“K: A Biography of Kafka” by Ronald Hayman review
Review by James Williams
“The Judgment” was started in 1912. Kafka was 29 and he wrote all night, finding energy and inspiration. He would write most of his stories after this in a similar fashion: sitting and pumping them out of himself, as if it was absolutely necessary, in one night. Kafka seems like many other creative people in this way; he searched for a particular momentum and, once found, just couldn’t let it go. I think it’s safe to say a century later that the literary world has been affected by these night-long rolls of Kafka. He is certainly the most interesting writer I’ve ever read, and this interest comes from how much attention he has received. Truthfully, I love the attention he gets, but something I find rather disturbing about Hayworth’s account of Kafka’s life is the reader never learns why Kafka has been given so much attention. I suppose he figures we’ll be our own judge of his writings, which I admire, but I’m still curious about the opinions of the more literary. So what is it about Kafka that interests?
Kafka wasn’t a very productive writer in the quantitative sense or even a writer by trade as his law school status shows us. Hayworth wrote, “In November Kafka resumed his legal studies, from which there would now be no reprieve until he graduated in 1906, and during the first year of settling down to law he wrote almost nothing.” Kafka hated this about his life, preferring to complain though, rather than to seek some sort of self-revival, which might have given him a freedom the likes of which he had before choosing any sort of vocation like Kafka had done by entering law school.
Kafka, as Hayworth notes throughout the book, was bullied by his father and so feared his disappointment even though disappointment was basically unavoidable and reciprocated. Kafka’s intense studies perhaps buried him even further into a life he didn’t want; the deeper he dove into the material, the less likely he was to get out. So, early on, Kafka was setting the tone for his life, a tone which is reflected in all of his writings, even those in his diary.
As is obvious from reading the Hayworth book, Kafka kept a diary which varied little in content throughout his keepings. Most of what we’re given – and we are provided by Hayworth with direct diary samples – is about the despair and hopelessness from which Kafka suffered. His failure feelings were not limited to one particular area of his life, but instead consumed almost all areas of his life. His difficulty in social situations contributed to his difficulty in love and these were perhaps both a result of discomfort in his family with his parents, and they likely are the reason he spent his life doing a job which robbed him of his energies as a creative writer. His life, on paper, seems like one great downfall, but the complaining is laid on so thick that one begins to feel agitated by the endless bellyaching after awhile. Because the fragments that made up his life and most of our lives are so interconnected, I wonder if positivity and hope would have shown themselves in his writings if one area — for instance, his permanent residence – were changed significantly. Though, as I have written, we receive other subject matter as well.
Kafka took well documented vacations from his job at the institute and his writings while on holiday are those most likely to stray from the beaten path of self-deprecating text that the reader becomes used to and, quite frankly, sick of. One of the best examples comes from his joint vacation with Max Brod on which Brod encouraged Kafka to record everything he saw. In a diary passage selected by Hayworth, the reader finds ramblings describing some sort of outdoor event and Kafka provides very vague descriptions, but one must hesitate to be overly judgmental of a writer’s diary. I would guess, based on Kafka’s self-hatred, he wanted no one to read these accounts of what he’d seen. At times, it feels like a crime to be reading these diary entries at all.
Kafka frequented the theatre, but also consumed plays in text form: “On 24 October he saw Yakor Gordin’s play Der wilde Mesch, and the following day Lowy read to him all afternoon from Gordin’s play Gott, Mensch, Teufel (God, Man, Devil) as well as from his own diaries.” Being surrounded by literary companions is part of the reason Kafka is read so often, maybe even read at all. Not just because they encouraged him to write, but they also had a hand in publishing and so what Kafka saw as worthless, others saw as having great potential.
In Kafka’s life story we find many different women with whom he kept in touch, but none of them is as prominent as Felice Bauer. Her communication with Kafka takes up much of the book’s pages and appropriately so; she stirred up so much emotion in him that it compelled him to write. What the reader might take from this is further proof of Kafka’s self-tormenting. In his fiction writings, he wrote nothing of love with or for a woman, but rather stories which reflect no such thing.
Even in Kafka’s promising relationships he found great suffering, though the literary world seems richer for it. Kafka, who wanted most of his writings burned (and some of them were), probably never dreamed of nor wanted to be read on such a grand scale, but the proof of support was present even in his lifetime as those who did have the pleasure of reading his work or having his work read to them really supported it. Of course, that didn’t seem to phase the author as he continued to suffer from depression…but, he also continued to find reason to write.
Hayworth discusses some of Kafka’s works in greater depth. One of the best examples is with one of Kafka’s better known samples, The Trial, or Der Prozess. Hayworth writes, “The story is more like a parable than the final chapter of Der Verschollene or ‘In der Strafkolonie’, and the cathedral context arouses expectations that it may have a religious meaning.” Hayworth’s speculations will prove more interesting to those familiar with Kafka’s whole catalog and not with the more popular Kafka writings (Metamorphosis, The Trial). It would be unfair to criticize Hayworth’s understandings, though, because his knowledge and research of Kafka is so well documented in the book that one has reason to believe his interpretations of Kafka’s writings are worthwhile. My point is simply, having not read much of what is cross-referenced, there is not much ground for return comment.
I recommend “K: A Biography of Kafka” to people who have read Kafka. The book will be somewhat boring to those unfamiliar with his writing because his life was relatively uneventful and rather redundant. Those who find the man’s writing interesting, however, may enjoy learning what influenced the man to write it.