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A Very Tragic Arc: Reiner Stach’s Kafka

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Reiner Stach is a German author, biographer of Franz Kafka, publisher, and publicist. Stach lives and works as a freelancer in Berlin. His definitive biography of the writer describes the complex personal, political, and cultural circumstances that shaped the young Franz Kafka (1883-1924). It tells the story of the years from his birth in Prague to the beginning of his professional and literary career in 1910, taking the reader up to just before the breakthrough that resulted in his first masterpieces, including “The Metamorphosis.” Brimming with vivid and often startling details, Stach’s narrative invites readers deep inside this neglected period of Kafka’s life. The book’s richly atmospheric portrait of his German Jewish merchant family and his education, psychological development, and sexual maturation draws on numerous sources, some still unpublished, including family letters, schoolmates’ memoirs, and early diaries of his close friend Max Brod. The biography also provides a colorful panorama of Kafka’s wider world, especially the convoluted politics and culture of Prague. Before World War I, Kafka lived in a society at the threshold of modernity but torn by conflict, and Stach provides poignant details of how the adolescent Kafka witnessed violent outbreaks of anti-Semitism and nationalism. The reader also learns how he developed a passionate interest in new technologies, particularly movies and airplanes, and why another interest–his predilection for the back-to-nature movement–stemmed from his “nervous” surroundings rather than personal eccentricity. The crowning volume to a masterly biography, this is an unmatched account of how a boy who grew up in an old Central European monarchy became a writer who helped create modern literature.

3:AM: You’ve written a biography of Kafka critics are already saying is one of the great literary biographies, up there with Ellman’s Joyce and Painter’s Proust. ‘The life of a human being,’ you write in your introduction, ‘draws back, comes into view like an animal at the edge of the forest, and disappears again.’ What drew you to the task in the first place? Were you always interested in Kafka?

Reiner Stach: It was above all the encounter with Kafka’s diaries and letters in the 1980s that led me to choose him as the subject of my dissertation. But that was an investigation for an academic audience and focused on the female characters in Kafka’s work. During the following years when I was working as an editor for a publishing house I didn’t have time to pursue research on Kafka. But I did follow closely the scholarly progress of the first critical edition of his work, one that allowed you to see exactly how Kafka worked. I found all of that very exciting and was more and more tempted to write about it for a general audience. Then in the mid Nineties the time had come. It was exactly the right moment to start work on a biography. With the exception of the correspondence, the critical edition – an incomparable treasure trove – was complete. A more general interest in biographical method – above all the question as to how much one can know about another human being – that came later when I was confronted with concrete problems.

3:AM: One of the things you’ve done is given us a new picture of the man. Were you surprised when you found out that the stereotypical image of Kafka didn’t fit, or at least was only partially right?

RS: I was not at all surprised – it was just the opposite. These stereotypes – and the opportunity to correct them – actually gave me the energy that is necessary for such long-term projects. In some ways, it was a megalomoniacal idea to want to correct the public image of Kafka with a couple of books – when you consider the number of languages in which this author is read and interpreted. But now that I see it actually can happen, I’m very happy about it. That is also the reason why translations of my biography are so important ot me.

3:AM: The latest volume is about his early years. Did you know that the relevant papers would be released when they were or did you start the whole enterprise without knowing whether you’d ever be able to complete it? And how did you get your hands on suppressed material for the 2014 German publication of this volume before they were released from the Brod archive in 2016?

RS: Twenty years ago I actually had no idea how I would be able to write the volume about the early years. That’s why I pushed it back to the end of the project and began work with the middle part of the trilogy. There are no diaries from the early years and no intensive correspondence; and, therefore, the papers of Max Brod seemed indispensable to me.
Fortunately, it became apparent over the years that there were other valuable sources, for example, unpublished memoirs of Kafka’s fellow students. Three of Brod‘s early diaries, which helpful colleagues put at my disposal, also turned out to be extremely valuable. Furthermore, I had also underestimated what an abundance of information can be extracted from contemporary newspapers, even information that bore directly on Kafka’s life. In this way it was possible to complete the volume about the early years; and, in my view, nothing substantial is missing from it.

3:AM: There are still some Max Brod papers you haven’t been able to access aren’t there? Does this mean that there could be a further volume on Kafka?

RS: No, certainly not an entire volume. But perhaps two or three additional chapters. For example, we know almost nothing about Max Brod’s political activities after the First World War. But this is important because Kafka would have been exposed in this roundabout way to political information first-hand. And this information influenced his plans to leave Prague. As far as the early years are concerned, there is a notebook of Brod’s with numerous remarks about the young Kafka. It is in Tel Aviv in the apartment of Eva Hoffe, who, however, refused to show it to me.

3:AM: One of the things you do is write about Kafka via brilliant set-pieces. There’s so much detail it’s like reading a novel. Was it important to you that we don’t just get bare facts but that you we get a sense of what it was like to be Kafka and in his world?

RS: Kafka was a complex character in a complex historical era. In order to understand him, you have to do more than cite facts. It is necessary to connect the facts in a meaningful way. His relationship to Judaism, to his father, to women, to literature – all of this is interconnected; and there are decisive moments in his life, in which such interactions suddenly become visible and can be experienced in an almost sensuous manner. It is these moments above all that I try to narrate dramatically. That is the only way to capture the essence of such a multilayered personality.

3:AM: His education figures large in this first volume. Can you say something about whether you think the education system, its rigorous exams and the pressure not to fail, fed into his writing?

RS: By the time Kafka was seven or eight years old, he already had a relatively dark view of the world derived from experiences in his own family. This told him that the world was organized in a strictly hierarchical manner and that those on the top were allowed to mete out punishment in any way they chose. They were entitled to leave those on the bottom uninformed about the rules to which they subscribed; they weren’t even required to follow their own rules – this is how Kafka described it in his later Letter to My Father. It is precisely this mixture of strictness and arbitrariness that Kafka experienced in school so that the angst he brought with him was only amplified and transformed into a permanent sense of guilt.

