The Glory of Life

  • By Michael Kumpfmüller, translated by Anthea Bell
  • Haus Publishing
  • 240 pp.

This fictionalized chronicle of Kafka’s last year is rich in detail, light on drama.

“We may well imagine that the glory of life lies around everyone, and always in its full richness, but obscured, down in the depths, invisible, and far away.”
— Franz Kafka’s

In The Glory of Life, Michael Kumpfmüller tells the story of Franz Kafka’s final year, the year of his love affair with Dora Diamant. Already seriously ill with tuberculosis, Kafka, 40, spends the summer of 1923 with his sister Elli and her children in a small town on the Baltic coast. There he meets Dora, a woman 15 years his junior. Their attraction is immediate, intense, and mutual.

“You’re my salvation, he says. And I didn’t believe there could be any salvation for me.”

Kumpfmüller divides the novel into three parts: “Coming,” “Staying,” and “Going,” which correspond to the phases of Kafka’s time with Diamant. Alternating between Kafka and Dora’s viewpoints, the author employs simple prose in present tense and a stream-of-consciousness style that is, at times, highly effective and at other times slow-moving. Occasionally, Kumpfmüller’s writing feels like he is paraphrasing one of Kafka’s many letters.

Born in Prague in 1883 into a middle-class Jewish family, Franz Kafka studied law, and then worked in business for a number of years. While such jobs held no real interest for him, they put bread on the table and allowed time for his writing. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, Kafka lived under the limitations of this incurable condition for the rest of his life. His sisters, Elli and Ottla, are featured in the novel, as is his great friend Max Brod, Max’s mistress, Emmy, and Dora’s friend Judith.

Part one, “Coming,” progresses from the couple’s tentative early conversations, through quiet seaside walks discussing a future together, and their eventual arrival in Berlin. Here, Kafka is referred to as “the doctor,” and only at the very end of this section does he become Franz, a technique that creates an unusual distancing between reader and protagonist.

Part two, “Staying,” has the most intensity. In this section, Kumpfmüller shows us Berlin descending into the madness of rampant inflation and the equal madness of anti-Semitism. “For a while they live as if isolated from the world, more or less indifferent to what is going on outside: the monstrous price rises that affect them all the same, the general uneasiness, the intellectual bankruptcy.” Due to shortages, food riots erupt on the streets, and similar historical events are woven into the story.

“The people of Berlin are starving, donations of food are arriving from all over Europe.” For much of this time, Kafka fails to tell his parents about Dora. And yet, Franz and Dora are happy, content to be in love, living together. “They are together, they have time, that’s all that matters.” Here the characters take on flesh and bones, and their love intensifies.

At the end of part two, Kafka “wonders what will be left of him. He has written three novels that amounted to nothing, a few dozen stories, and in addition he has written letters all his life, mainly to women…saying nothing but why he wasn’t with them and did not live with them…his attempt to be a writer, which all things considered has failed.”

Part three, “Going,” is a lengthy denouement chronicling the treatments Kafka endures, the people who are horrified at his skeletal appearance, the letters back and forth to Kafka’s family, his inability to eat, and the steadfast love and support provided by Dora and others.

The question one might ask after reading The Glory of Life is why Michael Kumpfmüller chose to focus so intently on the love between Franz and Dora along with the day-to-day deterioration of Kafka’s condition. Where is the drama in relating details of so many letters traveling back and forth or details of the dishes Dora prepares to tempt her lover to eat? Why not dig deeper into the intentions Kafka had for his writing, the themes of alienation, brutality, authoritarian repression, and mystical transformation he explored?

And why not expose more of his family background as a context for who Kafka had become and who he had hoped to be? After all, Kafka’s father, a selfish, overbearing presence, is the man to whom Franz once wrote a 45-page letter explaining the impact of his emotionally abusive behaviour. Why not include more about Dora’s life after Kafka’s death and her decision to keep the notebooks and letters he asked her to destroy?

What the author does give us in The Glory of Life is a story of the disintegration of a great writer who continued writing until the last days of his life, a story of love under the spectre of death, and the incredible resilience of hope.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, Lies Told in Silence, is set in WWI France; her debut novel was Unravelled: Two Wars. Two Affairs. One Marriage. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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