What kind of funny is he?

Rivka Galchen

  • BuyKafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch
    Princeton, 682 pp, £24.95, June 2013, ISBN 978 0 691 14751 2
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I have come to the conclusion that anyone who thinks about Kafka for long enough inevitably develops a few singular, unassimilable and slightly silly convictions. (The graph may be parabolic, with the highest incidence of convictions – and the legal resonance is invited – found among those who have spent the most time thinking and those who have spent next to no time thinking.) My own such amateur conviction is that the life of Franz Kafka reads like a truly great comedy. I mean this (of course) in large part because of the tragedies in and around his life, and I mean it in the tradition of comedies like the final episode of Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, which, after episode upon episode of darlings and foilings and cross-dressings, ends in 1917 with our not exactly heroes climbing out of their trench and running towards the enemy lines.

What constitutes the life of Kafka, at least the enduringly legible parts of it? Reiner Stach has written a chronological biography of nearly two thousand pages, all three volumes of which are out in German, with the second and third already translated into English by Shelley Frisch. (The first volume, covering Kafka’s youth, was written last in the hope that the papers in the Max Brod estate – a mysterious suitcase full of documents – would exit the apartment of the septuagenarian daughter of Max Brod’s presumed lover, but the destiny of those papers remains in legal dispute.) Part of what is so compelling about Stach’s biography is that, although he has inevitably developed many well-substantiated convictions of his own, he mostly keeps them to himself. Resisting extended speculation, judgment and interpretation, he has chosen instead to be a conservative detailer of the unusually well-documented life of his subject. In addition to three novels, numerous stories and fragments and shorts, Kafka wrote diaries, letters to friends and family, lectures on accident prevention and fundraising appeals for injured soldiers. At the very end of his life, while undertaking a ‘silence cure’, he even wrote down basic communications on small slips of paper: ‘Do you have a moment? Then please spray the peonies a little.’ On another slip, addressing the woman, Dora Diamant, who loved and cared for him: ‘How many years will you be able to stand it? How long will I be able to stand your standing it?’

Juxtapositions of the minor and practical with the emotive, impossible and profound emerge repeatedly in this biography, so much so that often they swap emotional valences. Here is the young writer and insurance worker reliably showing up to work every morning at 8.15; here he is getting on his best friend Brod’s nerves over whether or not to keep the window open when they share a room at a hotel (Kafka prevails); here he is at a nudist sanatorium admiring the bodies of two young Swedish men. Here is young Kafka asking to be released from his job so he can be a soldier; here he is encouraging his father to invest in an asbestos factory and then disappointing his father terribly by not helping to run the asbestos factory, which loses money and goes under; here he is writing about the women who work at the asbestos factory; here he is annoyed that his father and mother stay up late playing the card game franzefuss. Here is his publisher referring to his story ‘In the Penal Colony’ as ‘In the Gangster Colony’ because ‘gangster’ is the more marketable word. Here our man asks his sister, Ottla, to go out and please buy twenty copies of the magazine that has run a Czech translation of his story ‘The Stoker’; here he is writing to the married translator, whom he has wooed; here he is writing a 16-page letter asking for a promotion at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute; here he is giving a reading in Munich with Rilke, and being reviewed in the paper the next day as ‘quite an inadequate presenter’; here he is, desperate to write his fiction but setting aside his two-week holiday period to write a very long letter to his father (which he never gives him) in which he explains that his father eats too loudly and too messily and that his father’s large body made Kafka, as a child, feel small and weak when they would go together to the city pool. Here he is getting engaged and not getting married; here he is getting engaged and not getting married again; here he is getting into a similar tangle one more time; here he is relieved by his mortal diagnosis of TB. Here he is reading a letter from the tax office asking about capital contributions to the First Prague Asbestos Works, here he is writing back explaining that the factory had ceased to exist five years earlier, and here he is receiving another letter asking what his reply meant as no record could be found of the referenced original letter, and then here he is a few months later receiving a third letter threatening him with charges and a fine if he persists in not accounting for the capital accumulation on the First Prague Asbestos Works; here are 350 pages of Kafka’s study notes on conversational Hebrew; here he is at the end of his life, making hand shadow-puppets in the evenings with Diamant; here he is in 1924, the day before he dies, unable to eat, doing a last round of edits on his short story ‘The Hunger Artist’.

