An interview with Wendy Laura Belcher on “The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros”

The Life and Struggle of Our Mother Walatta Petros jacketWendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner’s translation of The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros is the first English translation of the earliest-known book-length biography of an African woman predating the seventeenth century. The original author, Galawdewos, collected stories of Petros told by word of mouth from the leader and Saint’s disciples in 1672, thirty years after Petro’s death. Petros was a significant religious figure, who led a non-violent protest against European Jesuits forcing Ethiopians to abandon their African Christian faith. In this interview, Belcher, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, offers us valuable insight into who this woman was, and the historical context that shaped her fascinating life.

Your title calls this a “seventeenth-century African” text. Are there many African texts from this time?

WLB: There are lots of texts, the problem is that they are rarely preserved or translated. So we are glad to be bringing one to the attention of the public, in part to demolish this myth about Africa being a continent without a written literature. It’s a common assumption, even among scholars, that there is no writing in Africa before Europeans, but that is an error. This text was not written by or for Europeans or in a European language, but by Ethiopians for Ethiopians in an Ethiopian language about an Ethiopian woman.

So, why is this particular book important?

WLB: It’s the earliest-known book-length biography about an African woman. As a biography, it is full of human interest, being an extraordinary account of early modern African women’s lives—full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph. For many Americans, it will be the first time they can learn about a pre-colonial African woman on her own terms.

Who was this woman?

WLB: She was a revered religious leader who led a nonviolent movement against European proto-colonialism and was the founding abbess of her own monastery, which still exists today. She lead an amazing life: a woman who was born to an adoring father, lost three children in infancy, left her abusive husband, started a movement, defeated a wicked king, faced enraged hippos and lions, avoided lustful jailors, founded seven religious communities, routed male religious leaders, gathered many men and women around her, and guided her flock subject to no man, being the outright head of her community and even appointing abbots, who followed her orders. Her name is Walatta Petros (which means Daughter-of [Saint] Peter, a compound name that cannot be shortened) and she lived from 1592 to 1642.

This is a biography, not an autobiography. So who actually wrote it?

WLB: Thirty years after her death, her Ethiopian disciples (many of whom were women) gathered to tell stories of her life to a scribe named Galawdewos (Claudius in English). So, it is a kind of oral history of the community. They praised her as an adored daughter, the loving friend of women, a devoted reader, a disciplined ascetic, and a fierce leader.

This book was originally written on parchment. Nearby Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries copied it. We used twelve of these manuscript copies of the book to create our translation, including three from the saint’s own monastery. The text was written in the classical African language of Ethiopic, or Gəˁəz. Ethiopians innovated a writing system in the first millennium BCE and have been using it to write bounds books since the fourth century CE.

If this text wasn’t written for Europeans, how are Europe and Christianity involved?

WLB: It is confusing! First, the Christianity in this text is African. Ethiopians have been Christians since the fourth century, long before most of Europe. They have retained a distinctive form of Christianity in their Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Second, this book records an early encounter between Europeans and Africans from an African perspective. When the Jesuits came in the 1500s to try to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism, many Ethiopians resisted, especially the royal women. Walatta Petros was one of these women, and she led others in a successful fight to retain African Christian beliefs. For these acts, she was elevated to sainthood in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Are there a lot of these Ethiopian biographies?

WLB: There are over 200 Ethiopian orthodox saints and over 100 of them have biographies. At least 17 of them are women and six of them have biographies (or, since they are saints, what are called hagiographies). Ethiopian stories about Ethiopian saints are a vital archive of African literature that has gone almost entirely unexplored outside Ethiopia. They are fascinating narratives about Ethiopian folk heroes as well as rich repositories of indigenous thought. This will be the first accessible translation into English of any of these stories. (There are three of the other hagiographies in English, but they exist only in art books that cost thousands of dollars each.)

Can you tell me more about yourself and your fellow translator?

WLB: Dr. Kleiner is a German scholar with an excellent knowledge of over a dozen languages, including Arabic, French, Amharic, Ethiopic, and English. He is widely acknowledged as one of the two best living translators of Ethiopic (or Gəˁəz) into English. I am an assistant professor of African literature with a joint appointment in the Princeton University Department of Comparative Literature and the Department for African American Studies. I spent part of my childhood in Ethiopia and I now work to bring attention to early African literature.