3:AM: What do you mean when you say that “What if literature was the only feasible way back for him?”

RS: Kafka often describes himself as a bloodless figure: a human being who doesn’t really participate in the life of his fellow human beings, someone who doesn’t actually live in the true sense of the word, but who consists rather of words and literature. In my view, that is, however, only half true. In a roundabout way through literature, which presupposes empathy and exact observation, he immerses himself again in the life of society; in a certain sense he comes back to it. This consideration seemed too speculative to expand on in the biography, but I wanted to present it to the reader in the form of a question at least.

3:AM: How did Kafka see the act of writing? From what you say he seemed to be able to achieve remarkable things from very early on?

RS: Kafka was certainly one of the great literary talents of the twentieth century, but he did not find his way to his own style until the age of (nearly) 30, so rather late. The disciplined immersion in unconscious psychical material is something he also learned only after long years of practice. When he succeeded in doing it for the first time – in the story The Judgement – it put him in a euphoric mood. He wanted to experience this again and again; the act of creation made him happy and proud.

3:AM: How do you see the Brod Kafka relationship? Did Brod not really understand his friend?

RS: Everyone who writes about Kafka has a problem with Brod. For many years he was an important friend, someone with whom Kafka could speak openly about personal crises; and Kafka, for his part, was the best listener Brod could have hoped for – even though on both sides there were things they did not share with one another. Moreover, we of course have to be deeply grateful to Brod that he preserved so many Kafka manuscripts from destruction.

On the other hand, it is clear that he didn’t really understand with whom he was dealing. His religious interpretations of Kafka, especially those of his later years, are sentimental and narrowminded. Brod had no real feeling for the modernist quality of Kafka’s texts. When Beckett became famous in the Fifties and people began to compare him with Kafka, Brod worked himself up into a rage: This absurd stuff, he proclaimed, had absolutely nothing to do with Kafka. Of course, this view put him far off the mark.

3:AM: You write: ‘ “We move from guilt to the question of identity. The question, ‘Who am I?’ is, after all, closely linked to, ‘Where do I belong?’” Can you say more about this link between the history of where he lived and Kafka’s biography? How religious was Kafka? How important was Judaism to him?

RS: These two questions have to be handled separately; they are directed at different things. Kafka was always very interested in questions of identity: Where does one’s identity come from? Can you create it yourself? Can you exchange one identity for another? That was why he read such an extraordinary number of biographies and autobiographies.

He never really identified with Prague. This city represented a rich past, but not the kind of attractive future that he saw in cities like Paris or Berlin.

For the first time, in 1910, provoked by personal encounters with Jews from Eastern Europe, Kafka was confronted with the question as to whether Jewish culture and history might not offer him a home, an identity that was still missing. This question became more and more urgent, as Czech anti-Semitism in Prague continued to grow more threatening. For the first time, Kafka felt something like roots; and he made the effort to familiarize himself with and take on many aspects of Jewish life, including on the level of language and storytelling traditions.

I don’t, however, see any indication that Kafka also took on the religious convictions of Judaism. As a young man, he was an atheist; in adulthood he subscribed to the teachings of Plato, that is, he believed in an autonomous spiritual world beyond the physical one. A world, however, that is completely closed to us, that we can only catch a glimpse of in literature and art

3:AM: The sexual politics of Kafka’s life is something that runs through all the volumes. How do you see Kafka’s relationships with his various women? He seems both comically non-committal and helpless, and yet powerful and in coup

RS: Kafka did not experience what real passion paired with trust is until the last years of his life, in the relationsip with Milena Jesenská. Before that his predominant response was the feeling that women are fundamentally different, that they are separated from men by an unbridgeable gap that makes deeper understanding impossible. There are no scenes of happy intimacy in his work – it was something with which he was unfamiliar.

It would, however, be wrong to dismiss this deficit as ‘neurotic’. A profound divide between men and women did exist; they were both prisoners of their roles, seldom had common interests, and often had no idea – beyond sex – of how to be together. Brod’s diaries show that in spite of countless affairs he suffered under these conditions just as much as Kafka did, but also that he had the ability at just the right moment to repress such feelings. He was able to enjoy a woman’s body and forget everything else for an hour. This was something Kafka could not do; he remained wide awake and fully conscious.

3:AM: Do you find his life comic or tragic?

RS: His life had a very tragic arc. At the very moment in which he found his way as an author, the First World War broke out. That robbed him of any possibility of leaving his position in the insurance profession; suddenly, he was confined in Prague, and important friendships broke down. The war destroyed Kafka’s savings and, ultimately, his health as well. He died young after undergoing months of physical torment. His sisters of course suffered a much harder fate; they were all murdered in concentration camps.

3:AM: Why didn’t you discuss Benjamin’s essays on Kafka?

RS: My biography focuses on the conditions under which Kafka’s works were written, on the particular form of his creativity. It does not, however, attempt to present objective interpretatons of these works. In my view, that is not the job of the biographer. Coming to terms with the major Kafka interpretatons of Benjamin, Politzer, Adorno and others would have to take place in a different framework.

3:AM: How do you feel now that your work on the biography is over? Do you miss Kafka or are you glad that you are finally released from the project?

RS: The biography is complete, but, for me, the subject is far from exhausted. I still correspond with my translators, frequently receive invitations to readings and lectures and, occasionally, to conversations about theatrical adaptations of Kafka’s work. I have often been in demand at high schools – particularly when Kafka was an exam topic – and several times I also participated in workshops for teachers. So it is premature to think about farewells.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 14th, 2017.