The Impossibility of Being Kafka

Der Standard (07/03/2008)
The Impossibility of Being Kafka

July 3 is the anniversary of Franz K. for the 125th time. Reiner Stach has been working for thirteen years on a comprehensive biography consisting of three volumes, two of which are now currently available. He tells Sebastian Fasthuber of his approach to finding the real Kafka.
Standard: You quoted in your book, “Kafka. The Decisive Years,” an essay taken from an American journal: ”The Impossibility of Being Kafka.“ For a long time it appeared impossible to write a credible Kafka biography. How did you first become involved with him?
Reiner Stach: Under very normal circumstances. As a young man I read his works. What initially triggered my interest was when at the end of my twenties I saw his Diaries and Letters to Milena and to Felice Bauer for the first time. There was a phase when I fully identified with the author, also with the people he wrote about.
Standard: Which actually was…..
Stach: … terms of dealing with Kafka not very beneficial, of course. I believe in the meantime, however, that one has to go through such a phase once in his life in order to be able to work on a biography about him. After my dissertation I took a break from Kafka, and had to work in order to earn some money.
Standard: What was the real motivation behind it?
Stach: I made a suggestion in 1995 to S. Fischer publishing company. The timing was good. Apart from the out-of-print Wagenbach biography of Kafka’s youth, there was nothing in German, except for the letters. At the time the critical edition had already been published, and the literary estate was held by Max Brod. For the first time one could observe exactly how the man worked. One has to do that with Kafka because the separation between his works and his diary entries overlap.
Standard: It is unusual that you began your biography of Kafka, “The Decisive Years “(2002) in the middle of his life when he wrote most of his texts on paper.
Stach: The main problem was how to depict his early years. There was no real correspondence, no strong love relationship and, above all, no diary. He had destroyed everything that was written during that time. Therefore, all we could do was wait until the literary estate held by Max Brod/heirs was made available, or think of another entirely different solution and begin in the middle. To this day I am happy with the decision. I am still waiting for the Brod literary estate to be released; and for the reader, it is ever more exciting because it begins with the core of Kafka’s literary existence.
Standard: As for the second volume, “The Decisive Years,” covering up until Kafka’s death, you worked on it for some six years. Where lay the difficulties?
Stach: In order to piece together and present a coherent picture, one has to dig into many various sources. It tends to crumble in one’s fingers if one doesn’t establish some kind of leitmotif from the beginning. For example, it was very difficult to offer a true picture of the political background of the times. Original sources dating back to those years tend to either fabricate, embellish or censor the truth. Take for example the chapter dealing with the last days in Prague. before the downfall of the Monarchy. During this time the Spanish flu surfaced at the same time. However, the newspaper reported nothing about it although it concerned a worldwide pandemic which took more victims with it than the war. I suspect that Kafka had already recovered from tuberculosis and for him the Spanish flu presented the real threat.
Standard: To what extent has your picture of Kafka changed after having dealt with it over a longer period of time?
Stach: I used to think that he was a fragile figure. The more it became clear to me that he lived during very catastrophic times, the more I was astonished over where he got his strength. Always at that moment when he had reached the absolute bottom did he suddenly mobilize his strength and start again. He wrote the Landarzt stories under unbelievable conditions, living in a tiny, unheated room in the Hradschin district. While all of Prague was dirty and suffering from freezing temperatures, he worked overtime because his office colleagues were off fighting the war. There he sits above the city in Hradschin and manages to write such prosaic gems.
Standard: So phases of weakness alternate with those of strength?
Stach: Exactly. After recovering, he again collapses and enters a Sanatorium where he actually lives under very good conditions and does nothing the entire day, he doesn’t even read the newspaper. These long phases of recovery were apparently the reward. Kafka also makes himself appear insignificant because that belongs to his defensive strategy. By doing so he hoped to avoid being attacked. But when he was attacked, then he was able to muster up tremendous strength.
Standard:You also rid history of the myth that Kafka lived in an ivory tower, estranged from the real world.
Stach: One was always of the impression that he registered the outside world only minimally and concentrated on his writing. But he was not like that at all. No one was able to escape WW I. Prague of 1914, compared to that of 1918, was unrecognizable. That was something that generated in Kafka the feeling of deep estrangement. He sensed that he didn’t belong there anymore. There was also increasing aggression directed toward the Jews. When the Czechs took over power, a pogrom was felt to be near.
Standard: You have surely dealt with the question why we continue to feel his texts to be modern and relevant.
Stach: That is one of the great puzzles. One must compare it with contemporaries like Thomas Mann, whose texts were always in need of explaining, whereas with Kafka, that is not the case. One reason has to do with the phenomenon that no one can really know himself completely. That has something bizarre about it because one has the feeling that there is something in the back of the mind that cannot be controlled, just like one can never really see the back of his own head. .That creates in every human a slight sense of uneasiness. It was this subtle fear that Kafka put into words. It remains always with us and is something that runs through all cultures. For that reason, Kafka can be understood in Asia.
A second reason has to do with fear of the power of fate; it has us in its hands but which we can’t actually see it. This sense of fear is something that he focused on. As he writes in The Trial: “What the highest authority really thinks is something we cannot know; and don’t even want to really know exactly” Therein lies a truth which every person is aware of.
Standard: Your narrative technique has elicited a lot of praise as well as some criticism. You use samples from the novel and from the film.
Stach: But criticism came only from critics in Germany, not in the United States or in Spain, where the book also appeared. A biography is allowed to work with means taken from the novels. My wish is that the reader feels drawn into the historical framework. Others write more for academicians and add a quote from Nietzsche or Foucault on every page. I’m not one of those, but I am a literary scholar.
Standard: At the same time, you also run a website:
What do you think Kafka would have thought of the internet?
Stach: The internet generates exhibitionism and voyeurism, neither of which Kakfa would have felt comfortable with. For him it was extremely important that the personal and the intimate be used to maintain a picture of dignity. Sometimes I pretend that Kafka is alive today and one would set him out in real life. He would be completely shocked by the fast pace and noise, but he would also recognize some things.
Standard: When will the last volume covering his childhood and adolescent years be published?
Stach: By no means will it be another six years. Meanwhile the heiress to Max Brod has died, and her two daughters have agreed that Kafka’s literary estate be released in the German-speaking world. Currently they are still in Israel, however.
Standard: Are there also phases when you are tired of Kafka?
Stach: No, there are inevitably times when one return to researching medical or military history. It is clear that Kafka no longer lies on the night table next to my bed. Otherwise, it would turn into a marathon. One must not be fixated only on the final goal.