Originally published in Great Britain under the title K: A Biography (1981), Ronald Hayman’s concise, artistically restrained, and moving study offers many pleasures and at least two surprises: that the author’s knowledge of Franz Kafka is far more detailed, more exhaustive than one would have believed possible; and that his interpretation of the life, not at all ambiguous or tentative, is unified and wholly convincing. For those whose recollections of biographical evidence are limited to the early studies, primarily by Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Hayman’s book is a revelation. To be sure, since Brod’s biographical and critical studies were published, much more information has become available concerning Felice Bauer, Grete Bloch, Dora Dymant, and Milena Jesenská-Polaková, the love interests in Kafka’s life—mostly through correspondence. The general reader, however, would have little reason to expect the wealth of information that Hayman has patiently gathered. Even though Kafka was not, at the time of his death in 1924, entirely obscure as a literary figure, he was assuredly not the subject of considerable attention, either. Given the historical circumstances—the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 by German armies, the resulting Holocaust, and the eventual establishment of a Communist satellite government—one might doubt the survival of any archives or additional scraps of information concerning Kafka’s family background, his childhood, his schooling, his young manhood, his circle of friends, or his literary connections.
These pessimistic expectations, however, have been proven wrong. Through the publication of memoirs and specialized scholarship, a great deal of information has become available concerning Kafka’s Prague, his Jewish roots and the influences upon him from Hasidic and Yiddish literature, and the significant romantic involvements in his life. From these sources and others, Hayman has reconstructed Kafka’s life. With compassion, intelligence, and tact, he has selected a pattern of details to place the man in his time, and to remove from Kafka’s life an aura of strangeness that had previously defined him.
For although Kafka’s fiction is, for many readers, an investigation into strange quarters of human imagination, his life-pattern no longer seems outside the grasp of understanding. Hayman reveals a neurotic personality, to be sure, but Kafka’s neurosis had fairly clear origins. Moreover, Kafka was well aware of these origins, transmuting the crude suffering and anxieties of his early childhood years and his adolescence into the stuff of fiction. Chief among the shapers of his character was his father. Mostly for ill, but not entirely so—as Hayman points out—Hermann Kafka dominated his son, along with others in his family, demanding from the frail, sensitive boy a resolute, vigorous, decisive temperament that Franz manifestly lacked.
Beginning at age fourteen as a merchant in small items such as buttons, threads and shoelaces, Hermann gradually progressed, eventually opening a fancy-goods shop in Prague. In the Zeltergasse, near the center of the old city, he earned a modest livelihood. A robust, energetic, ambitious businessman who was at home an autocratic, demanding, but not entirely selfish husband and father, he could not understand the needs of his quiet, timid, delicate first-born son. Because the family moved frequently during Franz’s early childhood, the boy had little parental supervision; when his mother was not pregnant with his siblings or preoccupied with household duties, she worked with her husband to advance the business. Deprived of close affection, young Kafka withdrew into himself, with a deepening sense of inferiority and depression.
At school, these qualities were, for the most part, made permanent elements of his personality. Because of his slight physique, he rarely participated in children’s games, and because his academic...
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