Kafka: The Early Years

Reiner Stach, trans. from the German by Shelley Frisch. Princeton Univ., $35 (648p) ISBN 978-0-691-15198-4
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.)
Reviewed on: 09/19/2016
Release date: 11/01/2016
Genre: Nonfiction
Hardcover - 581 pages - 978-0-15-100752-3
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