Shattered K.

Kafka Criticism:
Biography

Franz Kafka: A Biography

Max Brod

(1937)

Translated by G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston.

1. Schocken, 1960, ISBN 0805200479; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

2. DeCapo Press, 1995, ISBN 0306806703; Paperback $17.50 [Browse/Purchase]

Max Brod was Kafka’s closest companion, his greatest advocate, and his literary executor – all of which are clearly evident in this biography. Rather than providing a chronological overview of Kafka’s life, Brod’s Franz Kafka: A Biography is an attempt to introduce to the world this strange but wonderful person, who also happened to be a tortured genius and wrote some amazing stuff. Along with a few personal recollections, the reader gets a disorganized account of Kafka’s life, a detailed analysis of his turbulent relationship with his father, and a dash of Brod’s own literary criticism. One also gets the impression that Kafka wasn’t quite as lonely as his work seems to suggest. Although Kafka’s writing is starkly pessimistic, Brod contends that he was actually an easy person to get along with, if a bit on the quiet side. While Brod perceived a tremendous sorrow lurking beneath the surface of Kafka’s sardonic smile, he prefers to speak of Kafka’s wonderful sense of humor, his truthfulness, his ability to say many things in few words, and most of all, his fascination with “the greatness of nature, the curative, health-giving, sound, firmly established, simple things.”
It should be noted, however, that many modern critics take issue with much of what Brod said, did, and wrote; sometimes going so far as to suggest that he only knew the surface of his friend, and had no understanding of the “real” Franz Kafka. While some of Brod’s opinions certainly raise an eyebrow here and there, it is important to keep in mind that he was Kafka’s best friend, and was a crucial presence during the entire course of Kafka’s adult life. It is both the force and the flaw of this essential work. (JN/ABR)

Conversations with Kafka

Gustav Janouch

(1953)

Translated by Goronwy Reese

New Directions, 1971, ISBN 0-8112-0071-X; Paperback, $10.95 [Browse/Purchase]

This book is the source of a sizable amount of controversy—and it should be. On the one hand, no one is quite sure if what it says is true, but even if the book is untrue or misleading, it is not deliberately so. Conversations with Kafka is simply an act of exuberance on the part of someone who once knew Kafka, and since exuberance of this kind can always be forgiven, there is good reason to include Janouch's memoir in any list of biographies.
Gustav Janouch was a young poet whose father worked at the same insurance institute that employed Kafka. If his book is to be believed, upon meeting young Gustav, Kafka got quite a kick out of him, and talked to the young man frequently, especially when Kafka’s illness kept him bedridden in Prague. (In a 1921 letter, Kafka writes that his eager and histrionic young friend “professes to be happy but makes an at times frighteningly mixed-up impression, also looks very bad,” and wonders “what devil feeds this fire?”) During the course of their encounters, Janouch supposedly noted down all Kafka’s wise and cryptic remarks. Conversations with Kafka proposes to be a recording of all these remarks, published some thirty years later. In a second edition, more “conversations” were added – material Janouch claims had been misplaced the first time around. (Personally, I’m very skeptical that any human being can talk the way Kafka does in this book, but since Max Brod and Dora Diamant both thought it was authentic, I suppose my opinion doesn’t matter!)
No matter what one thinks of Janouch’s powers of recall, caution should be used when consulting his book as a guide to Kafka’s thoughts – Kafka’s own letters and diaries offer a much more reliable source. At best, treat Conversations with guarded suspicion; it is an uncertain document whose authenticity depends mostly upon the faith of the reader. (JN)

Kafka and Prague

Johann Bauer

Pall Mall Press, 1971, ISBN 0269027998; Out of print. [Browse/Search for a copy]

The only really enjoyable parts of this biography are the beautiful black-and-white pictures of Prague. Its original purpose was to introduce new information on Kafka, particularly the rumor that he had once been an anarchist; but since this information has already been included (and in part, discredited) in subsequent and much better biographies, Bauer’s book is fairly superfluous. Although a concise retelling of his life supplements the new material, to those interested in details, it comes across as mere page-filler. However, for you meticulous types, there are a number of pages devoted to “recently” unearthed bureaucratic documents about Dr. Franz Kafka. When all is said and done, it’s an interesting biography, but there are certainly better ones to choose from. (JN)

