- Reviewed by
Ernst Pawel has written the best biography of Kafka in English and one of the better books on Kafka in any language. The Nightmare of Reason is a valuable resource for everyone who has a serious interest in Kafka.
One has to admit that the competition is weak in the field: Ronald Hayman's Kafka (1982), the only other biography in English, is unsatisfactory on many counts; in German, the only survey of Kafka's life since Max Brod's early and tendentious work is Klaus Wagenbach's Franz Kafka (1964), which is excellent in what it does but is little more than an outline. Pawel remedies many of the problems of earlier biographical efforts on Kafka and adds something valuable and unique: a more plausible picture of Kafka in the context of his daily work as an administrator in an insurance company. The side of this we already know well—how Kafka hated the necessity of devoting time and attention to such nonliterary work—is balanced by Pawels picture of Kafka's substantial success in the career he resented so deeply. Pawel also corrects any illusions we might retain about Kafka's character: "Kafka, weak and incompetent, was also strong in his solitary dreams, infinitely determined and well defended in his loneliness. He was gentle, kind, considerate, and he could use words as a weapon, draw blood with a glancing phrase."
In a couple of areas, Pawel is not much better than Hayman. I wish he could have restrained his passion for mean-spirited sniping at literary critics, especially as his own knowledge of Kafka's literary work is in certain respects amateurish. He claims, for instance, that "there are practically no references to ancient authors, or, for that matter, the world of ancient Greece and Rome in any of his work or later correspondence."
One need only mention the titles "Prometheus," "Poseidon," "The Silence of the Sirens," and "The New Advocate" (about Bucephalus) to counter this ill-informed pronouncement. Pawel is also unable to resist the widespread (though always silly) penchant for seeing in Kafka some kind of social/political prophet: he describes his Officer in "In the Penal Colony" as "a prescient portrait of Adolph Eichmann, drawn from life." If true, this would ascribe to Kafka a far greater sympathy for Eichmann than I can imagine him having. Fortunately, the Officer has nothing whatever to do with Eichmann, even metaphorically.
These are minor criticisms, however, given Pawel's substantial accomplishment. He has succeeded in putting Kafka back into his proper context of family, work, region, and history, giving us an excellent understanding of the daily events that shaped his world. His book can be recommended to all who want a better understanding of Kafka the man. [End Page 822]
That understanding is also enhanced by Klaus Wagenbach's collection of photographs now published in an English edition by Pantheon. There is simply no one in the world more knowledgeable about Kafka's life and times than Wagenbach, who shares in this book part of his photographic archive. Kafka scholars will be familiar with many of the pictures reproduced here, but some of them are surprising and bring fresh insight. The pictures of Kafka's father, Herrmann, for example, help add depth to the powerful but one-dimensional view we get from Kafka's writings. There is a wonderful photo of various Kafkas, including Herrmann, on the beach at Norderney around 1900: they all have silly sailor hats perched on their heads. The great tyrant of the Letter to His Father seems far less fierce than his son portrayed him. This is a coffee-table sort of book, but it will also be useful in the classroom, where it will serve to give students a more concrete sense of Kafka's...