Stach makes clear the very humble limits of what he believes his biographical project can yield in terms of actually ‘knowing’ Kafka. ‘The life of a human being,’ he writes in his introduction, ‘draws back, comes into view like an animal at the edge of the forest, and disappears again.’ He also recognises concordances between Kafka’s life and work as illuminating only in a minor way. Kafka often spent half the day lying down, daydreaming, and Stach believes these inaccessible parts of Kafka are the most important. Yet despite all this Stach pursues what can be known of Kafka so far and so exhaustively that I was reminded at some moments of the ending of A Handful of Dust, when we meet the illiterate man in the Brazilian jungle who loves Charles Dickens’s writing so much he holds the protagonist, Tony Last, captive so that he can read Dickens to him until the end of his days. Sometimes I thought of Stach as the captive and Kafka as the captor in this analogy, and sometimes the other way around. It is a very long biography and so sometimes I had all sorts of thoughts I not long afterwards wanted to upend, or undermine. In that way, though by different means, prolonged exposure to Stach’s work does have an effect-overlap with prolonged exposure to the work of Kafka.

It has been said of Kafka’s work many times that the thing to remember is that it is funny. Kafka was known to laugh uncontrollably when reading his work aloud to friends, and though that sounds more like anxiety than hilarity to me, the funny point endures. But what kind of funny is he? Borges described Hawthorne’s story ‘Wakefield’ as a prefiguration of Kafka, noting ‘the protagonist’s profound triviality, which contrasts with the magnitude of his perdition’. Part of the point here is an incongruity of scale – a natural structure of the comic, a way of relating to the cosmic. We might think here of Metamorphosis but also of the petitioner in The Trial who spends his whole life waiting at the Door of the Law, a door that is just for him, but through which he is never allowed entry. Or we might think of Kafka’s dog (or his ape, or mouse, or burrowing animal), who takes his life as seriously, and thinks it over as analytically, as a human.

Or we might think of the humans who take their lives seriously, as if they, too, were, well, human. ‘Often I doubt that I am a human being,’ Kafka writes in a note to his first fiancée, Felice Bauer, as he is trying to get out of the engagement but doesn’t want to break it off himself and instead wants her to take the action. ‘You can marry if you put on sufficient weight,’ a doctor later tells a tuberculous Kafka, who doesn’t want to marry anyhow, or even really to eat. The comedy of scale is always simultaneously a tragedy of scale, if viewed from the proper angle, and as articulated in the famous words Kafka wrote on a postcard: ‘The outside world is too small, too clear-cut, too truthful, to contain everything that a person has room for inside.’

And one element of the comedy of Kafka’s biography is the way his life, at whatever moment, is dwarfed by his work. Whether or not the reasonably capable writer and insurance official living in Prague through the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and into the 1920s resembles the Kafka of your imagination depends in part on how attentively you’ve followed each succession of corrective articles and introductions, but also on your ability to assimilate dissonant information, and on how substantial external life seems to you.

If for many years, much of the reading public saw Kafka as a kind of cousin of Bartleby – if we were most swayed, say, by his never finishing his novels, or by his talk of ghosts and the unbearability of everything – it now seems hard not to see that although Kafka truly was a Bartleby-kin, he was at the same time just as much Bartleby’s well-intentioned, overwhelmed, frustrated boss. Kafka himself found Kafka difficult. In an entry in his diary, in which he writes of himself, as he often did, in the third person, he says:

He could have resigned himself to a prison. To end as a prisoner – that could be a life’s ambition. But it was a barred cage. Casually and imperiously, as if at home, the racket of the world streamed out and in through the bars, the prisoner was really free, he could take part in everything, nothing that went on outside escaped him, he could simply have left the cage, the bars were yards apart, he was not even imprisoned.