What other important figures from Walatta Petros’ life are mentioned in this text?

WLB: The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros features a life-long partnership between two women and the depiction of same-sex sexuality among nuns. This is the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in a sub-Saharan Africa text. Walatta Petros was in a life-long celibate relationship with another nun, Eheta Kristos, and they “lived together in mutual love, like soul and body” until death. Interpreting the women’s relationships requires care and this scholarly edition and translation provides the necessary political, religious, and cultural context in all its richness. The same-sex relationships are a fascinating aspect of the text, but just one small part of it.

Read the introduction to The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros here.

Spotlight on…Letter-Writers

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

Italo Calvino:
Letters, 1941-1985

For the final post in this series, we turn to the raw materials of biography with two volumes of collected letters. Private letters often give a very different picture from public writings – less guarded, more spontaneous and immediate. They can shed light on the development of ideas and concepts over time, revealing the struggle so often obscured by the perfection of the finished work. These letters are a vital primary source for biographers. It seems certain that the rise of email and decline of letter-writing will profoundly affect the work of future biographers. Will email prove as durable as paper? Will the sheer volume of electronic correspondence defeat even the most dedicated researchers? It may be decades before the answers to these questions are clear. For now, we are still seeing significant collections of letters published, allowing readers to make their own first-hand acquaintance with Carl Jung and Italo Calvino.

Analytical Psychology in Exile collects the correspondence between Jung and one of his most brilliant students, Erich Neumann. The letters span nearly three decades, offering a fascinating insight into the maturing of Jung’s theories as he shares them with, and defends them against, the younger Neumann. Jung has been accused of sympathy with the Nazi regime in Germany, and of anti-semitism, yet here we see him in dialogue with a Zionist Jew who was forced to flee Germany for Tel Aviv in 1934. Inevitably, given the impending catastrophe, these letters touch on complex and controversial issues such as the psychology of fascism and anti-semitism, and the crushing experience of exile. Neumann lived to see the founding of the state of Israel and died there in 1960; although nearly thirty years his senior, Jung outlived him by a year.

While Jung passed the Second World War in the comparative security of Switzerland, Italo Calvino experienced first-hand the dangers of life in Fascist Italy. In Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, that experience is most profoundly seen in an absence, the lack of any correspondence from his years in hiding as a member of the Italian resistance. Although his letters rarely refer to the war, his time fighting with the resistance resulted in a deep philosophical and personal commitment to communism. We see his disillusion and resignation from the Communist Party following the crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and his excitement at the fresh hope offered by the événements of 1968 in Paris. The course of his writing, from the autobiographical realism of The Path to the Nest of Spiders to the dazzling metafiction of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, perhaps reflects his withdrawal from political life. Nonetheless, Calvino remained an acute critic and his letters are filled with sharp assessments of post-war Italy’s vibrant cultural life.

Spotlight on…the Renaissance

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

– Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, in The Third Man

Niccolo Machiavelli, by Conrad Vivanti

Niccolò Machiavelli
by Conrad Vivanti

Welles’s famous speech atop the Ferris wheel is a brilliantly concise picture of the Italy of Niccolò Machiavelli, simultaneously a patchwork of warring city-states and the stage for a rebirth of western culture. Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography, by Conrad Vivanti, analyses the life and work of the man whose name has become a watchword for unscrupulous power politics. As a young man in Florence Machiavelli witnessed the expulsion of the ruling Medici family and the establishment of the short-lived republic which he was to serve as diplomat and organizer of the citizen militia. He traveled on missions to the royal courts of Spain and France, and to the papal court of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli’s first-hand knowledge of the attempts of Alexander’s illegitimate son and general Cesare Borgia to assert power over central Italy provided the basis for his best-known work, The Prince. Still controversial today, The Prince argues that rulers must be prepared to use deceit and brute force to preserve their power and build a stable state. Unpublished until five years after Machiavelli’s death, The Prince was placed on the Index of banned books by Pope Paul IV in 1559, but survived to become one of the founding works of modern political science.

