Kafka, Sitcom Artist

Rivka Galchen reviews two volumes of Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka, and finds that at times the author “seems to be living in a situation comedy”:

When he goes to the countryside to write, he finds it ‘extraordinarily beautiful’ at first, but by the second day he can’t work because he’s troubled by a child practising the French horn, by the din from a sawmill and by happy children playing outside, whom he eventually yells at: ‘Why don’t you go and pick mushrooms?’ He then discovers that the children belong to his neighbour, a sleep-deprived shift worker at the local mill who sends his seven children out so that he can get some sleep. At a sanatorium for his TB, Kafka and his friend Klopstock play a practical joke on another resident, a high-ranking Czech officer who conspicuously practises the flute and sketches and paints outdoors. The officer puts on a show of his work; Klopstock and Kafka write up pseudonymous reviews of it, one published in Czech, the other in Hungarian; the mocked officer then comes to Klopstock (in his room with a fever and kept company by Kafka) for a translation of the review. After this successful prank, Kafka sends his sister a spoof article about how Einstein’s theory of relativity is pointing the way to a cure for TB; his whole family celebrates the good news, of which he then has to disabuse them.

Both these anecdotes from Kafka’s life, of which there are many of a similar genre, are at once antic and death-haunted, illuminating and opaque. We might ask ourselves why we would read a biography of Kafka when we could instead just read Kafka. Why make breakfast, when you can just read Kafka? Why watch television or trim your fingernails when you could just read Kafka?