This book aims to explode the common myths about Kafka: that he was a depressive, celibate loner in a dead-end job, unacknowledged as a literary success in his own time, who somehow foresaw the Holocaust.
Despite its title, this book would only be meaningful to those who have read Kafka’s work and know something of his life, especially since the writing style is confused and confusing (and I found it irritating as well). It is chatty, jumpy, with lots of asides and footnotes, and sometimes swaps to present tense, talking about Kafka as if he’s a mutual friend. It also repeats itself in nearby pages (poor editing).
It starts with a fairly detailed political history of Prague, Germany etc in the early 20th century, but there’s no timeline of that, let alone events in Kafka’s life, which is especially necessary considering how much the book jumps around.
Then there’s too much about Kafka’s indulgence in porn and brothels (none of it remarkable), then some debunking of myths, followed by a chapter each on Felice and Milena (rather late, as both are mentioned several times in passing, with no real explanation, earlier in the book) and.. that’s pretty much it. Nothing about Dora, not much about his mother or the other Julie. A very odd structure.
As for the myths, any serious fan already knows that many of them are untrue or exaggerated, although he does have some interesting angles.
He points out the disparity between his fame and reputation and how unfamiliar his actual words are to most people: widely known but little read
, although apparently Shakespeare is the only author who generates more PhDs and biographies. He is famous for his vision, but not his words.
He also cautions against using hindsight to infer premonitions of the Holocaust in Kafka’s work, though he draws parallels with Hitler (who also had a troubled relationship with his father), whilst dismissing such hindsight and saying it was just the zeitgeist.
He points out how modern technology has reintroduced long-distance, written romances, not so dissimilar to those Kafka had.
Then, near the end, he finally comes up with something controversial: Kafka’s life story is largely irrelevant to his fiction, as long as one understands the broad historical context. So after all the overwrought analysis of the man’s porn, what really matters is that we remember the European legal system was and is very different from that in Britain and the US (it’s normal for suspects to be identified well before any decision whether to prosecute, e.g. the parents of missing Maddie McCann in Portugal) and the political and boundary upheavals going on at the time would make an unannounced land surveyor ("The Castle") arouse suspicion.
On the plus side, the breezy style makes it a very quick and easy read.
See my Kafka-related bookshelf for other works by and about Kafka (http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/1199525-cecily?format=html&order=a&shelf=kafka).