Reimagined persons live in biographical fiction. Readers, even those half-knowledgeable about Franz Kafka’s life (1883−1924), will enter this narrative soon to realize that he is in his final year. Ill, cranky, ego-ridden, and a genius, he and his Dora Diamant piece together an aberrant, touching love affair. She is twenty-five years old; he is forty. She works at a Jewish People’s Home, he writes in German. They live in a disastrous time, and a shuddering place.
The prudery and rectitude of Jewish life as it existed in Kafka’s social milieu impact nearly every decision and choice he makes. Embedded in scattered, isolated sentences, the nearly implausible realities of Judaism and the daily hyperinflation rampant in the Weimar Republic and in Czechoslovakia enter into and influence the story. When he asks for money, for example, Franz’s family sends him a basic support check for 31 billion Reichmarks; from his deposit to availability, these funds lost one-third of their value. Coal costs him as much as rent.
Against this backdrop, we consider Kafka as a Jewish writer — the Jewish reader learns he celebrates Sabbath for the first time under the care of Dora. One can only despair over his suffering and temperamental contradictions — he is beginning to feel affection, she cooks for him over candle ends, using the phone tortures him, his body temperature rises and falls, as do his demands and vagaries. Wispy descriptions of their sexual contact flit through the pages.
The pity of it all — the dreams, the helplessness, the creative bursts, the caring, ignoring — are in a world of forever. But Kafka’s writing, never directly quoted here, reminds us again of the prescience of Kafka’s anxiety about the twentieth century in Europe.
With the devil not in the details, this book is above all, read to be felt.