“Kafka kept asking himself: ‘How do we get through life?” Interview with Reiner Stach

In a magnificent biography, Reiner Stach brings to light, with scientific meticulousness and a rare narrative brilliance, a Kafka in colour, caught up in his intimate contradictions and those of his time.  In this first volume, devoted to the years 1910-1915, the reader follows step by step his discovery of Yiddish theatre, the consolidation of his vocation as a writer and his attempt to establish a love and marital bond with Felice Bauer through a monumental epistolary relationship. A meeting with Reiner Stach, who renews our vision of Kafka and our perception of the biographical genre.


Kafka and his sister Ottla


Ruth Zylberman: What was your first ‘encounter’ with Kafka?

Reiner Stach: The first book I read by Kafka, when I was thirteen or fourteen, was The Trial. Some friends who were a little older than me had recommended it to me, noticing that I liked to read. We read and studied it together, without a teacher to help us, but I’m not sure we understood much of it. What struck us most at the time was not really the tragedy of the book, but rather the comedy of it. Maybe because we didn’t have enough perspective.

Later, during my studies, I was most impressed by Kafka’s autobiographical texts. I read them very slowly and thoroughly, and I was very moved by them. It was then that I stopped studying mathematics and concentrated on literature. Yes, reading Kafka was a real existential turning point for me, it decided my professional orientation.

For two or three years I was a fan of Kafka, a real fan, without any reservations. Then, when I decided to do a thesis, I said to myself that I had to take a step back and read him in a more scientific way. The solution I found to this problem was to choose a subject that would allow me to combine the scientific and emotional aspects. In this case, I devoted my thesis to female figures in Kafka.

RZ: The “library” devoted to Kafka is immense. What prompted you to undertake this biographical work in the 1990s?

RS: At that time there was a huge disproportion between the books that offered an interpretation of Kafka’s work and the books devoted to his life. 99% of the total was interpretation.

In the 1990s, I used to meet people who were very good Kafka scholars and readers, but when they wanted to know something about his life, they read Max Brod’s biography from the 1930s. If I said to them: “You know, Brod’s text is 60 years old and it’s not a real biography, it’s a memoir”, they would say: “What else could you read?”

At that time there were small introductions to Kafka all over the world, with a few illustrative photographs. There were also hundreds of studies devoted to extremely precise aspects of his life: his family, his parents, his teachers, his career… But all these articles were scattered in a number of scientific journals to which people did not have access. But I agree with Nicholas Boyle, the biographer of Goethe: what’s the point of all this data if there isn’t someone, from time to time, who offers a great synthesis? That was the justification for this huge project.

RZ: Your work is certainly not only a synthesis! Thanks to your meticulous and exhaustive investigation, based on new sources, it reveals a Kafka who is infinitely alive and inscribed in his time. How long did it take you to write these three volumes, the first of which has just been published in French?

RS: I worked on this biography for 18 years. But if I hadn’t already worked so hard on Kafka, especially during my thesis, and as a proofreader of the critical edition of his works published by S. Fischer, it would have taken me longer.

RZ: You mention that Kafka himself was a great reader of biographies. What did he find there?

RS: When you look at Kafka’s reading list, you get the impression that he was reading random biographies: Napoleon’s, a farmer who had settled and prospered in South America, a feminist’s autobiography, or a polar explorer’s. In fact, he was looking for the most important thing in his life. In fact, he was looking for stories of people who had a project and who had managed to carry it out. That’s what interested him. He kept asking himself, “How do you get through life?

The people whose biographies he read had all had bad starting conditions for their projects. If we take the case of the feminist Lily Braun, she came from a very conservative family, which she had to break with to achieve what she wanted. Kafka identified with this, he said to himself: “I too have a certain handicap, and yet I want to become a writer”. Of course, he also read biographies of writers: Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kierkegaard, Grillparzer – not just feminists!

RZ: This question of how one copes with life is obviously central to his work.

RS: Yes, it is. He asked himself, “Where did they get the energy to overcome all these obstacles? Kafka writes about characters who fail before they reach their goal. In The Verdict, someone is confronted with his father’s verdict of a death sentence; in The Trial, Josef K. fails because of his sense of guilt; and the Castle Surveyor fails to join a community. In what he writes himself, Kafka thus does the opposite of what he seeks in his biographical readings.

What particularly shocked him was to read the biography of someone who, while having enormous achievements behind him, failed in his private life. For example, Kierkegaard, who lied in his relationships with women, who treated them with cynicism, with condescension. Kafka said to himself: “They have failed exactly like me”.

