Skip To Content

Franz Kafka’s Birthday Offers Kafkaesque Dilemma

● Kafka: The Years of Insight
By Reiner Stach Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch
Princeton University Press, $35, 720 pages

In September 1913, Franz Kafka, employee of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute of Prague and recently the author of two flawless, utterly disturbing stories — “The Judgment” and “The Metamorphosis” — took a trip to Vienna, where he sat patiently through an international conference on accident prevention. Kafka voted on a resolution that “certain parts of the sea be reserved exclusively for sponge fishers who are unclothed and hold a trident” — surely a detail that would fit perfectly in a Kafka story. A few days earlier, shortly after he got to Vienna, Kafka had wandered through the 11th International Zionist Congress.

“Unrewarding speeches in German, a great deal of Hebrew,” Kafka noted in a letter. The Zionist meeting seemed to him “a totally alien event.”

Years later he would say that Zionism nauseated him — which, Kafka being Kafka, didn’t prevent him from also being enthusiastic about it. Sick with tuberculosis in 1923, living in Berlin with his last girlfriend, Dora Diamant, and absorbing the thought of his approaching death, Kafka dreamed of moving to Tel Aviv, where the two would run a cafe together and he would be the waiter. For years he had been learning Hebrew, and even wrote letters in the language. But Kafka’s fantasy of life in Palestine finally seems more unreal than the naked sponge fishers (who were, of course, real). A place reserved exclusively for him was something Kafka never found, least of all among his fellow Jews.

Kafka’s Prague milieu was almost exclusively Jewish. Max Brod, who devoted much of his life to tirelessly promoting his friend’s work, saw in Kafka a set of variations on Jewish themes. Brod’s emphasis on the Jewish Kafka was powerfully seconded by the greatest scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, who made a case for Kafka’s interest in kabbalistic ideas. But explicit references to Jews and Judaism almost never appear in Kafka’s stories and novels (the exception is the little-known story “In Our Synagogue”). Kafka himself wondered whether he was a Jewish writer. He wrote to his long-suffering fiancée, Felice Bauer, in October 1916 that the newspaper Neue Rundschau had reported, apropos of “The Metamorphosis,” that “there is something fundamentally German about Kafka’s narrative art.”

Brod, by contrast, had written in Der Jude that “Kafka’s stories are among the most typically Jewish documents of our time.” Which was it? Kafka couldn’t decide, he told Bauer in a letter: “A difficult case. Am I a circus rider on 2 horses? Alas, I am no rider, but lie prostrate on the ground.” The next month, a reviewer in the Deutsche Montags-Zeitung proclaimed, “This book is Jewish.” But Kafka was still perplexed.

Kafka’s acrobatic suspension between German and Jewish identity has been uncannily played out in the recently resolved battle over his written legacy. Brod’s papers, which included many Kafka manuscripts, were inherited by his secretary and presumed lover, Esther Hoffe, and then by Hoffe’s daughters. One of the daughters, Eva Hoffe, hoarded the treasure trove in safety deposit boxes and in her own Tel Aviv apartment, where Kafka’s works shared space with a large population of cats.

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.

Stach comments on Kafka’s “wakefulness,” the “incessant presence of mind” that gives his tales the vigilant, uneasy aura that we can find in no other books. The alertness was vocational. “Someone must stay awake,” Stach writes, but the commitment to constant wakefulness took a hefty existential toll on Kafka: He was forever a stranger in the world. He stayed up as late as he could in order to write, but the lack of sleep drained his health. A strict vegetarian, he insisted on the method of eating called “Fletcherizing,” which required one to chew every mouthful for several minutes. Kafka’s father, a blunt, plainspoken businessman, held his newspaper in front of his face at the family dinner table in order to avoid seeing his son’s slow, determined mouth working its way through his plate of vegetables.

Kafka’s work, Stach says, “borders on the miraculous and mocks any conceivable social or psychological explanation.” Brod tried to wrestle him into shape by turning his writings into an allegory about the Jewish predicament in the Modern Age.