Franz Kafka

Ronald Hayman

1. Oxford University Press, 1982.

2. Phoenix Press, 2001, ISBN 1842124153; Paperback $21.95 [Browse/Purchase]

This is a solid, factual, no-nonsense biography, recommended for anyone looking to know what Kafka did, when he did it, how he did it, and who he was with at the time. It opens with a comprehensive chronology of Kafka’s life, and then proceeds to cover the most important bases, providing a few comments about his work along the way. While this smattering of literary criticism doesn’t aim at overtaking the biographical information, it is for the most part simple and effective – Hayman’s interpretation of “Investigations of a Dog” is particularly compelling. (In fact, I couldn’t help but affectionately steal it for the purposes of this Web site – although I think that Hayman stole it from Edmund Wilson.)
Hayman’s biography, while lacking some heart, may strike the perfect balance for some – neither too brief, giving the reader the feeling that something is missing, nor too long, forcing the reader to burrow through a mountain of diary entries and letters. But for those interested in detail or psychological depth, it may be better to look elsewhere. (JN)

The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka

Ernst Pawel

1. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1984, ISBN 0374158401; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

2. Vintage, 1985, ISBN 039472948X; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

Twenty years after its publication, The Nightmare of Reason still holds up to its reputation as being both entertaining and edifying, one of the few Kafka biographies that’s actually a pleasure to read. An excellent writer in his own accord, Pawel makes even the most mundane details of Kafka’s life seem interesting, and his dramatic style of storytelling keeps the reader engaged across all 450 pages. Pawel combines his colorful prose with a welcome, common-sense approach to biography, attentive to both historical context and simple gut-reactions to human behavior. While he may take a few liberties in analyzing psychological dynamics and reflecting on possible motives, his speculations, connections, and assertions consistently ring true – when Pawel hits the nail on the head, you can feel yourself vibrating.
Of course, not all of his comments are equally insightful, and Pawel occasionally overreaches or overdramatizes, particularly when discussing Kafka’s family and friends. But these are errors of enthusiasm, and rarely does he stray into the fields of over-interpretation, so vigorously plowed by literary critics intent on seeding their own agenda into Kafka’s work. Pawel tends to focus on “the big picture,” and he rarely forsakes the forest to go barking up a specific tree. If you are in the mood to sit down and enjoy reading a good book about Kafka, this is an excellent choice. (ABR/JN)

A Hesitation Before Birth: The Life of Franz Kafka

Peter Mailloux

University of Delaware Press, 1989, ISBN 0874133319; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

If it were possible that someone would want to read more than one biography on Kafka, I would first hand over Brod’s, to provide a friend’s point-of-view; then I would pass along Pawel’s, for the sake of readability; and I might sneak in Hayman’s just for the hell of it. However, because some people seem to believe that only one biography is necessary to understand a person’s life, I would have to recommend A Hesitation Before Birth. It is long enough to be infinitely frustrating, and thorough enough to command boundless admiration. Mailloux covers everything one might want to know about Kafka and then some; occasionally livening things up with humorous anecdotes and historical asides. He also takes time to share his particular opinions on Kafka’s fiction, but he keeps this literary criticism in the realm of the general, and does not fall into the trap of examining each and every detail that crosses his path. Although the book can become tedious at times, and Pawel’s biography is certainly more enjoyable, if I were forced at gunpoint to pick only one biography on Kafka, I would reluctantly choose this one, simply for its clarity and detail. (JN, not currently at gunpoint)

Franz Kafka

Pietro Citati

Translated by Raymond Rosenthal.

