So far I have read over 1,000 pages, about two-thirds, of Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka. To be perfectly honest, I thought I would grow tired of such a long work and would want a break in between volumes, but this has not been the case. I am completely absorbed in Stach’s narrative and I have been thinking about what, exactly, sets this extraordinary biography apart from not only other biographies of Kafka, but from other books in this genre as a whole. Stach, in his preface to the second volume of his Kafka biography (which was actually the first to be published) answers this question for me. He writes (trans. Shelley Frisch):
The magic word of biographers is empathy. Empathy comes into play when psychology and experience fall short. Even a life that is empirically very well documented remains elusive if the biographer fails to rouse the reader’s willingness to identify with a character, a situation, and a milieu. Hence the curious sterility of some massive biographies that are bloated by data and references. They purport to say everything that can be said but completely miss their subject and therefore fail to satisfy our curiosity.
There are two themes that consume Kafka and Stach’s biography between the years 1912 and 1914: Literature and Felice. Stach progresses in his story by building on these themes layer by careful layer and the result is a riveting, impressive, stunning work; Stach elicits empathy by highlighting Kafka’s indecision, inner turmoil and self-doubt in relation to his writing and his engagement with Felice.
Felice Bauer is a middle-class, Jewish woman from Berlin whom Kafka meets just once before he engages in an intense, personal relationship with her through letters. Other biographers have tended to depict Felice as a woman who is intellectually unworthy of Kafka’s attentions, but Stach’s discussion of her family and her own life is much more balanced than this. Not only do we feel empathy for Kafka’s indecision about marriage, but we also feel great sorrow for this woman to whom he was engaged twice. In addition to an emotionally sensitive and unstable fiancé who writes her lengthy, daily letters, she was also dealing with working full-time, a sister who got pregnant out of wedlock and a profligate brother who was caught stealing money from his future father-in-law. Stach writes beautifully and poignantly about Felice and Kafka’s extensive exchange of letters (wonderfully translated by Shelly Frisch):
When we try to get an overview of the tangled correspondence between Kafka and Felice Bauer, from their first attempts to establish a relationship in September 1912 to the “reception day” in Berlin, the official engagement celebration on Whitsunday 1914, we encounter an enormous emotional and mental ground swell. The motif of repetition predominates: a kind of minimal music in which new elements are introduced with slight variations, while the main melody remains audible. Still, it is fascinating to read these letters, because Kafka’s metaphoric richness and humor never fade, even in moments of torpor.
The reading is also painful. What is the source of our sympathetic torment? Are we embarrassed at playing the voyeur? Is it the disaster, the helplessness, the failure witnessed up close? These are people who walk over an abyss of psychosocial pathology. Yet procrastination, repression, the mix of emotion and cold calculation, regression, the alternation of advances and retreats, narcissism, undignified quarrels, fantasizing, and lost opportunities were all common phenomena in relationships in bourgeois society, which advocated an exceedingly binding ideal of love.
After writing Felice detailed and intimate letters for the better part of a year Kafka realizes that there are only two ways that this could end: in marriage or in the complete loss of this woman from his life. The eighteen-page letter (or “treatise”—his own word for it) that describes the discontented, socially awkward, physically fragile, lonely man whom she would be marrying serves as his proposal to Felice and is a testament to his anguish over these choices. It’s hard to believe that it took her less than two days to say yes to all of this! Once again, Stach’s insights into this complex situation and Kafka’s paralyzing indecisions are incisive and balanced:
A biographer cannot dispense advice, and perfunctory long-distance diagnoses of human relationships that go back generations or even epochs, are among the vilest side effects of the historical leveling that has become prevalent among with the discursive predominance of psychology. Nonetheless, if we work our way along the cascade of fears that plagued and eventually overwhelmed Kafka, more and more insistently once Felice and he had decided to marry, it is difficult to refrain from considering the could haves and should haves. They ought to have met more often, on neutral territory, far away from their parents, bosses and guardians. They needed to share experiences, define their common past, and somehow find a way of testing the waters of marriage.
But Kafka’s inability to make a decision and move forward prevented him from doing these most basic, logical things with Felice during both of their doomed engagements.
The period of his relationship and correspondence with Felice also coincides with his most productive phases of writing. After meeting her, he sits down at his desk and in a single, overnight sitting writes “The Judgement.” He also works on, but never finishes, his novel The Man Who Disappeared. While writing larges pieces of this novel he takes a break and creates his masterpiece, “The Metamorphosis.” After he breaks off his second engagement with Felice, he begins his second novel, The Trial, which will also remain unfinished, and composes his short story “In the Penal Colony.” But even as far as literature is concerned, his self-doubt and hesitation sabotage his chances for publication. He had an agreement from Wolff, his publisher, to release three of his stories in one volume but Kafka failed to pull together this project and never sent the manuscripts to the publisher who eventually lost interest. Stach writes, “We can imagine the advice Brod, Pick and Weiss gave the eternally dithering Kafka: If your major novel is not finished yet, get “The Metamorphosis” out of your drawer! Three-quarters of a year had passed since Kafka had promised his publisher a serviceable typescript of the story…” It is no wonder that any of Kafka’s writing saw the light of day under these circumstances.
Finally, I have to mention one additional, pleasant side-effect of reading this second volume Stach’s biography. He discusses, especially in relation to Kafka’s engagements, the author’s interest in the lives, failed love affairs and writings of Flaubert, Grillparzer and Kierkegaard. I have obtained some of the writings from these authors which I will also explore since they were so important to Kafka. After reading Kierkegaard’s diaries Kafka writes, “As I suspected, his case, despite vital differences, is very similar to mine; he is on the same side of the world. He supports me like a friend.” How can we not experience sympathy, compassion or even empathy for this lonely, tormented man who identifies a long-dead, Danish philosopher as more of a “friend” than anyone who is actually around him?
On to the final volume…