The works of Desiderius Erasmus also enjoyed the back-handed honor of Paul’s ban, but this was, perhaps, a case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. In the 1530s his books accounted for more than 10% of all books sold in Europe; in addition his edition of the New Testament was the basis for Luther’s German translation and the King James Version in English. Lisa Jardine’s Erasmus, Man of Letters is a portrait of a man who was the center of the intellectual life of his age, corresponding with as many as five hundred of his fellow scholars. Keen to maintain his independence, he moved between a dozen European cities, from Paris to Turin, from Cambridge to Basel. He even worked briefly as a proofreader for the Venetian pioneer of print Aldus Manutius. Equally independent in mind, Erasmus mocked superstition in The Praise of Folly, while challenging the established theology of the church and leading the return to the original texts of the New Testament and the early fathers. Like Machiavelli, Erasmus sought to offer advice to the prospective rulers of his day but his Education of a Christian Prince recommended that the Prince gain the love of his people through just and benevolent rule. Fittingly, it was written in Switzerland.

Spotlight on…Public Intellectuals

Worldly Philosopher, by Jeremy Adelman

Worldly Philosopher
by Jeremy Adelman

The title of Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert O. Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher, concisely sums up the character of many public intellectuals of the twentieth century. In battles that overflowed the geopolitical arena to encompass culture, the arts, and political theory, intellectuals frequently found themselves where history was being made.

Born in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman left Germany in 1933 when the Nazis announced the expulsion of Jews from the universities. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, and later guided escapees across the Pyrenean mountain passes between Vichy France and Spain. He worked in Algiers as a translator for the OSS (precursor to the CIA), in Europe for the Federal Reserve Board on the Marshall Plan, and in Colombia for the World Bank. His experiences in Europe and Colombia influenced his thinking on economics and development: Hirschman realized that the grand plans and idealized markets of his fellow economists were unworkable in the real world. Instead he proposed a strategy of improvisation and experimentation, responsive to local conditions and opportunities. Later works, including Exit, Voice and Loyalty and The Passions and the Interests, continued against the grain of conventional economic thinking and established Hirschman as one of the foremost intellectuals of his time.

Isaiah Berlin too was an emigrant: born in Riga in 1908 (now in Latvia, then part of Russia), he lived through the 1917 revolutions in St. Petersburg before his family moved to England in 1921. He found a home at Oxford University and, despite his Russian Jewish, roots rapidly found himself at the heart of the British establishment, working for the British Diplomatic service in the embassies at Washington and Moscow during the Second World War. His position, and his legendary brilliance as a conversationalist, gave him access to a veritable Who’s Who of politicians, intellectuals, writers and academics. He played a part (recently dissected by Frances Stonor Saunders) in the smuggling of the manuscript of Dr. Zhivago out of Russia. Personal Impressions, Berlin’s collection of biographical essays, draws on first-hand acquaintance with Boris Pasternak, alongside Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf and many others.

Spotlight on…Philosophers and Mystics

A Short Life of Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie

A Short Life of Kierkegaard
by Walter Lowrie

The nineteenth century was a period of extraordinary advances in science and engineering that seemed to bring the dream of a comprehensive understanding of the physical world within reach. Yet it was also the century that gave us Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka, three writers whose work expressed the subjective dimension of life, analyzed the role of human choice and will, and rejected a purely rationalist vision of existence.

To residents of Copenhagen in the first half of the nineteenth century, Søren Kierkegaard was a familiar sight, his striking figure daily walking the streets of the town. But few, if any, would have known that he was the author of several volumes of philosophy and theology – his early works were published under a series of unlikely pseudonyms, including Johannes de Silentio and Hilarius Bookbinder. Despite the oddness of his pen-names, Kierkegaard was deeply in earnest, and occupied his last years with an extended critique of the Church of Denmark in a series of pamphlets. His arguments that faith is rooted in an act of individual choice, not church ritual, and that state involvement corrupted the church, were highly influential, and his reputation grew rapidly after his early death in 1855. W. Lowrie’s A Short Life of Soren Kierkegaard is a perfect introduction to Kierkegaard’s life and work by one of his first English translators. For those willing to make a leap of faith and tackle Kierkegaard’s life in greater detail, Joakim Garff’s magisterial Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography is the definitive work.

