Kaf­ka: The Years of Insight

Rein­er Stach; Shel­ley Frisch, trans.
  • Review
By – November 5, 2013

The Years of Insight is the last install­ment of Rein­er Stach’s exten­sive, three-vol­ume bi­ography of Franz Kaf­ka, impec­ca­bly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Shel­ley Frisch. Each vol­ume is craft­ed such that one sim­ply must read the oth­er two: Stach pep­pers his writ­ing with tan­ta­liz­ing­ly vague ref­er­ences and foreshad­owings to else­where in the series, and his allu­sions com­pel the read­er to absorb Kafka’s com­plete biog­ra­phy from start to finish.

And Kaf­ka is just that: a com­plete biogra­phy. Stach decon­structs his sub­ject, from Kafka’s birth to the hor­ri­fy­ing fate that his untime­ly death spared him, through an impres­sive array of dis­ci­plines. An exhaus­tive col­lec­tion of ephemera — let­ters, man­u­scripts, news­pa­pers, tran­scribed bureau­crat­ic red tape — bol­sters the com­plex por­trait of the lit­er­ary icon, civ­il ser­vant, and Jew­ish cit­i­zen of Prague. The oft-over­looked his­tor­i­cal, per­son­al, and eth­nic con­texts are cru­cial, Stach con­tends, to tru­ly under­stand­ing Kafka:

[The] extreme­ly entic­ing and clear­ly com­fort­ing image of the soul of the genius as a rock amidst a chaot­ic and bru­tal world is, unfor­tu­nate­ly, a mere fan­ta­sy, which Kaf­ka inter­preters are all too hap­py to share with Kaf­ka read­ers. The humani­ties, which tend to dis­dain bio­graph­i­cal read­ings, became the arbiters of Kafka’s work and thus the stew­ards of his fame. Even the most astute method­olog­i­cal human­i­ties schol­ar is secret­ly pleased to estab­lish that the life and work of a clas­sic Euro­pean author form an intel­lec­tu­al uni­ty” sub­ject to autonomous laws — and intel­lec­tu­al auton­o­my” is the lofti­est title of nobil­i­ty that can be bestowed here. If this author him­self indi­cates that the world of hard” facts does not inter­est him or at least fails to sway him, the tempta­tion becomes over­whelm­ing to accept this as true and iden­ti­fy social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic cir­cum­stances as no more than back­ground mate­r­i­al, as props on the stage of a sin­gu­lar con­scious­ness, par­tic­u­lar­ly when those props go up in flames while the author, seem­ing­ly unaf­fect­ed, remains root­ed to his man­u­script pages.

Actu­al life adheres to a dif­fer­ent log­ic. It forces deci­sions that can run counter not only to emo­tion­al needs but to an individual’s entire men­tal make­up, and Kafka’s sit­u­a­tion in July 1914 offers what may well be one of the most stun­ning exam­ples of deci­sion mak­ing in lit­er­ary history.

It is at this moment, at the precipice of World War I, that The Years of Insight begins. Repeat­ed­ly thwart­ed out of mil­i­tary ser­vice by his employ­ers, Kaf­ka faced the civil­ian expe­ri­ence of war as a sub­ject of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire, strug­gling through fraught friend­ships, fam­i­ly rela­tions, and roman­tic affairs while bal­anc­ing his pro­fes­sion­al and writ­ing careers and bat­tling illness.

The author’s metic­u­lous chron­i­cle of Kafka’s life by no means pre­cludes exam­i­na­tion of the lit­er­ary lega­cy that it pro­duced; rather, it sharp­ens our under­stand­ing of some of Kafka’s most obscure and abstract works. Stach is par­tic­u­lar­ly care­ful to include the influ­ence of his subject’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in this are­na, draw­ing out sub­tle Kab­bal­is­tic ele­ments in Kafka’s short sto­ries and the sub­tler-still reflec­tion on Jew­ish texts and tra­di­tion in his writ­ten med­i­ta­tions An utter­ly thor­ough biog­ra­phy, the three-vol­ume set will prove a trea­sure to any admir­er of Franz Kaf­ka — or good research.

Relat­ed: Franz Kaf­ka Read­ing List

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

Discussion Questions