Born in 1928, Maurice Sendak grew up in Brooklyn, the child of Polish immigrants. On the day of Sendak’s bar mitzvah, his father learned that his family in Poland had all been killed. ‘And I was having the big party at the colonial club, the old mansion in Brooklyn,’ Sendak recalled. His mother told him that his father wouldn’t be able to come to the party. So Sendak went in and screamed at his father; he said he had to attend; his father attended. In telling the anecdote in interviews years later, Sendak described looking at his father’s face during the singing of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ and recognising that he had done something very bad. ‘What did I know? This 13-year-old ersatz man. Trying to handle 15 cheap Parker pens.’
Children are mostly wrong, but also superior to us. Reading Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Early Years, I found myself thinking often of Sendak. Maybe this is only because I read too many children’s books too many times, and such rereading makes Kabbalah from anything. Or maybe, more tendentiously, because Sendak and Kafka were both secular Jews whose Jewish upbringing is visible in their work. But also: Sendak is a writer whose art comes from holding on to the intelligently correct perspective of childhood. Sendak’s wild things were modelled, he said, on the yellow teeth and bloodshot eyes of his Polish refugee aunts and uncles who would come over at weekends, terrifying him with kisses and hugs: ‘We’ll eat you up – we love you so!’ In the Night Kitchen is a dreamscape in which nude Mickey is nearly baked in a cake by Hitler-moustached chefs whom he later pleases by flying his plane into a bottle of milk and pouring milk in the batter. I had never before thought of Kafka as a writer whose vision was especially related to childhood – no one has ever been tempted to call him Prague’s Blake – but I do now see something of that. It seems worth noting that the only corner of literature as densely populated with characters who are (or once were) animals is children’s literature, though Soviet literature under Stalin is also, arguably, a contender. What do those books know?
Kafka: The Early Years is the third and final volume of Stach’s landmark biography.In the introduction the translator, Shelley Frisch, explains that The Early Years was written last rather than first because Stach was waiting for papers in Max Brod’s keeping to make their way out of a 39-year Jarndycean legal fog. So this volume is the first biographical work on Kafka that has had access to the three volumes of Brod’s diaries, as well as the rest of the literary estate, whose detailed inventory is described as running to 170 pages. Don’t be carried away: there are still no home movies (though there are some details of Kafka’s own visits to the movies, even down to a mention of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which Stach surmises Kafka missed). There’s almost no juvenilia, just one entry in a friend’s poetry album, written when Kafka was 14: ‘There is a coming and a going,/A parting and often no – meeting again.’
The Early Years does teach us that young Kafka often went ice-skating: sometimes on the frozen Vltava river, sometimes at a skating rink. Yet, Stach points out, ice-skating almost never appears in Kafka’s notes or fiction. Which is nice to notice. I’m not being facetious: Stach often does quietly brilliant work connecting known details of Kafka’s youth to the older Kafka, so the reader can see how events appear (or don’t) in the specific subjectivity of Kafka’s recollection. We learn what stuck, and what didn’t, in the odd glitter-on-glue project of remembered experience.
Consider this anecdote about the six-year-old Kafka. His parents decided to send their bilingual son to a German elementary school rather than a Czech one. Stach explains that ‘there were nationalistically motivated bullies even among the youngest children, on both sides’ and that to get to the German school, Kafka would have to pass the Czech one, and so Kafka’s parents, fearing fights among the children, decided that young Franz would be walked to school by the family cook; being escorted was a norm at some schools in the city, but not the one to which Kafka went.
