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Kafka: The Early Years

Kafka: The Early Years

by Reiner Stach, Shelley Frisch

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How did Kafka become Kafka? This eagerly anticipated third and final volume of Reiner Stach's definitive biography of the writer answers that question with more facts and insight than ever before, describing the complex personal, political, and cultural circumstances that shaped the young Franz Kafka (1883–1924). It tells the story of the years from his birth


How did Kafka become Kafka? This eagerly anticipated third and final volume of Reiner Stach's definitive biography of the writer answers that question with more facts and insight than ever before, describing the complex personal, political, and cultural circumstances that shaped the young Franz Kafka (1883–1924). It tells the story of the years from his birth in Prague to the beginning of his professional and literary career in 1910, taking the reader up to just before the breakthrough that resulted in his first masterpieces, including "The Metamorphosis." Brimming with vivid and often startling details, Stach’s narrative invites readers deep inside this neglected period of Kafka’s life. The book’s richly atmospheric portrait of his German Jewish merchant family and his education, psychological development, and sexual maturation draws on numerous sources, some still unpublished, including family letters, schoolmates’ memoirs, and early diaries of his close friend Max Brod.

The biography also provides a colorful panorama of Kafka’s wider world, especially the convoluted politics and culture of Prague. Before World War I, Kafka lived in a society at the threshold of modernity but torn by conflict, and Stach provides poignant details of how the adolescent Kafka witnessed violent outbreaks of anti-Semitism and nationalism. The reader also learns how he developed a passionate interest in new technologies, particularly movies and airplanes, and why another interest—his predilection for the back-to-nature movement—stemmed from his “nervous” surroundings rather than personal eccentricity.

The crowning volume to a masterly biography, this is an unmatched account of how a boy who grew up in an old Central European monarchy became a writer who helped create modern literature.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
German biographer Stach completes his massive three-volume life of the literary giant Franz Kafka (1883–1924) with a long-awaited account of the prodigy’s life before 1910, enriched by Frisch’s able translation. Kafka’s eerie short stories and novels have electrified readers for generations, but Stach’s portrait of the young Kafka contradicts the legend of their source in an alienated, detached enigma. Readers meet instead a likable, brilliant young insurance lawyer with, as Stach puts it, abundant perfectionism and self-doubt. Stach explores the Kafka family’s complicated relationship to Judaism; Kafka considered converting to Christianity in his youth, but decided not to. He was fond of shop girls and prostitutes, and Stach goes so far as to recount his first sexual experience. The book reveals that Kafka was intrigued by airplanes and the new medium of cinema. Sigmund Freud’s bold ideas and Prague’s heady pre-WWI intellectual circles, which included the young physicist Albert Einstein, serve as backdrops. The Max Brod archives on which Stach’s project depended were litigated for decades. Brod, Kafka’s close friend and literary executor, famously refused to destroy the writer’s work as instructed and published it instead. Brod’s detailed reflections, which dominate much of this final volume, will chiefly interest Kafka scholars, but all Kafka devotees will find this biography’s insights deeply fulfilling. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"We can trace, through Stach's measured narrative, the full course of Kafka's brief life. . . . The result is not merely a biography of painstaking thoroughness but a piece of psychological investigation and literary detective work without clear parallel. It gives its readers a new Kafka. It explains much that has long seemed obscure; yet, by paradox, the more its author-hero is grounded in his context, and the more we grasp of the initial sources of his imagination, the more unfathomable his gifts become. The haze clears; he stands alone."—Nicolas Rothwell, Australian
Kirkus Review
The final installment in German scholar Stach’s magisterial three-part biography (Kafka: The Years of Insight, 2013, etc.), covering, in appropriately Kafkaesque nonsequential fashion, the writer’s childhood and youth.A preface by Frisch, the superb translator of all three volumes, explains that the peculiar order was dictated by lack of access to the archives of Max Brod, close friend and literary executor, whose extensive diaries concerning the crucial years of Kafka’s formative literary efforts only became available recently. Stach makes astute use of this material to assess the complicated relationship between Kafka and the gregarious, ambitious Brod, who could never understand why his talented friend was so reluctant to publish and agonizingly slow to produce. Stach’s examination of the years before the men met at university in 1902 suggests a few reasons, most having to do with the pressure to achieve placed on young Franz by his overbearing father, Hermann. This analysis is sometimes swamped by the enormous amount of background on everything from anti-Semitism as a function of rising Czech nationalism to the nature of education in the late 19th-century; these and other highly relevant subjects could have been covered more cogently. However, the abundance of detail enables Stach to paint a vivid picture of the history and culture of Prague, Kafka’s hometown and lifelong residence. His portrait of the artist is intimately knowing: Kafka seizes our attention as a man neurotic yet deeply self-aware, frail yet devoted to swimming and hiking, always holding himself at a social remove yet a frequent visitor to Prague’s wine bars and coffee shops. Most importantly, the author makes palpable Kafka’s perfectionist striving for a prose of surreal clarity, “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” The inaugural book, on the remarkable half-decade that produced The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and “In the Penal Colony,” is still the best, but this slightly overstuffed volume completes an indispensable work about a key figure in 20th-century modernism.

