If biography is the writing of a life, then Franz Kafka is the least rewarding of subjects. Life, in any ordinary sense, was just what he didn't do. "I am nothing but literature," he wrote. Too true. The biographer in search of a life will miss the Kafka we want to meet. He's there only in those cryptic, often unfinished narratives - like utterances from an alien quarter - that testify to the difficulty of living.
The Prague writer's terse, precise texts bristle with a significance that resists explanation or paraphrase. They're jarring in their physicality, almost as if written by an animal (and their heroes often are animals). For Kafka, the daily world is a foreign place, in which humans, unless implacable and somehow banal torturers, are migrants, transplants. Their unnamed quests - which we imagine are for home, love, God, justice - are endless. If there is a home, it's probably not for us. "There is a goal, but no way," Kafka notes. "The only way is wavering."
Nicholas Murray makes a brave attempt at a life that is not altogether wavering. He would like to resurrect a likeable, comprehensible, perhaps even decent man, who is also Kafka. At the start, he tells us that to see Kafka as a "quivering neurasthenic" (do we?) "who knew only how to suffer, would be a travesty."
Murray explains: "He had friends, was part of a lively and stimulating circle of remarkable Prague writers and intellectuals; he was successful in his career (in a state workers' insurance company) and popular with his colleagues; he relished his escapes into the countryside and outdoor pursuits; he enjoyed a modest but enviable reputation as a writer, even if his major novels were unpublished in his lifetime; and he was attractive to women and enjoyed their company."
The trouble is that Murray then has to go on to describe a man whose skin literally felt too thin for life, whose body was fragile and in question (he died at 40, of TB, in 1924), who suffered from insomnia and headaches, who was tormented by noise and family and in particular by a loud and overbearing father whom he experienced as tyrannical in his demands and dictates.
This is a man who spent five years courting and was twice engaged to a woman, Felice Bauer, the prospect of a life with whom increasingly terrified him, so that the epic struggle toward marriage defeated him. Kafka wrote her letters amounting to quarter of a million words. They have become classics of anguished love and, in some sense, the letters were more crucial to Kafka than their addressee.
Writing made Kafka who he was. When Murray pauses for it, the biography springs into life. Not that the rest has no interest, even when sometimes his biographer might wish his subject a better one.
In a sense, Kafka - like Freud and many other city Jews - was the son of a migrant, of a father brought up in the socially distant hinterland and in the different language that Yiddish was. The son repeats the distance the father seeks in his assimilation to hide, though he gives it a new gloss. Is that the reason Kafka was so fascinated by eastern Hasidic Jews? Why the diagnosis of tuberculosis, when it came, seemed a piece of good luck? Because it medicalised the reason he felt so much weaker, had always been so much less of a "survivor", than his rudely healthy and philistine father?
It's perhaps not surprising that, in the inevitable tangle of belonging and not belonging, Kafka's first "passionate" entanglement is with a woman Philip Roth would call a "shiksa", the Czech translator and journalist Milena Jesenska. With Bauer, sex was a barrier never overcome. It soon became one with Jesenska, too. No one could meet Kafka's need for perfection. In his stories, the women always limp, have webbed feet, repel and fascinate simultaneously. Only Dora Diamant, the gentle nurse of his last days, broke the mould - but by then he really was a dying animal.
Kafka's writing didn't meet his inner demands for perfection, either. But when Murray quotes from him, you want to rush off and read more instantly. This makes Kafka the best kind of literary biography.
Lisa Appignanesi's new novel, 'The Memory Man', is published by ArcadiaReuse content