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Kafka: The Decisive Years [Paperback]

Reiner Stach , Shelley Frisch
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

9 Jun 2013

This is the acclaimed central volume of the definitive biography of Franz Kafka. Reiner Stach spent more than a decade working with over four thousand pages of journals, letters, and literary fragments, many never before available, to re-create the atmosphere in which Kafka lived and worked from 1910 to 1915, the most important and best-documented years of his life. This period, which would prove crucial to Kafka's writing and set the course for the rest of his life, saw him working with astonishing intensity on his most seminal writings--The Trial, The Metamorphosis, The Man Who Disappeared (Amerika), and The Judgment. These are also the years of Kafka's fascination with Zionism; of his tumultuous engagement to Felice Bauer; and of the outbreak of World War I.

Kafka: The Decisive Years is at once an extraordinary portrait of the writer and a startlingly original contribution to the art of literary biography.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 552 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (9 Jun 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691147418
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691147413
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.8 x 3.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 98,763 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

One of The Guardian Best Books of 2013, chosen by Colm Tóibín

"Most impressive is Stach's recounting of the creation of his subject's writings. . . . Stach's own writing is wonderfully expressive."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"[S]uperbly tempered. . . . [T]hrough this robustly determined unearthing he rescues Kafka from the unearthliness of his repute. . . . Shelley Frisch, Stach's heroic American translator, movingly reproduces his intended breadth and pace and tone. . . . In this honest and honorable biography there is no trace of the Kafkaesque; but in it you may find a crystal granule of the Kafka who was."--Cynthia Ozick, New Republic

"A scrupulous, discriminating, and highly instructive account of Kafka's life."--Robert Alter, New Republic

"Stach aims to tell us all that can be known about [Kafka], avoiding the fancies and extrapolations of earlier biographers. The result is an enthralling synthesis, one that reads beautifully…. I can't say enough about the liveliness and richness of Stach's book…. Every page of this book feels excited, dynamic, utterly alive."--Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

"Stach's is a splendid effort and will be hard to surpass."--William H. Gass, Harper's Magazine

"A masterpiece of inspired biographical writing."--Choice

"Probing. . . . Essential reading."--Booklist (starred review)

"Magnificent."--Die Zeit

"Stach develops the various elements that play a role in Kafka's life brilliantly."--Der Spiegel

"The first great biography of Franz Kafka ... exciting and instructive from the first to the last page."--Tagesanzeiger

"This extraordinary biography fills the empty spaces between Kafka's own writings and the writings of friends, family, and contemporaries with so much empathy and imagination that one can't put it down."--Frankfurter Rundschau

"[M]onumental. . . . [A] superb English-language translation by Shelly Frisch . . . now reprinted in a handsome paperback by Princeton. . . . In this first volume, Stach sifts through that rubble with huge amounts of energy and discretion (and Frisch follows him without a misstep; it feels like exactly the book I read ten years ago in its original language). . . . His letters and journals are marshaled with sometimes breathtaking ingenuity, and the sheer scope of the work allows Stach to be expansive when painting his backgrounds. . . . Always in these recountings, Stach is searching for his elusive subject, trying--as all previous biographers have tried, though none so well--to hear Kafka's strange, singular voice in the noise. . . . Kafka: The Decisive Years was greeted with a loud chorus of praise when it first appeared in English, and the passage of almost a decade has cast no doubt on that verdict. Princeton has re-issued this classic so that it can stand next to the following volume, Kafka: The Years of Insight, newly published in hardcover. No one interested in Kafka (or, by almost inevitable extension, 20th century literature) should miss either."--Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly

"[F]lawlessly translated. . . . [A] wonderfully intelligent and perceptive portrait of a uniquely powerful writer."--PD Smith, Guardian

"Stach reads the work and the life with minute care and sympathy. He has a deep understanding of the world that Kafka came from and this is matched by an intelligence and tact about the impulse behind the work itself."--Colm Toibin, Irish Independent

About the Author

Reiner Stach worked extensively on the definitive edition of Kafka's collected works before embarking on this three-volume biography. The third volume, "Kafka: The Years of Insight" (Princeton), covering Kafka's final years, is also available. The first volume, covering Kafka's childhood and youth, is forthcoming.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reiner Stach: KAFKA: The Decisive Years 19 Aug 2013
By Brian G
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is the middle of a three-volume definitive biography of Franz Kafka (1883-1924), which is in fact the first proper and full biography of the writer ever published. Dealing with the middle years in Prague of Kafka's short life, it is as gripping as a novel, and the translation from the German is superb. Indispensable to anyone who has come under the spell of Kafka's compulsive idiom, including the three completed novels, the short stories and the Diaries. Kafka defined the 20th century both in terms of life and of literature; he is for all of us.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kafka: The Decisive Years 12 Dec 2005
By Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
>Washington Post, November 27, 2005

>Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch

>

> Like Pascal, Kierkegaard and Baudelaire, Franz Kafka (1883- 1924) is one of the great masters of spiritual desolation. We don't actually read his work, we are harrowed by it. In German of classical directness and purity, this desk functionary of the Prague Workers' Accident Insurance Institute presents tableau after tableau of what Pascal called " la misre de l'homme sans Dieu ," the misery of man without God. All of Kafka's unfortunate protagonists -- Georg Bendemann in "The Judgment," Gregor Samsa in "The Metamorphosis," Josef K. in The Trial -- struggle against the one great, serious truth about life: Each of us is fundamentally and inescapably alone, especially in the face of death.

>

> Oh, we may hope to lose ourselves in love, family or work, but these are just Potemkin villages, little more than flimsy movie sets. They can be knocked down with a single sharp blow. After all, a man could wake up one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic cockroach or suddenly arrested without having done anything wrong. Far-fetched? By no means. Some sunny afternoon, the X-ray will unexpectedly reveal a shadow no bigger than a baby's hand; one evening, after a pleasant dinner with wine, the phone will ring. And then, we, in our turn, will twitch and twist and finally give in to the inevitable, like the tormented prisoner of "In the Penal Colony."

>

> Kafka's stories are all parables of despair and helplessness, sorrowful emblems of the human condition. The all-important message from the emperor will never reach our ears, the hunger artist must die because he can't find anything he'd like to eat, the mole-like digger will always fail to construct a burrow, impregnable to his enemies, the door into the castle isn't ever, ever going to open. Is no redemption possible in this world? Of course it is -- just not for us.

>

> Kafka's work is, famously, susceptible to interpretations of all kinds. Nonetheless, most readers still tend to see the stories as fundamentally existential or theological, the modern equivalents to Plato's fables about caves and the origins of love or of Kierkegaard's many brief philosophical fictions. But, since the death (in 1968) of Kafka's literary executor, Max Brod, who pushed a sacerdotal view of his friend's writing, modern scholarship has turned to examining the actual life of this enigmatic artist. Certainly nobody, with one celebrated exception, actually creates ex nihilo . And so, we have now seen the careful publication of Kafka's holograph manuscripts, the scholarly editing of his every scrap, commentaries stressing his links to gesture-rich Yiddish theater and to cultural Zionism, speculation about his sexual life -- did he really have a son by Grete Bloch? -- and research into his actual daily work at the insurance office (he was a recognized authority on industrial accidents).

>

> Reiner Stach's Kafka builds on much of this research. By focusing on 1910 through 1915 -- the time in his late twenties and early thirties when Kafka fell in love with Felice Bauer and began to produce his first great stories -- Stach aims to tell us all that can be known about the writer, avoiding the fancies and extrapolations of earlier biographers. The result is an enthralling synthesis, one that reads beautifully, in part thanks to the excellence of Shelley Frisch's English.

>

> Though he avoids invention, Stach knows too much simply to present the facts and just the facts. With the kind of lan we associate with European intellectuals, he actively engages with his material, commenting or reflecting on its meaning. Take the correspondence with Felice Bauer. Stach admits that Kafka would have been appalled by the publication of these letters, but he then reflects on letter-writing as "one of the essential forms of modern individuality," goes on to note that mail posted on a Saturday night in Berlin (where Bauer lived) would be delivered on Sunday morning in Prague, and that Kafka so fetishized this young woman's letters that he carried them along on business trips. All this, and more, then serves to enhance a patient presentation of an agonized epistolary romance, the central thread of these crucial years.

>

> The evening that Kafka met Bauer -- August 13, 1912 -- is, Stach asserts, one of those landmark days in intellectual and literary history, like the October afternoon in 1749 when Rousseau suddenly grasped the corrupting nature of civilization during a walk to Vincennes or the night of Oct. 4, 1892, when Paul Valry decided to renounce poetry. A few days after that casual meeting, Kafka composed -- in a single night from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- his first masterpiece, "The Judgment," in which a father unexpectedly condemns his son to death. Stach aptly summarizes its importance:

>

> "Suddenly -- without guide or precedent, it seemed -- the Kafka cosmos was at hand, fully equipped with the 'Kafkaesque' inventory that now gives his work its distinctive character: the father figure who is both overpowering and dirty, the hollow rationality of the narrator, the juridical structures imposed on life, the dream logic of the plot, and last but not least, the flow of the story perpetually at odds with the hopes and expectations of the hero."