1. Knopf, 1989, ISBN 0394568400; Hardcover, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a copy]

2. French & European Publications, 1991, ISBN 0785921737; Paperback $21.95 [Browse/Purchase]

Citati must have a unique philosophy about writing biographies, because this is one of the stranger ones I’ve come across. Instead of bothering with factual information or historical context, Citati attempts to dive directly into Kafka’s head, using only Kafka’s own writing as a springboard. As a result, Citati ignores Zionism, World War I, socialism, and a myriad other things that shaped Kafka’s life without finding much space in his writings (although they can be found). On account of this approach, he ignores Kafka’s childhood years, picking up the story in 1902 with his friendship with Oskar Pollak. He also ignores the relationship between Kafka and his father – a remarkable decision, given that Kafka himself wrote extensively about that relationship, whether coded in fiction (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis”) or quite openly (endless diary entries and letters, and of course “Letter to His Father”). In short, by savagely reducing the world around Kafka to the echoes and reflections caught in his writing, Citati reduces Kafka to an almost fictional character, a projected self-image. To understand such a character, one must pretend to know his private moments – a risky proposition at best.
Despite these misgivings, Citati’s book has much to recommend it. The first chapter is an excellent portrayal of how Kafka was seen by his friends, and the rest of the book presents a convincing, albeit simplified, portrait of Kafka as a person. Also, Citati’s lengthy retreats into literary criticism are interesting, to say the least. At one point he suggest that “Kafka never loved a character as much as he loved Karl Rossmann,” a statement that both boggles the mind by its audacity, yet seems somehow plausible. This is not a biography for anyone looking to know when Kafka was born, what his relatives were like, what his friends were like, what his country was like, or what his historical period was like; or to anyone interested in knowing what Kafka did, when he did it, where he did it, or how he did it. (Remember Hayman?) But if you are curious about what Kafka might have been like, it just might do. Citati’s portrait of Kafka is one that can be contested, but all the same, it is compellingly drawn. (JN)

Franz Kafka: Representative Man

Frederick Karl

1. Tickner & Fields, 1991, ISBN 0395561434; Hardcover, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

2. Fromm, 1993, ISBN 0880641460; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

In the beginning of Representative Man, the author complains that all the books about Franz Kafka focus either on biographical information or on literary criticism, and rarely attempt to combine the two into a coherent whole. With his provocatively titled book, Karl valiantly attempts to accomplish this task – and ultimately, his failure proves just how difficult a task it is. Put simply, the thing’s just too damn long, and Karl loses his way too often to bring any real coherence to the project. In order to organize his literary and biographical thoughts, he jumps back and forth in time so frequently that a chronological sense of events is never allowed to develop. While there may be a few insightful comments sprinkled throughout the book, they are lost amidst the disorganized mash, and finding them is hardly worth the effort – if even possible. (JN)

Kafka, 1883-1924

Klaus Wagenbach

Harvard University Press, 2003, ISBN 0674011384; Hardcover, $21.50 [Browse/Purchase]

Das Schloss hopes to have commentary on this book posted here in the future. Until then, here's the blurb from the publisher:

In Kafka’s writing, Albert Camus tells us, we travel “to the limits of human thought.” And in this book, the world’s leading Kafka authority conducts us to the deepest reaches of Kafka’s own troubled psyche, to reveal the inner workings of the man who gave his name to a central facet of modern experience, the Kafkaesque. Klaus Wagenbach, who wrote the first major critical biography of Kafka, draws upon a wealth of new and recent information to produce a concise but finely nuanced portrait of the author, an ideal introduction to this quintessential figure of modernity. With extensive reference to Kafka’s extraordinary letters and diaries, Wagenbach shows us the author of “The Metamorphosis” and The Trial perpetually caught between the irresistible attractions of the world and his ruthless desire for solitude and isolation. It was this tension, Wagenbach tells us, that gave Kafka’s writing its uncanny quality and that haunted his intense, unresolved relationships with women. And it was in this tension that both his misery and mastery inhered, making his one of the most painfully powerful voices of the experience of the twentieth century.

Go To:

Criticism Main Page – Returns you to the Main Criticism page and the Quick Reference Card of titles.

Family and Friends – Biographies focusing on Kafka’s family, friends, lovers, or relationships.


–Jeff Nowak
& Allen B. Ruch
27 February 2007



These letters do nothing but cause anguish, and if they don’t cause any anguish it’s even worse – Send email to Das Schloss’ Jeff Nowak and the Great Quail – comments, suggestions, corrections, criticisms, submissions . . . all are welcome!

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