Academic journal article German Quarterly

Kafka: A Biography

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Kafka: A Biography

Article excerpt

Murray, Nicholas. Kafka: A Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 432 pp. 31 illustrations. $30.00 cloth.

Biographies of Franz Kafka have become so common that their publication seems self-evident: a sub-genre whose further propagation requires no particular explanation. Gone are the days when a Kafka biography needed to rationalize its existence by pointing out the limitations of existing works and the originality of its new approach. The present book, as its generic title hints, does not introduce any major discoveries, revisions, or otherwise surprising new perspectives to what is known about Kafka's life. (The press release justifies the book as "the first biography of Kafka in English for 20 years," but even this is not correct.) Nonetheless, for the general reader Murray has produced an excellent book: well informed, sensitive, and highly readable.

The major strength of this biography lies in the pervasive fairness and sound judgment of its account. Those characteristics may sound modest or old-fashioned, but it is no small feat to maneuver between the stereotypes and myths that have accumulated around Kafka's life. Murray does this with considerable skill: Kafka appears here neither as the representative man of modernist alienation, nor as the prophet of impending social catastrophe, nor as a guilt-ridden neurotic. Rather, Murray's Kafka is a fascinating and attractive individual who was able to produce works of genius out of and despite his complex emotional constitution. This refreshing tone is set early on: Murray writes that ".. .to see Kafka as a quivering neurasthenic, someone who knew only how to suffer, would be a travesty. [...] However much he was tormented by private fears and lonely anxieties, he was loved by all who came into contact with him" (4-5). Certainly, the fears and the fletcherizing are all here, but Murray scrupulously avoids condescension and often follows such incidents with a corrective comment, such as when he balances accounts of some of Kafka's more ascetic personal habits with observations about his occasionally bold romantic encounters (48), or balances Kafka's merciless view of his own emotional failures with a litany of Kafka's very real accomplishments at particular moments (79 and 153). …

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