Writer as Alien
On Reiner Stach's Is That Kafka?: 99 Finds
By Patrick McGinty
t does not seem far-fetched to imagine the future literary biographer as a type of hacker. Upon finding a dusty iPhone 10 in a long-forgotten drawer, the passcode will need to be cracked. Deleted voicemails will need to be recovered. Graduate students will fight for stipends to Control+F their way through g-chat, text message, and email archives. Who knows: perhaps museums will buy and display laptops. Visitors can slip into thin gloves and scan the files themselves. Type the keys that she typed!
If you are the type of person to whom that last experience sounds attractive, ask yourself: What would you search for? Would you jostle your idol’s desktop recycling bin? Would you be more interested in their Word documents or their iTunes library? What about photos? What about finances? How long of a line would form behind you before you were pleased with your approach? Could you really expect to construct a satisfying experience on your own?
This thought exercise fills me with anxiety as opposed to excitement. I do not like envisioning myself as a hacker. Nor do I like envisioning the future literary biographer as a twenty-fingered sleuth who discards irrelevant information as quickly as possible en route to a shiny epiphanic detail. A good literary biographer has the opposite task: to champion the mundane and seemingly irrelevant by painting such details with epiphanic gloss, page after page. This was tough work in 1950, and as the stack of digital details grows, it will only get tougher. If the central paradox of the Information Age continues to hold, i.e. that the democratic increase of access and information actually necessitates elitist curation, then the literary biographer risks getting trapped in a rather undesirable corner: they will face increasingly difficult tasks and be considered snooty for hogging the laptop.
Fortunately, where I see a scary new informational landscape, Reiner Stach sees an opportunity to construct a new kind of map in Is That Kafka?: 99 Finds. By way of his bio, Stach may seem to be an odd revolutionary. He is, after all, a card-carrying traditionalist when it comes to literary biography. His three-volume, 1,500 word biography of Franz Kafka is “one of the great literary biographies,” according to John Banville’s 2013 review in The New York Review of Books. Rach’s book is “to be set up there with, or perhaps placed on an even higher shelf than, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce,” which is as strong a pitch as there is for this Ellmann apostle.
But Rach is not interested in tradition when it comes to Is That Kafka?, published by New Directions and translated by Kurt Beals. Is That Kafka? is like a weird and ancillary annotated bibliography to his magnum opus. It is both a scholarly interpretation of numerous primary documents and a book unbeholden to the genre’s insistence on chronology. By the end, the text bears less resemblance to a literary biography than it does a record-store purchase, a map laid out by something akin to zine-like fascination and love for its subject.
Across ninety-nine two- or three-page chapters, Stach in effect dumps out his notebook. Kafka’s drawings are presented, summarized, and interpreted. Drafts of his work are scrutinized.
But then things get…weirder. “The longer I am away from Kafka,” writes the doctor Ernst Weiss in the chapter “Kafka’s Only Enemy,” “the more I dislike him, with his slimy maliciousness.” There is no record of Kafka’s scholastic entrance exam, but the question is known: “What advantages does Austria derive from its location in the world and its soil conditions?” Stach plays “Where’s Waldo?” with Kafka, searching for him in pictures where Kafka is known to be in attendance. Hilarious self-explanatory chapters such as “Kafka Doesn’t Believe the Doctors,” “Kafka Drinks Beer,” and “Going Whoring” amount to a Control+F search through Kafka’s letters, but these chapters are not an argument for do-it-yourself biography. How else would we know the right search terms if not guided by Rach? If one hundred Kafka fans were gathered in the laptop museum display described at the outset, and if we were given a full year to create our own 99 finds, which of us would hack up a chapter entitled “The Professor and his Salami?”
Reiner Stach. His new book explores Kafka as the “archetype of the writer as a sort of alien.”
t is fitting that such a tricksy little maze of a book would bloom from the life of Kafka, whose work operates better in smaller spaces. In his first novel, Amerika, the protagonist Karl Rossman voyages to America, journeys west to Oklahoma, and, upon seeing the vastness of the American west, the book stops. Kafka (who never even set foot in America) calls it quits. “At the point he broke the book’s claustrophobic hold, at the moment he granted his road hero light and open space and fresh air,” writes E.L. Doctorow in an introduction to the 1996 re-issue, “he couldn’t continue.” Doctorow suggests that “what Amerika taught...[Kafka] was crucial: that the story he had to tell took place in a territory darker and more hermetic than the American West.”
Is that Kafka? seems to ask: why shouldn’t his biography prefer hermetic little chapters, too? Why shouldn’t Kafka’s life be best told in the weird anecdotes and stray snippets that surround his work and persona? In the foreword, Stach acknowledges that in the popular imagination, “Kafka has persisted as the quintessential archetype of the writer as a sort of alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick--an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things.” The uncanny myths and lore and popularized ephemera are Kafka, Stach writes, “no matter what the literary scholarship might tell us.”
No matter what the literary scholarship might tell us. Those are brash words to open what is nominally a literary biography. What’s more, they come from someone who has written “one of the great literary biographies.” What might happen to the form if someone skips the 1,500 word opus and devotes the entirety of their efforts to a book like Is That Kafka? Rach has forsaken chronology, but what else can be shed? A good biography sends me walking through town with the subject on my mind. Is That Kafka? has me stopping a neighbor and her dog to talk about genre.
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. In the fall he wrote about openings in Robert Stone’s early novels.