Decades later, Kafka wrote about this arrangement in great detail in a letter to one of his fiancées, Milena Jesenská, beginning: ‘Our cook, a small dry skinny pointy-nosed, hollow-cheeked, jaundiced woman, yet firm, energetic and haughty, brought me to school every morning.’ The enmity among the schools is not touched on in the letter, nor is the politically charged choice between German and Czech-language education – Czech was seen as the language of the rising heaving masses, German to be in dangerous alliance with the uppity powers in a distant city. Instead the perspective remains the intensely personal one of the child. He continues:
On our way out of the house the cook would say she was going to tell the teacher how naughty I had been at home. Well, I probably wasn’t all that badly behaved, but I was defiant, useless, sad, ill-tempered, and probably to the point that she could always concoct something nice for the teacher. I knew that and so didn’t take the cook’s threats too lightly. Even so, I first thought that the way to school was terribly long and that many things could still happen along the way (that feeling of anxiety and dead-eyed seriousness developed out of such apparently childish nonsense, gradually, since no way is ever so terribly long), moreover, at least while on Altstädter Ring, I still doubted whether the cook, who commanded respect, but only in a domestic setting, would even dare speak to the teacher, who commanded the respect of the world. I might then say something to that effect, and the cook would usually answer curtly, with her thin pitiless lips, that I didn’t have to believe it, but she would say it … School in itself was already a nightmare and now the cook wanted to make it even worse. I would start to beg, she would shake her head; the more I pleaded, the more precious was what I was pleading for, or so it appeared to me, and the greater the danger … I would threaten her with retaliation from my parents, she would laugh … I would cling to the doors of the shops, to the cornerstones, I didn’t want to go any further until she had forgiven me, I would pull her back by her skirt (she didn’t have an easy time of it either) but she would drag me on, assuring me that this, too, would be reported to the teacher.
Finally Kafka’s fear of being late would overtake his terror of being called naughty (‘I always had the greatest fear of being late’). He and the cook would then run the remaining distance to school. ‘She never did tell, not once,’ Kafka recalls. But he can’t end the sentence there, continuing, even as an adult, to say: ‘but there was always the possibility she might … on which she never stopped insisting.’
The whole letter is a wonder to read, nearly as good as a passage from one of his stories. He acknowledges the child’s distorted sense of scale – ‘no way is ever so terribly long’ – but still adds to his already pitiless initial characterisation with ‘her thin pitiless lips’. He describes school as ‘a nightmare’, which we assume is subjectively accurate even as it cuts against other facts we learn. With the backlight of Kafka’s genius, and also seeing him as the employer and not the employee, it’s difficult not to feel sorrier for the ‘skinny pointy-nosed, hollow-cheeked, jaundiced’ cook than for little Kafka. It seems plausible that even if the cook had been angelic in every way, and impossibly educated in 21st-century child-rearing philosophies, young Kafka, just as a manifestation of deep character, would have felt threatened, overpowered and helpless. Young Kafka was also perennially convinced he was about to fail out of school, despite always getting top marks and the approval of his teachers. Even stranger, the older Kafka held onto these feelings. In a letter to his father, he wrote:
Often in my mind’s eye I saw the frightful assembly of the teachers (the Gymnasium is only the most obvious example, but it was similar all around me), with them meeting, when I had passed the first class, and then in the second class, when I had passed that, and then in the third, and so on, in order to examine this unique, outrageous case, to discover how I, the most incapable, or at least the most ignorant of all, had succeeded in creeping up as far as this class, which now, when everybody’s attention had at last been focused on me, would of course instantly spew me out, to the jubilation of all the righteous liberated from this nightmare.
In other words, he needed more attention. And in a rare finale to the child epic – when will I be the centre of tremendous attention? – his nightmare comes true, with the last ambivalent twist of the attention being worship.
I don’t mean to disparage Kafka (obviously) but to delineate a childlike part of his vision and how it works. Stach observes that we might wonder how literally to take such anecdotes. ‘There is no mistaking the epic shaping of his memories and his quest to narrate gripping stories.’ And there were threats to the young Kafka’s wellbeing; the cook isn’t the source of them but becomes their near-avatar. In 1897, when Kafka was 14, the same school, the site of so much angst (at least in reflection), was attacked as part of a wave of nationalist Czech violence that came to be known as the December Storm – but of this, we find no direct note in Kafka’s journals or prose. In the face of other actual threats – drinking orange soda during a cholera outbreak when he travelled to Milan with Brod, the progression of his tuberculosis – Kafka, Stach points out, was at once stoic and inclined to take risks. So we are left with the premonitory quality of a childish perspective. The story of the cook – we might say the parable of the cook – relies on a kind of attribution error, but an artistically useful one, and, in its way, an error that has precision, in that it gets details of the emotional dynamic just right, but then makes one tidy swap. Dreams and literature often speak through precise errors.
