Is that Kaf­ka?: 99 Finds

Rein­er Stach; Kurt Beals, trans.
  • Review
By – April 19, 2016

Did you know Kaf­ka was very afraid of mice? Did you know he hat­ed the Paris Metro? Or that he once flirt­ed with a girl, albeit from a rooftop? These and many more details are packed into Rein­er Stach’s Is This Kaf­ka? 99 Finds, pub­lished by New Direc­tions and trans­lat­ed by Kurt Beals. Sec­tioned into 99 short the­mat­ic chap­ters, each built around a snatch of text from Kafka’s volu­mi­nous papers, this com­pan­ion text to Stach’s mon­u­men­tal and acclaimed three-vol­ume biog­ra­phy of Kaf­ka is a seri­ous col­lec­tion of trivia.

Kaf­ka exists today not just a writer; he has become a style, a sen­si­bil­i­ty, and an adjec­tive. His man­u­scripts are them­selves celebri­ties, desired and hord­ed across the world. To be sure, 99 Finds human­izes Kaf­ka away from the enig­mat­ic magus of such touch­stones as The Tri­al, The Penal Colony, and The Cas­tle. Each chap­ter is a quick, some­times furtive glance into a nook of Kafka’s life. We see his attempts to learn Hebrew (gram­mat­i­cal­ly com­pe­tent), the scraps of sto­ries he aban­doned, and the blue­print of the apart­ment in which he wrote The Meta­mor­pho­sis. The com­mute between life and let­ters is espe­cial­ly evi­dent in the ten­ta­tive alche­my that trans­mut­ed Kafka’s friends and acquain­tances into the mys­ter­ies of his fictions.

Self-doubt is on dis­play every­where behind the Kaf­ka-cur­tain. In a par­tic­u­lar­ly res­o­nant chap­ter enti­tled Kafka’s Desk,” the writer reflects, Now I’ve tak­en a clos­er look at my desk and real­ized that noth­ing good can be pro­duced on it.” Sub­sti­tute lap­top” for desk” and any con­tem­po­rary writer might feel the same way. Stach alerts us that this is despair by design, a writ­ing exer­cise Kaf­ka deemed wretched, wretched, and yet well intend­ed” — as Wal­ter Ben­jamin astute­ly observed, There is noth­ing more mem­o­rable than the fer­vor with which Kaf­ka empha­sizes his fail­ure.” Mea­ger to nonex­is­tent book sales, tena­cious­ly crip­pling health prob­lems, a kind and curi­ous nature, sig­nif­i­cant sen­si­tiv­i­ties, and oth­er crit­i­cal details of the writer’s life con­spire to give us a por­trait of Kaf­ka and his world.

This por­trait is not sole­ly tex­tu­al: 99 Finds is attrac­tive­ly full of pho­tographs, dia­grams, illus­tra­tions, and fac­sim­i­les of man­u­scripts — an immer­sive visu­al milieu that comes alive off the pages of the book.

The devot­ed Kafkan will find much to edi­fy and amuse one­self in these pages; those who have not spent sig­nif­i­cant time with Kafka’s fic­tions are encour­aged to hold off on its bio­graph­i­cal nuggets until they have reck­oned with the major works. While there is much to learn about Kaf­ka the man in these pages, the true weight of Kafka’s achieve­ment can nev­er be weighed or mea­sured on the scales of anec­dote and biog­ra­phy. The response to the ques­tion found in the book’s title is unques­tion­ably yes, but it is not the Kaf­ka that will mat­ter always and for­ev­er: that Kaf­ka is hid­den in plain sight, sit­ting in the back row in Report to An Acad­e­my, or pass­ing among the crowds com­ing to see The Hunger Artist. To para­phrase the great Sage Ben Bag-Bag: Turn him and turn him, because every­thing is in him,” from the tru­ly dis­miss­able to the far-from-trivial-truths.

Relat­ed Content:

Ari R. Hoff­man is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly a Dex­ter Dis­ser­ta­tion Com­ple­tion Fellow.

Discussion Questions