Opening a Treasure Trove of Kafka Trivia

Is That Kafka? 99 Finds
By Reiner Stach
Translate from the German by Kurt Beals
New Directions, 352 pages, $27.95

In October of 1917, Franz Kafka received a letter:

“Dear sir, You have made me unhappy,” it began. “I bought your ‘Metamorphosis’ and gave it to my cousin. But she doesn’t know how to make sense of the story.”

The letter writer, a man named Siegfried Wolff, described how his confused cousin ultimately gave the book to her mother, who in turn gave it to her other daughter. Still, nobody could understand it. Now, Wolff explained, pressure was on him as “the Doctor in the family” to explain what the book was about. “But I’m at a loss… Only you can help me,” he wrote to Kafka. “You must; because you’re the one who got me into this mess. So please tell me what my cousin is supposed to think when she reads ‘The Metamorphosis.’”

Wolff’s letter is Item 82 in a new collection called “Is That Kafka? 99 Finds” by Reiner Stach, the German author whose acclaimed two-volume biography of Kafka was published in English in 2013. (“99 Finds” was published in German in 2012 and is only now being released in English.) The book’s purpose, as Stach explains in the introduction, is to complicate the prevailing image of the man who wrote legendary works such as “The Trial” and “The Hunger Artist” and died of tuberculosis at age 40.

In the popular imagination, “Kafka has persisted as the quintessential archetype of the writer as a sort of alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick – an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things,” Stach writes. The material in this book “quietly divorce[s] us from the clichés, and allow[s] us to see that it might be useful after all to try other approaches to Kafka.”

What follows is a kind of portable, piecemeal exhibition of Kafka’s life. Here is his high school diploma, a floor plan of the apartment in which he wrote “The Metamorphosis,” descriptions of his day job as an insurance office, accounts of his love for a good glass of beer and his loathing of mice (“My feeling toward the mice is flat-out fear,” he wrote in one letter) and a print advertisement for his 1912 debut collection of stories, heralding “the publication of the first work by this fine, cultivated mind.”

The joys of the book are far too numerous to fully list here, but here are a few highlights:

According to Stach, “Throughout his life, Kafka found it extraordinarily difficult to knowingly utter a lie.”

The author apparently found it similarly difficult to shed tears. “Crying is especially alarming for me,” he wrote at one point. “I cannot cry. When other people cry, it seems to me like a strange, incomprehensible natural phenomenon.”

Stach reports that he first time Kakfa saw an airplane was at a 1909 air show, in the Italian town of Brescia. His description of the event, published in the Prague daily paper Bohemia, is exquisite. “The sun has dipped lower, and its rays shine through beneath the canopy over the grandstand, illuminating the hovering wings,” it reads, in part. “Everyone looks up at [the pilot] enthralled, no heart has room for anyone else….What is happening? Up there, 20 [meters] above the earth, a man is trapped in a wooden frame, defending himself against an invisible danger that he has chosen freely. But we stand down below, pressed back and insubstantial, looking at this man.”

Item 48 is a draft of a note Kafka wrote in Hebrew to his tutor in 1923. “Kafka’s notebooks show that he was an ambitious and motivated student who carefully prepared for each class,” Stach writes. “The two surviving drafts of letters that Kafka wrote in Hebrew also show that he tried to make as few errors as possible when writing to his teacher.”

Before Kafka’s death, the author instructed his longtime friend Max Brod that “whatever diaries, manuscripts, letters, from myself or others, drawings, etc. you find among the things I leave behind… please burn every bit of it without reading it, and do the same with any writings or drawings that you have, or that you can obtain from others.” Of this note, Stach writes, “Brod famously chose not to follow Kafka’s instructions and the overwhelming majority of critics and readers have approved of that decision.”

Kafka was buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague on June 11, 1924. The penultimate entry in Stach’s book includes a photograph of the headstone, with a translation of the Hebrew epitaph.

One of the most exhilarating things about “99 Finds” is that it brings us inside the writer’s creative life. Stach includes Kafka’s lengthy description of his desk, excerpts from early drafts of well-known stories and little-known vignettes and character sketches that reveal the author’s raw talent. At times, reading the book feels like viewing deleted scenes on a Director’s Cut DVD.

But the book’s most poignant entries are written by others, not Kafka. Stach includes one entry from the 1948 memoir of Kafka’s lover, Dora Diamant, in which she describes the author’s encounter with a little girl in a public park, in Berlin, in the early 1920s. The girl was distraught over the disappearance of one of her dolls, and to perk her up, Kafka concocted a story explaining the doll’s absence. He returned regularly to the park in the following days to deliver letters “written” by the doll explaining that it had gone traveling, enrolled in school and eventually got married.

“He set about the task just as seriously as if he were creating a work,” Diamant wrote. “After a few days, the girl had forgotten about the real toy that she’d lost, and she was only thinking about the fiction that she’d been offered as replacement… Franz had resolved the child’s minor conflict using art, the most effective means that he personally had of giving order to the world.”

In another item, Kafka’s niece Gerti Hermann comments about how “he was so caught up in his own world… yet he could also be very loving in everyday matters.” Once, she recalls that he gave her grandparents’ housekeeper an “umbrella for her birthday with little candies hanging from the tip of each rib, carefully tied on.” (That memory is a bright spot in a bleak tale. “The Nazis dealt with Franz Kafka’s family just like thousands of others,” Hermann writes. “All three sisters were ultimately gassed, somewhere, sometime, in Poland.”)

And then there is the final item in the anthology: Kafka’s obituary by the Czech writer Milena Jesenská, with whom he famously shared an intense epistolary relationship. Writing in Národní Listy, a Prague-based newspaper, Jesenská described Kafka as a “wise man who recoiled from life” and who possessed a “sensitivity bordering on the miraculous, and a mental clarity that was almost horrifyingly uncompromising.”

“He was shy, nervous, gentle, and kind, but the books he wrote were gruesome and painful,” she continues. “He saw a world full of invisible demons that antagonize and annihilate defenseless people. He was too clear-sighted, too wise to live, and too weak to fight: but his was the weakness of noble, beautiful people, who are incapable of fighting against fear, against misunderstandings, unkindness and intellectual falsehoods.”

In closing, she added, “He wrote the most important books in modern German literature… All of his works depict the horror of mysterious misunderstandings and of faultless guilt in human life. He was a man and an artist possessed of such a scrupulous conscience that he remained vigilant even when others, the deaf, already felt themselves secure.”

Philip Eil previously profiled Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman for the Forward.

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