Category Archives: Nonfiction

Raised to the Pitch of Incandescence: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

“Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream-companion I had longed for since I was fifteen; he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence,” writes a young Simone de Beauvoir who is about to begin her most famous love affair.   While reading Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the first in a trilogy of very detailed books about her life, I kept thinking that incandescent, intense, and passionate are the perfect words to describe Beauvoir even from a very young age.

At the age of five or six Beauvoir has vivid memories and intense feelings of love and devotion towards the people who are closest to her: her parents, her younger sister and her nanny, Louise.  She believes they are all perfect and can do no wrong and adores her family with an unwavering and almost romantic fervor.   She writes about her earliest years, “I though it was a remarkable coincidence that heaven should have given me just these parents, this sister, this life.  Without any doubt, I had every reason to be pleased with what fate had brought me.”  When she goes to school she throws herself wholeheartedly into her studies and is very proud when she receives praises and rewards for her academic achievements.  And the young Simone’s religious devotion is just as passionate as her love for her family and her interest in learning:

I was very pious; I made my confession twice a month to Abbe Martin, received Holy Communion three times a week and every morning read a chapter of The Imitation of Christ; between classes, I would slip into the school chapel and, with my head in my hands, I would offer up lengthy prayers; often in the course of the day I would lift up my soul to my Maker.  I was no longer very interested in the Infant Jesus, but I adored Christ to distraction.

As she grows older, she gradually loses her faith and questions the double standards for men and women placed on her not only by the rules of religion but also by the demands of the bourgeois society that she has grown up in. She is discouraged from asking any questions about sex and doesn’t realize until an absurdly late age—at least by today’s standards—how conception takes place and she knows full-well that this is ridiculous.  She detests the idea that it is acceptable for young men to sow their wild oats and have a variety of sexual escapades before marriage, but if  a woman does the same thing then she, and her family, are ruined.

Not surprisingly, Beauvoir goes from one extreme to the next—she embraces atheism, openly rebels against her parents, and chooses education and a career instead of marriage and children.  As she is moving towards these things her desire for more and more freedom causes her a great deal of angst and her moods are rather extreme.  She goes, within the space of a page or two, from being in love with life to being in the absolute pits of despair.  She oftentimes quotes the diary she keeps during these years which are filled with grand, melodramatic statements: “I want life, the whole of life.  I feel an avid curiosity; I desperately want to burn myself away, more brightly than any other person, and no matter with what kind of flame.”

In a lot of ways the memoir is  a tragedy about two of the closest people to her throughout her childhood and her teenage years: her older cousin Jacques and her best friend Zaza.  Beauvoir is intermittently in love with her cousin whom she views as a hero, especially in her younger years.  For a time she even thinks that should could marry Jacques, but her feelings about him, like many other things in her life, run to the extremes of love and rejection.  And Zaza she meets when they are young pupils at the same school.  It is touching to see that as the girls get older they become closer friends and confidants.  But neither Zaza nor Jacques are able to break free from yoke and expectations placed on the by bourgeois life.  While Beauvoir is studying at the Sorbonne, living on her own, and meeting Sartre, her cousin and her best friend are swallowed up by their miserable lives.

This volume of the memoir ends just as Beauvoir is about to take up a love affair with Sartre.  The amount of details, the extremes of emotion, the incandescence are, at times, a bit overwhelming—not that I didn’t like her writing, and, in fact, I oftentimes identified with her.    But I think I will take a break because I am in need of something a little more serene at the moment before I resume her story.

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Filed under French Literature, Nonfiction

He Held Radical Light: A Memoir by Christian Wiman

“Awe without an end ends in dread, for however much the mind is lit by the fires of that eternal elsewhere, we inevitably fall back into this singular being that, though it matters so much to us, matters not at all in the furnace of infinity.” —Christian Wiman

Wiman’s memoir is an interesting addition to my list of “auto” books—autobiography, auto-fiction, letters–that I have read this year.  He Held Radical Light, which title is taken from an A.R. Ammons poem,  covers only a few years in Wiman’s life, when he was editor of Poetry magazine, fell in love with and married his wife, and was diagnosed with cancer.  He uses personal anecdotes about the poets he meets, their poetry and his own reflections on and struggles with the meaning of art and faith to describe these eventful years in his life.