When I talk about failures, by the way, I’m not necessarily talking about concrete failures, but about very basic things. For example, Kafka was deeply shocked when he read in Franz Grillparzer’s biography that Grillparzer, who was very much in love with a woman, had written in his diary: “I took Therese on my lap and felt nothing.” I think that Kafka, at that moment, thought of Felice Bauer, whom he didn’t really want.

Reiner Stach © Le Cherche midi

RZ: If we come back to your biography of Kafka, I imagine that there was some reluctance or fear about a kind of voyeuristic impulse that had to be overcome. Especially in France, where we are still very influenced by Proust’s anti-biographical writings in Contre Sainte-Beuve. Not to mention that we also have a very abstract vision of Kafka, almost as a symbol or as a quasi-saint according to the version constructed by Max Brod.

RS: There is a faction in academic circles that rejects biography and denounces what is known as biographism, that is, the pure and simple projection of life onto the work, according to the formula: “Life has influenced the work in such and such a way”. But I think there is a difference between voyeurism and a necessary form of human curiosity. If you are interested in the history of cinema and a figure like Marilyn Monroe, for example, you can approach her personality by talking about her sexuality: there you enter into voyeurism. On the other hand, if you look at her films and ask yourself: “How did she get there? How does this art work? How was someone raised to this height before she was dropped?”, when you try to understand, in short, it becomes something else altogether. And again, I make a very clear distinction between human curiosity and voyeurism. It’s radically different.

When I read texts like Kafka’s, which are so perfect, which have had and continue to have such a massive effect on a global scale, I would find it inhuman not to ask myself how these texts came into being, what was the context of their birth. How is it possible, and more importantly: why does it happen so rarely? Where does it come from? What conditions must be present for something like this to exist?

I have had many conversations with academics. And what some of them lack is the ability to distinguish between the scientific interest and the human interest of their object of study. But when you’re an intellectual, I think you have to break down that division and feed the scientific interest with the human interest.

Kafka himself wrote: “The point of view of art and the point of view of life also differ in the artist himself”. But, as I say in the opening of the book, the biographer cannot stop there, he is obliged to explain how a consciousness that gives everything to think about could become a consciousness that gives everyone to think about. This is my task.

RZ: It’s a difficult task because, as you write, “the richness of Kafka’s existence unfolded for the most part in the psychic realm, in the invisible, in a vertical dimension that has seemingly nothing to do with his social environment and yet intersects with it everywhere, at every point.”

RS: In the introduction, I wanted to show Kafka’s life on the surface. But this life on the surface is a complete failure. I found it interesting to start with a list of very cold figures: for example, we are dealing with an individual who wrote thousands and thousands of pages – we know 3000, but there are certainly thousands more – but who only published 300 of them during his lifetime… It’s an atrocious record!

Kafka died young, he was ill, he went abroad three times in his life. His plans were not fulfilled either: he wanted a family, children, success as a writer. None of this came to fruition. But I wanted to tell people that if you look at this life from this angle, you will never be able to understand where the texts come from, where their incredible impact comes from.

So what I propose is to move away from this “horizontal” dimension, where we consider the family, the career, the travels, and to introduce a vertical dimension, revealed in particular by his diary. So we realise that Kafka had an extraordinarily rich interior life, and that’s what we have to consider.

RZ: You made the unconventional choice of publishing this “Time of Decisions” as the first volume, which evokes the years 1910-1915 (Nb: volume 2 on the later years, The Time of Knowledge, will appear in French in the autumn and volume 3, The Years of Youth, in the spring of 2024). What was the reason for this?

RS: It was a pragmatic decision. For the years 1910-1915, when his greatest works were produced, we have a wealth of sources and material. For example, Kafka did not start keeping a regular diary until 1910. At that time, we can sometimes reconstruct his life day by day, or even hour by hour, which is not the case for the early and later years. At the time I started this work, it was hoped that the opening of Max Brod’s legacy would solve this problem.

There was another aspect: I thought it would be more interesting for the reader to start with the years that correspond to the creation of his first major works and the major decisions that Kafka had to make.

The first of these major decisions came after the writing of The Verdict, in September 1912, when Kafka realised that he could sit at his desk for ten hours at a time and produce a finished text. That was the moment when he really decided to become a writer.

The second decision was to start a family. For Kafka did not want to deviate from the norm: he considered the life of the bachelor – and he saw himself as a bachelor – to be a poor and unfinished life.

Yet after making his crucial decisions – 1912, to become a writer, and 1913, to marry Felice Bauer – Kafka began a struggle to try to reconcile the two, a struggle that lasted for years and ended with him having to choose writing over marriage. These are central decisions, which defined the rest of his life.

