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This is the first of a three-volume, definitive biography of Franz Kafka. Eighty years after his death in 1924, Kafka remains one of the most intriguing figures in the history of world literature. Now, after more than a decade of research, working with over four thousand pages of journal entries, letters, and literary fragments, Reiner Stach re-creates the atmosphere in which Kafka lived and worked from 1910 to 1915. These are the years of Kafka's fascination with early forms of Zionism despite his longing to be assimilated into the minority German culture in Prague; of his off-again, on-again engagement to Felice Bauer; of the outbreak of World War I; and above all of the composition of his seminal works-The Metamorphosis, Amerika, The Judgment, and The Trial.
Kafka:The Decisive Years-at once an extraordinary portrait of the writer and an original contribution to the art of literary biography.
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REINER STACH is a widely respected writer, editor, and scholar. After working extensively on the definitive edition of Kafka's collected works, he devoted more than a decade to researching and writing this biography. He lives in Hamburg.
At Home with the Kafkas
The guiding principle of every community is
accepting others in order to be accepted.
-Franz Grillparzer, Diary
I SIT IN my room in the headquarters of the noise of the whole apartment. I hear all the doors slamming; their noise spares me only the steps of the people running between them; I can still hear the oven door banging shut in the kitchen. My father bursts through the door to my room and passes through, his robe trailing; the ashes are being scraped out of the stove in the next room; Valli asks, shouting one word after the other through the foyer, whether Father's hat has been cleaned yet; a hushing sound that aims to be friendly to me raises the screech of a voice in reply. The apartment door is unlatched and makes a grating noise like a scratchy throat, then opens wider with the singing of a woman's voice, and finally closes with a dull manly bang, which is the most inconsiderate sound of all. Father is gone; now the subtler, more diffuse, more hopeless noise begins, led by the voices of the two canaries. I had been thinking about it earlier, and with the canaries it now occurred to me again that I might open the door a tiny crack, slither into the next room like a snake and in that way, on the floor, ask my sisters and their governess for peace and quiet.
Kafka called this prose piece "Great Noise." He jotted it down in his diary on November 5, 1911, and about a year later published it in a Prague literary journal, for the "public flogging of my family,"1 since the circumstances depicted in it had not changed in the slightest. It is unlikely that Hermann Kafka ever saw with his own eyes the mark that his trailing robe left on German literature. Although Kafka's father was a stocky man and not yet sixty years old, no one was allowed to "excite" him. His blood pressure was out of control, he had respiratory and cardiac problems, and he did not appreciate humor at his own expense. Kafka's three sisters were sure to have greeted their author's copies with a flurry of giggles. "Valli" was there in black and white; Kafka had not even disguised the name of his middle sister.
The text had been written on a Sunday, and the few friends who knew the details of Kafka's life at home probably had a flash of recognition that this was the typical Sunday noise. Any other morning on the fourth floor of the apartment building at Niklasstrasse 36 in Prague was ruled by the dictates of the tenants' jobs. No one had the leisure to sit still at the table and record the acoustic events.
Mornings in the Kafka household typically began at about 6 A.M. The tedious and noisy manual labor was of course left to a servant girl: removing the ashes from the kitchen stove, preparing breakfast, heating the living room, and preparing warm water for washing. Still, Kafka's youngest sister, Ottilie, known as Ottla, had to get up just afterward. The daily morning chore that had fallen to her for years needed to be taken care of right after a quick breakfast. She hurried over to Zeltnergasse-near the Altstädter Ring, about a kilometer away-with a set of keys to unlock Hermann Kafka's fancy goods store. The staff began arriving as early as 7:15.
Once Ottla had left the house, it was high time for Kafka to get out of bed. His small unheated room was poorly situated: between his parents' bedroom and the living room. On the one side there were clattering dishes; on the other he heard his mother whispering and the inconsiderate, loud yawning of his father, who tossed and turned in the creaking bed. Yet another problem was the door to the hall, which had panes of ornamented matte glass. Whenever somebody turned on the light outside, it shone inside as well.