Brod, like many of Kafka’s interpreters, detracts from the hard, radiant perfection of his works by reading them reductively: “A Report to an Academy,” Kafka’s uncanny tale about an ape who becomes human, becomes, in Brod’s hands, a commentary on Jewish assimilation, which it assuredly is not. Brod was right to detect Jewish concerns in Kafka; his mistake was in seeing Jewishness as a straightforward, easily understood matter when Kafka himself did not.

“Brod always knew that he couldn’t hold on to Kafka forever, but he never really faced up to it,” the writer Elif Batuman remarked in her account of the decades-long confusion over the fate of Kafka’s manuscripts. Like every true reader of Kafka, Brod thought that Kafka was speaking directly to him, with religious intensity.

But even Kafka’s greatest friend and advocate was finally baffled by him. As the critic Erich Heller commented, Kafka created “the most obscure lucidity in the history of literature”; no matter how bizarre the occurrences he relates in his fictions, all is treated as if it makes perfect sense.

One time, Kafka, on one of his walks through Prague, ran into a friend’s father, who asked him about the ending of “The Metamorphosis,” then recently published. “Yes, that was a dreadful thing,” Kafka said seriously, as if he were talking about an actual event. All of Kafka’s writings seem to us ineluctably real: They show us a world more coherent, more perfect and infinitely more disastrous than the one we know.

Kafka once said that he was literature, and this turns out to be true: Everything we know or guess about Kafka’s life would fit exactly into one of his works. Kafka greatly admired Franz Werfel, one of the literary superstars of his day. Brod had been touting his friend’s work to Werfel, so finally, one day, Werfel sat down and read it.

He then composed a letter to Kafka in which he told him: “Dear Kafka, you are so pure, new, independent, and perfect that one ought to treat you as if you were already dead and immortal…. What you have achieved in your last works has truly never existed in any literature…. Everybody around you ought to know that and not treat you like a fellow human being.” Kafka must have been pleased, and terrified: Werfel had nailed him.

Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Kafka meditated often on Jewish themes in his notebooks and letters. Friends like Georg Langer, a close follower of the Belzer rebbe, tried to sway him toward Hasidism, but Kafka resisted. When he met the rebbe at a spa, Kafka was distantly fascinated rather than enlightened.

He wrote that “what comes from him are the inconsequential comments and questions of itinerant royalty, perhaps somewhat more childish and more joyous.” Kafka disdained healthy spirituality; he particularly disliked Martin Buber’s retellings of Hasidic lore. For him, Judaism was not a nourishing source of tradition but a potent absence: hard to define, yet inescapable. The crucial aspect of Jewish identity was that one clings to it without knowing why — without knowing, really, what Jewishness is.

But Kafka was also influenced by the startling alien intimacy of the Jewish God. Kafka is like the God of Bereishit, who asks Adam “Where are you?” We cannot hide our naked selves in the face of his directness. The message he bears is urgent yet indecipherable, and in its presence we stand exposed. In a book like “The Castle,” even the hero’s forlorn, comically intricate guesswork is stained with guilt, and as we read we become guilty, too. The God of the Hebrew Bible commands us to a fearful sense of responsibility; in Kafka the responsibility becomes limitless, synonymous with writing and with life. In this way he inherited the traditions of his people.

While walking in Berlin’s Steglitz Park one day, during the final year of his life, Kafka noticed a beautiful, boyish girl calling out to him. He smiled broadly. It was only some minutes later that he realized what she had said: the single word “Jew.” This was a somber premonition. The Nazis murdered all three of Kafka’s sisters, two of them in Chelmno and one in Auschwitz.

European Jewishness was a doomed phenomenon; Stach describes expertly the shadows already encroaching on it in the late teens and early ‘20s. The new Czech Republic was marked by anti-Semitism, and crowds in Munich demanded that the Jews suffer for their role in the unsuccessful Communist revolt of 1918. It is hard to avoid seeing Kafka as a prophetic voice in this regard. He told of a world about to fall silent forever, the world of Europe’s Jews. As he said to Brod, who had asked him, “Is there hope for our world?”: “Much hope, for God — no end of hope — only not for us.”

David Mikics is the author of “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age” (forthcoming from Harvard/Belknap) and A New Handbook of Literary Terms (Yale University Press, 2007). He is a contributing editor at Tablet magazine.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.