FOR BIOGRAPHERS, the always obliquely autobiographical Kafka is both a dream subject and a frustrating enigma. While his diaries and letters offer a rich trove of insights about his life, his self-disclosures often conceal as much as they reveal. In the case of the well-known Letter to His Father, he himself concedes that his ostensibly sincere case against his father is filled with “lawyer’s tricks.” Since his own autobiographical excavations are carried out with the power and skill of a great writer, the literary quality and evident authority of his diaries and letters can easily overwhelm his biographers. And indeed some previous English-language lives — for example, Ronald Hayman’s — have seemed more like compilations of Kafka quotes than fresh explorations of his life and works. Fortunately, Reiner Stach, the German author of Kafka: The Early Years, is both an accomplished Kafka scholar and a first-rate biographer.

Franz Kafka’s depiction of his relationship with his domineering father in the Letter to His Father of 1919 — written only a few years before Franz’s premature death at age 40 — pins most of the blame for what he believes went wrong in his life on the long shadow cast by his father’s spectacularly ill-advised approach to rearing such a sensitive and fastidious child as young Franz. Yet it took many years of writing before he could draw in his fiction on the emotional repercussions of that troubled relationship. In a revealing diary entry of October 31, 1911, which Stach does not cite but which supports his argument, Kafka makes a telltale admission: “I have written myself almost into a hatred of my father.” He thereby intimates that the ogre-like father so familiar to Kafka readers is at least to some extent a literary creation.

According to the Letter, the most pivotal incident in that unhappy relationship took place in Kafka’s early childhood. Annoyed by his son’s nighttime whimpering for water, Hermann Kafka shut him out on the pavlače — a Czech word for the balconies running around the exteriors of Prague apartment buildings — with lasting consequences for his son:

Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the pavlatche, and that meant I was a mere nothing for him.

Even in his most vivid accounts of his childhood and adolescence Kafka often leaves intriguing gaps. For instance, in the Letter to His Father he refers metaphorically to his mother, Julie, as having unwittingly played the part of a “beater in the hunt.” That cryptic image, which alludes to the aristocratic practice of employing locals to scare grouse into flying up into the sights of the hunters’ rifles, suggests the depth of his mixed feelings about his mother. Yet nowhere in his extensive diaries and letters does he explore his ambivalent emotions toward her.

Stach suggests plausibly that such riveting scenes in the autobiographical writings leave out an important part of what Kafka calls his “inner harm.” Compounding the injury to young Franz was his mother’s inability to shield him at an age when he most needed her care and protection. Stach rightly zeroes in on a revealing passage in a letter to Felice Bauer in which Kafka describes how he had as a child “lived alone for a very long time, dealing with nurses, old nannies, spiteful cooks, unhappy governesses, since my parents were always at the shop.” Even to the mind of the 29-year-old writing these lines, the fact that he was surrounded by an ever-changing cast of female helpers does not diminish his sense of abandonment. It is also significant that he should refer to the absence of his “parents” rather than of his mother, whom he surely missed far more than his frequently apoplectic father.

Stach — author of a pioneering study of female figures and sexuality in Kafka’s fiction — paints an empathetic and plausible picture of the inner life of Kafka’s mother, Julie, who had lost her own mother at age four and her grandmother, by suicide, shortly thereafter. While some previous biographers have portrayed Julie as an icy mother, Stach gives us a more rounded picture of a self-sacrificing but sparsely educated woman, who though highly affectionate was so beholden to her imperious husband that she was unable to spend much time with her vulnerable son. No wonder she was described by a classmate of Kafka’s, Hugo Bergmann, as having always had a “somewhat sad smile.” Hermann Kafka believed that he could not sufficiently trust any of his employees or “paid enemies,” as he called them, to leave the family’s fancy goods store open without personal supervision by himself and his unfailingly loyal wife. While one might question some of Stach’s psychological speculations, it does seem clear that Julie Kafka’s “duty” toward her husband and the family business impeded her closeness to her children, and especially to Franz, her sole surviving son.

Readers of The Metamorphosis will find Stach’s meticulous account of the Kafka family finances absorbing. After all, the surreal ordeal to which Gregor Samsa awakens one morning is carefully grounded in such realistic detail about the characters’ lives as the less than transparent finances of the Samsas, whose surname clearly echoes Kafka’s. Outwardly Hermann Kafka, unlike Mr. Samsa — the father figure in the story — was a successful self-made businessman, the son of a rural butcher who by 1912 was able to rent prime rooms for his fancy goods store on the ground floor of the prestigious Kinský Palace in the heart of Prague’s Staré Město (Old Town). Yet under Hermann Kafka’s blustering and imperious exterior lurked a recurring anxiety which was not lost on his impressionable son. At the end of each month a form of existential as well as business judgment about the family’s affairs was handed down when the cash registers were tallied up. The Kafkas were evidently not always confident that the resulting funds would be sufficient to pay the rent.

