I have chosen to read Stach’s three volume biography in chronological order which is not the order in which they were published. The Early Years was the last volume in the series to be brought forth because, as translator Shelley Frisch points out in the preface, Stach was waiting to access materials from the Max Brod literary estate which, due to a legal battle in Israel over the rights to these materials, had not previously been seen by scholars. It is challenging to deal with the early years of anyone in a biography due to the lack of primary sources such as letters and diaries. What five-year-old is keeping a journal? But the scope of Stach’s biography is broad so that, in addition to the limited details about Kafka’s formative years, he includes a short history of the Hapsburg Empire, the bilingual city of Prague, Jewish migration from Eastern Europe, and the intellectual circles in Prague before World War I, etc. Sometimes it feels as if Kafka is only lingering in the background of this biography, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
An excellent example of Stach’s wide-ranging interests is his research and discussion of Kafka’s jobs in the insurance industry. It is well-documented and known from his letters and diaries that Kafka did not like his profession and oftentimes found it dreary and depressing. The only real goal he had as far as finding a profession was that his office job not encroach very much on his free time. In addition to providing the details of how Kafka came to work at two different insurance companies, Stach describes the fledging business of insurance and how the government begins to require reluctant business owners to buy something they think is needless. In addition, Stach makes keen observations about the insurance that had to be provided for the growing number of motorists; these new companies are overwhelmed by this new demand for insurance and how they go about dealing with car insurance is an amusing piece of Stach’s narrative. Even though he found it boring and dismal work, Kafka was quite good at his job and the skills he learned in law school which he used to write many a persuasive and thorough report impressed his supervisors.
And, of course, Stach begins to explore Kafka’s early literary interests; there are a few passages, for instance, concerning the development of Kafka’s earliest stories, “Descriptions of a Struggle” and “Wedding Preparations in the Country.” Stach also lingers on the point that Kafka was reticent to share any of his works in progress with his friends. Stach points out that Kafka began keeping a diary around 1909 and he uses this diary as a private place to practice his craft. Stach ends this volume with an analysis of this important primary source and piques our interest for a more in depth discussion of Kafka’s work in the next two volumes of the biography:
Kafka’s diary—he himself called it that—is a vestibule of literature, with its doors wide open toward the reality he experience, which is often authenticated with names and dates, and toward the artistically controlled fiction that evolves into works of literature. Kafka would spend innumerable hours of his life in this vestibule, as well as writing countless letters that also originated right there, in a zone in which the biographical element was transformed into literature, and neither psychology nor aesthetics enjoyed the sole right of access. It was not Kafka’s early literary works, but rather his diary entries of those years that attested for the first time to his exterritorial status and spirited him away, line by line and once and for all, from all “Prague Circles.” For the moment, though he kept that status to himself, in a secret writing school of an utterly different provenance with only a single pupil, whose progress was not verifiable. How would he have been able to explain to his friends what was going on in his notebooks?
Finally, my favorite pieces of Stach’s first volume—ones that will no doubt stay with me as I continue reading—are the endearing and personal details he includes about the young Kafka: he loved the cinema, one of his favorite pastimes was swimming, he had a droll sense of humor and he had body dysphoria which contributed to his shyness and, at times, anti-social behavior. Stach also describes how Kafka was initiated into the world of women, love and sex. In his early twenties he has a girlfriend named Hedwig to whom he writes some innocently, adorable letters. And like other young men of his time, Kafka was not above visiting prostitutes to satisfy his urges. The relationship which seems to have made the most lasting impression on young Kafka was with a woman he met while on vacation in the summer of 1905 at a sanatorium in Zuchmantel. But even Stach cannot track down or tease out the details of this affair—we will never know who this woman was and how she and Kafka become so close. I am actually glad that none of details of this relationship survive and that this part of his life remains private and is known only to Kafka and this mysterious woman.
I have been reading Kafka’s Letters to Friends and Family from the years 1905 to 1910 alongside Stach’s biography as they both cover the same time period. One of the most magnificent outcomes from reading even just the first volume of this biography is that Stach has given me a greater understanding, respect and admiration of the Kafka that one finds in his letters. As I read volume two, I will continue reading Kafka’s letters and also begin the diaries.