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.

Congratulations to Shelley Frisch, 2014 Winner of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize

05-20 Frisch
Shelley Frisch’s magnificent English translation of Reiner Stach’s German-language biography of Franz Kafka, entitled Kafka: Die Jahre der Erkenntnis (Kafka: The Years of Insight) has been named the 2014 winner of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. The award, established in 1996 by the Goethe-Institut Chicago, is given each spring to an outstanding German-to-English literary translation published in the U.S., with an accompanying prize of $10,000 funded by the German government.

Of her translation, the Goethe-Institut Chicago says that, “Frisch sustains Stach’s voice over hundreds of pages, finding fresh, compelling, and often witty ways to render his German to English,” and that even without a complete edition of Kafka’s work in English, “Frisch made the risky and courageous decision to provide her own translations of all the biography’s [Kafka] quotations.” The book examines the final years of Kafka’s life and  is monumental in scope, detailing disease, romance, and war in the wake of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian empire.

Shelley Frisch holds a PhD in German literature from Princeton University, and has taught at Columbia University while working as the Executive Editor of The Germanic Review. She also chaired the Haverford/Bryn Mawr Bi-College German Department prior to her transition into a full-time translator. Frisch’s second volume of the Kafka series, Kafka: The Decisive Years (Princeton), was awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize. She is a prolific translator of other German books, including biographies of Nietzche and Einstein.

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.