Kafka by Nicholas Murray

So you thought Kafka was a tormented depressive who never went out or enjoyed any literary success? Think again, says C J Schüler
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

M any biographers would hesitate before taking on a subject as well known and as richly mythologised as Franz Kafka. Since the last mainstream biography (Ronald Hayman's K) appeared more than 20 years ago, attitudes and circumstances have changed. Fresh translations by Michael Hofmann and Idris Parry have stripped Kafka's works of the varnish of familiarity; the fall of the Iron Curtain has transformed Prague from a mysterious and inaccessible city to a familiar tourist destination; while the notes of Kafka's lover, Dora Diamant, have shed new light on his final days.

M any biographers would hesitate before taking on a subject as well known and as richly mythologised as Franz Kafka. Since the last mainstream biography (Ronald Hayman's K) appeared more than 20 years ago, attitudes and circumstances have changed. Fresh translations by Michael Hofmann and Idris Parry have stripped Kafka's works of the varnish of familiarity; the fall of the Iron Curtain has transformed Prague from a mysterious and inaccessible city to a familiar tourist destination; while the notes of Kafka's lover, Dora Diamant, have shed new light on his final days.

Much reappraisal of Kafka has centred on the role of Max Brod, his friend and literary executor. After Kafka's death in 1924, Brod famously ignored the writer's instruction to burn his unpublished manuscripts - which included the three novels - and edited them for publication. For this he deserves our gratitude; the problem lies with his romantic view of his friend as a lonely ascetic who took the sufferings of the world on his shoulders. Brod's 1937 biography, his sanitised edition of the diaries, and the writer's anguished letters to his fiancé, Felice Bauer, have infected our view of Kafka. He has become, as Milan Kundera put it, "the patron saint of the neurotic, the depressive, the anorexic, the feeble".

Of course, Kafka was an outsider: a Jew among Germans, a German among Czechs, and an assimilated Western Jew who looked enviously at what he saw as the vital, instinctive culture of the Orthodox Jews of Poland and the Ukraine. And the appalling swiftness with which history surpassed his most terrifying fictional inventions makes it hard to ignore the extra-literary resonance of his work.

Murray's well-researched biography locates Kafka firmly in time and place, displaying an impressive grasp of the cultural milieu of turn-of-the century German-Jewish Prague. Far from being a hermit, Kafka held down a demanding job, travelled, frequented salons and brothels, organised cultural evenings, went to see the Ballets Russes and met other writers including Robert Musil. Many of Kafka's stories, including "The Judgement", "Metamorphosis" and "In the Penal Colony", were published in his lifetime, earning him a substantial reputation. After his death, more than 500 people attended a memorial event in Prague.

The Kafka that emerges from these pages is not an idiot savant but a disciplined literary craftsman well aware of his antecedents. Murray usefully reminds us of something not always apparent to those reading Kafka in translation: the clarity and directness of his style. Reading Kafka alongside most of his German contemporaries is like reading Orwell after Henry James. The weirder the events he describes, the more matter-of-fact the language. Murray calls it "a kind of hyper-realism that carries the strangeness on its back".

Maybe Kafka cannot escape all blame for his posthumous neurotic reputation. Ploughing through the account of his tortured - and self-torturing - relationship with Felice Bauer, it's hard not to sympathise with his friend Felix Weltsch, who took him for a brisk walk and told him to snap out of it. But Kafka warned against taking his self-dramatisation too literally: "I always feel 10 times better than I say," he wrote to Felice, "it's just that my pen runs away with me."

Each generation reinvents Kafka for itself, and this book certainly won't be the last word on the subject. But anyone looking for a balanced and readable account of the his life and work will find Murray an engaging, conscientious and sympathetic guide.

Comments