Friday, July 09, 2010

Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka

When I began to read Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka, I couldn’t bear to leave the book face-up on my desk. Kafka’s sepia face glowers intently from the cover, his piercing gaze disconcerting enough that I would flip the book over before going to bed. Associating Kafka strongly with his dark, heavy texts, his photo too seemed unbearable and threatening. After reading the biography, however, the portrait staring up from my desk has taken on a more human tone. This isn’t just the face of a dark, tormented, and isolated writer, but the face of a torn and fragile man, one who struggled to adapt and perfect his writing and relationships, even as his life was cut short by his struggle with tuberculosis.

While many biographies of Kafka focus on his potential anorexia, his tense relationship with his father, or his difficulty negotiating romantic or sexual relationships, “Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka” by Jeremy Adler gives a more balanced view of the writer’s life. Rather than just a tortured genius, eaten from the inside out by his neurosis, we find a man who maintained meaningful relationships with family and friends, who went on vacation, and whose writing was, if not heavily influenced, then at the least heavily inspired by his surroundings, his circle of friends, and the active and lively art world of early 20th century Prague.

As the title implies, the shtick of biography is the images. Almost every page of the book features photos of Kafka, his writer friends, his family, and his main love interests. The book is also full of photos of Prague, of Kafka’s original manuscripts, and of postcards Kafka wrote to his writing cohorts and family members. Particularly interesting are his sketches, which have a relaxed and flowing line that I would not have expected from his hand. The images establish atmosphere for Kafka’s life story, as well as context for the texts discussed. However, as a book based entirely around the premise of including images, the design of the book leaves something to be desired. Images are captioned, rather than discussed in the main body of the text, yet the images are not positioned in such a way that creates natural pauses or breaks for you read the captions. As a result, you have to wait until you finish a sentence, pause to read the captions, then return to the text. Additionally, some pages have small columns of text that blend in with the captions, so that when you flip a page to read the end of a sentence, you end up reading the wrong one. Despite these problems, the images are provide great insight into Kafka’s life, and we get to see Kafka not only in his usual suit, glaring at us from a formal portrait, but also at the beach or sanatorium with friends, smiling and wearing more relaxed clothing. The images of Prague are also gorgeous, especially if you’re still pinning after the city from your recent trip there.

The book chronicles Kafka’s entire life, from birth to death, thought the early childhood section feels a bit strained. There is less known and less to say about Kafka as a small child than about Kafka the writer, and so the early childhood section is largely filled up with comments about Prague and it’s social climate. The section dealing with Kafka’s young adulthood provides an interesting background for his later developments as a writer, particularly in it’s discussion of the circle of writer friends who provided the intellectual and creative community out of which Kafka’s literary career would grow. Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka picks up speed with it’s analysis of Kafka’s first published texts, and maintains this pace until the end. The story of Kafka’s death is particularly poignant, including passages from his diaries about his final illness, and accounts of his last words from the friends who nursed him in his final days. The book concludes with a paragraph on the fate of Kafka’s family—his parents dying of old age, while his three sisters and their children were killed in the Holocaust. Kafka’s friend Max Brod, however, gathered Kafka’s papers and manuscripts and fled to Palestine, an act which allowed for the posthumous publication and popularization of Kafka’s work.

Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka gives a human spin to the already popular biography of Prague’s most famous modernist, through the photos, facsimiles, and journal quotes. By the end of the book Kafka is seen not only as a tortured neurotic, but as a more complicated writer, striving to perfect both his writing as well as his life. Though his writing career was brought to an abrupt stop by his tuberculosis, Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka paints a picture of a writer who was dedicated to constantly improving his voice and style, right to the very end.

Helen Hajnoczky's first book, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming this fall from Snare Books.


Tadeusz Deregowski said...

An interesting review, thanks: there seems to be a contemporary vogue for "overdesigning" books, often using very fussy layouts.

Jonathan Ball said...

You should read WHY YOU SHOULD READ KAFKA BEFORE YOU WASTE YOUR LIFE by James Hawe for a corrective to the Kafka mythos. Can't wait for your book! We should do a trade.... I've got this book coming out around the same time: