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Review: Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? Is an engaging portrait of the writer

Undated file photo of author Franz Kafka. If not the definitive account of Kafka’s life, Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography is certainly, at almost 2,000 pages, the most comprehensive.

Anonymous/AP

Title
Is That Kafka? 99 Finds
Author
Reiner Stach translated by Kurt Beals
Genre
Biography
Publisher
New Directions
Pages
352 pages
Price
$35.95

Here's something: Go to kafka-franz.com and you'll end up on the Miami Condos Search Website. Seriously, try it. And tell me: Is that Kafkaesque? Or just bizarre?

Whatever it's come to mean colloquially, according to my intermittently handy Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms, "Kafkaesque" denotes a "nightmarish atmosphere," "pervasive menace" and a "sense of evil." If you accept that definition, Franz Kafka's followers might include Stephen King, Norwegian black metal and The Imperial March from Star Wars. But J.D. Salinger was an admirer and acolyte, as was Isaac Bashevis Singer, and while darkness characterizes much of Kafka's fiction, so does playfulness and profound compassion. One of the author's many biographers, Erich Heller, claims that Kafka wrote from the paradox "that there is no God, and that there must be God," so maybe it makes sense that his work is similarly dichotomous.

As Kafka's writing was full of contradictions, so was the man himself. Zadie Smith has declared him "the novel's bad conscience" and, in a separate piece, "more than a man of mystery – he's metaphysical." Peter-André Alt's biography, Kafka: The Eternal Son, crushes him under the weight of emotional patrimony, and elsewhere he's been cast alternately as ambivalent to his own Judaism and a prophet of the Holocaust. A glance through the titles of his biographies suggests multitudes – The Nightmare of Reason, The Mystical Life, The Poet of Shame and Guilt, The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head etc. – and their characterizations range from tormented, angst-ridden loner to cheery socialite.

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If not the definitive account of Kafka's life, Reiner Stach's three-volume biography is certainly, at almost 2,000 pages, the most comprehensive. The first two books, The Years of Insight and The Decisive Years, have been published in English translations by Shelley Frisch, while the third, which chronicles Kafka's childhood, was released in German in 2014.

From Stach's research come the outtakes of Is that Kafka?, which comprises letters, sketches, photographs, anecdotes, journal entries and excerpts from Kafka's early drafts. A mishmash of ephemera, curiosities and confessionals, the finds range from the banal to the deeply personal, yet collectively paint as engaging and illustrative a portrait of the artist as any I've read.

Unfortunately, the Kafkaesque has become conflated with Franz Kafka, limiting him in the public imagination to a neurotic, reclusive figure as tormented as his fiction. And while that's partly true – "Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do," he once wrote in his journals – a warmer, even charming side of Kafka emerges here. Stach's enthusiasm for his subject cultivates a kind of intimacy, and the entries, which bear occasionally whimsical titles – Kafka Spits from the Balcony, The Professor and his Salami, Uncle Franz Talks to Himself, An Attempt to Throw Kafka in the River – reveal Kafka as a man as capable of generosity as he was of envy, a lover of beer as well as an enemy of mice.

Of course there's plenty of fear and shame here, too – related to sex, to himself, to his writing, to his love affairs. But much of that anguish found an outlet in art. Kafka admits, "Only once I have cried in many years … and the cause was a passage in my novel," and he frames other episodes of tears as similarly inspired by books or films.

Whether Kafka sublimated his emotions into his own work or was in fact deeply repressed isn't really parsed among the finds; Stach mostly plays the role of curator and resists editorializing the material. Even so, a general, tonal melancholy pervades the book, captured acutely in a passage about Kafka's favourite song. Now Farewell, You Little Alley is about longing for home, and although Kafka dutifully transcribed the lyrics, he opined to his fiancée Felice Bauer, "If only I could remember the melody of the song, but I have no memory for music."

Perhaps the most memorable entry comes from Kafka's final companion, Dora Diamant, who lived with him in Berlin before his tuberculosis became unmanageable and they were forced to return to Prague. One day, Diamant and Kafka happened upon a crying girl in a park. When asked what was wrong, the girl explained that her doll had gone missing. In an effort at consolation, Kafka told her that the doll was on a trip, which he knew because she'd sent him a letter. When the girl demanded to see it, Kafka raced home to write something up. "He set about the task just as seriously as if he were creating a work," Diamant writes. "The lie had to be made true, using the truth of fiction."

After presenting the letter to the girl, Kafka continued the imaginary correspondence for three weeks, meeting the girl in the park every day to provide updates on the doll's travels. The doll explained that while she loved the girl very much, she was seeing the world and having adventures.

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Finally the time came to wrap things up – and how else to conclude a tale of comfort than with marriage? The girl was happy to hear that her doll had found a husband and a good life. "Franz had resolved the girl's minor conflict using art," Diamant concludes, "the most effective means he had personally of giving order to the world."

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