WHEN Franz Kafka's "The Trial" appeared posthumously in the 1920s, the German satirist and critic Kurt Tucholsky remarked that most books let a reader know what he is dealing with early on, but "[h]ere you know nothing, you grope in the dark. What is this? Who is that?"
In the course of Reiner Stach's "Kafka: The Decisive Years" -- at almost 600 pages it is the first volume of what clearly will be a massive trilogy -- readers may find themselves in a similar perplexity. Stach is dismissive of other Kafka biographies as attempting to force a coherent narrative upon a wraithlike subject whose life was narrow, private and compulsively recessive. He aims to go beneath the elusive "what was" and to intuit, instead, "what it was like to be Franz Kafka."
To this end, he frequently sacrifices sequence, outcomes, the modest coupling of events and dates and the fleshing out of character. Such devices, proper to the novelist, are found nevertheless in the most spacious and sophisticated biographies, also in the trashy ones, of course. (They are in Ernst Pawel's excellent Kafka biography "The Nightmare of Reason," which Stach seems to think little of.)
Stach is so determined not to be trashy that he goes to the other extreme. It is as if, to render Kafka, he is borrowing his subject's style: his detail-laden invisibilities, his meaningful puzzlements, almost even his voice. Except that where Kafka's voice is so perfectly tuned as to convey meaning without stating it (a book should be an ax, he wrote, to break up the frozen sea within us), Stach's is blunter. He wields his ax with dogged energy, and Shelley Frisch's lucid translation sometimes pants with the effort. But he needs to do more stating.
A biography has to provide the "what was" as well as "what it was like": We require sight as well as feeling. Besides analysis and reflection, with which Stach is more than lavish, we must have the thing that is analyzed and reflected upon.
Stach does provide it from time to time. Drawing on letters and diaries, he gives us a vivid portrait of the cramped family household in which Kafka lived until he was 30. His bedroom was a kind of passageway; his father, a caricature of a crass bourgeois, trailed through each morning on his way to wash up. At night, after his work at the state Workers' Accident Insurance Institute, Kafka would lie in his room trying to blot out the family chatter and wait to start his writing until they all went to bed.
Stach goes into painstaking detail about Kafka's day job: estimating risk and negotiating the contributions made by businesses to the insurance fund. His writing was highly prized by his superiors in such projects as a safety manual on wood-planing machines. (Everything that touches on Kafka instantly turns Kafkaesque.)
Valued and promoted, he was indulged when he asked for a day's leave because of the strain that the office put on his "real" work. But then, his superiors were literary-minded themselves. Stach nicely portrays Kafka and one of the directors reading poet Heinrich Heine to each other while their morning appointments waited outside.
The author opens this first part of his trilogy in 1910, when Kafka was 27, and ends it five years later. He has his reasons -- the diaries began in 1910, and the period included two bursts of writing that produced "The Trial," "The Metamorphosis" and "Amerika." Furthermore, it covered much of his tormented relationship with Felice Bauer, which provided a good deal of the anguish Stach uses to fuel his portrait.
The effect of this chronology is odd, though. Stach makes little effort even to summarize what went before. We are dropped in halfway through a life and few introductions are made. With Bauer, the volume does not conclude so much as stop. We have been told in the course of it that the relationship will eventually expire; however, it is disconcerting not to have the equivalent of a "to be (unhappily) continued."
There are masses of detail -- sections on the literary life in Prague and Vienna, on Zionism, on Kafka's interest in Yiddish, on his perfectionist fear of yielding his work to prospective publishers -- but they stand somehow separate from the man himself. Making a way through Stach's half-thousand pages is a hard trek with insufficient markers.
He refers to Kafka's failed attempt to write about a trip to Italy in collaboration with Max Brod -- friend, perpetual noodge and posthumous salvager of the great novels Kafka wanted destroyed -- but tells us nothing about the trip itself. He three times mentions a woman named Hedwig Weiler without indicating who she is. With dates given grudgingly, events get lost and scrambled even within a five-year compass.
One may almost need a biography to read this biography. It is as if the author were writing for a few experts and adepts and, in a way, for Kafka himself.