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This review is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.

KAFKA IN CONTEXT Ernst Pawel, The Nightmare of Reason: a Life of Franz Kafka (Harvill Press) £12.95

As Ernst Pawel mentions in a note on his bibliography for this book, 'the literature dealing with Kafka and his work currently comprises an estimated 15,000 titles in most of the world's major languages'. That makes it indecent now to write anything at all about Kafka. The justification for Pawel's new biography, and mine for noticing it briefly, is that Pawel was aware of the indecency, as he was aware of the almost total irrelevance of our curiosity about Kafka's person and life to an 'understanding' of his work. He has therefore spared us more speculation as to what Kafka's stories and novels mean, or how they are to be read. What he gives us, where possible, is biographical accounts of their composition and publication, with only the odd hint about possible connections between Kafka's conscious concerns at the time of writing and the fictions that astonished him no less than they have astonished his readers.

It is as a biography that Ernst Pawel's book excels, and not so much as a biography of Franz Kafka the writer as of the child and man trapped in a set of circumstances which his writing at once mirrored and transcended. Pawel is especially good at bringing home to readers of other nations and later generations what it was like to be born into the German-speaking Jewish enclave of Bohemia within the moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire. To do so, he has gathered a great variety of information about its social, economic, ...


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