It is actually towards the end of this short book, when he is debating whether or not he should leave his position as editor at Poetry and take up an offer from the Yale School of Divinity, when he articulates the overarching themes or questions he is exploring.   He writes, or asks: “What does an authentic life in poetry look like?”  and “What does an authentic faith look like?”  He looks to the many famous poets he has met for the answer to his first question.   The book opens with Wiman’s vivid memory of meeting the poet A.R. Ammons while an undergrad at Washington and Lee University in Virginia:

I was a virgin when I heard Ammons read.  A virgin of poetry readings, I mean, though the experience was probably more memorable and momentous than the other one.  It occurred to me that Ammons might have been equally innocent, and equally confused, as ten minutes into his reading he suddenly stopped and said, “You can’t possibly be enjoying this,” then left the podium and sat back down in the front row.

The poet was coerced into going on for a bit more until he put a definitve end to the reading.  Wiman finishes his Ammon story, “Enough,” he muttered finally, and thudded his colossal body down beside his wife like the death of faith itself.”  The poet Donald Hall, who becomes a personal friend to Wiman, doesn’t have much better advice about what it means to live an authentic life in poetry.  Over lunch one day Hall says to him, “I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last.”  And Mary Oliver, whom he meets at a reading while editor at Poetry, puts a copy of Spenser’s Faerie Queene into her bag and says to Wiman, “I’m not young.  I want to spend what time I have left with masterpieces.”

So why do poets continue to write, how do they deal with the fact that, as Wiman realizes, “Nothing survives.”  He includes in this memoir a number of powerful poems whose central theme is death to remind us that, even if they are only ephemeral, they give us some shared language and meaning to contemplate:

Jack Gilbert,  “They Will Put My Body into the Ground”

They will put my body into the ground
Chemistry will have its way for a time,
and then large beetles will come.
After that, the small beetles. Then
the disassembling. After that, the Puccini
will dwindle the way light goes
from the sea. Even Pittsburgh will
vanish, leaving a greed tough as winter.

From the last lines of Mary Oliver’s “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field”

maybe death isn’t darkness, after all
but so much light wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

And from Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realization of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Finally, Wiman, as a poet and as a man who was quite possibly facing his own death, gives us hints of what he thinks it means to have an authentic faith.  As someone who spent many of my formative years under the yoke of Catholicism, it was refreshing for me to read about a man whose faith isn’t necessarily intertwined with any particular form of organized religion.  Wiman writes, “I have never felt much confort in the notion of heaven or eternity, mostly because I can’t conceive of these things.  But even more than that, Christianity entails—or at least it ought to—a scouring of the self, the individual ego, and as I said above, most of our notions of eternity and/or heaven amount to nothing more than a dream of the self’s survival.”  He ends his book with a comment about faith and Steven Wallace’s death: “There is much argument over whether or not Steven’s converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.  I yawn just pondering it.  Not because it doesn’t matter, but because the claim of God is too individual, intimate, and inarticulate to admit of this kind of schoolbook speculation.”  Through his anecdotes, his poetry and his personal reflections  in He Held Radical Light Wiman certainly gives us something to consider as far as poetry and/as faith.

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Filed under Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry

Satisfying my Craving for Details: Autobiography, Auto-Fiction, and Letters

On one of our daily walks this week, my dear friend was telling me about a cousin she had lost touch with but through a series of different circumstances she had the opportunity recently to meet and reconnect with her family member.  My friend and her cousin had been close as children but in the last ten years had not spoken for a variety of reasons.  I was fascinated by what many would consider an ordinary story and, as is my habit, I asked my friend a plethora of detailed questions, some of which she could not answer.  She likes to tease me that I ask intricate details about a story, a character, a life, that “no one ever thinks of except you, Melissa”   I like to have a complete picture, I like to get lost in the details, I like to know what it is about life and fate that brings people together and drives them apart.  I think that my habit of incessant questioning, seeking out the minutiae, is what has drawn me to reading quite of bit of autobiography, auto-fiction and letters in the past year.

I read Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place and The Possession early in the year and had mixed feelings about both.  There are narrow details about specific events in these brief autobiographical novellas.  A Man’s Place, for instance, describes Ernaux’s relationship with her father and the particulars of his painful illness and death.  But the scope of the story was too narrow for me; I wanted to know more about the aftermath of her parent’s death and how it was situated in the broader context of her life.  In The Possession, Ernaux recounts a relationship she has with a man after her divorce.  Even though she is the one to break off the love affair, she becomes obsessed with him after she learns that he is living with another woman.  Once again, I wanted to know how the circumstances of this affair came about—how did he compare to her ex-husband, her father, and to subsequent intimacies in her life.  Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, which I read over the summer, felt similar in approach to Ernaux’s shorter autobiographical works.  Levy describes a very specific period in her life, the aftermath of her divorce and the adjustment to a new life but, once again, the narrow approach of her subject matter left me wanting more.

