Cynthia Ozick Hate Kafkaesque

Ozick on Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka.

Reiner Stach will have none of this. Nowhere in The Decisive Years or in The Years of Insight does he impose on Kafka an all-encompassing formula. He offers no key, no code, no single-minded interpretive precept: the Kafkaesque is mercifully missing. Instead he allows Kafka’s searing introspections, as they emerge from the letters and diaries, to serve as self-defining clues. Kafka saw his stories not as a reader or a critic will, but from the inside, as the visceral sensations of writing. “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else,” he announced to Felice Bauer, the woman he would never marry. It was a statement meant not so much metaphorically as bodily. At twenty-nine, on September 23, 1912, he exulted in his diary as an exhausted but victorious long-distance swimmer, on completing a marathon, might:

The story, “The Judgment,” I wrote during the night of the 22nd, from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M., in one sitting. I could hardly pull my legs out from under the desk; they had become stiff from sitting. The frightful exertion and pleasure of experiencing how the story developed right in front of me, as though I were moving forward through a stretch of water. Several times during the night I lugged my own weight on my back. How everything can be hazarded, how for everything, even for the strangest idea, a great fire is ready in which it expires and rises up again…. At 2 A.M. I looked at the clock for the last time. As the maid came through the front room in the morning, I was writing the last sentence. Turning off the lamp, the light of day. The slight pains in my chest. The exhaustion that faded away in the middle of the night…. Only in this way can writing be done, only in a context like this, with a complete opening of body and soul.

Stach will go no further than Kafka’s own reflections and admissions. In this restraint he follows Kafka himself: on no account, he instructed the publisher of “The Metamorphosis,” should the insect be pictured. He saw explication as intrusion, and willful interpretation as a false carapace. A premonitory authorial warning: he was already warding off the Kafkaesque.


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