charming study with period illustrations and photos
This short biographical study offers an introduction to Kafka’s tragically short life and the formative influences on his work. It’s written by an expert, and presented in a very attractive manner with archive photographs on almost every page. Kafka’s own story is fairly well known. As he himself points out, he was born, went to school and university, then lived and worked within the radius of a few miles all his life. He had a passionate desire for independence, but lived most of the time even as an adult with his parents or his sister.
He had a love-hate relationship with his father which dominated his life, and he took very little interest in the publication of his work, even though he was regarded by others as the most important writer of his generation. Many other seminal figures in the modernist movement leave their traces in passing through Kafka’s life – the writer Karl Kraus, philosopher Rudolph Steiner, artist-writer Alfred Kubin, and even Albert Einstein. Prague in the early years of the last century was at the heart of European developments in art, literature, and music.
He had a lifelong friendship with the writer Max Brod, who was instructed to destroy all Kafka’s writing on his death. He reneged on his promise to do so, published Kafka’s work, and made him famous throughout the world.
Adler’s portrait humanises Kafka, making him seem less neurotic than other accounts – even including Kafka’s own version of himself in his diaries and notebooks. He emphasises Kafka’s skills as a lawyer, his professional experience in commerce and industry, and his active travelling as a risk assessor. He even points to Kafka’s fascination with clothes – described by a friend as ‘the best dressed man I ever met’.
Kafka captured like no other writer before him the angst and isolation of the individual confronted by the arbitrary and unjust forces of society. And yet in his personal life (despite the anguish he wrote about so eloquently) he enjoyed modern novelties such as the cinema, aeroplanes, and motor-cycles; he went swimming and followed the vogue for nudism; he had his fair share of sexual affairs, and he supplemented those with visits to brothels.
Adler traces Kafka’s tortured relationships with Greta Bloch, Milena Jesensksa, and Dora Dymant through to the tragic year of 1924 when the devaluation of the German Mark, the cold winter, and coal rationing left its mark on everyone and contributed to his death. Kafka even recorded the coal rationing in a small piece called ‘The Bucket Rider’. In typical Kafka-esque contradiction, he died just as he found his first taste of real happiness.
I was also glad to see that Adler records in an endnote the fact that so many of Kafka’s intimates, including his three sisters, were murdered in the Holocaust. It puts things into modernist perspective.
Adler offers en passant light readings of the major works in the light of Kafka’s life without plunging into the rather over-simplified biographical interpretation which affects so much Kafka criticism. But it is the photographs and illustrations which make this book such a pleasing experience. The images of old Prague streets which inspired so much of Kafka’s work are surrounded by sketches from his notebooks, book jacket designs from the first editions of his work, and photographs which you rarely see elsewhere – except this excellent compilation on YouTube.
© Roy Johnson 2002
Jeremy Adler, Franz Kafka, Woodstock NY: Overlook Press, 2001, pp.164, ISBN 0715632957