I was excited that Ernaux’s longer autobiography, The Years, was finally being translated and published in English because it might give me some of these answers I sought after reading her previous books.   The Years, told in the third person, sometimes third singular, sometimes third plural, is more of a social history than a traditional autobiography.  Ernaux describes the years between the end of World War II and the 2000’s within the broader context of what was happening in the world.  There are a lot of lists and the writing has more of a journalist tone than a personal narrative: “With the abbreviated memory one needs at sixteen simply to act and exist, she sees her childhood as a sort of silent film in colour.  Images of tanks and rubble appear and blur with others of old people who have died, handmade Mother’s Day cards, the Becassine albums, the First Communion retreat, games of sixes played against a wall.  Nor does she care to remember the more recent years, all awkwardness and shame—the time she dressed up as a music-hall dancer, the curly perms, the ankle socks.”  While I appreciate her unique approach to autobiography, I was unsatisfied for lack of personal details.  The lists, the detached narrative, became, at times, too generic and therefore uninteresting.

The recent trend towards auto-fiction feels like an attempt to turn what could be an mundane autobiography into a more engaging narrative that appeals to a wider audience.  Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s auto-fiction, for instance, have gained a lot of attention in the literary press and have been included on many a “best of” list.  I read the fourth book of Knausgaard’s autobiographical fiction and was captivated by his details, but, for some reason, I haven’t been drawn back to read any more of his books in the My Struggle series since.   I read the first two books in Cusk’s trilogy last year and enjoyed immensely the style of her writing as well as her storytelling.  But in the spring, as I read Kudos, the final book in the series, I realized that her approach to autobiography is difficult to sustain in multiple works.  There are, in my opinion, much better examples of aut0-fiction in other languages that have not gotten the same attention as Cusk or Knausgaard. Per Olov Enquist’s The Parable Book, Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and Friederike Mayrocker’s Requiem for Ernst are all linguistically interesting and satisfied my need for details.

Since reading Kafka, I have been obsessed with the personal letters and correspondence of authors which are uniquely autobiographical.  Kafka’s letter to Felice, for instance,  that painstakingly describes their first meeting at Max Brod’s house could easily have been incorporated into an autobiography.  Kierkegaard’s surprisingly tender letters to Regine would have made a fascinating few chapters in his autobiography. Simone de Beauvoir’s letter to Nelsen Algren in which she describes her encounters with the sculptor Giacometti is the stuff of fascinating autobiographical material.  One of the first collections of personal letters that I ever read were those of Cicero which I was forced to translate during my first year of university.  I thought they were boring, self-centered and self-righteous and I haven’t given them very much attention since then.  But perhaps with my new appreciation for the autobiographical details contained in personal letters I ought to give poor Cicero another try.

Finally, this week I have begun reading Simone de Beauvoir’s three volume autobiography and I have been immediately captivated by the rich details of her childhood that she includes in the first book, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.  Maybe I am just a traditionalist, or maybe it’s my penchant for loose, baggy monsters, but of all the autobiography, auto-fiction, and letters I have read over the past year, Beauvoir’s work is by far the most satisfying, even at only 60 pages into the first volume.  Her writing is honest, straightforward and charming: “It doesn’t take much for a child to become the sedulous ape; I had always been willing to show off: but I refused to play the parts expected of me in false situations concocted by adults for their own amusement,” she writes.  A strong foreshadowing, I suspect, of how her character and strong personality develop throughout the course of her life.

On one final note (I promise), I bought Journey Into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch that was just reissued by NYRB Classics.  The introduction, written by Georgia de Chamberet describes this autobiography as an untraditional one: “the non-fiction novel” she calls it.  I’m interested to see where this fits into the genre of “auto” books I’ve described here.

What are your favorite autobiographies, auto-fiction, letters, and non-fiction novels?  Let me know in the comments!