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Kafka The Early Years

By Reiner Stach, Shelley Frisch


Copyright © 2013 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8447-6


Nothing Happening in Prague

Think you heard this all before, Now you're gonna hear some more.

— Devo, "Going Under"

July 3, 1883, was a clear, pleasant summer's day, with a gentle breeze wafting through the narrow streets of the Old Town in Prague, where the temperature had risen to 30 degrees Celsius by noon. Fortunately it was not a muggy heat; the few clouds that appeared in the afternoon were not threatening, and thousands of people in Prague were looking forward to a mild evening in one of the countless open-air restaurants, enjoying pilsner, wine, and brass band music. Today was a Tuesday, which meant that there were a good many "military concerts" in store. In the spacious beer garden on the Sophieninsel, the hoopla started up at four in the afternoon for tourists, students, and retirees. Most people still had a few more hours of work ahead of them, and those unlucky souls who earned their living in a shop had to wait until after sundown to join the festivities. Getting there even in time to attend a theater performance could depend on the boss's goodwill. For the Czechs, that day's schedule featured Fedora, the latest melodrama by the best-selling French author Victorien Sardou, while the Germans could see Johann Nestroy's musical He Will Go on a Spree (which later became the basis of Hello, Dolly!). Anyone who found that too highbrow could head into Wanda's Musical Comedy Hall, where Fräulein Mirzl Lehner, "the snazzy lady from Vienna," presented her "amusing and very proper show," together with other "newly hired artists." A well-organized set of offerings for the nearly 160,000 residents of Prague.

Prague in the summer, Prague in peacetime. The hours went by, the stock market ticked up and down ever so slightly (as it had been doing for the past ten years), and life seemed to lack verve. Even the usual reports about con artists, women committing suicide, and embezzling and absconding bank tellers, which readers of the Prager Tagblatt and the Bohemia soaked up eagerly, were absent from the newspapers. At the Civilian Swimming School, the river bathing area open to the public, a toddler fell into the Vltava and was saved by a thirteen-year-old boy. That was the only newsworthy calamity on this third of July, apart from the natural fatalities reported in impossibly tiny print. On Hibernergasse, a frail eighteen-day-old infant named Augustin died, and two-year-old Amalia succumbed to tuberculosis. But who wanted news like that?

And yet this day would go down in the annals of the city of Prague for two reasons, one instantly in the public eye and the other of no consequence to anyone but the Kafkas until much later. A political and mental shock rocked the city on this day. At first, very few people knew about an unthinkable new development, but in the coffeehouses, word soon got around, even before the press had a chance to react. Elections for the Bohemian parliament were now taking place, by order of the kaiser himself, under entirely new circumstances. Ever since there were parliaments, the only people eligible to vote were men who paid a certain sum of money in annual taxes. Now the Austrian government suddenly cut this sum in half, with the approval of the kaiser, and to the horror of a small, but significant segment of the population. Even the most politically naive among them could clearly see the consequences of this decision: more eligible voters meant more Czech voters. The upshot was instantaneous on this day: the Czechs outnumbered the Germans and had a solid majority, for the first time and quite likely forever; after all, who would ever dare to infringe on the new right to vote? Most of the large landowners voted Czech, as did the chambers of commerce, and quite a few well-to-do Jews followed suit. The Germans in the downtown area around Altstädter Ring shook their heads in disbelief: even their immediate neighbors, the residents of Josefov, the old Prague ghetto, generally voted Czech, and as if to add insult to injury, word got around that the Jewish butchers — who had never been allowed to cast a vote in the past — were probably the deciding factor.

Most people in Prague had little interest in the workings of the Bohemian parliament, and even among educated speakers of both languages, only the most avid readers of newspapers gleaned the authority this parliament actually had and could gauge its impact on everyday German and Czech life. But it was a symbolic victory for the Czechs, the most important one thus far, as everyone understood, and so it was deemed "historic." Even the losers saw it that way. Their tone was muted. The German-speaking newspapers held back, not wanting to inflame the Czechs, with whom the German populace lived in close proximity in all parts of the city, nor did they wish to incite their own subscribers. Only the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna gave a frank assessment of the situation; this liberal newspaper of record, on display throughout Prague, could afford to do so. Here the Bohemians were told that the foolish way they had voted might spell the end of the West: "Will it really get to the point that Prague drowns in the Slavic inundation?" Absolutely not, the paper insisted. "The German delegates of the capital may disappear from the Landstube, but the people in the streets and houses will remain until the day finally comes that puts an end to the Slavic counter-reformation and Prague will again become what it was, a center of human culture, that is to say German culture."