Later, in a letter to Brod, in which Kafka is explaining his enormous dread over a pretty insignificant decision about whether to take a trip to Georgental, he writes:

He has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived. By this I do not mean that wife and child, fields and cattle are essential to living. The only essential thing for life is forgoing smugness, moving into the house instead of admiring it and hanging garlands around it. One might argue that this is a matter of fate and is not given to anyone’s hand. But then why this sense of remorse; why does the remorse never stop? To become finer and more savoury? That, too. But why do such nights always end on this note: I could live and I do not live. The second major reason – perhaps it is all really one, I don’t seem to be able to sort them apart now – is the idea: ‘What I have toyed with is really going to happen. I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now I will really die. My life was sweeter than other people’s and my death will be all the more terrible.’

Brod replies saying, basically, that he can’t take Kafka’s complaint too seriously. But in all the most important ways Brod took Kafka extremely seriously, both as a friend and as a writer: he was the one primarily responsible for Kafka’s being published in his lifetime, and is almost wholly responsible for our knowing the work today. Kafka’s singular brilliance and annoyingness are perfectly bound.


Often his character recalls both Larry David and Bertie Wooster. Many are the plans that Kafka makes in a manner that ensures their eventual unmaking. Over five years he courts, engages, un-engages, re-engages but never marries Felice Bauer, a woman with whom he spends less than 15 scattered and not always happy days, whose dear friend Grete Bloch he also woos in letters, and whom he makes clear he could not be sexually available to in a marriage. Then, in a letter he sends to her in advance of a meeting at which they plan to discuss things (she has even quit her job at his bidding so as to be able to move to Prague), he calls her ‘my human tribunal’. During the First World War, Kafka repeatedly begs his superiors at work to release him from his job so he can become a soldier; but as he later writes in his diary, he doesn’t go too far; he never becomes a soldier. Nor does he marry the next woman he asks to marry him, or the one after that. Nor does he deliver (or destroy) the long letter he wrote to his father. Nor does he, despite extensive plans and study of Hebrew, move to Palestine. Kafka at times causes others to suffer in a manner akin to the way the illimitably charming Don Quixote does, by adhering to an untrue but more ennobling view of the world.

What emerges from this pattern of Kafka’s behaviour is a sense not just of a character who can never commit – the comic character who commits ends the series – but also of how powerful he is, and how ambivalent he is about being powerful. With both women and men, Kafka fairly effortlessly elicits their love. ‘You belong to me,’ he writes to Milena Jesenskà after she has inquired about translating his work; though sceptical at first, Jesenskà quickly responds to him, as nearly everyone does. A Hungarian doctor, Robert Klopstock, whom Kafka meets at a sanatorium, is similarly enamoured, and he seems to move to Prague mostly to be nearer to Kafka, who then disappoints him with his reclusiveness. Kafka seems unable to refrain from inciting affection, which he then finds overwhelming and retreats from. In a letter to Else Bergman, who along with her husband had emigrated to Jerusalem, and who is asking Kafka about his plans to move, Kafka writes: ‘That the voyage would have been undertaken with you would have greatly increased the spiritual criminality of the case. No, I could not go that way, even if I had been able – I repeat, and “all berths are taken,” you add.’ Kafka does not come across as a very sexual person in this biography – not at all, really – but he understands the power involved in sexuality. He pursues positions of seeming inferiority, as he tries to both exercise and abdicate his magnetism.

At times he seems to be living in a situation comedy. When he goes to the countryside to write, he finds it ‘extraordinarily beautiful’ at first, but by the second day he can’t work because he’s troubled by a child practising the French horn, by the din from a sawmill and by happy children playing outside, whom he eventually yells at: ‘Why don’t you go and pick mushrooms?’ He then discovers that the children belong to his neighbour, a sleep-deprived shift worker at the local mill who sends his seven children out so that he can get some sleep. At a sanatorium for his TB, Kafka and his friend Klopstock play a practical joke on another resident, a high-ranking Czech officer who conspicuously practises the flute and sketches and paints outdoors. The officer puts on a show of his work; Klopstock and Kafka write up pseudonymous reviews of it, one published in Czech, the other in Hungarian; the mocked officer then comes to Klopstock (in his room with a fever and kept company by Kafka) for a translation of the review. After this successful prank, Kafka sends his sister a spoof article about how Einstein’s theory of relativity is pointing the way to a cure for TB; his whole family celebrates the good news, of which he then has to disabuse them.