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Filed under Essay, Nonfiction

Thou Sun Amongst Women: Kierkegaard’s Letters to Regine

Reading Kierkegaard’s letters, selections from his journals and a short biography of this Danish philosopher and author was a rabbit hole I tumbled down while making my way through Kafka and Stach’s biography of Kafka.  Kierkegaard comes up numerous times in Kafka’s life, but no so much for his philosophy as for the details about his personal life and his broken engagement.  A twenty-four-year old Kierkegaard meets the fifteen-year old Regine Olsen at a mutual friend’s house in 1837 and he is immediately smitten with her.  He wisely waits, however, until she is eighteen to begin writing her love letters and courting her.  I was surprised, delighted and, at times,  just slayed by the tender, caring, erudite and loving messages that Kierkegaard composes for her.  The intelligence combined with sincere, true expressions of love are what impressed me most about these letters.   He would oftentimes visit Regine more than once a day and hand deliver these letters (letter undated-translated by Henrik Rosenmeier):

Yesterday your brother scolded me for always speaking of my cobbler, my fruit dealer, my grocer, my coachman, etc., etc., etc.  By this means he seems to have accused me of a predominant use of the first-person possessive pronoun.  Only you know of your faithful friend that I am not extensively but intensively much more given to the use of the second-person possessive pronoun.  Indeed, how could he know that, how could any person at all—as I am only yours.

On another occasion, he remembers the details of a conversation on one of their daily visits and thoughtfully sends her a gift (letter undated, trans. Rosenmeier):

The other day when you came to see me you told me that when you were confirmed your father had presented you with a bottle of lily of the valley.  Perhaps you thought that I did not hear this, or perhaps you thought that it had slipped by my ear like so much else that finds no response within.  But not at all!  But as that flower conceals itself so prettily within its big leaf, so I first allowed the plan of sending you the enclosed to conceal itself in the half-transparent veil of oblivion so that, freed from every external consideration, even the most illusive, rejuvenated to a new life in comparison with which its first existence was but an earthly life, it might now exude that fragrance for which longing and memory (‘from the spring of my youth’) are rivals.  However, it was nearly impossible for me to obtain this essence in Copenhagen.  Yet in this respect there is also a providence, and the blind god of love always finds a way.  You happen to receive it at this very moment (just before you leave the house), because I know that you, too, know the infinity of the moment.  I only hope it will not be too late.  Hasten, my messenger, hasten my thought, and you, my Regine, pause for an instant, for only a moment stand still.

My impression of him before reading this letter was that of a taciturn, melancholy, selfish man but he was clearly capable of being thoughtful, tender and even happy.  It shows a lot about his character that he went to some trouble to get this scent for Regine!

And this gift was not a one-time occurrence.  He loved to send her all sorts of thoughtful gifts—paintings, a scarf, a handkerchief, and drawings he did himself.  He would also include in his letters translations of poems or poetry he composed himself based on famous verses.  For example, on Wednesday, the 28th of October, 1840 he writes to Regine and quotes Joachim von Eichendorff:  “In the stillness of midnight, for the day does begin at midnight, and at midnight I awoke and the hours grew long for me, for what is as swift as love?  Love is the swiftest of all, swifter than itself: Two musicians journeyed thither/From the woods so far away./One of them is deeply in love,/The other would like to be so.”

Much like Kafka, Kierkegaard struggles with making a full commitment to marriage and family life.  In the end he decides that he cannot go through with it, but Regine puts up a good fight.  There is a hint, I think, in some of the letters of Kierkegaard’s anguish between wanting to be alone and wanting to marry Regine.  This passage, from an undated letter, is one of my favorites (trans. Rosenmeier):

In truth, I come, I write, I think, I speak and falter and sigh, and my room resounds with my monologues, and in you alone, my sole confidante, dare I confide what it is that now boisterously wells up in me and then again is lost in silent reverie—in you alone dare I confide—what you have confided in me.  For know that every time you repeat that you love me from the deepest recesses of your soul, it is as though I heard it for the first time, and just as a man who owned the whole world would need a lifetime to survey his splendors, so I also seem to need a lifetime to contemplate all the riches contained in your love.  Know that every time you thus solemnly assure me that you always love me equally well, both when I am happy and when I am sad, most when I am sad—most when I am sad—because you know that sorrow is divine nostalgia and that everything good in man is sorrow’s child—know that then you are rescuing a soul from Purgatory.

