by Ernst Pawel Print book : Biography
For the Love and Genius of Franz Kafka   (2008-10-16)
Few twentieth century authors have had as widespread an impact on modern literature as Franz Kafka. Even fewer biographers have managed to serve their subject so well as Ernst Pawel does the eternally enigmatic Kafka in THE NIGHTMARE OF REASON: A LIFE OF FRANZ KAFKA.
If ever the term "tortured genius" was applicable to one of the giants of literary history, it was without question to the Prague-born Jewish author Franz Kafka. Born July 3, 1883, to this day Kafka is celebrated worldwide for the seemingly bizarre, amorphous, surrealistic, and yet pin-point precise writing that characterizes such classics as his novels The Trial and The Castle, and his story Metamorphosis. What most readers don't realize, and what Ernst Pawel makes so stunningly clear in The Nightmare of Reason, is that Kafka's phenomenal work represents a true-to-life rendering of the emotional trauma, religious persecution, political oppression, and physical anguish he suffered throughout his life.
In the course of weaving together the historical and spiritual threads that bound the different elements of Kafka's existence, Pawel sheds much-needed light on one of the most famous father-son relationships in literary culture. In his wisdom, Pawel illustrates how both Franz and his father Hermann Kafka were largely products of their political and social times--an era that saw the unapologetic murderous oppression of Jews in Europe, ongoing debates over Zionism, and eruptions of war around the globe. How father and son adapted as individuals to these issues created between them walls too thick and tall to work their way around. Moreover, his mother Julie's need to make herself more available to her husband as a business partner and comrade than to her only son and her daughters did little to heal the future author's sense of abandonment in a terrifyingly tumultuous world.
If Kafka had had only his family's collective angst and Prague's political instability to cope with, he would have been immersed in the same kind of life conditions that many writers revel in to create their best work. His situation, however, was a far more complex one. Despite a healthy appreciation for sexual enjoyments, he nevertheless distrusted the deeper levels of binding emotional intimacy. In addition, he was prone to contracting illnesses rarely heard of outside Biblical times and accentuated the pain of these with an acute hypochondria.
The grace with which Kafka navigated chronic illnesses, held down a demanding job as an insurance claims administrator, pursued serious literary ambitions, and compassionately addressed the needs of others, made him appear more than human in the eyes of some. That his biological clock seemed to stop around the age of 20 did little to persuade them differently. Even months before his death at the age of 40, his countenance was more that of a youth curious about whatever surprises life might hold than it was that of a middle-aged man who had weathered his share of brutal storms, not the least of which was maintaining commitment to his literary art.
In his biography of the author, Pawel allows readers to feel the full weight of pain in Kafka's life so we come to understand what it means for a dedicated writer of his caliber to struggle past the agony of accumulated wounds and transform unrelenting affliction--if not into ecstasy capable of saving the life of the writer, then at least into art capable of inspiring humanity to address the danger of its absurd and deadly vanities. Kafka once put it this way: "Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little of his despair over his fate... but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins."
As much as he was beset by demons or sorrow throughout his years on the planet, Kafka was also blessed by the company of such angels as his courageous younger sister Ottla, his legendary off-and-on-again fiancé Felice Bauer, the famed political journalist Milena Jesenska, and the passionately devoted Dora Diamant. Just as he empowered each with his knowledge and influence, so did each in turn serve as sources of strength and refuge in his many hours of profound need. In his account of their place in Kafka's life, there's never a need for Pawel to exaggerate because the humbling facts speak so persuasively for themselves.
Had it not been for his friend Max Brod, few people outside European literary circles would likely have ever heard of Kafka. It was Brod who first recognized Kafka's genius, Brod who secured publication outlets for that genius, and he who later wrote the first biography on his friend, all while producing dozens of volumes of original writings himself. His most significant role in the Kafka story as the world knows it today is that of the man who defied his friend's instructions to destroy his unpublished works after his death, which occurred at noon on June 3, 1924. Brod did the exact opposite, editing and publishing as much as he could, in the process providing the world with two of its most enduring classics. If the act may be described as a betrayal of trust, it may also be interpreted as a towering testimony to a rare kind of friendship.
As amazing as The Nightmare of Reason is for its full-dimensional treatment of Kafka, it is equally so for Pawel's examination of the roots of modern anti-Semitism. The insights gleaned from his account of the irrational fears and exaggerated accusations that eventually gave rise to the Holocaust are not without their use in 2007. Consequently, reading the book is not only an excellent way to explore the creative depths and historical substance that produced Kafka's art. It is also a powerful way to reexamine those tendencies which lead humanity to blindly destroy that which it does not easily understand, and to reclaim the ability to transform fear into knowledge, then knowledge into the power to heal, and healing into a greater capacity for love.
by Author-Poet Aberjhani
author of "The American Poet Who Went Home Again"
and "Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance" (Facts on File Library of American History)
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