The avid reader of biographies, and especially of Kafka biographies, will want to know what is new about Nicholas Murray's life of the enigmatic Franz Kafka (Yale University Press, 440 pages, $30). Unfortunately, Mr. Murray is not saying.
The biographer does not seem to have found any new material, and he makes no claim for a novel or provocative interpretation of the life or the work. Occasionally he sets up a straw man in order to have a version of Kafka to knock down:
But to see Kafka as a quivering neurasthenic, someone who knows only how to suffer, would be a travesty. His quiet, reflective, solitary personality also diffused warmth, wit, a sense of pleasure in life, just as much as a consciousness of its pains. He had friends, he was part of a lively and stimulating circle of remarkable Prague writers and intellectuals; he was successful in his career and popular with his colleagues; he relished his escapes into the countryside and outdoor pursuits; he enjoyed a modest but enviable reputation as a writer even if his major novels were unpublished in his lifetime; and he was attractive to women and enjoyed their company. However much he was tormented by private fears and lonely anxieties, he was loved by all who came into contact with him.
So there! But whose Kafka is Mr. Murray challenging? Neither his notes nor his narrative say. And Mr. Murray himself rather undercuts this chipper paragraph later on, as he becomes mired in Kafka's - I have to call it so - neurasthenia. The Kafka of the fiction, diaries, and letters may have discounted his ebullient and enticing side, but the biographer does little to restore him.
Further on Mr. Murray dismisses the notion that Kafka was "either a practicing (or repressed) homosexual or a misogynist with a hatred of heterosexual sexuality. ... Kafka's difficulty with marriage was of a different order, and when he struggled with his own courtships he turned exclusively to women for support and understanding." With whom is the biographer arguing? Is this a prevalent view of Kafka that Mr. Murray is refuting?
Biographies of major literary figures ought to be cumulative, to provide the reader with a sense of where in the historical process a particular biographer enters. Mr. Murray does make a vague effort to help us place his work, observing that in the years immediately following Kafka's death he was viewed as a "quasi-religious writer, an allegorist of religious themes, a modern Everyman." Absurdists and existentialists abstracted and absorbed Kafka as one of their own - coining the term "Kafkaesque" to describe the menacing and meaningless world they found in his writings. But in the last half of the 20th century, Mr. Murray continues, a "more nuanced picture" has developed, which takes into account the writer's Prague background, his Jewishness, his intimate family, and romantic relationships. He has emerged as "a particular man in a particular place at a particular time."
This Kafka is the one Mr. Murray's biography presents. Good enough - except what about all those other biographies of the last half century? What about the late Frederick Karl's monumental "Franz Kafka: Representative Man," with its all-encompassing second subtitle: "Prague, Germans, Jews, and the Crisis of Modernism" (1991) or Ronald Hayman's thriftier "Kafka: A Biography" (1981) - to mention just two of a half dozen or so Kafka biographies that have appeared in English?
I'm especially fond of Mr. Karl's ambitious - indeed, over the top - tome because it is so relentlessly interpretative. At close to 800 pages his biography is not the kind of huge narrative that attempts to be definitive in the sense of settling certain issues once and for all. On the contrary, Karl is authoritative because he knows
There are, indeed, several Kafkas, for he played many roles and was in his own eyes several people, perhaps even an imposter. There is the historical Kafka, born in Prague in 1883, dead near Vienna in 1924. There is Kafka who kept a detailed diary beginning in 1910 and who created through it, as it were, a second Kafka: the man observing the writer, the writer observing the man. Then there is the Kafka whose lengthy letters to Felice Bauer and to other friends and relatives reshaped the historical Kafka, as he play-acted for them, taking on a large variety of roles, none of which he knew he could actually play. In these letters we have Kafka's autobiography, and in the large group to Felice we have a spiritualized journey that we might call "spiritualized autobiography." There is, of course, Kafka of his novels and short fictions, who appears to observe the entire course of the twentieth century. This is the Kafka who has, so ambiguously, entered literary history. There is, still further, the Kafka of the piercing eyes that were aware of the internal disaster of his conditions as his body deteriorated from tuberculosis, and through those eyes a reflection of Eu rope burning itself up, as though caught by a gigantic disease. There are all these seemingly conflicting Kafkas, plus the man who worked well and efficiently, gaining frequent promotions, for an accident insurance firm, who suffered terrible digestive ailments and crippling headaches, who experienced most of his sexual release with prostitutes, who tried one bogus health cure after another, and who agonized through it all over every word he wrote.
