Felice Bauer

The Trials

KAFKA: THE DECISIVE YEARS   By Reiner Stach   Translated by Shelley Frisch (Harcourt, 581 pp., $35)           THERE IS A TANTALIZING gap between our increasingly detailed knowledge of Kafka's life and our imperfect understanding of his achievement as a writer. His work seems to cry out for biographical readings and has often been subjected to them, characteristically along psychoanalytic lines. Yet the obvious connections between life and work have not explained much about the work.

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I. Kafka is the novel’s bad conscience. His work demonstrates a purity of intention, a precision of language, and a level of metaphysical commitment that the novel partially comprehends but is unable to replicate without, in the process, ceasing to be a novel at all. Consequently, Kafka makes novelists nervous. He doesn’t seem to write like the rest of us. Either he is too good for the novel or the novel is not quite good enough for him—whichever it is, his imitators are very few. Now, why is that? Where are Kafka’s descendants? Only a handful—Borges, W.G.

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