He ends the letter with a tender postscript: “Whenever you catch a breath of that heliotrope at home, which is still fresh, please think of me, for truly my mind and my soul are turned towards this sun, and I have a deep longing for you, thou sun amongst women.”  Although he breaks off their engagement, he loves her and thinks of her for the rest of his short life. He never courts another woman and his diaries continue to mention her and so does his will.  In an entry of his journal in 1848, a full seven years after their broken engagement,  he writes, “The few scattered days I have been, humanely speaking, really happy, I always have longed indescribably for her, her whom I have loved so dearly and who also with her pleading moved me so deeply.”  When he dies he leaves all of his money and possessions to Regine:  “What I wish to express,” he writes, “is that for me the engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage.”

I am planning on reading Kierkegaard’s work Either/Or and his Works of Love.  Please leave me other Kierkegaard reading suggestions in the comments!

 

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Filed under Letters, Nonfiction

Building and Connecting the Honeycombs: Reiner Stach’s Three Volume Biography of Kafka (trans. Shelley Frisch)

There are just certain books that change you.  After spending the last month reading all 1557 pages (excluding notes and index) of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka, I will never look at the author, his writings, the early 20th century, marriage, Prague, Zionism, biography, friendship or World War I the same again.  For my readers who are used to my relatively short posts, I apologize for this rather lengthy piece of writing.  I felt that Stach’s profoundly enlightening book and Shelley Frisch’s meticulous, thoughtful translation of it required more time and attention to capture the depth and complexity of all three volumes when viewed as a whole.

Although I read Stach’s comprehensive and astonishing three volume biography of Kafka in chronological order, this was not the order in which they were written and published. Stach was waiting for access to the extensive papers in the literary estate of Max Brod, which were hung up in years of litigation, in order to finish writing the first book about Kafka’s earliest years. Thus it is in the second volume, The Decisive Years, which was released first, where we find Stach’s eloquent introduction to the entire project. He describes the onerous task of writing a biography of Kafka:

Most biographies, even the best among them, are composed in this way, through a kind of honeycomb technique. The picture of how a life was lived breaks down into a number of thematic segments, each of which is relatively independent of the others and calls for separate research: background, education, influences, achievements (or misdeeds), social interactions, religion and political and cultural background. Ultimately some interdependences blur this initially clear picture, but if the biographer does not want to subject readers to a hodgepodge, the fiction of topical clarity must be maintained, each subject must be synthesized separately, each cell of the honeycomb must be closed. Only then, in a second step, will the biographer try to merge the cells in such a way as to minimize the empty spaces: a synthesis of syntheses. The result is a portrayal of a life whose events are narrated in linear fashion, their causal connection thus made evident. The honeycomb cells lie in a row, and the conceptual paradigm of this kind of biography is the journey through life.

Kafka, born into a Jewish family in Prague at the end of the 19th century, was named after Franz Joseph I, the kaisar of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was survived by three younger sisters who were all murdered in concentration camps by the Nazis during World War II. He earned a doctorate in law, but had no intention whatsoever of being a lawyer. He was excellent at his job at the Worker’s Insurance Institute and wrote many legal documents that advocated for workers’ safety. He had a strained relationship with his father to whom he wrote a 100-page letter but which he never delivered. When he broke up with his fiancé, Felice Bauer, for the final time he went to his best friend Max Brod’s office and sobbed uncontrollably. He desperately wanted to join the fight in World War I, but his employers kept exempting him from service. After Felice, he was engaged for a second time to a woman named Julie with whom he broke it off when he met Milena, a Czech journalist who lived in Vienna. Milena’s pet name for him was “Frank.” Shortly after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, he also came down with a horrible case of the Spanish flu which he miraculously survived. He loved swimming, going to the movies and slapstick comedy. He, himself, had a droll sense of humor. He was a naturalist and a vegetarian and enthusiastically took up an interest in gardening. He was not a practicing Jew, but towards the end of his life he developed a renewed interest in Jewish culture and history and learned Hebrew.  When he lived in Berlin, he would put on a suit and tie every day to go out and buy his milk.  He was shy, introverted and brooding but he was also kind, empathetic and generous. In the last, painful days of his life his laryngeal tuberculosis prevented him from speaking, eating and drinking and his only communication was done by writing on slips of paper. He requested on one of these notes to a friend that he be given some ice cream to try. When he awoke on June 3rd, 1924 in excruciating pain and could not breath, he asked his friend, a physician, Robert Klopstock to euthanize him with morphine. Klopstock did give him a dose of an opiate, but we are not sure how much. Dora Diamant, the third and final woman to whom he proposed marriage, held his hand and consoled him with the smell of his favorite flowers as he died.