This paragraph from Karl's preface does not only present a comprehensive view of a contradictory man. It also speaks to Virginia Woolf's notion that the biographical subject has many selves. Karl, in short, has given us a kind of primer by which to read both his biography and Kafka's. We know where both the biographer and his subject stand.
Karl writes what he calls "critical biography," by which he means a work that integrates the literary figure's writing into a portrait of the writer's many selves. He refers to Mr. Hayman's book as only "biographical." But Mr. Hayman certainly focuses on Kafka's work - indeed, he begins with a discussion of Kafka's story "The Judgement."
A sentence of Mr. Hayman's clarifies matters: "Kafka's whole life was a series of hesitations in the process of condemning himself and carrying out the execution." I cannot imagine Karl or Mr. Murray writing such a sentence. It compresses the different Kafkas into a single conceit, an organizing principle that allows the biographer to write deftly and elegantly. His is one of those 300-page biographies that the British in particular favor but that are hailed by relieved reviewers the world round.
Mr. Hayman's approach is good as far as it goes. It will not do to call him reductive when in fact that is what biography- or one form of it - is anyway. There is nothing wrong, to my mind, with an exclusive biographical focus. There are other ways to write biography - as Mr. Karl demonstrates without denigrating his predecessors - but the Hayman approach allows the biographer to concentrate with great intensity on what he believes is the governing law of a life.
Still seeking a sense of what might separate Mr. Murray from other biographers, I examined the way he treats Kafka's dying wish that all his unfinished and unpublished work be burnt. Mr. Murray finds the writer's instruction to his friend and first biographer, Max Brod, "exactingly comprehensive and utterly unambiguous. Kafka at this time wanted to perform a kind of self cancellation." I like that "at this time," for one aspect of Mr. Murray's biography that is skillfully pursued - whether or not it is new - is his sense of circumstances and of temporality. The self is shaped by contingency.
I was amazed, at first, that Mr. Hayman makes no comment at all about this wish. He just quotes it. But why comment, given the sentence of Mr. Hayman's I have already quoted? In his view of Kafka's motivations, every creative act implicitly leads to destruction. Kafka possessed a guiding sensibility that events cannot alter.
Then there is Karl, who comes back to Kafka's wish a half-dozen times throughout the biography. He implies that the writer's instructions to Brod were nothing but ambiguous - and purposely so. This biographer invokes the terrible looming figure of the father, who never took the slightest interest in his son's writing and who, in his son's words, becomes the very voice of defeatism. Kafka came to fear success, Karl suggests, invoking "The Judgment." This is why he told Brod to destroy everything: "The more things I was successful in, the worse the final outcome would inevitably be."
Later Karl links Kafka's destruction of his literary legacy with the doom of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, which was part of the writer's "vision of bleakness and blackness." Later still he challenges the thesis that Kafka was a perfectionist who could not bear for his unfinished novels to survive him. On the contrary, the instructions to Brod constituted an "act of pride," Karl contends, because Kafka had created a myth of himself. He was one of those legendary figures who see the world as dying with him; after his death "nothing else matters." Karl likens the very act of having a friend burn one's papers to building one's own funeral pyre. Even so, Karl adds, Kafka had to know that some of his published work would survive him no matter what he did. Like the ruins of ancient temples, his fragments further his mystique. Certain readers, I'll wager, would find Karl's plethora of interpretation distracting, too fussy and far-fetched. But I rather think he is right - or, rather, that he is adept at playing Kafka's game, which is, in part, a big tease.
This is certainly all too much for Mr. Murray, who believes in the fullness of time and in cutting out the middlemen. For him his narrative is sufficient unto itself, and his biography comes to a Kafkaesque conclusion, anchored in a historical fact: Many of those close to the writer met their ends in the death camps.