RZ: Speaking of Felice Bauer, your book paints an incredibly well-documented and vivid portrait of this woman, who until now was considered a kind of uninteresting ghost, literally vamped by Kafka. This is the thesis of Elias Canetti in his admirable book, The Other Trial. But you give a real existence to this young woman from the Berlin Jewish petty bourgeoisie, relatively independent and autonomous.

RS: I have indeed discovered a lot about Felice Bauer. Until then, absolutely nothing was known about her, because we have 500 letters from Kafka to Felice and only four postcards from her. I was able to meet her son in the United States, and he provided me with very important material that reveals the functioning, and sometimes the dysfunction, of the Bauer family. It was a very conservative family and, as a result, Kafka was kept out of a number of conflicts that nevertheless, without his knowledge, had a great influence on their relationship. I’m very happy to have been able to make these discoveries, because Felice Bauer was really the spark that set off the essential questions and decisions I mentioned earlier.

RZ: The initial meeting between Felice Bauer and Franz Kafka took place around the promise of a joint trip to Palestine. It was also preceded by Kafka’s frequent attendance at the performances of a Yiddish theatre group. The question of his ambivalent, complex link to Judaism in its various forms is obviously essential, how did you approach this “Jewish part” of Kafka? What new insights do your biography, and in particular this volume on the years 1910-1915, offer in this regard? 

RS: The encounter with the Jewish actors in the East was an existential turning point for Kafka, and I have devoted a long chapter to it. For the first time he met people who lived in the Jewish tradition without trying to adapt to their Christian environment. So it was possible to be Jewish and still have an identity. This gave these people a dignity that Kafka admired, and their poverty, their lack of education, the fact that these actors were at best amateurs, were of no importance to him.

At the end of this first volume, I tell of another encounter with Jews from the East, in this case the countless Jewish refugees who had had to flee from the Russians during the First World War. Many of them were deeply religious and had no attraction for Western education. This embarrassed Kafka’s Zionist friends, but he himself once again admired the self-confidence of these people and watched them with his eyes wide open.

I think this is absolutely typical of Kafka: even where he feels admiration, he does not close his eyes to the contradictions and their insoluble nature. He too aspires to an identity rooted in tradition. But as an intellectual, he knows very well that this will remain wishful thinking in his case. It has often been said that Kafka was ‘apolitical’. But in this case he proved to be more politically lucid than any of his friends. So one has to be careful with such judgements.

RZ: Can you talk about your writing technique, in which extremely gripping narrative passages, captivating and precise historical settings and a profound analysis of the great “Kafkaesque” themes are intertwined?

RS: When you look at Kafka, you discover that there are a few major recurring themes: the problem of the father, the problem of sexuality, the question of Judaism, the problem of identity in general. This question, too: “Am I a modern man or still a man of the XIXᵉ century?”. Then there are fears and anxieties, for example the fear of a dissolution of the self caused by sexuality.

What is very typical of Kafka is that, whenever he is faced with a decision, this small number of essential themes are all activated at once. If we go back to marriage, for example, we find the question of the father: “If I marry, I enter my father’s land”, but also the question of Judaism: “If I marry, I immediately have a clan, and a ‘Jewish clan’, on my back…”.

So every time Kafka makes a big decision, everything resonates. And the question for me as a biographer is: “How do I represent this?”

There are two options. I can analyse each of these themes separately, as in an essay: first the theme of the father, then Judaism, then sexuality. But the problem is that everything becomes very abstract and, in my opinion, very sterile.

The second solution is to write in a novelistic way, that is, to describe step by step how things happen: what Kafka does, what Kafka says to such and such a person at such and such a time – sometimes, by the way, his statements contradict each other. If I proceed in this way, if I tell the story in detail, in this novelistic mode, I can hope that the reader, little by little, will project empathy onto what is happening. And I believe that this is also the best and most gratifying solution for the book and for the reader, because the reader himself develops an understanding of the events, an empathic understanding that something more “essayistic” could not inspire.

RZ: Let’s make it clear, though, that when you say “novelistic”, it’s not invention: everything is based on proven sources…

RS: Indeed, nothing is invented. When I say novel, I mean that I use certain narrative techniques. For example, I create tension: someone suddenly comes along, brings a new question, and in the end Kafka is faced with a decision. These are dramatic devices. The aim of this method is that the reader, in the end, develops his or her own understanding and begins to spot patterns in Kafka’s behaviour that enable him or her to understand for themselves how he or she will react.

I use other narrative and stylistic devices as well. In the case of the First World War, for example, I don’t just want to describe who went to war with whom and why: I want to show both the most abstract and the most intimate scale, the impact it had on Kafka’s life.