These are, to me, some of the most surprising and enlightening bits and pieces of these honeycomb cells that Stach constructs throughout the course of his extensive biography. Stach argues that Kafka’s struggled with the same issues throughout his life and though there are only a few themes on which to focus—marriage, family, literature— each one of these threads can be connected in a complex number of ways. Kafka’s views on marriage, for instance, can first be analyzed in light of his parents’ own union which took place with the help of a professional marriage broker. Stach describes in The Early Years how Hermann Kafka decides that he is in need of a Jewish bride with a decent dowry who could co-manage his fancy goods store and that’s exactly what the professional matchmaker finds for him in Julie Lowy.  Love, in the very beginning at least, has nothing to do with it.  As a Jewish man who grows up in a petit bourgeois family, in Prague, at the beginning of the 20th century Kafka has certain expectations placed on him as far as marriage is concerned.  He has to be a good provider, his wife has to have a spotless reputation, the dowry has to be the right amount, and, most importantly, his family has to approve of the match.

And, of course, a thorough discussion of Kafka’s views on marriage also requires Stach to look into the marriages of Kafka’s closet friends.  Kafka’s best friend, Max Brod, was a notorious womanizer and even when he finally decides to settle down into marriage, he still has numerous affairs with women in different cities to which he would frequently travel.  Kafka appears to have known all of the nitty gritty details of Brod’s amorous adventures and even becomes friends with some of Max’s lovers, which makaes seeing Max’s wife rather awkward.  Oscar Baum, a fellow author and music teacher, seems to have a happy marriage but he is heavily dependent on his wife for many of his needs because of his blindness.  Kafka is also a witness to Felix Weltsch’s marriage which is a bad match and a miserable disaster from the beginning.

Although there appears to be a dearth of happy marriages for Kafka to emulate, he very much wants to get married, but on his own terms.  He rejects the traditional expectations placed on him and wants a union that will be both emotionally intimate and physically fulfilling.  He envisions a domestic partnership in which he and his future wife will have common interests and he particularly wants his wife to share his passion for literature and to support his writing.  His biggest fear in marriage is that a wife and family might hinder his writing and intrude on the solitude he required to carry out his work.

As I was reading Stach’s various threads about Kafka’s views on and attempts at marriage I kept thinking about some advice I received once from a dear, kind friend (who, like Kafka, is a great correspondent) about marriage.  He wrote: “I was reading a book by a member of the Clapham Sect recently and was struck by this passage: ‘Nothing so soon, and so certainly wears out the happiness of married persons, as that too common bad effect of familiarity, the sinking down into dullness and insipidity; neglecting to keep alive the flame by the delicacy which first kindled it; want of vigilance in keeping the temper cheerful by . . . discipline, and the faculties bright by constant use. Mutual affection decays of itself, even where there is no great moral turpitude, without mutual endeavours, not only to improve, but to amuse.’  The idea of making an effort to amuse and entertain one’s spouse is certainly unheard of these days. But I do think the point of the passage is a good one. Marriage should be deliberate, and if it is deliberate, it can be fun.”

My friend’s thoughts are not new—he brings up age old questions—why do we marry and when we choose a partner, what keeps us in that marriage for the long-term? How do we know when it’s over and when do we decide that things are hopeless and the only option left is to leave?  Stach keeps circling back to all of these questions that consume Kafka throughout his adult life.  In Kafka’s letters to Felice, some of which I think are didactic in tone, he constantly talks about literature, what he is reading, what she is reading, what he is writing.  He so desperately wants her to be a part of his literary life and the illusion that she is capable of doing this for him is a big part, I think,  of what keeps him from breaking it off with her for five years.   In their later correspondence he encourages her to volunteer at a Jewish Home for children, a common cause, he thinks, that they can develop together.  He is always searching for that mutual endeavor and he never quite finds a satisfactory one to share with her.  Their engagement party in Berlin is described by Kafka as anxiety inducing, he feels suffocated and the event has more of the tone of a funeral, an ending for him, than a beginning of a new life.

