Franz Kafka

Kafka's Inner Life

A portrait of the author before his name became an adjective

A new biography underlines the blood and bone reality of the writer’s life.

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Václav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, is legendary for his lack of manners. When his country assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union in 2009, Klaus—a stocky and vigorous man with close-cropped white hair and a fastidiously trimmed moustache—got into a scrap with a group of European politicians because he had refused to fly the EU flag above his office in Prague Castle. Nicolas Sarkozy pronounced the snub “hurtful,” yet Klaus was anything but contrite. Instead, he used his first address to the European Parliament to compare the EU to the Soviet Union.

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  “For two thousand years,” wrote Harold Rosenberg, “the main energies of Jewish communities have gone into the mass production of intellectuals.” For Rosenberg, the art critic who belonged to the receding constellation of writers known as the New York Intellectuals, such a claim was something between a boast and a self-justification. The New York Intellectuals were mainly second-generation Americans, whose self-sacrificing immigrant parents won them the opportunities America offered to newcomers, including Jews.

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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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Money and Soul

The PatronA Life of Salman Schocken,1877-1959By Anthony David(Metropolitan Books, 451 pp., $ 30)For a year in the early 1960s, not long after finishing college, I had a job working for Schocken Books, a small publishing house in New York. Actually, "small" is something of an overstatement. Schocken consisted at the time of four people working in a two-room apartment on 38th Street and Park Avenue: the editor-in-chief Herzl Rome, two secretaries, and the editorial staff, which was me.

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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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MANY OF MY friends, if they are still in legal practice, now hate it. “The world’s most overrated job,” one of them says. Lined up at motion calls: a lost generation, the Warren Court baby boom, the flood of us who went to law school in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We took Tocqueville seriously, and thought lawyers were America’s governing class. And the Warren Court was a Court of gods—Black, Douglas, Warren—hurling thunderbolts to start our cultural revolutions. Back then, the law seemed like a romance.

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