Both these anecdotes from Kafka’s life, of which there are many of a similar genre, are at once antic and death-haunted, illuminating and opaque. We might ask ourselves why we would read a biography of Kafka when we could instead just read Kafka. Why make breakfast, when you can just read Kafka? Why watch television or trim your fingernails when you could just read Kafka?


I have described Stach’s method as if he were a kind of Joe Friday, which besides suggesting that investigating a life is like investigating a crime, is only approximately true. Though the biography is extensive – we learn about Milena Jesenskà’s boarding school and what her parents’ marriage was like – Stach has also had to leave much out. That even a three-volume biography cannot possibly be exhaustive puts what Stach has included in a different light. Though he’s usually sparing with his own commentary, Stach gives space to counter in detail other writers on Kafka’s famous diary entry ‘August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.’ He also counters some of the more famous commentary on Kafka’s collected letters to Felice Bauer, a document easily readable or misreadable as a monologue totally blind to its purported audience. On the issue of Kafka’s sexuality, he doesn’t directly address suggestions that Kafka might have preferred men, and he chooses to note but not quote from Kafka’s brief mention in his diary of sexual feelings for his sister. Stach makes note of but is not detained by Kafka’s observations of male bodies, his physical distance from the women whom he wooed, and the intensity of his male friendships. (Saul Friedländer’s Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt goes into these issues intelligently, without according them the false weight of bright, definite explanation.) Perhaps Stach has devoted less room to Kafka’s sexuality than another biographer might have – though he doesn’t shy away from it, and too often he seems to be trying to establish Kafka’s heterosexual credibility by mentioning once again that he visited prostitutes – in part because even a line or two about sexuality, especially incest or attraction to children, can cast a misleadingly enormous shadow.

Or maybe he is simply trying to protect Kafka (an allegation I feel confident makes biographers miserable). Early in the biography I found it strange when Stach brought up, say, a minor contemporary Polish novel that takes licence in imagining the inner life of a correspondent of Kafka’s, only to tear the novel down; most biographers and scholars would have just left that novel out. Even in his introduction, Stach opens a section with a relatively obscure quote from the 18th-century German satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, only to take issue with it, not in one way but in two, after which Lichtenberg never comes up again. These inclusions seem particularly strange since Stach has decided not to discuss Walter Benjamin’s essays on Kafka, or the respected work of Eric Santner, even though much more minor scholarship is gone into. This does make for some good comedy with Stach as the protagonist. Consider his Bernhardian brevity on literary scholars, whom he describes as having ‘dismantled, crushed and reconstituted’ quotations from Kafka’s diaries ‘with a vengeance, generally in the form of essays written as stepping-stones to academic advancement’. This is a bit harsh, especially since it’s reasonable that people who study Kafka for a living use their work on Kafka to keep getting to work on Kafka for a living. Stach, so even-tempered most of the time, emerges in these moments as a character who has left the relatively rational arena of the academic and entered into the more reliably irrational realm of the parent. It lends a further pathos to the biography: Stach himself is a better and better character as the book goes on.