>

> Many months go by before Kafka again sees Bauer. During this time he confesses in his letters that he lives for literature alone, that he is unsociable, fearful, sickly, unhealthily thin, self-pitying, obsessive, neurotic, without interest in children and probably incapable of sexual intercourse. He has nothing to offer her, except his devotion -- and he's not even sure about that, since it might interfere with his writing.

>

> Meanwhile, Bauer is dealing with problems of her own. Kafka doesn't know that her father once abandoned her mother to live with another woman, that her sister is about to give birth to an illegitimate daughter and that her brother is a swindler (who eventually flees to America to avoid his creditors). Bauer has compensated by becoming a serious career woman, the sales representative for a dictation system called Parlographs. Her family counts on her, expects her to make a good match. So, naturally she falls more and more in love with this loser from Prague.

> Whenever the two meet, they are tongue-tied, and yet before long there is uncertain talk of marriage, eventually followed by a painful engagement ceremony. Not surprisingly, Kafka finally realizes that he simply can't face the prospect of a wedding and suddenly calls the whole thing off, at almost the last moment. Though Stach ends his book shortly after this, in 1915, Kafka fans know, Felice and Franz eventually started seeing each other again and, in 1917, they announced a second engagement. Kafka cancelled a second time, this time for good: By then, he was spitting up blood and diagnosed with tuberculosis. Nonetheless, he still had eight years to live and, surprisingly, there would be other women, as well as work on stories like "The Hunter Gracchus" and "A Hunger Artist" and the never-completed masterpiece The Castle .

>

> I can't say enough about the liveliness and richness of Stach's book. Even his chapter epigraphs, while apposite, are delightfully original. When he discusses Kafka's official duties, he heads the chapter with a quotation from the Portuguese writer (and sometime office worker) Fernando Pessoa: "What are desires compared to a promotion?" When he discusses "The Metamorphosis," he opens with a line from the pulp detective Charlie Chan: "Strange events permit themselves the luxury of occurring." In short, every page of this book feels excited, dynamic, utterly alive. My copy is now covered with pencilings and marginalia.

>

> Above all, though, Stach repeatedly underscores that Kafka never valued incompleteness or endorsed a romantic cult of the fragment. "The opposite is true. He greatly admired perfect formal unity and was determined to achieve it, a resolution evident in every one of his endeavors. His pursuit of formal perfection meant, his literary texts had to develop organically from their fictional and visual seed. There could be no arbitrary plot twists." After reminding us of Kafka's need to work in sustained bursts, he zeroes in on the author's creative problem: "Kafka suffered not from a lack of ideas but from a lack of continuations . . . . He demanded much more from his texts than formal unity; he sought. a seamless linking of all motifs, images, and concepts. . . . Not one detail of Kafka's descriptions, whether the color of a piece of clothing, a gesture, or simply the time of day, is merely illustrative. Everything carries meaning, refers to something, and recurs." Little wonder, almost everything fell short, in this quest for perfection.

>

> Near the end of these "decisive years" Kafka was working on The Trial. By now, he had written a handful of masterpieces -- and important professional reports for his insurance company; he had fallen in and out of love with Bauer while also flirting with (or even succumbing to) her close friend Grete Bloch; he had talked with Martin Buber about Zionism, dealt with the novelist Robert Musil as his editor, and attended a ballet in which Nijinksy danced. Though we must imagine Kafka in his noisy family apartment, living on vegetables and hidden in his room, we shouldn't forget, he also traveled to Venice and once stopped in Trieste, where he could have glimpsed Italo Svevo and James Joyce. (As he had learned Italian for his insurance work, he might have spoken to them.) And even this introspective and solipsistic genius eventually noticed when Europe went to war in 1914, though not for a while. His diary entry for August 2, 1914, reads: "Germany has declared war on Russia. --Swimming in the afternoon."

>

> Could this last, I have long wondered, be an example of Kafka's wit? (He could supposedly set his friends roaring with laughter when he read some of his stories aloud.) Certainly, one suspects a smile behind this passage in a letter to Bauer from 1913: "Are you finding any meaning in 'The Judgment,' I mean some straightforward, coherent meaning that can be followed? I am not finding any and I am also unable to explain anything in it." Many feel just as puzzled even now when they first finish reading the story.

