24 November 2023

Franz Kafka.

“Kafka. Tome I. Le temps des decisions” (Kafka. Die Jahre der Entscheidungen), by Reiner Stach, translated from German by Régis Quatresous, Le Cherche Midi, 956 p., €29.50, digital €20.

It therefore took more than twenty years for this three-volume biography of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) by the German Reiner Stach to begin to be translated into French. Strange delay, redoubled by the fact that this first volume appeared with a publisher who was not a priori linked to the work of the Prague writer. It is, however, the first large-scale enterprise embracing the whole of this course. Until now, this had only been approached from a particular angle (sexuality, Judaism, social protest), or through the prism of a circumscribed era (such as the Franz Kafka. Youthful yearsby Klaus Wagenbach, Mercure de France, 1967).

Also read this interview from 2018: Article reserved for our subscribers Reiner Stach: “It’s only now that Kafka’s world becomes reality”

Reiner Stach devoted a good twenty years of his life to recounting this existence from start to finish, from 1996 to 2014. As in the German edition, the cycle begins in the middle, with a volume devoted to a short period (1910-1915), but very documented and, literaryly, the most fruitful. Kafka undertakes his famous Logwrote several hundred letters to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, wrote what would become The verdict, Metamorphosis, America And The trialand began publishing plays with the Leipzig publisher Rowohlt.

This meticulous reconstruction composes a destiny much richer than that of the simple office worker to whom he is often reduced. Reiner Stach twists the necks of several “Kafkaesque” myths here. While we readily imagine an isolated, cursed and suicidal Kafka, he paints the portrait of a being who is certainly reserved and sometimes awkward, but sociable, made attractive and mysterious by his tall stature and his face of a Hindu prince. His Kafka is facetious, full of humor. If he was a follower of Lebensreformbewegung (“reform of life”), occasionally practicing nudism, herbal medicine and vegetarianism, his days were anything but monastic. His activity in an insurance company robbed him of precious hours of writing, of which he never ceased to complain. But this young doctor of law had nothing of a marginal or a misanthrope.

A deep reflection on writing

If Kafka revolutionized Western literature by combining fantasy and modernity, he did not despise the classics, shows Stach. An assiduous reader of Flaubert, he also appreciated the Basel poet Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1828), worshiped Napoleon as well as Goethe, whose house in Weimar he visited in the company of his friend Max Brod (paying court there assiduously to the guardians’ daughter, Margarethe Kirchner, aged 16). But beyond these updates and countless anecdotes, often told for the first time, this story is coupled with a deep reflection on writing and the art of biography.

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