As the subtitle of Walter Kaufman’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist suggests, Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on religion were far removed from those of Kierkegaard. He derided Christian ethics as “slave morality” and proclaimed the need for the individual to overcome their social, cultural and moral context through the force of will. His radical ideas and poetic, allusive style were unsuccessful in his lifetime – he printed a mere forty copies of the fourth part of Thus Spake Zarathustra – but his influence has grown enormously in the century following his death, as much among writers and artists as philosophers.

Nietzsche eventually succumbed to insanity and lived the last years of his life in the care of his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who edited his remaining manuscripts for publication after his death. It is often argued that she introduced an anti-semitic and nationalist slant that later made Nietzsche’s thought more appealing to the Nazis. However, were it not for similar efforts by Max Brod, none of Franz Kafka’s novels would have survived. On his deathbed, Kafka asked Brod to destroy his manuscripts and diaries, but convinced of Kafka’s genius, Brod instead chose to preserve them and edit them for publication. A perfectionist, Kafka could not bring himself to finish any of the novels, but even in their incomplete forms, the Trial and the Castle stand as undisputed classics. Reiner Stach’s monumental biography (Kafka: The Decisive Years, and Kafka: The Years of Insight) paints an astonishingly detailed picture of a deeply introspective writer and his life in Prague at the turn of the century.

Spotlight on…Scientists

Nikola Tesla, by W. Bernard Carlson

Nikola Tesla
by W. Bernard Carlson

Genius is no guarantee of public recognition. In this post we look at the changing fortunes and reputations of three very different scientists: Alan Turing, Nikola Tesla, and Albert Einstein.

With the success of the recent movie, the Imitation Game (based on Andrew Hodges’ acclaimed biography Alan Turing: The Enigma), it’s easy to forget that for decades after his death, Turing’s name was known only to computer scientists. His conviction for homosexual activity in 1950s Britain, his presumed suicide in 1954, and the veil of secrecy drawn over his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War combined to obscure his importance as one of the founders of computer science and artificial intelligence. The gradual change in public attitudes towards homosexuality and the increasing centrality of computers to our daily lives have done much to restore his reputation posthumously. Turing received an official apology in 2009, followed by a royal pardon in 2013.

Despite enjoying celebrity in his own lifetime, Nikola Tesla’s reputation declined rapidly after his death, until he became regarded as an eccentric figure on the fringes of science. His legendary showmanship and the outlandish claims he made late in life of inventing high-tech weaponry have made it easy for critics to dismiss him as little more than a charlatan. Yet he was one of the pioneers of electricity, working first with Edison, then Westinghouse to develop the technology that established electrification in America. W. Bernard Carlson’s Nikola Tesla tells the story of a life that seems drawn from the pages of a novel by Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, of legal battles with Marconi over the development of radio, of fortunes sunk into the construction of grandiose laboratories for high voltage experiments.

By contrast, the reputation of Albert Einstein seems only to have grown in the century since the publication of his General Theory of Relativity. He is perhaps the only scientist to have achieved iconic status in the public mind, his face recognized as the face of genius. Children know the equation e=mc2 even though most adults would struggle to explain its implications. From the publication of the four 1905 papers onwards, Einstein’s place in scientific history has been secure, and his work remains the cornerstone of modern understanding of the nature of the universe. We are proud to announce the publication of a special 100th anniversary edition of Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and the recent global launch of our open access online archive from the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, the Digital Einstein Papers.

Spotlight on…Ancient Times

The Poison King, by Adrienne Mayor

The Poison King
by Adrienne Mayor

The ancient world presents formidable challenges for any biographer. In contrast to the wealth of documentation surrounding the careers of modern statesmen and thinkers, we often have only the most fragmentary information about their counterparts in the ancient world. The main sources are often writers who put pen to parchment decades or even centuries later. Our only knowledge of the words of Pericles come from three speeches recorded by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War, but Thucydides was working from memory, and it is often suggested that he sought to present Pericles’ oratory in a suitably heroic register rather than give a verbatim account. Despite the obstacles, an enduring fascination with ancient Greece and Rome has led many biographers to take up the challenge of putting a convincing picture together from the handful of pieces available.

