By Nicholas Murray
Yale University Press, 440 pages, $30.
Kafka may have died childless, but Kafka’s biography is a series of begats, with each generation turning on its elders. In the beginning was Max Brod’s Judaic saint, a rapt visionary; the visionary Kafka begat the ironical Kafka of the absurdists and existentialists; that Kafka, in turn, begat Kafka-in-context or, as Nicholas Murray puts it in his new biography, “a particular man in a particular place at a particular time.”
Murray opens his book with “the historical Kafka,” in a long, rich section about his youth in Prague, but he shapes each of the subsequent sections around the women in Kafka’s brief life: first, Felice Bauer, a Berlin secretary to whom he was twice engaged; then Milena Jesenská, a married Czech translator and journalist, and finally, the Polish-born Dora Diamant, a spirited young renegade who devoted herself to the tubercular writer during the final year of his life.
To write Kafka’s life in this way makes good sense. Kafka made an art of longing for women just as his “hunger artist” made an art of fasting. And like the hunger artist, who keeps resolutely far from food, Kafka never lived with a lover until he was close to death. Apart from his final spell in Berlin and scattered seasons in mountain sanitariums and rented rooms, he lived his entire life in Prague with his family. His sexuality, approached with discernment by Murray, rarely gave him any fulfillment; often it was a torment. By and large, Kafka’s turbulent relationships with women were transacted in thousands of letters, by turns tender, self-lacerating and harassing.
Murray, a novelist, poet and biographer of Matthew Arnold and Bruce Chatwin, knows that the surest way to the writing Kafka is through the letters and diaries. In them, Kafka relentlessly announced his craving for privacy. Simply to crave privacy was to assure himself that there was something within him to protect — something he called, passionately if imprecisely, “literature.” And Kafka needed to tell women about his craving, for he never was as convinced by it as when he put it into words. The terrible doubt, the terrible craving for privacy, the terrible need to tell it. “Are not my letters more terrible than my silence?” he asked Felice, and we answer for her, yes .
Murray also has an excellent ear for how these personal documents resonate with the looming figures of Kafka’s fictions; he proves an able guide to Kafka’s genius for “riddling, menaced narrative” particularly in “Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “The Judgement” and “Josephine, the Songstress, or: The Mouse People.”
Among these stories of the women in Kafka’s life lies the story of another great love. In October 1911, when a troupe of Yiddish actors performed in Prague, Kafka embarked on a lifelong romance with the Ostjuden , the Jews of Eastern Europe. His infatuation with the actress known as “Mrs. Tchissik” might have been partly responsible for his attending 20 Yiddish plays during the winter of 1911-1912. But the attachment to Eastern European Jews survived Mrs. Tchissik’s return to Lemberg to become a brooding fascination. Like any romance, it thrived on projection. As Kafka later wrote to Milena: “If I’d been given the choice to be what I wanted, then I’d have chosen to be a small Eastern Jewish boy in the corner of the room, without a trace of worry”— an odd thing to say of impoverished refugees queuing up for American visas. He visited with Hasidic rebbes as well as with Buber; read Graetz’s “History of the Jews” and Pines’s “ Histoire de la Littérature Judéo-Allemande ,” and in 1912 even played impressario for a performance by Yiddish actor Yitzhak Löwy.
On that occasion, Kafka anticipated o his audience’s response — invoking what he called a “dread of Yiddish, dread mingled with a certain fundamental distaste.” He reassured them that they would “intuitively” understand Yiddish, which bore a family resemblance to the German they spoke at home: “Then you will come to feel the true unity of Yiddish, and so strongly that it will frighten you, yet it will no longer be fear of Yiddish but of yourselves.”
