Franz Kafka (1883-1924) continues to signify for us - by virtue of his sad personal history as well as his distinctive artistic expressions of existential despair - the dominant tone of literary modernism. Nowhere in 20th-century fiction is there a more striking portrayal of self-hatred than Kafka's eerie story ''The Metamorphosis'' (1912). And his novel ''The Trial'' (1925) remains a classic description of the ''little man'' caught in the cold grip of inexplicable, judging ''official'' forces.
Ronald Hayman's vivid new biography - the first of Kafka in many years - scrupulously shows us how the family troubles, ever-magnifying insecurities, and illnesses that troubled Kafka became the exclusive subject matter of his fiction.
He was the son of a Czechoslovak Jewish businessman, a ''bullying, self-confident'' patriarch, who would become ''the judge'' of Franz's masochistic fantasies - and of several of his more disturbing stories, and from whom young Franz received only derisive contempt. Physically frail and timid, Kafka barely survived ''the claustrophobic grimness of school life'' and the rigors of studying law, which career he soon abandoned. He went to work for an insurance company in Prague and, for the rest of his short life, exhausted himself trying to live in both the commercial world, which his parents favored, and the literary one, into which he was too shy to step boldly and enter completely.
Little of Kafka's work appeared during his lifetime, despite the proddings of his best friend and eventual first biographer, Max Brod. Nothing came of his pathetic attempts to enjoy domestic happiness: the lengthy courtship of the long-suffering Felice Bauer, painstakingly transcribed in his letters to her, finally ended when a medical diagnosis of terminal illness released Kafka from all promises and pressures.
Hayman's consideration of this unique figure, which avails itself of such recently available material as the remainder of Kafka's unpublished works and the correspondence and reminiscences of people who knew him, is the most factually detailed portrait of this artist that we have yet had. It displays a solid understanding of the political and social (i.e., anti-Semitic) matrix in which Kafka's sensibility was formed, and it throws new light on his stylistic debt to the rhythms of Yiddish theater and Hasidic folk tale.
Hayman's accounts of Kafka's several relationships with women (besides the patient Felice, there were the intellectual soulmate Milena Jesenska and Dora Dymant, the girl with whom he lived in Berlin near the end of his life; and there were many others) may surprise readers who thought his obsessive cravings for solitude and complete quiet cut him off from personal relationships. And it helps greatly that this biographer is a surpassingly graceful writer, capable of a consistent display of elegant phrasemaking. One splendid example must suffice: ''Kafka's whole life was a series of hesitations in the process of condemning himself and carrying out the execution.''
What diminishes this biography is that it focuses primarily on Kafka's debilities. We don't feel the current of continual literary productivity; don't sense the presence here of the innovative writer who turned his own failures and fantasies into disturbingly sharp, clear allegorizations of overall human vulnerability ''In the Penal Colony,'' ''Amerika,'' and others. Where Max Brod once accused, ''You're happy in your own unhappiness,'' Hayman, whose dislike for his subject we feel, between the lines, all through the book, blandly speaks of his ''acquiescence with the disease'' that killed him. The constant tone of this biography is judgmental and disapproving: It's as if - irony to end all ironies - Kafka's father had become his biographer.
So one looks to the work itself for confirmation of Kafka's genius. Not, however, to ''Letters to Ottla and the Family'' - a gathering of family corresondence (much of it available in previous volumes) pretty much limited to affectionate, slightly condescending notes to ''Kafka's favorite sister,'' whose later life, ending with her death at Auschwitz, is itself an appalling story. There are infrequent telling phrases and sentences, but hardly any personal material of real intrinsic interest. One concludes, inevitably, that family correspondence was for Kafka a matter of duty.
The correspondence with Felice Bauer was very different, as is argued in Elias Canetti's ''Kafka's Other Trial,'' in which the Nobel Prize-winning novelist-critic analyzes the long (1912-1923) ordeal meant to end in marriage, which resolved itself instead with Kafka's decision to break off the relationship because of his illness. And here is further proof, if any were needed, of the ultimate claim that ''the solitude of writing'' held over this victim of his own sensitivity.
Canetti's reading of these letters concentrates on Kafka's proposal of marriage, cruelly withdrawn (in a meeting he later imagined into a ''tribunal'' - and which reemerged, transformed, as the central event of ''The Trial''); on Kafka's perverse ''courting of Grete Bloch, the friend whom Felice entrusted with pleading her romantic cause; and on the revelations of his acknowledged ''indecisiveness and weakness'' scattered, metaphorically, throughout his fiction. Kafka's ''insight into his own sensibility and nature is pitiless and terrifying,'' Canetti concludes; proof of it abounds on every page of this brilliant, stinging book.
The central characteristic of Kafka remains his mysterious remoteness from ''normal'' life and feeling. Both ''Letters to Ottla'' and Ronald Hayman's annoyingly uneven biography do at least vigorously address that characteristic. Elias Canetti's ingenious act of comprehension goes much further: It makes Kafka seem weak in a human way - and that is no small achievement.