and gradually one would die. Nowadays one is born dead – and some manage to come gradually to life.”

This summer I’ve been rereading Michael Hofmann’s poems, slowly and somewhat obsessively. Hofmann is a passionate reader of boundless curiosity, whose reading accumulates impressions that are woven into his rich and sensual autobiographical poems. It is nerve-wracking revisiting a poet nostalgic from youth but the work remains fresh and full of magic, and I’ll be continuing my journey back through Hofmann’s languorous waltz with language.

Gottfried Benn’s Silence

Silence,
coming from within:
things past,
tender early associations
ended by death;
also days with table-decorations and fruit-bowls
placed between couples
of unwavering commitment, two flames.

Silence,
from faraway estates,
preparations for festivities or homecomings:
beating of carpets,
on which, later,
many pairs of feet will shuffle
dotingly and in love.

Silence,
once endured and in store for strangers,
broken today by a hoarse plea:
“stay by me,
maybe not all that much longer,
too much decay in me,
too much heaviness,
fatigue.”

(Trans. Michael Hofmann)

Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee

Literary essays by novelists are rarely worth reading. Coetzee, like Woolf and Kundera, is an exception. Inner Workings is compiled from five introductions by Coetzee to contemporary editions of works by Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Robert Musil, Samuel Beckett and Hugo Claus, together with 15 essays for The New York Review of Books.

Two-thirds of the book deals with the literary achievement of the generation of cultured Jewish writers that emerged from the wreckage of the House of Hapsburg (with Walser, Musil and Celan my high-points). The last third is primarily post Second World War British and American writers, and a few contemporaries.

Unlike some novelist-turned-critics, Martin Amis leaps to mind, Coetzee’s reviews are courteous and balanced, no histrionic name calling, but with the wit to place a writer firmly under scrutiny. I mostly concur with his implication that Walter Benjamin was a political poseur who frequently reached beyond his ability to sustain a project, but I cannot claim any deep reading of Benjamin.

To add depth to his criticism, Coetzee provides historical context. As an adept in the English, Afrikaans, Dutch and German languages he is also uniquely able to comment on the translators’ craft. Although praising Michael Hofmann for the expression, poise and precision of his English, he has concerns about his translations of Joseph Roth.

A rewarding set of essays from one of the major writers of our day – I’ve already ordered the set of essays that precedes this collection.

Seven Years by Peter Stamm

Si Dios Quiere series - Katrina d'Autremont

It’s perhaps the oldest of plots, the love triangle, almost guaranteed to rouse a reader’s emotion. In Seven Years, Peter Stamm explores that most tragic of stories: a morally odious character who goes from good fortune to bad because of a flawed attraction. Successfully retelling age-old motifs requires brilliance, and in Stamm’s novel I found no such signs.

The components are all here, the narrative structure builds suspensefully through conflict, climax and falling action. Of course, the wife is ‘perfect,’ the older, artistic female character plays her intermediary role to perfection, and the plot resolves without surprise. The jarring note is the lover of the triad: a dreary, taciturn woman. As the main protagonist’s tragic flaw, this lover is intended to provide the conflict, forcing us to wonder why this near genius would throw away a ‘perfect’ marriage for this bovine woman. Perhaps she offers a coziness not available from his coldly intellectual wife?

I don’t recall what drew me to Stamm’s novel, perhaps that Michael Hofmann is the translator, and he rarely translates a dull book. The story carried me through, partly to see if the narrator, Alexander, displayed any redeeming features, and partly expecting the lover, Ivona, to turn violent. I was dissatisfied on both counts.