Kafka's apartment was cramped and congested. His father's booming voice resounded throughout the apartment. Visitors were always greeted by the entire family, and a conversation in private required special arrangements if one did not want to be limited to surreptitious gestures. Nonetheless, there are no indications in Kafka's remarks that anyone actually suffered from this lack of privacy-apart from Kafka himself, of course. On Sunday mornings he was always overcome by slight nausea (a feeling he could not mention in his story) when he saw his parents' rumpled bedsheets only a few steps from his own bed. Yet he was in no position to complain: after all, he was the only family member to have his own room; his three sisters, Elli, Valli, and Ottla, had had to make do with a single "girls' room." Elli got married in the fall of 1910 and left the apartment. Kafka continued to share his living space with five adults (including the servant girl). The inhospitable atmosphere of the morning routine made him think more and more about putting an end to this situation.
There was no point trying to stretch out and luxuriate in bed for a last few minutes before getting up. The infamous canaries in the adjoining room (who were always replaced by new ones when they died) added to the ruckus, and Kafka dashed off to the bathroom to begin his fastidious routine of washing, combing his hair, and shaving. He treasured the luxury of having his own bathroom, which had been one of the primary factors in selecting this apartment. As the Kafkas knew from experience, there were plenty of lodgings in Prague that required occupants to carry in water; the tedious dealing with buckets and washbasins was both strenuous and time-consuming, and would hardly allow Kafka to maintain his rigid hygienic standards unless he began each day much earlier.
The efficient layout of the bathroom did nothing to change the fact that his morning routine was a long-drawn-out procedure. Rarely did he find the time to linger at the breakfast table longer than strictly necessary. Breakfast consisted of pastries, milk, and stewed fruit. At the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute, an official's workday began at 8 A.M., and the distance to Kafka's office was at least twice that to his parents' shop. Kafka brought along a roll with nothing on it. Since the elevator was so slow, he rushed down the four flights of stairs, several steps at a time, raced through the narrow streets of the Old City of Prague with remarkably long strides, said a quick hello to the porter of the institute as one of the last to arrive, and sprinted up the stairs to his department, again four flights. One of Kafka's colleagues later recalled: "It often happened that I saw him shooting into his office at a furious pace."2 You could set your watch by Kafka: a quarter after eight.
He remarked years later that "the immediate proximity of the working world" was inexorably bringing his literary productivity to a standstill.3 If his parents had ever seen this diary entry, they would have had difficulty construing its meaning. Their life was their working world. Not that they failed to draw a clear distinction between their private and public spheres; quite the contrary. This line of demarcation was strictly observed, as far as we know; no employee of their fancy goods store ever entered the proprietor's apartment, and never were financial problems discussed within earshot of the household help. However, the Kafkas ran a family business, in two senses of the term: the business belonged to the family-with the tacit expectation that this would remain the case indefinitely-and the family belonged to the business. It was taken for granted that Kafka's grandfather, Jakob Löwy, would still help out, even though he was over eighty years old. If legal representation was needed, the Kafkas consulted attorneys to whom they were related. Their daily schedule was so fully internalized to coordinate with the opening times of the store that Kafka's parents never felt comfortable in the forced idleness of brief vacations or stays at health resorts. They took time out not from the business but for the business. Even during midsummer weekends, when the family rented a vacation house in the vicinity, Hermann Kafka sometimes continued to work at the store for a few hours before joining the others.
Kafka's writings do not shed much light on the economic fortunes of the business, although his parents talked about it incessantly for as far back as he could remember. It grew slowly but steadily, yet there must have been worrisome slow periods; we can only speculate as to the causes. It was a sensitive business niche, because they dealt wholesale with nonessential items: parasols, walking sticks, gloves, handkerchiefs, buttons, fabrics, handbags, fine lingerie, muffs . . . accessories that people dispensed with when times were difficult; robust sales of these items were therefore good indicators of the standard of living as a whole. In the fall of 1912 the Kafkas succeeded in relocating the business to one of Prague's most prestigious addresses: the Kinsky Palace on the Altstädter Ring, the same building in which Kafka had gone to school. The move to this building took them only right around the corner, barely a hundred yards away. However, hanging out one's shingle on the central square in the Old City signaled an increase in symbolic capital, which soon paid off in hard cash.
© S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 2002
English translation copyright © 2005 by Shelley Frisch
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This is a translation of Kafka: Die Jahre der Entscheidungen.
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