Much of The Early Years is given over to historical and political context. We learn that Franz – ‘a delicate but healthy child’ – was born on the day of a shocking election. Eligibility to vote was based on how much one paid in taxes, and the kaiser, Franz Joseph I, had slashed that amount in half; Czech voters now outnumbered German voters for the first time. The Jewish butchers, said to have voted Czech, were thought to have been the deciding factor in the Czech win. The Germans were not pleased. And when the Germans voiced their displeasure, the Czechs were not pleased.
Populist hysteria and violence are major characters throughout the biography, more so than, say, Kafka’s sisters, who share a slim chapter. This seems about right. Stach describes the decade of Kafka’s birth, the 1880s, as a time of resentment politics and scapegoating. In addition to the December Storm that led to Kafka’s school being attacked, we learn about the 1883 negotiations ‘held in Prague between politicians from Vienna, Hungary and Bohemia that actually contemplated “a reconciliation of the populaces on the basis of anti-Semitism”’. Considerable space is given over to detailing the Hilsner trials of 1899 and 1900, in which blood libel accusations were pinned on a poor Jewish vagrant in relation to the murder of two young women. Witnesses at the trials gave highly variant stories of sighting other Jews with Hilsner, and tools associated with ritual murder. Stach also goes back in time to a brutal show trial in central Prague in 1620, in which 27 men were publicly executed, with many of their severed heads impaled and displayed for ten years on the Bridge Tower; he also points out that this series of executions took place steps from the ‘modern’ wonder of a mechanised astronomical clock.
Kafka is an exceptionally weak candidate for an everyman figure, and yet one of the pleasures of this volume of his biography is that reading about him and his historical period in such detail, and preceding not just his fame but the majority of his writing, we can, for moments here and there, forget that he ever wrote much of anything. He becomes the son of a couple who put all of their money uncertainly into a cotton and thread business, and who handle the deaths of several children. We see his father, much maligned by Kafka, coming from hungry and uneducated country stock and his mother from a more sophisticated merchant family. We see his mother, Julie, working close to full time (which Stach cites as evidence of Kafka’s sense of permanent transience), and both parents managing the careers unclearly available to Jewish people of the time; even their presence in Prague was permitted only because they were part of a quota of Jewish families. We see Kafka as a young man travelling to Paris for the first time with a friend, and their exuberant plan to make money writing a series of travel guides they planned to call ‘On the Cheap’ (as in ‘Italy on the Cheap’ etc). We follow the story of one of Kafka’s friends, Hugo Bergmann, who despite his brilliance wasn’t allowed to pursue post-doctoral studies, who only after years ‘finally advanced to the rank of library assistant, with a salary far below Kafka’s’. Stach closes the chapter like a novelist: ‘Kafka harped on the fact he had not any real freedom in choosing his profession. Of course he hadn’t; no Jew did.’
In this darkly ordinary light, Kafka’s parents’ misguided attempts at control and management seem at once touching and comic. A Czech language tutor – although he was going to the German school, the Kafkas wanted to make sure their son could move in both linguistic realms – was dismissed after the 11-year-old Kafka asked the 16-year-old Czech where babies came from. Not really knowing, the tutor answered that ‘Papa and Mama pray as hard as they can and their new baby appears in bed.’ When Julie Kafka learned of the conversation, she gave the older boy three guldens and let him know he wouldn’t be needed anymore.