This blunt wording was too strong even for the government censors in Vienna, who confiscated the paper a few days later. However, the aggressive tone and chauvinistic clamor reveal that the momentous nature of this day had been grasped. An elite had always concentrated the power in its hands, but from now on, the majority would rule, legitimated by simple demographics, which in Prague was, inevitably, four to one in favor of the Czechs. What if this principle of majority rule were to prevail throughout the monarchy? The Bohemians would be blamed for having been the weakest link in the chain, a chain broken in their capital city, on this very day of July 3, 1883.

Not everyone in Prague took note of the landslide in the Bohemian parliament. Real life was happening elsewhere, and for anyone who had lost a small child, an Augustin or an Amalia, everything political stopped mattering for a long time to come. The same was true of those welcoming a newborn into the world. They, too, were crossing the threshold of a new epoch and experiencing the dawn of a new era from which there was no turning back. In the warm physical presence of their child, the rest of the world faded away.

This is exactly what was happening in a building right next to St. Nicholas Church on the corner of Maiselgasse and Karpfengasse, the residence of the Kafkas, a Jewish couple married only ten months. The building had seen better days and had once been the prelature of the famous Strahov Monastery, but apart from the Baroque facade, not much remained of its former glory. The building had served as an ordinary apartment house for quite some time, and the neighborhood was unimpressive and ill-suited to making new acquaintances: on the one side the church, in which the Russian Orthodox Christians held their somber services, on the other several dubious-looking dives and even brothels, almost an extension of Josefov, a tumbledown part of town rumored to be slated for demolition.

The Kafkas would not be staying here for long, but for the time being they needed to scrimp, because they had put all their savings — consisting mainly of wife Julie's dowry — into a new business selling thread and cotton, just steps away at the north side of Altstädter Ring. The sole proprietor was thirty-year-old Hermann, but his wife, who was three years younger, had to work here full time for the shop to survive. The two of them had little time for themselves; they even forwent a honeymoon so that they would not neglect their duties in Prague, and a pregnancy did not align with their vision for launching the new store, let alone with paying a nurse and nanny.

But the baby was a boy, and in a patriarchal world — Hermann and Julie's — the male child was the guarantor of the future, the next link in the generational chain that preserved and guided the individual and conveyed a sense of permanence. Up to this point, the Kafkas knew that they wanted to move up the socioeconomic ladder, but now they also felt that this goal would extend beyond their own time on earth and thus become unassailable. The newborn was an "heir" in the eyes of his parents and in the world around him, before he even took his first steps. The Kafkas' relatives, employees, and customers also revised their view of Hermann and Julie from one day to the next; it was like a promotion, yet even better, because the new status was enduring unless this child were to die. But no one wanted to think in those terms right now. The boy was "a delicate, but healthy child," as his mother would later note; he would surely survive and be the heir for whom they would sacrifice themselves and for whose sake they would now be part of the world at large. And so it was only right and proper for him to bear the name of their kaiser. Yes, indeed: they would name him Franz.

As the world would know a century later, Franz's future turned out altogether differently from the way the Kafkas imagined it. A plaque would mark the first home the Kafkas shared, commemorating not a successful shopkeeper, but a writer. The linear generational succession, which rejuvenates the family and anchors it in the world, would prove just as vulnerable and ephemeral as the isolated existence of the individual. Hundreds of thousands of such lines would be broken off and even violently extinguished while Franz Kafka's parents were still alive. But July 3, 1883, which for so many people in Prague was a day of profound disillusionment and for the Kafkas a day of pride and joy, would acquire a new and distinctive significance.

Franz Joseph I, the fifty-two-year-old kaiser whose first name Kafka bore, also spent this day in a cheerful mood. He was in Graz, Austria, making the standard round of visits: mass in the cathedral, opening day of a regional exhibition, looking in on the fire department and the military hospital, receiving delegates and high-ranking individuals, and attending formal dinners. He also read a series of dispatches, including several from Prague, where the Czechs — as anticipated — had finally gotten their way. But this annoyance was instantaneously overshadowed by the cheers of the population of Graz, who all turned out for this occasion, and by more pleasurable duties, which buoyed the kaiser's spirits once again. One highlight was a repeat visit to the fiercely loyal Styrian riflemen in the shooting range, bedecked with flags and flowers. The endless gun salutes of the overzealous riflemen made the horses of the imperial state coach skittish, and Franz Joseph had to call a halt to this activity. But he enjoyed seeing the women in traditional costume, and receiving bouquets of flowers from fetching girls. The riflemen wanted him to go beyond fine speeches, and urged him to try his hand at the shooting range to start the gala display of marksmanship. He was ceremoniously led to the loaded rifles, while the spectators waited with bated breath. Twice he took aim at the moving target — and once he hit the rings, scoring a "one." Gun salutes rang out to inform the entire city, accompanied by a never-ending roar from a crowd of thousands.