Just before that daunting day of judgment, known as the “ultimo,” Hermann Kafka would at times literally quake, and, on one occasion recorded by Kafka in his diary, Julie Kafka had to beg the landlord to extend the deadline for payment. Here as elsewhere, Stach is careful not to fall into the trap of reductively conflating Kafka’s life and art. It seems likely, however, that in depicting the murky money problems of the Samsas, who are better off than they care to disclose to their son, Kafka drew imaginatively on his parents’ pervasive anxiety about their finances and social status. Stach delves further into the biographical context and creative genesis of Kafka’s most famous story in an incisive chapter on The Metamorphosis in The Decisive Years, the second volume in his biographical trilogy.

One of the most engaging and persuasive features of this book — which, though chronologically the first of three volumes, is third in the sequence of publication — is the way in which Stach goes far beyond the all-too-familiar neurotic, angst-ridden K. by presenting us with a variety of lesser-known “Kafkas”: The highly intelligent schoolboy, who lives in constant fear of abject failure and isn’t immune to a little cheating. The avid but by no means uncritical cinema goer, who in principle cherishes the already old-fashioned photographic panorama, which allows the eye to rest and the mind to contemplate, more than he does the new medium with its relentless forward momentum. The art lover whose expressive and often Expressionistic doodles show considerable, if unschooled, graphic talent. The loyal friend, who somehow never manages to show up at the prearranged time. The admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, who, after reading through a collection of the French emperor’s sayings, finds that Napoleon’s massive ego has displaced his own characteristically diffident sense of self: “How easily you become for the moment a little part of your own tremendous notion of Napoleon […] I couldn’t withstand one of my ideas, disordered, pregnant, disheveled, swollen, amidst my furniture which was rolling about me.” Then there’s the enthusiastic follower of naked exercise routines and health food fads such as Fletcherism — named after an American physician, Horace Fletcher (1849–1919) — which required its adherents to chew each morsel of food multiple times, a practice which aroused the ire of Kafka’s father. The unenthusiastic law student, who likens his studies to “chewing sawdust” but goes on to become a highly effective lawyer and executive at a Prague industrial accident-insurance company, where he works against the grain, advocating for workers’ rights. The ravenous and somewhat indiscriminate reader, who scours biographies and memoirs for clues about his dilemmas. The skeptical participant in séances, who, with characteristic dry humor, notes the “fact that the table moves after it has been pushed around long enough is not a miracle.” The habitué of louche wine bars — not to mention brothels — as well as Viennese-style coffeehouses. There are also some potential Kafkas who never come to fruition: the would-be founder of a proposed new health food movement; the prospective co-author, together with his friend Max Brod, of a series of practical travel guides under the title “On the Cheap.”

It is of course Brod to whom we owe the survival of the greater part of Kafka’s writing. Stach, countering unduly harsh judgments about Brod by critics such as Walter Benjamin, who dubbed Brod a “question mark” in the margins of Kafka’s life, emphasizes the mutual benefits of this friendship of opposites: the introvert Kafka needed the “narcissistic exuberance” of Brod, who relished his self-assigned role as Kafka’s impresario. Unbidden and without forewarning, Brod trumpets the reputation of his protégé in a review in a literary magazine before the latter has published anything of lasting note, ranking him alongside then-leading German writers as Heinrich Mann and Frank Wedekind. Kafka responds to his friend’s premature and inflated comments with characteristic self-irony:

I don’t think I can count very much on Germany. For how many people read a review down to the last paragraph with unslackening eagerness. That is not fame. But it is another matter with Germans abroad, in the Baltic provinces, for example, or still better in America, or most of all in the German colonies, for the forlorn German reads his magazine all the way through. Thus the center of my fame must be Dar es Salaam, Ujiji, Windhoek.

Stach draws on unpublished diaries of Brod, in which the latter, taking a break from his habitual hero worship, can be quite critical. He complains about his friend’s “secretiveness,” and even expresses delight on finding himself temporarily “free of Kafka’s hopelessness.” In Stach’s at times drily humorous telling, the two come across as an eccentric duo, especially during their occasional trips together: “Kafka needed to stick to habits and familiar routines; his reactions were compulsive, but not phobic like Brod’s.”

Like its two prior companions, Kafka: The Early Years is sure to gain a sizable following in North America as it has already done in Europe. This English-language edition comes to us thanks to the herculean efforts of translator Shelley Frisch, who has rendered all three volumes with panache.

One of Stach’s primary goals throughout his mammoth undertaking is to replace ubiquitous but hoary Kafka myths with a portrait of a man with multiple and often warring selves; a man who, though greatly troubled, is also a magisterial artist who draws on his at times painful life only to transform it into something irreducibly rich and strange. If only Stach’s panoramic portrait of Kafka’s life in historical context could halt the endless recycling of the myth of Saint Franz of Prague — the most recent instance occurs in a New York Review of Books piece by novelist Francine Prose about another book by Stach, Is that Kafka?: 99 Finds, a delightful collection of short outtakes from his biographical explorations. Be that as it may, Kafka himself often marveled at his ability to objectify his pain, attributing his writing to a “merciful surplus of strength” which allowed him to “ring simple, or contrapuntal […] changes” on his life-work.

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Mark Harman, professor of English and German at Elizabethtown College, won the Modern Language Association’s Lois Roth Award for his rendering of Kafka’s The Castle (Schocken) and is currently completing an annotated selection of his translations of Kafka stories for Harvard University Press.