>

> Such a strange man. But, this fine book helps us better understand that apparently-inexhaustible strangeness. Right now, Kafka even seems a useful counter-example to the ongoing cult of celebrity authors and bright, edgy writing. He destroys more than he publishes, he takes art as serious and life-changing; he views writing as a vocation of dissatisfaction, unhappiness and sacrifice. As he writes to Bauer: "I have no literary interests; I am made of literature. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else." This certainly sounds grandiose and exaggerated, but, in Kafka's case, it's also true.

> Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "All's well that ends well" 17 Jun 2006
By Rabel Stoltzfus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book itself is superb. The writing of Reiner Stach, at least as tranlated here by Frisch, is a wholly enveloping affair: sure enough, Kafka was a pessimist. Learning of his existence through the years 1910-15, I can't but think its a down-right shame the vegetarian hypochondriac with such a fragile psychology got no more satisfaction out of life than he did. There were fleeting glimses of ecstasy but on the whole, his was a sad, tortured life which has given me pause and cause to abandon dreams of ever wanting to cling to such high aesthetic standards as did Franz Kafka. Our tall, skinny genius became enmeshed and swallowed whole - very seldom was he able to emerge from underneath his crushing ambitions of literary perfection.

Stach makes you feel for the guy without for a second resorting to pithy sentiment and thinly veiled excuse-making. This book makes me want to enjoy life in so many more ways than Kafka seemed to have denied himself. Tragic (sort of). Crushing. It seemed preventable - as though he chose to suffer for his writing - but I live in America c. 2006.

I mark this book right up there with Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky (though I got a good deal more satisfaction out of Frank's work; it could have been simply the nature of the subjects being written about). As for the book itself -- Five Stars. Certainly.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Subtle intoxication 19 Nov 2007
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Somehow this bio transcends academic pretense to present a picture of a man in a room trying to write something, anything. Any writer who has ever struggled to fill the blank white page will greatly appreciate this work. It dymstifies without being stupefying. the translator should be applauded for what appears to be a first rate translation. hopefully the same translator will be involved for the next two volumes although this is such a personal look at the writer and thinker it is hard to imagine what else could be written in the other two volumes. this is the man stripped bare before a mirror while maintaining a dignity enjoyed by few writers of his era. Kafka was truly a writer ahead of his time, so far ahead of even the most serious of philosophers and thinkers of his age that he could have easily fit into the 1950s as in the turn of the century 20th. He in an odd way predicts the very alienation we now face in our daily lives writing from an era when seconds and minutes meant little but now appear to mean so much. He predates the modern era with a life that is Dante-esque in its vision of the 20th and 21st century as the fifth circle of purgatorial existence. Complete with not one but two Beatrices to accompany his short life. BRAVO!
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kafka: The Decisive Years 29 Jun 2006
By TC - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Leaving description to Amazon and other reviewers, I wanted to leave only a few words of praise for this fine book, and its lovely prose. Kafka's biography unfolds clearly. Parallels between his work and the occurrences in his personal and professional life (Kafka was a lawyer and civil servant in the insurance industry) are described precisely. The book reveals a highly neurotic man that defied early 20th century Prague jewish community conventions, in the process leaving behind a profound footprint on world literature.

I loved this book!
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stellar biography (and translation) 7 April 2006
By Biographia - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a dense, but very enjoyable, examination of the life and work of one of the more intriguing minds in literary history. Every page seems to offer something extraordinary, a detail so jarring, yet right, somehow, that it might have been lifted from a tale by Kafka himself.

The description of Kafka's father's workers casually brushing asbestos off their clothes after their factory shifts, as if primping for an evening on the town, is just one compelling, Kafkaesque detail in a book that's replete with them. The result is fascinating reading.

Along the way, many myths are debunked, including the wellworn cliche of how the writer's famous story, "The Metamorphosis," was born. The oft-told story of Kafka spying a roach crossing a page at a critical creative moment is roundly dismissed. Instead, Stach offers a more plausible version, masterfully recounted, beginning with the words: "Kafka lay on his back and let his eyes wander across the walls and ceiling. It was cold, and a gloomy gray November light was creeping in, as it had for days. Condensation dripped from the window."

As this quote indicates, this volume is a sustained glimpse into a fascinating writer and mind, made even more haunting by its superb translation (by Shelley Frisch).
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