Franz Kafka's Birthday Offers Kafkaesque Dilemma

Reiner Stach's Bio Addresses Author's German and Jewish Identities

German or Jewish or Both or Neither? Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Franz Kafka often meditated on Jewish themes.
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German or Jewish or Both or Neither? Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Franz Kafka often meditated on Jewish themes.

By David Mikics

Published July 03, 2013, issue of June 14, 2013.
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The Hoffe family wanted to sell the collection to the German Literature Archive, in Marbach, and argued that Marbach would take better care of the Kafka papers than any Israeli library could. (Before her death, Esther Hoffe had already sold the manuscript of “The Trial” to the German Literature Archive for close to $2 million.) In October 2012 an Israeli court finally decided against Eva Hoffe, ruling that Brod had intended his papers to become the property of the State of Israel. So the question was finally answered: Kafka belongs, after all, to the Jews, not to the Germans.

Yet Germany still has an important stake in Kafka. When I lived in Berlin in the late 1990s, I was struck by how much the Germans see Kafka as one of their central authors, a high-modernist master of German prose. It is not surprising that Reiner Stach, a German, is now writing the definitive biography of Kafka. Stach’s first volume, “The Decisive Years,” covering Kafka’s life from 1910 to 1914, appeared in English translation in 2005; “The Years of Insight,” his account of Kafka’s final years, ending with his death in 1924, came out in German in 2008 and is now being published in a supple and accurate English translation by Shelley Frisch.

Stach is still writing his volume on Kafka’s childhood and youth, since that work depends on the Brod papers; now that the fracas in Tel Aviv has ended, and Brod’s letters and diaries are accessible to scholars, we will learn immeasurably more about the early Kafka.

In his biography, Stach presents a full, nuanced treatment of Kafka’s feelings about Jewishness. He is particularly adept in his depiction of Kafka’s relationships with the women he loved. Kafka’s years-long engagement to Bauer is painful to read about; for years, Kafka psychically tortured not only himself, but Bauer, as well. Bauer was a hardworking secretary, an ardent fan of Strindberg and intrigued by Dostoevsky, as well (during one trip with Kafka, she brought along a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov,” hoping they could read it together).

Bauer worked in a Jewish Home for Eastern European refugees in Berlin. When she first met Kafka, at a dinner, he was riveted by her casual announcement that she was planning to travel to Palestine; he proposed on the spot that he go with her. Kafka’s later love interests — Julie Wohryzek, Milena Jesenska and Diamant — were also powerful, intellectual presences. Jesenska, a non-Jew married to a Jewish husband, was Kafka’s Czech translator and an author in her own right.


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