The Curtain Rises

God always trades as a wholesaler.

— Kierkegaard, Stadier paa Livets Vei

The old center of the city of Prague is a stage, an ample arena taking up almost two and a half acres and accessible from several sides, yet well structured and compact enough to convey the feeling of a space that is clearly demarcated and symbolically elevated. This area is called Altstädter Ring, a focal point for the social energies of an entire region.

By the early modern age, it was considered a bourgeois privilege to live in the first row, right on the "Ring." While Prague no longer had a say in world affairs, and all of Bohemia became a plaything of foreign dynasties, the Ring was still the grand social platform. This was the marketplace of Prague, the place where business transactions were negotiated and political deals struck. One was here to see and be seen, and all the foreign dialects and languages lent the Ring a flavor of cosmopolitanism that obscured the city's actual loss of importance. The people of Prague knew that their Ring, lined with stately buildings, was famous throughout Europe, and they were quite used to the sight of travelers who had come from far away for the sole purpose of viewing the mind-boggling marvel of the huge astronomical clock on Altstädter Ring. A travel guide published in the middle of the Thirty Years' War directed readers to this sight in its opening sentence: "The old city of Prague is situated to the right of the Vltava, at the level of the valley, offering the view of many splendid buildings, in particular the Old Town Hall, which has such a high tower with a very artistic clock that is virtually unparalleled anywhere in the world in respect to its artistry." At the time these words were published, the clock was already more than two hundred years old, and when its hands, a full yard in length, were first set in motion all those centuries ago, Prague was the seat of a kaiser.

On numerous occasions in the history of Prague, Altstädter Ring also served as a social stage, in the literal sense. There were processions across the square, and political addresses that ran the gamut, from homages to vitriolic attacks. Monuments were erected on the Ring, and there were demonstrations, proclamations, and acclamations. Anyone who assumed power in Prague put in a public appearance on the Ring, even in the twentieth century, when bustling Wenceslas Square had long since outshone the old center and reduced it to a place of historical interest. The beginning of the sole communist rule in February 1948 was celebrated against the backdrop of Altstädter Ring. This location was ill-chosen, because in picking it, the rebels had hit the nerve of collective memory in which a far more brutal scenario was ingrained, one that dated back more than three centuries, but that every Czech high school student knew inside out. The installation of a new regime that took place on Altstädter Ring on this dark day was accompanied by public torture, rope, and the executioner's sword.

On the night leading up to June 20, 1621, the Old Town in Prague bristled with tension born of fright. People lay awake, whispering, praying, and making sure their doors were bolted shut. They listened intently to what was going on outside, where the sounds of militaristic goings-on gave notice of the horrors that would ensue the following day. The new rulers in the service of the Habsburg dynasty had imposed a curfew, and hundreds of armed men with torches and clanking weapons prowled through the streets to strike down anyone they got hold of. Torches illuminated Altstädter Ring, and the local residents quaked with fear as they listened for hours to the hammer blows of carpenters erecting a stage two-and-a-half meters high and about three hundred square meters right at the town hall. This stage was known as a "blood scaffold." The horrified residents of Prague had been informed of what would be occurring here in a few short hours.

They had risked a revolt, and they had lost. This uprising was both religious and political, an attempt to extricate themselves from the increasing dominance of the Catholic Habsburgs, a rebellion of the Bohemian estates against the emergence of absolutism. The nobility, Protestant clergy, and bourgeoisie were at odds about how far this resistance ought to go, yet in May 1618, the leaders in Prague opted to burn their bridges and provoke open war: they unceremoniously threw two Catholic imperial officials and their clerk out the window and fired several bullets at them for good measure. This act of violence, which was well staged and not spontaneous in the least, was ridiculed throughout Europe as a regional farce (especially because the three victims got away with mere injuries), but in the following year, it became clear that the Bohemian estates and their allies in Moravia and Silesia were serious and that they were shaking the foundations of the power structure of Europe: The rebels deposed the Habsburg Ferdinand II as the king of Bohemia (just days before he was named kaiser) and instead seated a Palatine elector, confirmed Calvinist, and self-proclaimed "crusader of Protestantism" on the throne of Prague.


Excerpted from Kafka The Early Years by Reiner Stach, Shelley Frisch. Copyright © 2013 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Reiner Stach worked extensively on the definitive edition of Kafka's collected works before embarking on his three-volume biography of the writer. The other volumes are Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight (both Princeton). Shelley Frisch's translations of those volumes were awarded the Modern Language Association's Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize. Her many other translations from the German include Karin Wieland's Dietrich & Riefenstahl, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award.

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