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The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka Paperback – June 1, 1984

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 1, 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374222363
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374222369
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,507,046 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Nightmare of Reason
IN Prague, he is always present but never mentioned, and it comes as a shock suddenly to find oneself face to face with him in the heart of the city--Kafka's brooding features, life-size, cast in black bronze and mounted above eye level on the wall of a drab building on Maisel Street. On this spot, so a small plaque proclaims, stood the house in which the writer Franz Kafka was born.
It is a modest memorial, conceived in ambivalence and therefore singularly fitting in its way. Commissioned by Communist authorities, designed by the sculptor Karel Hadlik, and unveiled in 1965, at a time when the human face of socialism began to rise above the parapets of Stalinoid concrete, it was intended as the initial stage in Kafka's metamorphosis from decadent nihilist into a revolutionary critic of capitalist alienation. In the summer of 1968, Soviet tanks put an end to liberal illusions, and further efforts at rehabilitating Kafka were suspended. But his presence, once acknowledged, is hard to exorcise in a town where every moment of the day and night recalls his nightmares. The bronze sculpture was left in place, so was the marker on his house in the Alchemists' Lane--concessions to tourism, or one of those Schweikian triumphs of cunning that have kept the Czech cause alive through the ages. Either way, they bear witness to one all-important, fundamental fact of Kafka's existence: that he was born in Prague, was buried in Prague, and spent almost all forty-one years of his life in this citadel of lost causes, the "little mother with claws" that never loosened her grip on him and shaped his vision of the world.
An uncanny world in which to grow up, still solidly embedded in the Middle Ages, walled in by mystery and legend turned to stone. The view from the Kafka windows stretched back over the centuries, and every walk, every errand took the child through the vaulted archways and twisting alleys of a vengeful past. This was to be his life's stage.Friedrich Thieberger, a renowned Jewish scholar with whom Kafka later studied Hebrew, recounts that "once, as Franz and I were standing at the window looking down on Old Town Square, he pointed at the buildings and said: 'This was my high school, the university was over there, in the building facing us, my office a bit further to the left. This narrow circle ...' and his finger described a few small circles, 'this narrow circle encompasses my entire life.'"
But long before the town became a concept in the child's mind, long before the physical reality of even his most immediate environment began to register in meaningful and coherent images, he had to find his way in the far more bewildering shadow world of very large, powerful human beings and learn to deal with the dual threat of both their presence and their absence. What Kafka chose to remember about his childhood is highly revealing, though no more so than what he chose to forget. Even a "memory come alive," as he once described himself in one of his last diary entries, tends to be selective in ways determined by beginnings beyond memory--by a real-life mother who unwittingly betrayed him long before her image fused with the symbol of his quest for love, just as the real-life father, with his waxed mustache and drill-sergeant temper, preceded the image of divine omnipotence.
Posterity has come to know them only as "Kafka's parents"--such are the perils of raising a writer in the family, especially a writer devoid of conscious hypocrisy. Yet Herrmann Kafka was already thirty-one years old when he became Kafka's father, a demanding role at best, for which he happened to be particularly ill equipped. The very qualities that had enabled him to claw his way out of grinding poverty into middle-class respectability and relative affluence--unself-conscious egotism, brute drive, and a single-minded concentration on money and status--did not make for grace, warmth, and sensitivity in his contacts with people in general. As a parent, however, he suffered from an additional handicap: he himself had never had a childhood.
His own father, Jakob Kafka, born in 1814, was the second of nine children--six boys and three girls--raised in a one-room shack in the Czech village of Wossek. Under the laws then in force, he was not permitted to marry; a 1789 decree promulgated to curb the growth of the Jewish population barred any but the oldest son of Jewish parents fromobtaining a marriage license, and Jakob had a stepbrother older by a year. What saved him from dying without legitimate progeny--death twice over, in the context of his faith--was the revolution of 1848, or rather its savage repression. By the sort of ironic paradox that crops up with predictable unpredictability throughout Jewish history, the new constitution, designed to strengthen the hand of the autocratic government, brought Jews the very freedoms which the French Revolution and its aftershocks had promised but largely failed to deliver.