Evidently, Kafka’s unheimlich romance with Yiddish — a strange language, but strangely familiar — was a family romance. In “Letter to His Father,” he attacked his father, Hermann, for forfeiting his son’s Jewish inheritance. That legacy, in Kafka’s words, “‘all trickled away while you were passing it on.” Later, Kafka converted Oedipus (along with his father, Laius) to Judaism, claiming that “the issue revolves not around the innocent father but around the father’s Jewishness.” The Jewish Oedipus, deceived by his father into renouncing his heritage, only to find no alternative, becomes in Kafka’s diary a giant cockroach: “But with [his] posterior legs [he was] still glued to [his] father’s Jewishness and with [his] waving anterior legs [he] found no new ground.”
Surely Kafka’s newfound interest in Judaism in 1911 put additional pressure on him to marry and to create a family; his obsessive attachment to Felice, based at first on a single, short meeting, bears this out. But what Murray’s book reveals is how precisely Kafka’s heiratversuche , his searches for a wife, coincided with his attempts to achieve a mature Jewish identity — for Kafka’s love of Eastern European Jewry was a regressive ideal, a fantasy of parents both nurturing and uncompromised, tirelessly devoted to their children. For Kafka, this ideal was both a serene joy and a goad to invent a new, adult relationship to Judaism. He seemed to notice that the refugees he saw were en route to new lives, whether in the United States, Palestine or elsewhere; the same Hasidic boys who had made Kafka so wistful were busy doing calisthenics and learning Hebrew.
Kafka’s ongoing and ambivalent relationship to Zionism entailed a vague plan to leave behind Prague and settle in Palestine. During his tortured, protracted affair with Felice, he was cheered by her interest in Zionism, even as he announced that he was “indifferent to Zionism.” More important to him was her volunteer work with refugees at the Berlin Jewish People’s Home, which Kafka actively encouraged vicarious parent, Felice’s work breathed life into his fiction of their parenting, together, a new generation of Jews.
By the early 1920s, during his relationship with the gifted, empathic Milena, antisemitism had made Judaism a fearful fate. “You’re a Jew,” he told his diary, “and know what fear is.” Still, he could announce his overwhelming, metaphysical angst to Milena without quite acknowledging that it was shared, somewhat less metaphysically, by thousands of Jews who lived with the daily insults of antisemitism.
Only with Dora Diamant, whom he encountered while she was gutting a fish at a Zionist summer camp, did Kafka have intimations of what a Jewish adulthood might mean, for Dora had lived it — running away twice from her Orthodox father in Poland to live among the enlightened German-speaking Jews of the West. With the fearless Dora, Kafka found a way to leave behind both Prague and the Institute (which had “‘pensioned him off’”), settling in Berlin with her. For Kafka, Dora embodied a marriage of Yiddishkeit and modernity. Emboldened, he studied at the famous Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Academy for the Science of Judaism), and together he and Dora eked out happiness amid sickness, rampant inflation and rising antisemitism. Brod called it an “idyll”; Murray documents Dora’s recollection that “Kafka was always cheerful. He liked to play; he was the born playmate, always ready for some mischief.” They dreamed of moving to Palestine and opening a restaurant; Dora would cook, and Kafka would wait tables.
Murray’s brief account of Kafka’s life and death with Dora, indebted to Kathi Diamant’s recent biography (“Kafka’s Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant”), is heartbreaking. Thanks to Dora (and now Murray), we have the story of how Kafka came across a small girl in the park, weeping for a lost doll. Kafka told her he knew the doll was not lost; in fact, he had received a letter from her. Faced with the girl’s skepticism, he returned the next day with proof: a letter from the doll, explaining that she “had grown tired of living in the same family all the time and had wanted a change of scene.” He kept up the charade for three weeks, at the end of which the doll wrote that she had “met a young man and married him” and would not be back. Whether the doll’s children would speak German, Yiddish or Hebrew, we cannot know. Pity Kafka never was able to live the life his generous imagination gave to a lost doll.
Esther Schor, professor of English at Princeton University, is writing a biography of Emma Lazarus for nextbook/Schocken.