While researching for his 3-part trilogy about Franz Kafka, biographer Reiner Stach found some interesting tidbits and scraps of writing from the author’s life. He has published these in several supplemental volumes: one being The Lost Writings and another being Is That Kafka? This book of “99 Finds” is essentially a mini-biography, told in vignettes and trivia about Kafka, spanning from his childhood (b. 1883) to his death (1924).
This was a surprise find in the library’s ebook collection, and I was not disappointed (except that now I wish I’d bought the book). It’s a combination of biography, literary, and historical-social anecdotes—in other words, right up my alley. Kafka was an interesting person in his own right, coming from a Jewish heritage, writing in German, and living in Bohemia, which underwent a various political changes during Kafka’s lifetime. Added to that his experiences as a lesser known author, a lawyer, and a ladies’ man, and there is a lot to learn from this book, about his life but also about the politics and social dynamics of the 1910s and 20s.
Some favorite quotes:
“…readers accept these as images…of life in modern, administrated, mass societies. For what makes these images so compelling are not the ideas concealed within them, always open to debate, but rather their aesthetic forms: the crystalline language, the provocative simplicity, the wealth of unheard-of, wonderful metaphors and paradoxes…” (Stach on why readers love Kafka, Preface)
“…any employees who had not been drafted were denied even their regular two-week vacation during the war.” (ch. 8, on the strictures during WWI)
“‘Of course my knees were trembling with fear the whole time I was laughing, and now my colleagues could laugh along with me all they wanted, they could never compete with the abomination of that laughter that I’d been preparing and practicing for so long, and so they went relatively unnoticed.'” (ch. 51, Kafka having a laugh attack at the office)
“The president of the Institute was the father of his school friend…it was only thanks to this personal relationship, and to Pribram’s intercession, that Kafka had any chance at all as a Jewish applicant [to the insurance company].” (ch. 51, on the types of discrimination against Jewish people)
“Kafka’s younger sister Ottla, was…completing her training in agriculture… for [her father], it was incomprehensible that Ottla was not following the example of her two sisters, preparing herself for city life as a housewife and mother.” (ch 58, Ottla wanting to become a farmer in rural Bohemia)
“Only you can help me. You must; because you’re the one who got me into this mess. So please tell me what my cousin is supposed to think when she reads the Metamorphosis.” (ch 82, the only known letter from a reader to Kafka)
“He was shy, nervous, gentle, and kind, but the books that he wrote were gruesome and painful.” (ch 99, obituary written by Milena)
There were more fascinating parts than I can share in one book review. I would definitely recommend this book on multiple levels.