In granting full citizenship rights to the roughly 400,000 Jews within the empire--including the right to marry at will, to settle in the cities, and to enter trades and professions--the Habsburg bureaucracy was moved not by humanitarian impulses but by political and economic considerations. The business skills and energy of peddlers, moneylenders, and craftsmen were an untapped resource invaluable to a country on the verge of industrialization, and the Jews' peculiar, cohesive, but supranational allegiance made them a potential counterforce to the radicalism of contending nationalities that threatened the survival of the multinational state. But all that mattered to Kafka's grandfather Jakob, in 1848, was that at last he could marry, and he proceeded to do so at once, taking as his wife the daughter of his next-door neighbor.
A kosher butcher by trade, Jakob Kafka was a surly giant of a man, reputedly able to lift a bag of potatoes with his teeth, but all his backbreaking labor never netted him more than the barest subsistence. His wife, Franziska Platowski, already thirty-three when she married, had an outgoing and cheerful disposition that, under the circumstances, should have qualified her for sainthood. Between 1850 and 1859, she gave birth to six children and raised them all in that one-room shack, in abject poverty; for long stretches, the family's diet consisted of little more than potatoes.
Somehow they survived--the parents as well as all six of their children--itself a rare feat in its day, and evidence of robust genetic equipment. (The shack itself, though, still inhabited after the Second World War, outlasted them all.) The children were put to work as soon as they were strong enough to pull a cart. Summer and winter, in any kind of weather, they had to make the rounds delivering slabs of meat to Jakob's far-flung clientele. The frostbites and footsores that Herrmann, the second-oldest, suffered as a result became his battle scars; he kept regurgitating the inventory of his childhood privations with a mixture of pride and self-pity which his own son in turn found singularlyrevolting. In fact, the perennial paternal litany, half boast and half accusation, of "You don't know how well off you are ... When I was your age ..." loomed large on the list of grievances Kafka hoarded against his father.
This sniping across the generation gap is common enough. But in contrast to so many fathers licking their imaginary wounds, Herrmann did not have to invent or exaggerate the hardships of his youth in order to score points, and no one saw this more clearly than the target of his scorn. In "Josephine, the Singer," Kafka's last story, written on his deathbed, he evokes the world in which his father came of age:
Our life [he wrote, referring to Josephine's "nation of mice"] simply happens to be such that a child, as soon as it can get about a little and is to some extent able to find its way in the world, must take care of itself just like an adult. We are, for economic reasons, scattered over too large an area, our enemies are too numerous, the dangers that everywhere lie in wait for us are too unpredictable--we simply cannot afford to shield our children from the struggle for existence; to do so would doom them to an early grave. But one additional reason should be cited, this one hopeful rather than depressing: the fertility of our tribe. One generation--and each is immensely populous--crowds the other; the children have no time to be children ... no sooner has a child made its appearance than it is a child no more; other children's faces press in from behind ... rosy with happiness. Yet however charming this may be, and however much others may rightly envy us for it, the fact remains that we cannot give our children a true childhood.
The ancestors of both Jakob and Franziska had for at least a century lived in Jewish enclaves surrounded by a Czech peasant population. Unlike most of their coreligionists, forced by a 1787 decree to adopt German surnames, they had--presumably by special dispensation--chosen Slavic names; the Kafkas, at any rate, always assumed that their family name derived from kavka, the Czech word for "jackdaw," although Jakovke, a Yiddish diminutive for Jakob, is another and not unlikely derivation.
The Kafkas spoke Czech at home but, like all Jews, sent their children to the Jewish school--schools were denominational, a six-year attendance compulsory for boys--where, by law, German was the language of instruction. Herrmann did his compulsory stint, the full extentof his formal education, and became fluent in spoken German, though he never quite mastered the intricacies of the written language and, to the end of his life, evidently felt more at home in Czech.
At fourteen, one year into manhood under Jewish law, he left home for good to make his way in the world. Despite stiff competition, the young peddler survived on his own. Retail distribution in rural areas was still in its infancy, while the i...