The image of Kafka as a young adult that Stach gives us isn’t only boyish; it alternates with remarkable maturity. In one scene at his job, thanking the president of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for an important promotion, he repeatedly broke out into hysterical laughter. Only a short time later, just 25, he wrote a paper called ‘Scope of Compulsory Insurance for the Construction Industry and the Subsidiary Construction Industries’, which crucially intervened to protect the rights of injured construction workers. Kafka loved adventure stories into his adulthood, writing ‘The Wish to Be an Indian’ at around the time he wrote the also admirable ‘Accident Prevention in Quarries’.
However, in his writing outside his office job, one feels him holding on – unrelentingly – to the intensely personal, narrow perspective of youth, especially to his terror of his father. ‘You asked me recently why I maintain I am afraid of you,’ he wrote, at the age of 36, in his famous 45-page letter to his father (he gave it to his mother to pass along though she never did). One of the interesting footnotes in The Early Years quotes from the only surviving account of his father that predates Kafka’s fame: one of his employees describes him in his journals as gentle and wise. Whether or not he was gentle and wise is beside the point, in that Kafka consistently uses him or another near or imagined power figure as a stand-in for power simpliciter; in this way his stories take on their special transmissibility, making them like those seeds in pine cones that remain sealed until a forest fire melts their resin and releases them; such pyriscent seeds are the first to grow on scorched earth.
Ultimately, one feels that whatever parents and upbringing Kafka had, he had a strange ability to see the potential extremes of oppression even in childish nonsense (just as Max in Where the Wild Things Are takes a small disciplining as reason to set off across many years and seas) and at the same time sense in his minor power of tantrum the will to power of a ruler. Stach brings up the idea of ‘catalyst trauma’, the idea of a trauma – like much of what Kafka impugns to his father – as ‘less the cause than the expression of suffering’, with the events that are often noted as pivotal in autobiographical accounts deriving their meaning ‘primarily from its painful substantiation of an anxious expectation’. ‘I don’t want to develop in any particular way,’ Kafka wrote shortly before he died. ‘I want to go to a different place.’
I have been, since I can remember, someone not confused by ‘the Brod problem’: that is, the problem Brod faced of whether or not to follow Kafka’s expressed wishes (which seem childish to me) to burn his papers. I just couldn’t see the problem. How many elephants can you fit in a Volkswagen? the old joke starts. Three in the back and two in the front. Kafka could have burned the papers himself: the wishes were clearly a cover-up for the real wishes, the true destiny, and who cares about the wishes of the dead anyway? You can perhaps see the excess of practicality and what is sometimes called maturity in play. I felt similarly unmoved by Kafka’s famous (boyish) quote about taking an axe to the frozen sea within us. Sure, yes, but also ice-skating; let’s be reasonable.
Which is wrong, of course. There is a confusion. I said the only place with as many animals as Kafka is children’s literature, but also books written under Stalinist censorship. We might ask: what is being censored, and returning in costume as a dog or a mole or a mouse? Think of that movingly strange obedience at the beginning of The Trial: Josef K shows up uncoerced. And in the first instance of his encounter with the police, we read: ‘He finally found his bicycle licence and was about to take that to the guards, but then it seemed too insignificant a document and he kept on looking until he found his birth certificate.’ Being born does feel at once exculpatory and incriminating, from a certain perspective. One of the police officers says of him: ‘Look at this, Willem, he admits he doesn’t know the law and at the same time insists he’s innocent.’ ‘You’re quite right, but we can’t get him to understand a thing,’ the other says. What I think can fairly be called the emotional hyperbole of the childish perspective is also a special intelligence, one that is in touch with a faith most of us lose: that maybe the world makes sense and is just. A beautiful, childlike and necessary faith in justice persists in Josef K; this is his undoing. But also it is a kind of making. Kafka’s lifelong anger at his father seems part of an unreasonable hope of recognition and change, but also an intuition of the hope’s unreasonability. We recall Kafka’s famous comment to Brod, about which we might ask from which perspective it is true: ‘There’s plenty of hope, an infinity of hope – but not for us.’