His astute offhand descriptions accumulate. He succinctly describes ‘the Kafkaesque’ as consisting in part of a ‘peculiar form of rhetoric, which obscures the situation with analytical precision’. On the evolution of the Kafka fragment on the Olympic swimming champion who doesn’t know how to swim: ‘Kafka does not seek out an image; he follows it, and would rather lose sight of his subject matter than the logic of his image, as even some of his early readers noted.’ Stach notes that guilt and punishment are less present as themes in Kafka’s later writings. Of the later passages in Kafka’s diary, when he returns to writing of himself in the first rather than the third person, Stach observes that ‘he struck a tone that sounds almost serene in comparison with the many laments with which he had always accompanied even the most easily foreseeable disturbances and disappointments.’ (An example: ‘No matter how wretched a constitution I may have … I must do the best I can with it, even in my sense, and it is hollow sophistry to argue that there is only one thing to be done with it, and this one thing is thus the best, and is despair.’) Discussing ‘The Burrow’, written towards the end of Kafka’s life, Stach observes the mysterious noise that disturbs the animal’s serenity: ‘A hissing and piping with regular pauses that the animal hears is its own sound of life, its own breath; the animal itself is the ultimate source of the disquiet that continually disturbs the perfect silence of its creation.’ These are soft observations, not strictly defensible, not particularly biographical. But the softness, and the way Stach mostly but not entirely withholds it, is essential to the book’s effect.

In great comic novels, say Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the element that generates the comedy – often social norms, whether norms of class or war – also generates the tragedy. But in Kafka’s life, we see this structure in the more ahistorical aspects, in the situations generated by Kafka’s way of going through the world, by his character.

Another element of many great comic novels is the extended set of minor characters, who by being funny, make a disproportionately deep claim on our emotions, however brief their appearances. Stach has brought to life so many fantastic minor ‘characters’ in this biography; they are what makes the way the biography ends so brilliant and so sad – or more precisely, it’s through them that we feel the sadness of the endings, since of course we already know how it ends. I am not speaking only, or even mainly, of the ‘major’ minor characters, like Kafka’s fiancées or family members, though Stach offers particularly vivid and valuable portraits of Kafka’s sister, Ottla, and of his translator and romantic friend, Milena Jesenskà. Some characters come in only for a paragraph, or even just a line or two. Consider the 22-year-old Karl Müller, who publishes a piece in his local newspaper titled ‘The Re-Metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa’, in which Samsa comes back to life and things improve for him; shortly after publication of that piece, the very poor and very young Müller dies of TB. Or the writer Oskar Baum, blind since the age of 11 and supporting his family by giving piano lessons, who gets a letter from Kafka’s mother in which she implores him, as the one married man in young Kafka’s circle of friends, to help set Kafka’s ‘head straight’. In his lifetime, we learn in a footnote, Baum had trouble being seen by publishers as more than just a chronicler of specialist literature on being blind; his most but barely enduring work is called The Door to the Impossible. We see the once celebrated writer Johannes Schlaf at the age of fifty, having gone mad and giving cosmological lectures that make no sense, but make him (in Kafka’s eyes) happy. We see Kafka’s boss at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, who writes poetry himself, and who elegantly handles his employee’s petitions to enlist and die as a soldier at the front. It turns out that several of the employees at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute wrote poems and stories. We meet the cheerful Czech man at the sanatorium who wants to show Kafka his throat abscesses with a mirror, and whose family never visits him. A young woman, Puah, just 18 years old, comes through Prague on a visit from Jerusalem and gives Kafka Hebrew lessons. The innkeeper Fraulein Olga Stüdl tells the modest, polite young Kafka staying at her boarding-house about her failed engagement, and he gives her a galley proof of his manuscript. Kafka’s hapless brother-in-law can’t keep a business going. The writer Ernst Weiss passionately hates Kafka for not writing him a blurb. A cute schoolgirl in the botanical gardens catches Kafka’s attention as she calls something out to him; he smiles and waves to her, repeatedly, then realises what she had said: ‘Jew.’

Comedy makes us feel safe, maybe because the form once implied a happy ending. It’s difficult to claim the endings of Catch-22 or Memento Mori or Blackadder are happy. It turns out we had all along been reading about ghosts – which we had already known, but the comedy had allowed us to forget it for just long enough to be able again to remember. Stach’s three-page epilogue to his three-volume biography moves swiftly through the final fates of many of those whose lives overlapped with Kafka’s. Kafka is still with us; the most moving part of this biography is the absence of everyone else.