With Milena, who was a writer and a journalist, Kafka seems to have found this mutual endeavour in literature and in a physical attraction but she could never break free from her tumultuous marriage.  He seems to have learned his lesson with Felice that a prolonged, hopeless relationship will only waste his time and cause him more anxiety.  He is much more decisive and quicker to break things off with Milena.  Finally, Kafka meets Dora, with whom he has several mutual endeavours—literature, Zionism, Jewish history and Culture, a physical and emotional intimacy he had always craved.  And, what I think is most important, is that their affection for one another is very deliberate, especially under strained circumstance.  Dora takes such tender and devoted care of Kafka when his tuberculosis is becoming worse, and despite the fact that his health is poor he moves away from his family to be with her in Berlin.  Just at the time when he finds the perfect partner, his life is cut short.  It is nice to think that their relationship would never have sunk down into dullness and insipidity.  But who knows…

Stach continually points out in his narrative that an examination of Kafka’s views on marriage are also closely related to his writings—the greatest and best source for his relationships is his own writings in the form of letters and diary entries.  In addition, many of Kafka’s short works deal with marriage, family and bachelorhood.  Stach meticulously and deftly connects both of these thematic threads, these “honeycombs” at several points in the biography.  Many scholars have attempted to track down and comment on every piece of autobiographical information that Kafka weaves into his writing.  Stach argues that this is exhausting, and futile, and doesn’t necessarily give us more insight into Kafka’s stories.  Instead, Stach focuses his attention on Kafka’s most productive time periods and shows that the more pressure and anxiety that is placed on him the more productive he becomes.

By placing Kafka’s novels and short stories in the broader context of what is happening in his life,  Stach’s discussion of Kafka’s body of literature proved invaluable for me.  For example, “The Judgement” which I had read only once and has never really stood out in my mind among Kafka’s writings, was considered by the author his best piece of work.  He writes it in a single, sleepless night after he meets Felice.  After reading this entire biography, I understand better why animals, frustrating government officials, and feelings of helpless and despair abound in Kafka’s writings.  The most enlightening chapters for me as far as Kafka’s writings are concerned are those in which Stach guides us through the process and circumstances under which all three of Kafka’s novels remained unfinished. I assumed because he died young he never had time to complete any of them. But after reading Stach’s thoughts on The Castle, Amerika, and The Trial I am now of the opinion that even if he lived another 40 years these books would not have progressed much further. Kafka’s crippling self-doubt, his nagging sense of perfection and a myriad of other circumstances which caused him to endlessly dither would never have gone away.

Finally, Stach’s treatment of marriage and literature are also closely connected to his analysis of Kafka’s relationships with friends and family.  Stach, once again, is always attempting to attach these honeycombs. For example, a great deal of information we know about Kafka’s early years is from the author’s 100-page letter to his father and Stach quotes the letter extensively in the first volume. Hermann Kafka was an authoritarian patriarch who yelled often and berated his son for his perceived failings and inadequacies. Kafka’s bachelorhood must have irritated Hermann to no end and been a constant source of tension at the family dinner table. Marriage and his failure to go through with one was another topic that Kafka brings up in his letter to his overbearing pater familiae.

Kafka has one of his most productive periods during the final winter of World War II despite cold and starvation, in large part due to his sister Ottla’s providing a comfortable place for him to write and tending to all of his needs.  He also writes in the famous Blue Octavo Notebooks during this phase. In the end, even though he had his issues with his intrusive, pushy family, they support him financially when his illness is at its worst. He composes a lovely, tender and heartbreaking letter to both of his parents the day before he dies. Although he could be shy, brooding and introverted, his kindness and empathy attracts the best and most loyal friends. Most of what he publishes during his life was done through the efforts and interventions of Max Brod. It was Max who travels from Prague to Berlin to escort Kafka to the proper hospital to get the medical treatment he so badly needs at the end of his life. And, of course, it is Max we have to thank for saving and publishing the vast amounts of letters, diaries and manuscripts that Kafka left behind. Everyone ought to have a true friend like Max.

In hindsight Kafka’s life is judged as a success because of the wide and enduring popularity of his literature. But after reading Stach’s magnum opus, I think that a better measure of a good and successful life is the kind of love and respect we receive from the types of people with whom we surround ourselves. Stach’s depictions of people like Max, and Robert Klopstock, and Ottla, and Dora and their interactions with Kafka are full of love, tenderness, mutual admiration and respect; I would say that his short life was indeed rather successful. Stach has forever altered my view of Kafka for the better.

 

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