It’s like a zoom-in that gets tighter and tighter. I start with a wide shot: Vienna, where three people behind the scenes decide to start the war. Then I tighten the frame: what does the population know about this war and its consequences? What role does censorship play in hiding the consequences? What do we know about the war, what are its effects on the educated? And in Kafka’s family? And – as a final close-up – in Kafka’s head?  

So much for the narrative technique. The fact that I can sometimes recount certain scenes very precisely, minute by minute, is only possible thanks to sources, obviously, and in particular thanks to letters and diaries, which are less abundant in his youth and at the end of his life.

Letter from Kafka to Felice Bauer

RZ: This allows us, the readers, to discover a Kafka very much inserted in his time and to break with the vision of an ethereal man radically cut off from the world as testified by this famous and often quoted note from the Diary which was written on the day of the declaration of war: “August 2nd 1914. Germany has declared war on Russia. Afternoon swimming pool”.

RS: These are clichés that convey the image of a lonely poet cut off from the world. In reality, Kafka was well rooted socially. He was a civil servant and the war had massive consequences for him, both as a private person and in his professional life.

The most serious of these consequences was that it prevented him from emigrating to Berlin, as he had planned. He could no longer travel, he could no longer visit Felice Bauer and it was impossible to maintain a relationship under these conditions. The telephone was not a possible substitute: he didn’t like the telephone, and it was very expensive. And there was often a censor listening in on conversations.

But the war also had an impact on his work. In fact, Kafka knew much more than most of the people around him, as I discovered when I looked at the files of the Workmen’s Compensation Insurance Board, where he worked. You have to read them to find out exactly what Kafka knew. The government in Vienna made great efforts to hide the real consequences of the war. For example, when the wounded were brought back from the front, it was usually in goods trains, and when they were unloaded, a sort of screen was erected in front of the wagons to isolate them from passers-by, both acoustically and visually.

But Kafka was not allowed to talk about everything he knew. And since he doesn’t talk about it, we get the impression that he didn’t know anything, which is obviously not true. It’s an optical illusion. And you find that out if you look at his employer’s records.

The most terrible discovery I made concerned the case of war trauma victims, especially those who were called “shakers”, those who came back from the front with tremors. Some doctors thought that most of these people were just pretenders, and that the best way to find out was to give them electroshock therapy, in the belief that they would eventually confess. And Kafka knew about this, because he was part of the commissions that examined the situation of these soldiers. But he was forbidden to talk about it.

RZ: You also show how the very powerful metaphors at work in a number of Kafka’s works are derived from lived and felt visual impressions, and you repeatedly emphasize this circulation between his personal life and his literary self.

RS: His first separation from Felice Bauer took place after a very rough meeting in the Hotel Askanischer Hof in Berlin in July 1914. When Felice, accompanied by her sister Erna and her friend Grete Bloch, confronts him with his contradictions, Kafka immediately has a visual impression: these three women sitting opposite a man alone. And he turns this image into a metaphor: he thinks the situation resembles a courtroom, and he begins to ask himself questions based on this metaphor: “Who is my judge? Do I need a lawyer? What is my fault?” He starts to think in this way. But at the beginning, there is this visual impression of something experienced that just precedes the beginning of the writing of the Trial. Which is not to say that he writes autobiographically, but rather that he turns metaphors into stories that play a role in his personal life as well as in his literary self, his creativity. It’s like the circulation of blood.

I can say this because it is a pattern that repeats itself in his life and in other works. There is even evidence of this mechanism, a single instance where he described the conditions of writing one of his stories: The Verdict. Kafka says he wanted to describe a crowd crossing a bridge. He didn’t have a plot at the time, he simply started from this image. And in the end, not much remains of that initial vision, but the bridge remains.

RZ: What are your plans after this work of a lifetime?

RS: My initial idea after the biography was that I had accumulated so much knowledge about Kafka’s time – because I was really living in a parallel world for all those years – that I could do something with it. I could write a history of criminology, or a history of technology at that time. But the reception of the biography, which has been translated all over the place, is taking up a lot of my time and I haven’t yet managed to embark on a serious new project. A literary critic friend of mine, whom I see regularly, said to me: “Now that you are known all over the world as a biographer, you must write another biography.” I’d like to, but about whom? And above all: who could be as interesting as Franz Kafka?

Interview by Ruth Zylberman

Ruth Zylberman is a filmmaker and author (Les enfants du 209 rue Saint-Maur, Paris Xe; Le Procès, Prague 1952). She has also produced a series of podcasts for France Culture: “Felice, Milena, Dora, Ottla: quatre femmes avec Kafka”.

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