Kafka triology gives insights into a victim of his own sensitivity; Kafka: A Biography, by Ronald Hayman. New York: Oxford University Press. 349 pp. Glatzer. New York: Schocken Books. 160 pp. $15.95. Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice, by Elias Canetti. New York: Schocken Books. 121 pp. $11.95 in hard cover, $5.95 in paperback.
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.