The Endearing, Enduring Maniac

THE TREMENDOUS WORLD I HAVE INSIDE MY HEAD: FRANZ KAFKA: A BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY
By Louis Begley
Atlas & Co., 208 pages, $22

This year marks the bicentenary of Faust, Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday and, somewhat less tidily, 86 years since Franz Kafka abandoned his final novel. As anniversaries go, it isn’t especially momentous, but it has occasioned a splendid new Kafka retrospective from Louis Begley, the lapidary novelist whose eight works of fiction, among them Wartime Lies (1991) and About Schmidt (1996), signal a keen eye for detail and an abiding empathy for the underdog. Novelists routinely fumble when they try their inky hands at criticism (see: Amis, Martin), but Mr. Begley evinces some unusual biographical parallels with his subject: Both men were born to Jewish families in Eastern Europe (Kafka in Prague, Mr. Begley in Poland); both trained as lawyers; both would produce fiction pitting besieged heroes against the implacable forces of fate. And now, with clarity and good humor, Mr. Begley has assessed an icon of forbidding stature and infinite, infamous neurotic heft, and teased out a study as lively, lucid and flat-out enjoyable as any literary biography this year. Given Kafka’s legacy as a chronicler of "tortuous bureaucracy, crushing self-doubt, and unbearable inadequacy in the face of higher powers," this is no mean feat.

Although The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head is subtitled A Biographical Essay, it reads more like an annotated monologue. Making liberal but judicious use of Kafka’s diary entries and private letters, Mr. Begley lets the man speak for himself, in that inimitably nervy, thrust-and-parry voice. Across sections that discretely recount Kafka’s early life in Bohemia, his torturous love affairs and his conflicted Jewish identity, we track his five-year affair with Felice Bauer and his correspondence with the two women who later enraptured him; we gape at the cruelties of brutish Kafka père, itemized in the epic Letter to His Father; we follow Franz into the Austrian sanatoria where he sought to stave off the ravages of tuberculosis. For all his investigative zeal, Mr. Begley never intrudes unduly on the narrative, and even his comments on the novelist’s craft illuminate Kafka’s experience more than his own: "It is rare that writers of fiction sit behind their desks, actually writing, for more than a few hours a day," he offers, but "anyone writing fiction who is accustomed to balancing the requirements of his day job and his writing is likely to be struck by how little time was reserved for writing in [Kafka’s] well-ordered and depressingly petit bourgeois day."

Such writing as Kafka did manage, of course, burnished his reputation as a touchstone of Western literature. And Mr. Begley clearly relishes Kafka’s prose, variously described here as "astounding," "magnificent" and "unsurpassed." "Nothing could be more hilarious or devastatingly sad," he writes, than the short story "A Report to the Academy," in which a loquacious ape recalls his youth in the jungle; and The Castle, the unfinished final novel, is "complex, cluttered, and heartbreakingly beautiful."

An enthusiasm for Kafka’s "intrinsic and unshakable humanism," and for "the crystalline hardness of Kafka’s writing," distinguishes this volume from the studies of the so-called Kafkologists who treat him as an austere political prophet or a reducible allegorist. "We [must] not turn a searing statement about man’s inhumanity … into something needlessly narrower," Mr. Begley argues, "such as an animal-rights tract, or a summons to Jews to reclaim their authentic identity. … The common denominator of all such studies is the near-total disregard of the aesthetic aspect." He likewise cautions us against reading too much between the lines. Certainly, numerous elements of Kafka’s life correspond to the events in his fiction—his fractious family life metamorphosed into The Metamorphosis; his experiences as an insurance worker informed The Trial—but "if there is an ‘intelligent meaning’ to be found" in Kafka’s corpus, "it is the response that these works evoke in the reader."

While Mr. Begley takes pains to underscore Kafka’s "good nature," The Tremendous World is no valentine, as it readily and handily knocks its subject down to size. Mr. Begley highlights Kafka’s "unwillingness or inability to take risks"; pronounces his indefatigable correspondence with his multiple fiancées the work of "a maniac … Kafka at his worst"; and exposes his ignorance: Though "a pitiless and astute critic of literature," Kafka "had not read any of" countless seminal contemporary works, including Death in Venice, Heart of Darkness, Dubliners and Rilke’s Auguste Rodin. "One cannot help being struck by his lack of sophistication," Mr. Begley notes, suggesting that "something akin to a provincialism … marks the diaries and correspondence."

This volume brims with unexpectedly tender details. Nearing his 30s, Kafka strives to develop the "scrawny" frame he considered "a major obstacle to my progress": "Nothing can be accomplished with such a body," he sighed. "My body is too long for its weakness." Never before has Kafka seemed endearing; never before has he even seemed appreciably human. Mr. Begley’s triumph is to revive the man beneath the iconography, and to present afresh for a 21st-century audience that maddening, addled soul in all its twitchy glory.

Daniel Malllory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

The Endearing, Enduring Maniac