Vincent Azoulay’s Pericles of Athens is a comprehensive reassessment of the life and influence of perhaps the greatest leader of the city-state that was the birthplace of democracy. Despite his success in steering the Athenians through two wars with Sparta, their rival for domination of the Greek world, even in his own time Pericles was a controversial figure. As leader of the Democratic faction in the Athenian assembly, Pericles pursued a policy of limiting the power of the elites and opening up public office to poorer sections of the citizenry. He has been accused of sowing the seed of the decline of Athenian democracy into populist demagogy and corruption, while others praise him for giving the state the broad base which allowed it to survive for another century after his death.

Aristotle. the leading philosopher of his age, left a substantial written legacy extending to nearly fifty volumes. Yet what survives is only a fraction of his work (perhaps as much as a third) and may largely derive from the notes of Aristotle’s students on his lectures. In Aristotle: His Life and School, Carlo Natali weighs up the often contradictory sources to give an account of a remarkable life that took Aristotle from his studies under Plato at the Academy to the court of Philip of Macedon where he was tutor to the young Alexander the Great.

Born in 120BC, two centuries after the death of Aristotle, Mithradates VI of Pontus was one of the most dangerous military opponents that the Roman Republic faced. In the course of three wars against Rome he expanded his Black Sea kingdom across modern Turkey to the Greek archipelago, before a Rome riven by faction and civil war ultimately defeated him through the brilliant generalship of Pompey. Adrienne Mayor’s gripping biography of Mithradates, The Poison King, takes its name from a practice that has become legendary. Having attained the throne of Pontus on the murder of his father through poisoning, Mithradates later built an immunity by consuming small doses of every known poison, and survived his own attempted assassination because of it.

Spotlight on…Mathematicians

John Napier, by Julian Havil

John Napier
by Julian Havil

Mathematics has long been a specialty of the Press, and mathematicians have been the subjects of many of our biographies. Julian Havil’s John Napier: Life, Logarithms and Legacy describes the life and thought of the inventor of logarithms. Napier’s work on logarithms, first published in 1614, established the efficient method of calculation that remained in widespread use until the development of computers over three hundred years later. Napier lived in an age when the boundaries between mathematics, science, religion and the occult were less clearly drawn: he attempted to predict the Apocalypse on the basis of the Book of Revelations and the Sibylline oracles, and was even alleged to be an alchemist and a necromancer.

A century later Leonhard Euler continued development of logarithms, but for Euler this was only one among dozens of mathematical innovations over the course of a brilliant and prolific career. Ronald Calinger’s Leonhard Euler: Mathematical Genius in the Enlightenment is the first full-scale biography of one of the great figures in mathematics. His tireless devotion to his work while at the court of Frederick the Great earned him the mockery of Voltaire, but his collected writings on topics ranging from calculus, number theory, and geometry to astronomy and optics are an extraordinary treasure trove of ideas. Despite near total blindness in the last two decades of his life, Euler’s prodigious memory and skill at mental calculation allowed him to continue working to his death, dictating to a team of scribes. He remains the only mathematician to have given his name to two numbers: the transcendental number (and base of natural logarithms) e, known as Euler’s number, and the Euler-Mascheroni constant.

Theoretical ability doesn’t always translate into practical applications, and Frederick the Great was unimpressed with Euler as an engineer. By contrast, Henri Poincaré worked in the French Corps des Mines throughout his life, eventually attaining the rank of Inspector General, while continuing to pursue his work in multiple fields in mathematics, physics and philosophy. Jeremy Gray’s Henri Poincaré: A Scientific Biography analyzes the lasting influence of a man that some argue was the true discoverer of relativity. Poincaré did not shy away from involvement in public affairs, acting as an expert witness to counter spurious claims by the prosecution in the Dreyfus trials that convulsed France.

