Kafka by Nicholas Murray
Once upon a time there was a weak, thin, bitterly lonely man - a man of constant sorrow. He drudged at a boring office job; he lived in the same small flat as his parents, even though he was terrified by his thug of a father. He never married, though he conducted doomed courtships, mainly by means of self-lacerating letters, in which he would present himself as a vile, sickly worm. At night, he would scribble cryptic little tales. He died young, unknown and in pain after a protracted illness. Dying, he asked his best friend to destroy all his manuscripts. The friend disobeyed. Books began to be published, then translated. Within a few years, the lonely man was quite famous. Within a few years more, he was famous beyond belief. People now said he was the greatest writer of his times: not just a literary genius, but a sage, a saint, a prophet, who depicted all the modern horrors he did not live to see.
There can hardly be a literate person in the West who would not recognise that abbreviated CV as the life of Franz Kafka (1883-1924): the man who wrote the most potent fables of the twentieth century has himself become the hero of a much-told fable. As one of the characters in Alan Bennett's acute farce Kafka's Dick points out, it is a particularly neat example of the modern Myth of the Artist - despised or neglected in his own time, triumphant in the eyes of posterity. It is also a variant of a much older parable, that of the Ugly Duckling, save that in the case of Kafka, the Duckling's posthumous blossoming was not into a elegant swan but a giant black bird of the crow family - for kavka is the Czech for "Jackdaw".
If the story is so well known, is there any need for a biographer to come along and tell it all over again, as Nicholas Murray now has? Oddly, the answer is a qualified "yes", partly because the real story of Kafka's life is, as real stories tend to be, a good deal more complex than the fable can allow, and partly because of a quirk in the nature of the Kafka industry. Kafka, Susan Sontag famously observed, attracts interpreters "like leeches" - to which one might add that Kafka is probably the only modern writer who would sympathise with leeches, as readily as with apes, dogs, mice and assorted vermin. (Murray repeats the story of Kafka visiting an aquarium after returning to his habitual vegetarian diet: "Now I can look into your eyes with a clear conscience", he told the fish.) By the early 1970s, the number of books and major articles on Kafka had already passed the 10,000 mark; better not to know the current total. A relatively small number of these interpretative effusions, though, have been biographical.
The key word there is "relatively". Despite the outrageous whopper told on the inner dust-jacket - send that blurb-writer off to the Penal Colony! - Murray's is decidedly not "the first [Kafka biography] for over twenty years". Peter Mailloux's brick-thick A Hesitation Before Birth was published in 1989, Frederick R. Karl's even longer Franz Kakfka: Representative Man in 1991, and there are plenty of other contenders, including Robert Crumb's comic-strip biography Kafka for Beginners (1993), a scurrilous work of art in its own right. Still, a lot of those works are either hard to come by or written for the specialist. Murray has met a legitimate gap in the market, and provided a sound, compact, refreshingly judicious introduction for the general reader.
His book confirms the once-improbable, now orthodox view that Kafka, while undeniably a world-class neurotic, was also a sportsman, a dandy, a flirt, a damned good insurance man, and a Fun Guy ("Kafka was always cheerful", said his last girlfriend, Dora Diamant). Popular, too: some 500 mourners attended his memorial service. Murray is also appropriately cautious about Kafka's reliability as a witness of his own life, and comes perilously close to siding with Franz's terrifying father Hermann, that orge for sensitive intellectuals everywhere. If there are no great surprises here, there is nothing to bemoan, either, since Murray does what all decent literary biographers should do: leaves the reader hungry to go, or go back, to the haunting and permanently elusive work which makes the unhappy life so extraordinary, such ready meat for fables.
Reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Sunday Times