In the Nightmare Kitchen

Rivka Galchen

  • Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch
    Princeton, 564 pp, £27.95, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 691 15198 4

Born in 1928, Maurice Sendak grew up in Brooklyn, the child of Polish immigrants. On the day of Sendak’s bar mitzvah, his father learned that his family in Poland had all been killed. ‘And I was having the big party at the colonial club, the old mansion in Brooklyn,’ Sendak recalled. His mother told him that his father wouldn’t be able to come to the party. So Sendak went in and screamed at his father; he said he had to attend; his father attended. In telling the anecdote in interviews years later, Sendak described looking at his father’s face during the singing of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ and recognising that he had done something very bad. ‘What did I know? This 13-year-old ersatz man. Trying to handle 15 cheap Parker pens.’

Children are mostly wrong, but also superior to us. Reading Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Early Years, I found myself thinking often of Sendak. Maybe this is only because I read too many children’s books too many times, and such rereading makes Kabbalah from anything. Or maybe, more tendentiously, because Sendak and Kafka were both secular Jews whose Jewish upbringing is visible in their work. But also: Sendak is a writer whose art comes from holding on to the intelligently correct perspective of childhood. Sendak’s wild things were modelled, he said, on the yellow teeth and bloodshot eyes of his Polish refugee aunts and uncles who would come over at weekends, terrifying him with kisses and hugs: ‘We’ll eat you up – we love you so!’ In the Night Kitchen is a dreamscape in which nude Mickey is nearly baked in a cake by Hitler-moustached chefs whom he later pleases by flying his plane into a bottle of milk and pouring milk in the batter. I had never before thought of Kafka as a writer whose vision was especially related to childhood – no one has ever been tempted to call him Prague’s Blake – but I do now see something of that. It seems worth noting that the only corner of literature as densely populated with characters who are (or once were) animals is children’s literature, though Soviet literature under Stalin is also, arguably, a contender. What do those books know?

Kafka: The Early Years is the third and final volume of Stach’s landmark biography.[*] In the introduction the translator, Shelley Frisch, explains that The Early Years was written last rather than first because Stach was waiting for papers in Max Brod’s keeping to make their way out of a 39-year Jarndycean legal fog.[†] So this volume is the first biographical work on Kafka that has had access to the three volumes of Brod’s diaries, as well as the rest of the literary estate, whose detailed inventory is described as running to 170 pages. Don’t be carried away: there are still no home movies (though there are some details of Kafka’s own visits to the movies, even down to a mention of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which Stach surmises Kafka missed). There’s almost no juvenilia, just one entry in a friend’s poetry album, written when Kafka was 14: ‘There is a coming and a going,/A parting and often no – meeting again.’

The Early Years does teach us that young Kafka often went ice-skating: sometimes on the frozen Vltava river, sometimes at a skating rink. Yet, Stach points out, ice-skating almost never appears in Kafka’s notes or fiction. Which is nice to notice. I’m not being facetious: Stach often does quietly brilliant work connecting known details of Kafka’s youth to the older Kafka, so the reader can see how events appear (or don’t) in the specific subjectivity of Kafka’s recollection. We learn what stuck, and what didn’t, in the odd glitter-on-glue project of remembered experience.

Consider this anecdote about the six-year-old Kafka. His parents decided to send their bilingual son to a German elementary school rather than a Czech one. Stach explains that ‘there were nationalistically motivated bullies even among the youngest children, on both sides’ and that to get to the German school, Kafka would have to pass the Czech one, and so Kafka’s parents, fearing fights among the children, decided that young Franz would be walked to school by the family cook; being escorted was a norm at some schools in the city, but not the one to which Kafka went.

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[*] Rivka Galchen reviewed the first two volumes in the LRB of 4 December 2014.

[†] Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod had willed the papers to his secretary, Esther Hoffe, though he had also specified that they should eventually go to the National Library of Israel’s archives. Brod died in Tel Aviv in 1968. Hoffe passed the papers – literally a suitcase of them – to her two daughters. In 1988, the sisters sold the original manuscript of The Trial to the German Literary Archive for $2 million. The manuscript had been among the papers, whose exact contents had been kept secret; at a later time a lawyer for the Hoffe sisters suggested that the remaining papers could be sold by weight. (‘If we get an agreement, the material will be offered for sale as a single entity, in one package. It will be sold by weight. They’ll say: “There’s a kilogram of papers here, the highest bidder will be able to approach and see what’s there.”’) As has been noted, the legal destiny of Kafka’s papers has a tidy Mandelbrot-set-like relationship to Kafka’s work.