Franz Kafka is the modern template for ‘tortured genius.’ He once wrote that a book should be “an axe for the frozen sea within us.” Assuming, of course, that everyone has a frozen sea inside them…
In this biography, Louis Begley takes us deep into Kafka’s personal communication, his letters, his diaries, to show us a man so conflicted he verges on complete lack of self-awareness. He asks a woman to marry him, and in the same letter, lists a dozen or so reasons why she shouldn’t. She says yes, and he immediately goes into relationship-destruction mode, until she breaks it off, citing many of the reasons he originally gave her. He then enlists her mother to convince her to marry him.
Begley creates a bitterly funny portrait of a man that many would like to idealise as a romantic tragedy. Pointing out the embarrassing parts of Kafka’s letters, Begley highlights Kafka’s genius for words alongside his painfully nosey need for control over the women in his life. To Felice, his fiancee, Kafka wrote, “You must record, for instance, at what time you get to the office, what you had for breakfast, what you see from your office window, whit kind of work you do there, the names of your male and female friends, why you get presents, who tries to undermine your health by giving you sweets… ”
Discussing Felice’s position, Begley writes, “[Kafka] was entitled to write letters to her and to receive answers,” because the point of the letters was eventual marriage. Begley clearly sympathizes with Felice: “Instead, [Felice] found herself involved in epistolary exchanges with a maniac.”
Begley is no ordinary historian – he’s the author of the wryly comic, melancholic novel About Schmidt – and his biography of Kafka is full of witty humour. He jokes about Kafka’s dire worldview… but he’s genuinely compassionate about the real terror and internal shame faced by Jewish people of early twentieth century Prague.
It’s a fantastic biography: a sympathetic, searingly honest and strangely funny portrait of a man we usually take quite seriously.
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