Kafka: The Years of Insight

Kafka: The Years of Insight

by Reiner Stach

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"Stach's plentiful virtues include his vivid social and historical panoramas, especially of the years of war, epidemics, and inflation; his narrative brio (the greatest part of the book is riveting); and his indefatigable scholarship, providing access to unpublished letters of signal importance."—Stanley Corngold, author of Lambent Traces: Franz

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"Stach's plentiful virtues include his vivid social and historical panoramas, especially of the years of war, epidemics, and inflation; his narrative brio (the greatest part of the book is riveting); and his indefatigable scholarship, providing access to unpublished letters of signal importance."—Stanley Corngold, author of Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka

"Enlightening, readable, and convincing, this is a major addition to our understanding of Kafka's life. Stach has a connection to and familiarity with his subject that no other biographer can match. He gives us a real understanding of the ground from which Kafka's writings emerged—what he was reading, which lectures and concerts he was attending, who he was talking with and writing to, and what he was saying to himself when he was writing. Closer we cannot get. And Shelley Frisch's translation is a marvel—accurate, fresh, and elegant."—Mark Anderson, author of Reading Kafka and Kafka's Clothes.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This well-researched new biography details the last nine years of Franz Kafka’s life and explores the personal, social, and political events that shaped his writing. In 1915 (the year “The Metamorphosis” was published), the 32-year-old Kafka was afflicted with headaches, insomnia, and loss of appetite, trapped in his grinding job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, and perpetually warring with his tyrannical father. Kafka’s suffering and perfectionism strained his relationship with his fiancé, Felice Bauer, and took its toll on his writing. After threatening to enlist to fight in WWI, Kafka was given time off by his employers in the summer of 1916, and a brief vacation in Marienbad seemed to turn him around. The following year, though, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the year after with the Spanish flu—both of which hastened his death in 1924. Quoting liberally from Kafka’s letters and notebooks, Stach (Kafka: The Decisive Years) presents Kafka in conflict: someone who shared a near marital relationship with his devoted younger sister, Ottla, but who couldn’t commit to the eligible women in his life; a man interested in studying Hebrew but wary of Zionism; an artist whose fortunes were tied to the city, yet who found his greatest peace growing vegetables in the country. Despite the narrow time frame, this insightful book is likely to become a standard by which future biographies are measured. (July)
Booklist - Bryce Christensen
With impressive insight into imaginative artistry, Stach illuminates the way Kafka responds to personal trauma and global firestorm, sometimes incorporating his negative circumstances into his fiction, but sometimes transcending those circumstances in metaphysical creations informed by a profoundly personal myth. This literary-biographical analysis will help scholars penetrate major Kafka works, including The Castle and The Trial, The Hunger Artist and The Burrow. Thanks to a lucid translation, English-speaking readers can now share the German enthusiasm for this masterful portrait.
Forward.com - David Mikics
[T]he definitive biography of Kafka. . . . [A] supple and accurate English translation by Shelley Frisch. . . . Stach presents a full, nuanced treatment of Kafka's feelings about Jewishness. He is particularly adept in his depiction of Kafka's relationships with the women he loved.
Der Tagesspiegel
Praise for Kafka: The Years of Insight: "It would be impossible to describe the work and essence of this key artist of the twentieth century in a livelier and more vibrant style. . . . A masterpiece of the art of interpretation and of empathy.
Die Zeit - Ulrich Greiner
Praise for Kafka: The Years of Insight: "Reiner Stach has recounted Kafka's life more vividly than any other biographer. The reader moves through his Kafka biography, which reads like a novel, in breathless anticipation. . . . No one has written about Kafka as suggestively and insightfully, and in such a beautiful and clear language, as Reiner Stach.
Library Journal
Restriction to archival research material has predetermined the publishing sequence of Stach's tripartite biography. The first, Kafka: The Decisive Years, covered Franz Kafka's most markedly creative period (1910–15). The volume dealing with Kafka's family history and formative years is forthcoming. Stach's current volume—with marginal overlap—covers the period from 1916 to 1924, his terminal years. Beset by a world war that irreparably shattered lives, landscapes, cities, and ideals, a neurotic and insomniac Kafka was obsessed with finding the time and space to feed his hunger: writing. But the expectations, desires, and burdens of everyday life seemed to conspire against him: his father's disapprobation, his job at the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute, his turbulent courtships with Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenská, and Dora Diamant, and finally his encounter with malignant and fatal tuberculosis. In time, his work overshadowed the details of his life. Braiding letters, diaries, memoirs, and notebooks with concentrated literary and historical commentary, Stach here writes about the life events that informed the art of Kafka's writing. VERDICT This work is a monumental accomplishment with a first-rate translation by scholar Frisch.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal
Kirkus Reviews
Conclusion of a massive, comprehensive life of the famed Czech/German/Jewish writer, chockablock with neuroses, failures and moments of brilliance. The editor of Kafka's collected works in German, Stach (Kafka: The Decisive Years, 2005, etc.) delivers much that is known about the writer: his sexual insecurities; his fraught, near-paralyzing relationship with his father; the terrible fate of his beloved sisters in the Holocaust. We knew from Max Brod, to say nothing of Kafka's own correspondence, that he could be clinically cold, and clinically odd, as when he wrote to his one-time intended Felice Bauer, "Your last letter said that a picture was enclosed. It was not enclosed. This represents a hardship for me." Yet there are surprises as well: Who knew, for instance, that Kafka, though gravely ill, was still athletic enough to row a passenger across a swiftly flowing river? Kafka was, of course, ever anonymous in doing so: "It would never have occurred to the man that he might have been rowed by a thirty-seven-year-old with a doctorate in law, who served as head of his department and suffered from tuberculosis." Stach also reveals Kafka's efforts to join the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, thwarted by his employer, and offers a trove of observations on Kafka and the business of writing and publishing, with all the usual complaints about late and underpaid royalties and skewed contracts. Throughout, Stach considers Kafka's flourishing as a writer, precise but deeply emotional, in a time of works such as The Castle and "The Metamorphosis." He also sheds light on Kafka's sometimes-tenuous Zionism, including his concentrated studies of Hebrew and on-and-off plans to relocate to Palestine. An illuminating book built, like its subject's life, on small episodes rather than great, dramatic turning points. Essential for students and serious readers of Kafka.
From the Publisher
"Stach pursues what can be known of Kafka so far and so exhaustively. . . . Sometimes I thought of Stach as the captive and Kafka as the captor. . . . Vivid and valuable."—Rivka Galchen

"Masterly . . . Stach's great achievement is to place the literary work into a biographical context that emphasises the interplay of memory, experience and symbolism in the writing. . . . A triumph of biography and literary scholarship."—PD Smith, Guardian

"[A] brilliant, authoritative portrait."—John Yargo, The Millions

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Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.60(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.90(d)

Meet the Author

Reiner Stach worked extensively on the definitive edition of Kafka's collected works before embarking on this three-volume biography. Shelley Frisch's translation of the second volume was awarded the Modern Language Association's Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize and her translation of the third volume was awarded the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize. She has translated many other books from German, including biographies of Nietzsche and Einstein, and she holds a PhD in German literature from Princeton University.

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