Category Archives: Kafka

Laying a Foundation: Kafka The Early Years by Reiner Stach

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.

2 Comments

Filed under German Literature, Kafka, Letters

Educating Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach

The first volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka, entitled The Early Years, is mesmorizing.  It is not easy to make a biography about the formative years of any human being—birth, family life, education—interesting, but Stach most definitely achieves this through a variety of techniques.  He incorporates the complex history of the city of Prague, including its Czech, German and Jewish aspects, into this story of what is arguably its most famous inhabitant.  Since it covers Kafka’s childhood there is, naturally, a discussion of his education at German language elementary, middle and high schools, a topic about which I feel compelled to comment.

What struck me about Stach’s discussion of education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Prague is that the issues and struggles that students, teachers and families were facing are still being confronted today.  Kafka was an anxious, shy student who was constantly terrified of the litany of tests and exams that were always required of him.  Stach, however, is very careful in not making grand, sweeping generalizations about the educational system in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or even about the city of Prague itself.  Like any reasonable education,  Stach argues, a plethora of factors will affect a student’s success including a pupil’s attitude, the teachers’ attitudes, the learning environment and the support from home.  Stach writes:

But how did the humanistic high schools in “old” Austria actually work?  Was such a destructive, or at least demotivating pressure to preform engendered here systematically; did the fault lie with the educational system itself or with the inability or ill will of individual teachers who appointed themselves judges?  That is a matter of debate even among those who attended these schools.  Experiences at school leave a deep emotional mark on children, especially in the sensitive years of puberty, and even in retrospect they seem strongly tinged by a student’s individual circumstances.  It would be difficult for a former star pupil to empathize with the situation of other pupils whose lesser achievements could not shield them from pedagogical harassment.  The same was true of pupils whose educational experiences enjoyed encouragement from their own families and who could not begin to picture a father like Hermann Kafka, for whom only report cards counted.  And many of the pupils later looked to their school days with rose-colored glasses: Cheery anecdotes remain in their memories and are happily recounted; humiliations, fears of failure, and the torments of pointless cramming for tests, on the other hand, are often suppressed or go unmentioned for the sake of self-respect.

Stach’s observations about education are issues that I think about and that consume me on a daily basis.  Our current educational system is filled with high stakes, standardized tests that inflict a great amount of anxiety on students.  Every time a new test is implemented, or a standard test is altered, this anxiety escalates even more.  But how else, the powers-that-be argue, will we know if a school/student/teacher is successful?  Or what other way is there to judge whether or not a student should be admitted to a certain college or university?

The details in Stach’s biography are stunning, but they are presented in such a way that we are not overwhelmed or bored with them.  Facts and statistics about Kafka’s life—he had 8 hours of instruction in Latin and classics per week—are altered with personal anecdotes from Kafka’s own letters and diaries or those of his friends and contemporaries; Stach quotes Kafka’s latter to Felice in which he includes a story about his Latin teacher, Emil Gschwind, who was “the most influential authority during Kafka’s high school years..”:

Children should not be pushed into things that are utterly incomprehensible to them. Although we should bear in mind that even this can bring out very good results in some instances, such results are completely unpredictable. I am reminded of a teacher who often used to say, as we read the Iliad, ‘Too bad that one is obliged to read this with the likes of you. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand it, even if you think you do, you don’t understand a word of it. A person has to have experienced a great deal before being able to understand even a bit of this.’ At the time, these remarks (delivered in the tone of voice he always used, of course) made a far greater impression on the insensitive youth that I was than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. This impression may have been far too humiliating, but it was a crucial one all the same.

Like Kafka’s teachers, I must give assessments and follow a curriculum—but I’ve learned along the way that I can control the experience that students have in my classroom. When I first started teaching my laser focus was to pound declensions and verb tenses and Latin grammar into my students’ heads. (It’s really embarrassing to think of my first few years of teaching.) But as I had more interaction with students and developed in my career it suddenly dawned on me that in a year or two or ten the students are not going to remember first declension or the subjunctive! This thought forced me to reevaluate what my purpose is in teaching what people call a “dead language.”

My philosophy of teaching shifted greatly when I started thinking about students in a broader context. Yes, my pupils still have to learn verb conjugations and vocabulary, they still have to translate Catullus and Ovid and Vergil, but it is worth the time if we have had a good discussion about Homer or the Roman Empire or Epicurean philosophy. Or, better yet, they like it when I talk about music, football, or the myriad of issues important to a teenagers at any given time. They like it when I greet them with a smile, ask how things are going with them, and reward them with stickers on their stellar papers.  And I do understand that many of my colleagues disagree with this approach and view education more narrowly. But, as Lucretius points out, it is easier to swallow bitter medicine if one rubs a little honey on the edge of the cup.

It has been a good yet difficult experience for me to constantly be asking what kind of a long-term impact I have on my students.  My influence over them as an educator in the formative years of their lives is a great responsibility; my hope is that even years from now they will have an appreciation for classics and an ancient language and that they will remember a positive feeling they had when stepped into my classroom. But this is a tall and overwhelming goal to achieve when so many other factors come into play, as Stach perceptively notes in his descriptions of Kafka’s education. How can I reach that child, like Kafka, who is anxious, shy, nervous?  Today, in particular, was a tough day. But I will go back tomorrow and try again.  I would certainly be horrified to find myself the subject of a such a dreadful story as that which Kafka relates about his Latin teacher!

Reading Kafka, even a biography of Kafka, ought to come with a stern warning about the self-reflection that will be a result.

13 Comments

Filed under German Literature, Kafka