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Then it really picks up.
He came to believe Kafka would become the most important writer of his time.
Mary E. Sibley
Pawel's style is commendable and his insight is impressive.
Sharjeel Sabir

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 27, 1998
Format: Paperback
This is the best biography of Kafka available in the English language. It is not a starchy academic biography removed from the living currents of an author's life. Pawel understood all the factors in fin de siecle Prague that combined to produce the century's greatest writer. This biography concentrates on everything that was vital to Kafka's background, from his anguished relationship with his father to his private yearning for the tradition of his ancesstors. That this book has been allowed to go out of print is a shame.
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Format: Paperback
I would like to focus in this review on the final pages of this outstanding and moving biography. In it Pawel tells the story of two of the great loves of Kafka's life, Milena Jesenka and Dora Dymant. In these stories we see how Kafka who somehow more deeply than any other writer conveys anxiety in loneliness, was very much loved and respected in his own lifetime. The heroic Milena Jesenka whose courage in helping people throughout her terrible time in Ravensbruck Concentration camp where she died on May 17, 1944 is related by her friend Margeret -Buber- Neumman's outstanding memoir of their time there.She understood and was devoted to the genius Kafka. Dora Dymant was with Kafka through the painful last months of his life. Her sacrifice, devotion and love of him knew no limit.They dreamed together of traveling to 'Palestina' and beginning a new life together. She loved him with a total and true love, and remained devoted to his memory throughout her life. We owe the fact that Kafka's works were not destroyed, and in fact became known to the world through the devoted action of his best friend, writer and biographer, Max Brod.

This book is written with deep human feeling and sensibility.

I want to close this review with Milena Jesenka's obituary for Kafka which appears towards the end of the book.

" Dr.Franz Kafka , .. writer who lived in Prague, died the day before yesterday in the Kierling Sanitorium at Klosterneuberg near Viena. Few knew him, for he was a loner, a recluse wise in the ways of the world, and frightened by it. For years he had been suffering from a lung disease, which he cherished and fostered even while accepting treatment..
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Sharjeel Sabir on January 8, 2006
Format: Paperback
Mr. Pawel's book is an articulate account of Kafka's tortured life. Though the details are interesting, it is the manner in which these details are presented by Pawel that makes this book such a pleasure to read. Pawel's style is commendable and his insight is impressive. A worthy tribute to a giant of modern literature.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By toronto on October 5, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a very well written biography, but it takes a long time to get going (well, so did Kafka). The first hundred pages are, it must be admitted, a real slog through pre-war, Czech-German-Jewish cultural struggles. It picks up when the writing begins in earnest, and becomes simultaneously hilarious and moving when we move into Kafka's desperate "fox chewing off its own leg to escape the trap" dealings with his love life.

The most horrifying part of the book is the constant refrain about many of the people in the book -- fascinating lives, followed by "killed in a concentration camp in X." Kafka's sister Ottla and some of the other people are, in the now overused term, unsung, forgotten heroes, noble souls. The reader is constantly brought up against the hideousness of the, as yet, unknown future.

There is not much in this biography about the writings, except for a few judicious paragraphs (and quotations: Tucholsky's review of "In The Penal Colony" from the period is worth the price of the book alone).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Spinozist on January 13, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Ernst Pawel is a wonderful writer. His book on Heine is very good too. This book is in many ways a work of art in its own right. Pawel is opinionated, but rarely boring. One feels he really knows that part of the the world in that time, what it felt like to be a German speaking Jew around the WW1 and thereafter. One feels Pawel is an insider, a bit jaded, always lucid, quick to catch the subtlest ironies in the unfolding of history. Of course Kafka's life itself was a great irony, as he only achieved wide recognition after his death and after he thought his novels had been destroyed. A bit like Van Gogh.

Pawel is himself a great stylist. He does not go gently into the night. He rants and raves with zest, but he always hits the nail on the head, and he keeps you on the edge of your seat. The only chapters I found a bit slow were at the beginning about Kafka's schooling. Then it really picks up. Kafka's quite successful career as company man (who knew?), his family woes, his flights of passion, so often platonic, his body wracked by ill health, his struggle to translate his spirit to the page.

Why read Kafka? When you hit your mid fifties and realize that just maybe, you are just who you are and the world is just as it is and that there aren't any pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, then it's nice to find a writer who keeps it real, keeps the difficulty and intractability of things real. And as you cease chasing the dream, you can lay yourself to rest in your self so to speak, as it is, just be content and accepting of yourself. And then you see a lot of new things, discover new vistas and angles.
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