Tag Archives: Reiner Stach

The Eternally Dithering Kafka: Some Final Thoughts on Stach’s The Decisive Years

The Metamorphosis. First Edition cover, 1916.

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…

 

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The Bachelor of World Literature: Kafka-The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach

In a letter written while in his twenties, Rainer Maria Rilke describes his vision of what a good marriage ought to be (trans. John J.L. Mood):

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of is fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closet human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

This is one of the most beautiful descriptions I have ever read of what a good, supportive and loving marriage could be. I keep thinking about Rilke’s thoughts as I make my way through the second volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka. Stach begins The Decisive Years in 1910 when a twenty-eight-year-old Kafka is still a bachelor, is still living at home with his parents and sisters, and is still trying to find enough solitude to write. Even though he is the only member of the family to have his own room, the constant noise in the apartment and the proximity of his family hinders his writing during daylight hours. Kafka’s closest friends—Max Brod, Oscar Baum and Felix Weltsch—as well as his sisters have gotten married or are making plans to get married. As Stach points out, Kafka is certainly neither innocent nor sexually neutral—he visits prostitutes to satisfy his physical needs. But the thread we see running throughout his diaries and letters is an intense, obsessive, and urgent desire to write; a wife, and family would certainly not give him the solitude he needs for his literary endeavors. In the chapter entitled “Bachelors, Young and Old” Stach writes (translated Shelley Frisch): “Franz Kafka is the bachelor of world literature. No one, not even the most open-minded reader, can imagine him at the side of a Frau Doktor Kafka, and the image of a white-haired family man surrounded by grandchildren at play is irreconcilable with the gaunt figure and self-conscious smile of the man we know as Kafka, who blossomed and wilted at an early age.”

Kafka has two “relationships” of sorts before he meets Felice Bauer, the woman to whom he will become engaged. Hedwig Weller is his first girlfriend in his early twenties and he exchanges letters with her between 1907 and 1909. She lives in Berlin and so most of their contact is only through letters. In 1912, Kafka and Max Brod take a trip to Weimar to meet with publishers and visit Goethe’s home which has been turned into a museum. The caretaker of Goethe’s estate has a teenage daughter with whom Kafka becomes obsessed. It is sweet and endearing how he eagerly awaits for her outside of local shops and taverns to catch fleeting glimpses of her. He even has Brod run interference with her father so he can have a stolen moment with her in the orchard on the Goethe property. (This moment is captured in a blurry photograph that Wagenbach includes in his biography of Kafka.) He is sad when he has to leave her, but it’s interesting to note that Kafka keeps choosing women that live quite a distance from him and with whom there is never a realistic chance of pursuing a serious courtship. As Stach is leading up to the chapters on Felice Bauer in this second volume, these earlier precedents will serve to shed more light on his later, failed engagements.

Marriage and the distinct possibility of not having a partner for the rest of his life also weighs heavily on Kafka. In November 1911, in a fragment of a story called “The Bachelor’s Unhappiness” he depicts a pathetic, lonely, joyless, unmarried, older man: “It seems so strange to remain a bachelor, to become an old man struggling hard to preserve his dignity while pleading for an invitation when he wants to spend an evening with people, being ill and spending weeks staring into an empty room from the corner of his bed, always saying good night at the gate, never running up the stairs beside his wife…” Kafka’s diaries entries just two years later in which he lists the pros and cons of marriage reiterate this fear of perpetual loneliness: “I am incapable, alone, of bearing the assault of my own life, the demands of my own person, the attacks of time and old age, the vague presence of the desire to write, sleeplessness, the nearness of insanity—I cannot bear all this alone.” But sacrificing his solitude to write, even if it eases his loneliness, is not something is his willing to do. Not, at least, at this point in his life.

And so my mind returns to that lovely Rilke quote which, I think, is something that Kafka might have appreciated. If he could only find a wife that would have been that “guardian of his solitude,” It is tragic that this concept of marriage is something that would have been completely alien to him, especially given his social and religious upbringing. Even more than his relationships with Felice and Milena, I am eager to read Stach’s description of the last months of Kafka’s life when he doesn’t marry but does live with a woman named Dora Diamant, which is the closet he will ever get to a domestic life. Did she protect his solitude? Or did he finally decide that he didn’t want to die alone?

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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.

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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.

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