Dreary Digressions Drag Kafka Through Five Long Years

When I read a good book—any good book, but especially a biography—I can’t help but suspect that its author is a charming person: a witty raconteur with, at bottom, a good heart. I would have adored Boswell, for instance. He was a drunk and a philanderer and a sycophant, but I daresay he knew it better than anybody; his indulgent grasp of human weakness, both his own and Dr. Johnson’s, made him the perfect biographer.

And then there are the bores—good bores and bad bores and bores in between. Reiner Stach, author of Kafka: The Decisive Years, strikes me as a good bore. He’s done his homework, all right, and can tell you everything you want to know about Kafka—his fiction, his cultural ethos, his whatever—and then he’ll tell you more. A lot more. When, for example, he explains the nuances of Kafka’s job (“Kafka dealt with the implications for insurance law of accident prevention, with ‘specification of feasibility,’ a second-degree prophylaxis” etc.), I feel like I’m being lectured by the pedantic, pony-tailed comic-book seller in The Simpsons, who in this case has a mincingly precise German accent.

Mr. Stach’s book is the first of a projected three-volume biography, and it takes 516 pages (not including notes and index) to cover the years 1910 to 1915—not, I hasten to add, the first five years of Kafka’s life. No, Mr. Stach is merciful. Rather, he begins in 1910, because that’s when Kafka’s extant diaries begin, when Kafka was 27 years old, shortly before he hit his stride as a great modernist writer. Still, it’s a little ominous: 516 pages to cover five years? If this were five years in the life of, say, Winston Churchill or Hugh Hefner, that we could understand; but as Mr. Stach winningly concedes time and again, Kafka’s life was virtually without incident. “Sometimes the most difficult life is the one that is about nothing”—this, from Kierkegaard, is an epigraph to chapter two, and I would emend it as follows: The most difficult life to read about is the one that is about nothing.

Mr. Stach’s biography is composed mostly of digressions, the first of which is a prologue about Halley’s Comet—this for the sake of mise-en-scène, I guess, as the comet passed through the world’s purview in 1910 and was regarded as a heavy portent at the time. Also, there’s a metaphorical parallel with Kafka: “At 4:10 A.M. the sun rose. At that moment Halley’s Comet was invisible to spectators in Prague, exactly in front of the glowing orb. The black star set in a cascade of light.” Kafka too was like a black star, blazing amid the glare of the Great War to come, a prophet in the guise of a simple civil servant and so on. Or maybe Mr. Stach is mocking his own approach: That is, he talks around his subject so much that Kafka himself is like a vague silhouette (or black star).

While nothing much happens in Kafka’s life, we learn a great deal about the Yiddish Theater (from which Kafka borrowed certain broad farcical gestures for his fiction), the fin-de-siècle Zionist movement (which bored Kafka), the history of the letter “as one of the essential forms of expression of modern individuality” (Kafka wrote a lot of letters), and any number of momentous historical trends. There’s a whole chapter devoted to the Balkan Wars of 1912, and a long, long primer about the causes of the Great War that followed. “It is difficult for a biographer to assess the effects of political events on the psyche and everyday life of an individual,” Mr. Stach writes, “especially when catastrophes that shape the destiny of millions of people leave almost no trace in autobiographical documents, as happened with Kafka.” Well, as almost happened with Kafka; fortunately for posterity, he did note in his vast diary a key event in the global conflagration of 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia—Swimming in the afternoon.” Thanks to Reiner Stach, we know the larger context.

It didn’t have to be this way. Mr. Stach is a good stylist—an eloquent bore—and the parts about Kafka’s life, such as it was, would have made a fascinating 50-page treatise. For one thing, I was glad to know that Kafka was a strict vegetarian who “Fletcherized”—that is, chewed incessantly for minutes at a time—every morsel of food, such that his burgherish father Hermann would raise his newspaper in disgust. Kafka also avoided alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco, and performed daily calisthenics (nude) in front of his open window. This makes me feel a lot better about all the booze, caffeine, cigarettes and red meat I consume, to say nothing of my general indolence, since a more sickly specimen than Kafka is hard to imagine. Almost yearly he had to retire to sanatoriums, where he was forced into rare social commerce with his fellow valetudinarians. Never at his best with family or strangers, Kafka seemed to cast a pall; his immediate neighbor at the Hartungen sanatorium, an elderly Austrian general, committed suicide a few days after he made Kafka’s acquaintance.

I was also interested to learn that Kafka was good at his job—a “first-rate draftsman,” in fact, for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, where “his unusual combination of technical, insurance-specific, and legal knowledge was indispensable.” At the Second International Congress for Rescue Services and Accident Prevention in 1913—a huge affair held in the Austrian Parliament—Kafka was instrumental in crafting a resolution whereby “certain parts of the sea be reserved exclusively for sponge fishers who are unclothed and hold a trident.” It was all ashes in his mouth, though, and after a long night of writing stark, prophetic fables of the modern human condition, Kafka often felt too desolate to get out of bed. As he wrote his employer on such a day, “For me it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no way out except insanity.”

Otherwise, the main event in Kafka’s life was his interminable courtship with Felice Bauer, a dauntingly levelheaded woman who worked for an office-machine company in Berlin. These two exchanged hundreds and hundreds of letters but rarely saw each other in person, and so one is disinclined to invoke comparisons to Abélard and Heloise. “Bony empty face,” Kafka noted in his diary the day they met, “displaying its emptiness openly.” Mr. Stach asks us to imagine Felice’s reaction on reading this in the published diaries decades later (“it must have hit her like a brick”), and that’s an intriguing thought, to be sure; but the rest of this romance, in all its comic monotony, is a dead horse that Mr. Stach flogs into a pulp. The first really pivotal moment doesn’t occur until page 160, when Felice addresses Kafka with the intimate “Du”—a development that exalts him, then depresses him, and finally (on page 274) frightens him into a condition of pre-emptive impotence. As he relates (in suitably allegorical terms) to his friend Max Brod, “Every day fantasies fill my head, for example that I lie stretched out on the ground, sliced up like a roast, and with my hand I am slowly pushing a piece of this meat toward a dog in the corner.” Did the meat ever get there? At the end of 516 pages, we still don’t know for sure.

For Reiner Stach, the essence of Kafka’s work is “his peculiar reluctance ‘to get to the point’”—thus Gregor Samsa wonders why he’s become a dung beetle, until he ends up in the dustbin none the wiser; thus Josef K. and the rest pursue quests for knowledge that never comes. In this sense, Mr. Stach’s is a consummately Kafkaesque biography. With every piece of the vast mosaic at hand—the thousands of pages of diaries, letters and fiction, the tottering heaps of ancillary research—Mr. Stach holds it all up to the light piece by piece, turning it over and over and then putting it away, at last, with a puzzled frown. Indeed, he seems to question the validity of the whole biographical enterprise: “The best we can say is, It may have, could have, must have been this way.” Well, yes, but only a bore—albeit a good bore (a “hermeneutically dutiful” bore, as Mr. Stach puts it)—would bother to say so.

Blake Bailey is the author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. He’s now writing a biography of John Cheever.