“The Negative Element”

By Nicholas Murray
Yale.  432 pp.  $30.00


On July 12, 1914, Franz Kafka, an employee of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague, was alone in his room when he was abruptly ambushed by three women: his fiancee, Felice Bauer (whom he would never marry); a colleague of hers, Grete Bloch (with whom he had been carrying on an intimate correspondence); and Erna Bauer, Felice’s sister. Assuming a prosecutorial mode, Felice proceeded to read aloud portions of letters Kafka had written to Grete. It’s not clear from Nicholas Murray’s meticulous biography exactly what her accusations were. What is clear is that this incident, which Kafka later referred to as “the tribunal,” was the direct inspiration for The Trial, his haunting novel about Joseph K., charged with an unspecified crime that he never committed.

Kafka’s stark visions of estrangement, persecution, and punishment have been read as prophesies of Nazism and Stalinism, yet their origins often lie not in any encounter with authoritarian power but in domestic or romantic conflicts that wouldn’t seem out of place on Beverly Hills 90210. For the hypersensitive Kafka (1883-1924), just getting through an ordinary day could be the emotional equivalent of being arraigned by a despot’s callous functionaries. “For even the most intimate friend to set foot in my room,”he told Felice, “fills me with terror.”

Kafka’s anxiety in the face of the quotidian sometimes seems a tad histrionic. He once admitted: “I always feel 10 times better than I say; it’s just my pen that runs away with me, that’s all.” And sometimes he seems weirdly proud of his Angst, which he characterized to one girlfriend as “perhaps the best part” of him. What ailed Kafka? Was he clinically depressed? Sadomasochistic? (Diary entry: “This morning … the joy again of imagining a knife twisted in my heart.”) Was his multiple outsider status–a German speaker in Prague, a Jew among Christians–a factor? Whatever his debility, it was lifelong.

Alas, therein lies the main problem with this book. Murray, whose earlier works include biographies of Matthew Arnold, Aldous Huxley, and Bruce Chatwin, has done a conscientious job, but he’s stuck with a drama in which the settings and supporting cast, and above all the protagonist’s preoccupations and state of mind, change little over the years; the result is a largely monotonous slog through unvarying and terribly grim terrain.

There’s little real drama, as opposed to self-dramatization: We’re immersed throughout in Kafka’s feelings of alienation and self-disgust (to read this book is to understand Gregor Samsa’s transformation, in “The Metamorphosis,”into a giant vermin), his resentful overattachment to his indulgent yet unaffectionate parents (with whom he lived all his 40 years in, says Murray, an atmosphere of “claustrophobic mutual surveillance”), and his inability to connect normally with women (“He could not bear to leave the bright, white cell of his self and put himself in another’s hands, even though he longed for that consummation….. He seems not to have possessed the capacity for simple joy in another’s love”).

Kafka attributed his chronic psychological incapacity to having “vigorously absorbed the negative element of the age in which I live.” Yet despite occasional promising glimpses beyond his narrow circle–he saw Nijinsky dance, attended lectures by Rudolf Steiner and Martin Buber, crossed paths with Einstein, Rilke, and Puccini, and vacationed at a naturist spa where he was known as “the man in the swimming trunks”–we don’t get as much sense of the age, let alone of its “negative element,” as we’d like. A book less relentlessly focused on Kafka’s static inner world and more attentive to his outer world might have been at once more congenial and more illuminating.