A Hesitation Before Birth

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The first biography of Franz Kafka was written by his close friend Max Brod, who was responsible for the posthumous publication of many of Kafka’s works. Brod’s book appeared in English translation as Franz Kafka: A Biography (1947, 1960). While the critical literature on Kafka continued to grow at an astonishing rate, not until Ronald Hayman’s K: A Biography (1981; published in the United States as Kafka: A Biography, 1982) was there another Kafka biography in English. Hayman’s book was quickly followed by Ernst Pawel’s The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka (1984). Now there is Peter Mailloux’s A Hesitation Before Birth: The Life of Franz Kafka, the third Kafka biography in less than a decade (and the longest of the three, by a good margin). Is Mailloux’s effort merely redundant, then? Not at all—nor should it (to cover the opposite extreme) be saddled with that label so often applied to big biographies: “definitive.”

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 10, 1990), Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who has published well- received biographies of Hannah Arendt (1982) and Anna Freud (1988), complains that the biographer’s art is insufficiently understood and appreciated. Reviewers of biographies, she observes, typically confine themselves to summarizing the subject’s life story and “rendering judgments” on the quality of his or her experience, paying little or no attention to the shaping hand of the biographer. Implicit in this approach, Young-Bruehl suggests, is a naive conception of the biographer as an assembler of inert facts. She is too critical of reviewers, who have their own agenda (a summary of the subject’s life story is often what their readers want), but her point is worth making, as the Kafka biographies by Hayman, Pawel, and Mailloux attest.

All three biographers worked with the same basic information. In the case of Kafka, as Mailloux notes in his introduction, there is a relative scarcity of solid biographical evidence:The documents that usually complement what people say about their own lives—public records, other people’s recollections, expressed either in interviews or memoirs, letters Sent to them—are in Kafka’s case largely nonexistent, in part because of the obscurity in which he lived (which meant that few people other than Max Brod thought to record their impressions of him), and in part because the personal papers, and especially the letters, that he did not destroy before his death were destroyed by the Nazis after it.

As a result, any would-be biographer must rely heavily on Kafka’s diaries and his surviving letters in constructing a narrative of his life. That would be problematic in the case of any writer, but in Kafka’s case it is particularly so, given his bent for self-disgust and the tortuous complexity of his inward reflections.

Mailloux, who is much more forthright than Hayman or Pawel about the scarcity of independently corroborated evidence, makes a further point in this connection. Among Kafka’s surviving notebooks there were some devoted exclusively to fiction. The notebooks containing his diaries, however, interweave fiction and diary entries. Sometimes the distinction is clear-cut (as in the case of a complete story interpolated between sequences of diary entries), but in many instances, Mailloux says, the line is blurred. His conclusion concerning Kafka’s diaries is persuasive: “In the case of someone who so used his life as grist for his fictional mill, it may even be a question whether anything he wrote in his diary—or in his letters for that matter—should be exempted from the suspicion that it has been partially fictionalized.”

Armed with that caveat, one can see the biographies by Hayman, Pawel, and Mailloux not as...

(The entire section is 1569 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Times Literary Supplement. June 16, 1989, p.661.