No modern reader needs persuasion that Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is one of the “sacred untouchables” of contemporary literature; that along with Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and possibly William Faulkner he ranks among the greatest prose masters of the century. His conversions of his private fantasies of guilt, shame, solitude, and dread into the materials of universally applicable art have succeeded both admirably and appallingly: The world has behaved as mindlessly and madly, cruelly and bafflingly as any image dramatized in his nightmarish fiction. Our time provides a continual exegesis of his work, which in turn has become an inner echo in our lives.
Kafka’s posthumous reputation has been both enhanced and confused by a labyrinthine interpretive literature comprising, by Ernst Pawel’s count, fifteen thousand titles. Some of the critical studies have been incisive, even profound: Walter Sokel’s (1964), Heinz Politzer’s (1966), Wilhelm Emrich’s (1968), Walter Benjamin’s (1968), and Erich Heller’s (1974) come prominently to mind. Others, best unnamed, distort Kafka’s work in pursuit of special pleas. The list of biographies is comparatively modest, headed by Max Brod’s critical biographical text of 1937. Brod deserves acclaim for his honorable disloyalty to Kafka’s last will, which instructed him to destroy all Kafka’s unpublished writings. Brod’s interpretation of his best friend’s work, however, as religious prophecy and a proto-Zionist affirmation of life reveals much about Brod’s temperament but very little about Kafka’s art. More recently two German researchers have published scholarly, detailed monographs on Kafka’s life: Klaus Wagenbach (1958, 1964) and Hartmut Binder (1976, 1979); these have not yet been translated into English. In 1982, the British biographer Ronald Hayman published a detailed but sometimes softly defined life. Pawel’s work is clearly the most comprehensive and best-contoured account available in English.
Ernst Pawel was born in 1920 in Berlin, moved to Yugoslavia when thirteen, to the United States when eighteen. His career provides several parallels to his subject’s: From 1946 to 1982, he worked for a life-insurance company, like Kafka; like Kafka, he wrote at night after a full day at the office, turning out three novels and numerous book reviews; like Kafka, he composed his firm’s annual reports. The idea of a Kafka life was inspired by a visit to Prague made in 1980 with his wife, who is a native of the city.
Pawel takes great pains to rescue Kafka’s Jewishness from critics who regard him as a crypto-Christian saint or member of a German—let alone pan-European—pantheon of classic writers:to read him as a latter-day Kleist, to trace his inspiration back to primordial Angst or Kierkegaard, and to invoke Goethe, Dickens, and Dostoevsky is to confuse form and substance, is to miss the essence of who he was and what he was struggling to discover within himself. Kafka’s true ancestors, the substance of his flesh and spirit, were an unruly crowd of Talmudists, Cabalists, medieval mystics resting uneasy beneath the jumble of heaving, weatherbeaten tombstones in Prague’s Old Cemetery, seekers in search of reason for their faith. He was their child, last in a long line of disbelieving believers, wild visionaries with split vision who found two answers to every question and four new questions to every answer in seeking to probe the ultimate riddle of God.
Kafka, Pawel insists repeatedly, “was, for better and for worse: a Jew from Prague.” Such a statement will appear stubbornly reductive to interpreters aware of Kafka’s affinities with Frederick Buechner, Heinrich von Kleist, Fyodor Dostoevski, Charles Dickens, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and others, and Pawel at least has the good sense to limit his critical reading of Kafka’s work to an occasional paragraph or two. On the other hand, the statement points to this life’s leading strength: Pawel’s solid immersion of his protagonist in Prague’s streets, schools, coffeehouses, parks, and—rarely—synagogues. He provides for the reader the specific, thickly textured circumstances of Kafka’s daily life, particularly of Prague’s German-Czech cultural tangles within the sprawling tentacles of the anachronistic Austro-Hungarian Empire. He flavors his biography with vivid accounts of the city’s gymnasiums, universities, newspapers, periodicals, literary salons, brothels, theaters, spiritualist and dietary cults, history and politics, and he gives the reader superbly realized portraits of Kafka’s family, friends, and women. The book’s command of social density is splendid.
As a German-speaking Jew in a Czech-dominated milieu, Kafka suffered from multiple alienations. The city’s population averaged ninety percent Czech to ten percent German during his lifetime. To the traditionally anti-Semitic Czech majority, Prague’s Jews were doubly dislikable for being Jewish and German; to the increasingly anti-Semitic Germans in Prague, the Jews who shared their language were emphatically not Germans but a separate, detested race; and within the feudal Habsburg Monarchy at large, pools of bigotry widened and deepened against both Jews and Czechs. In the year of Kafka’s birth, 1883, Czech, German, and Hungarian extremists organized an Empire-wide anti-Semitic movement. At about the same time, a theology professor at the University of Prague wrote a book accusing Jews of all sorts of immoral behavior; it became one of the bibles of Austrian Nazism. In 1899, a nineteen-year-old Czech girl’s murder was attributed to a Jew allegedly intent upon draining her blood for ritualistic purposes. The accused was sentenced to death; his prosecutor became the virulently anti-Semitic lord mayor of Prague, holding office contemporaneously with Vienna’s even more volubly anti-Semitic lord mayor. Anti-Jewish riots flared up throughout the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy from time to time, fueled by the siege mentality endemic among both the middle and working classes.
Kafka’s parents considered themselves nonobservant Jews assimilated to Prague’s mixed Gentile culture, “Austrian citizens of the Mosaic faith.” Pawel sardonically notes that “what the assimilated Jew assimilatesis the anti-Semitism of his role models—one source of the corrosive self-hatred so widespread among Western Jews in the pre-Holocaust era.” (The contemporary Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld has made Jewish anti-Semitism the dominant theme of his fiction.) When Franz received his appointment in 1908 as an attorney in the quasi-governmental Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, he was indebted for it to the father of a schoolmate, Otto Pribram, who had formally resigned from the Jewish community of Prague. Without such action, Pribram could never have become chairman of the Institute’s board of directors. During the fourteen years in which Kafka worked for the Institute, he and Pribram were the only Jews among 250 employees. It is sad to learn that when asked to sponsor the job application thereto by an Orthodox Jewish friend, Kafka felt himself forced to refuse: “The Institute is off limits for Jews.” When the Institute became nationalized as an agency of the newly created Czech Republic in 1918, all German-speaking executives were replaced by Czech managers. Kafka, who had performed valuable enough services in his position to be exempted from conscription during World War I, was kept in it, ironically, as a Jew who, unlike ethnic Germans, would support the integrity of Tomá Masaryk’s new state.
As a good biographer must, Pawel devotes much attention to Franz’s antiromance with his parents. Herrmann Kafka (in 1917, with the Habsburg Monarchy crumbling and Czech nationalism rapidly rising, he dropped the second “r” from his first name to become less conspicuously Teutonic) was a butcher’s son. With enormous energy and self-confident single-mindedness, Herrmann expanded a small haberdashery into a flourishing wholesale dry-goods business. During Franz’s infancy, he seldom got to see his narrowly materialistic sire; the dominant impression Herrmann left upon his young and only son was of his raucous voice at mealtimes. “The booming parade-ground voice of that distant divinity,” Pawel writes, “its ear-splitting vulgarity and...
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