Unusually for brilliant theoreticians, Euler and Poincaré also wrote for a popular audience – Letters of Euler on Different Subjects in Natural Philosophy Addressed to a German Princess was a bestseller in its time. In Undiluted Hocus-Pocus one of the great popularizers of our time, Martin Gardner, writes with characteristic wit about his own life. Gardner’s column in Scientific American, Mathematical Games, ran for 25 years – Cambridge University Press are currently working on a new edition of the fifteen volumes of the collected columns. No stranger to controversy, Gardner devoted much energy to combating pseudo-science, but is perhaps best known for the Annotated Alice, in which he explained in detail the mathematical trickery and literary wordplay of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice books.

Spotlight on Biography

Kafka: The Decisive Years, by Reiner Stach

Kafka: The Decisive Years
by Reiner Stach

A good biography can offer unparalleled insight into the work of a great thinker, providing context for the development of their ideas. Is it possible to make a fair reading of The Prince without knowing the world of Florence in the age of the Medici? Does Kafka’s introspective life in fin de siècle Prague shed light on the dream-like atmosphere of “Metamorphosis” and The Trial? It would be hard to argue otherwise.

In the heyday of Michael Holroyd’s monumental lives of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, it was often suggested that biography would replace the novel. These magisterial works owed nothing to fiction in terms psychological depth, literary quality or drama, and had the additional appeal of being factual. The novel has proven surprisingly resilient, but still it’s hard to imagine a more tragic story than that of Alan Turing, recently depicted in the film The Imitation Game. Public intellectuals such as Isaiah Berlin and Albert Hirschman led lives that slipped easily between cultures, from academia to bohemia, from finance to international diplomacy. Their biographies are expressions of the history of their time.

Over the next couple of weeks we will turn the spotlight on some of the many excellent biographies the Press has published in recent years, from one of the very founders of democracy to a pioneer of electricity.

Book launch video for Maimonides: Life and Thought

Moshe Halbertal, Gruss Professor of Law at NYU School of Law, and Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School, discuss Halbertal’s new book, Maimonides: Life and Thought.

Two for Tuesday – Kafka

Kafka-series-covers.inddIntroducing Reiner Stach’s acclaimed and definitive biography of Franz Kafka from Princeton University Press. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was an influential writer of the 20th century and Reiner Stach spent more than a decade working with over four thousand pages of journals, letters, and literary fragments, many never before available, to re-create the atmosphere in which Kafka lived and worked. This impressive biography was translated by Shelley Frisch. We invite you to read the sample chapters linked below.

Kafka: The Decisive Years
This period from 1910-1915, which would prove crucial to Kafka’s writing and set the course for the rest of his life, saw him working with astonishing intensity on his most seminal writings–The Trial, The Metamorphosis, The Man Who Disappeared (Amerika), and The Judgment. These are also the years of Kafka’s fascination with Zionism; of his tumultuous engagement to Felice Bauer; and of the outbreak of World War I. It is at once an extraordinary portrait of the writer and a startlingly original contribution to the art of literary biography.

We invite you to read the Introduction online:

Kafka: The Years of Insight
This volume tells the story of the final years of the writer’s life, from 1916 to 1924–a period during which the world Kafka had known came to an end. Stach’s riveting narrative, which reflects the latest findings about Kafka’s life and works, draws readers in with a nearly cinematic power, zooming in for extreme close-ups of Kafka’s personal life, then pulling back for panoramic shots of a wider world scarred by World War I, disease, and inflation.

In these years, Kafka was spared military service at the front, yet his work as a civil servant brought him into chilling proximity with its grim realities. He was witness to unspeakable misery, lost the financial security he had been counting on to lead the life of a writer, and remained captive for years in his hometown of Prague. The outbreak of tuberculosis and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire constituted a double shock for Kafka, and made him agonizingly aware of his increasing rootlessness. He began to pose broader existential questions, and his writing grew terser and more reflective, from the parable-like Country Doctor stories and A Hunger Artist to The Castle.

A door seemed to open in the form of a passionate relationship with the Czech journalist Milena Jesenská. But the romance was unfulfilled and Kafka, an incurably ill German Jew with a Czech passport, continued to suffer. However, his predicament only sharpened his perceptiveness, and the final period of his life became the years of insight.

We invite you to read the Prologue online:

The first volume, covering Kafka’s childhood and youth, is forthcoming.