Book Review: Louis Begley's The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head

Louis Begley’s biographical study of Kafka’s enigmatic mind shines a light on the master’s humanity as well as his work

TVR Books | Grigory Borodavkin | April 2011

Fear and Longing in Prague

Europe in the beginning of the twentieth century can be compared to a knot. Constantly tightening, the rope at both ends tugging ever harder, neither side showing any signs of giving in, as it becomes clearer that the knot will eventually violently burst.

The time was turbulent to say the least, almost palpable impending disaster hung in the air and forces that were put into motion too long ago to be stopped were nearing critical point. This time of social and economic turmoil, where the greatest of wars and revolutions were just around the corner, also proved to be fertile, giving birth to a generation of artists of the highest caliber,  visionaries striving to expand the boundaries of perception.

In the midst of these forces and ideas of almost elemental proportion lived Franz Kafka, a writer without whom no account of twentieth century literature would be complete. His stories of alienation send an icy wind through any sensitive reader, as the overwhelming forces of a dehumanized modern world leave the individual helpless. Kafka felt the crushing weight of the human condition and described horror with the unflinching eye of a spectator.

Louis Begley’s book The Tremendous World I Have Inside my Head is a biographical study of a great mind. Begley gained acclaim for his first novel, Wartime Lies, written at the age of 57, that deals with the horrors experienced by a Polish Jew caught during the Holocaust. He later went on to write several other novels, one of which All About Schmidt was later filmed with Jack Nicholson in the lead.

The Tremendous World I Have Inside my Head is broken up into several sections, each corresponding to crucial aspects of Kafkas life and work.  Beginning with his upbringing, the book unravels Kafka’s difficult relationship with his family, raised in a household with an abusive father, a dinner table dictator, leaving the young Kafka gasping for intellectual air in the constraints of his stifling apartment. A reader quickly discovers some of the influences behind the tyrannical forces at work in his writing. But as pages turn, you soon recognize that it’s not that simple. The dilemmas that Kafka was literally riddled with were intensified by the tribulations that took place right outside his window. Having to deal with being a German-speaker in Czech Prague, combined by his Jewish background in the anti-Semitic mood of the time, Kafka constantly felt like a minority within a minority.

Through the prism of Begley’s skillful narrative and Kafkas own letters, we see how this young fragile man felt an undeniable calling, causing him to recognize that he would forever be alienated from the simple joys of life.  Writing to his friend Max Brod, who we have to thank for disobeying Kafkas dying wish and not burning a substantial amount of his work, he writes, "When it became clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction for me to take, everything rushed in that direction and left empty all those abilities which were directed towards the joys of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection and above all music."

Indeed, even his own talent at times seems the sternest taskmaster, and he struggled to live up to his own standards of perfectionism that lashed at him. The spells of self-doubt and dissatisfaction that constantly haunted Kafka leave the reader feeling truly fortunate, knowing how close some of the greatest novels ever written came to ending up in the furnace.

His love life, however, serves best to illustrate Kafka’s unstable mental state. As Begley unfolds the story, we are exposed to the suffocating reproach and self-doubt that loomed underneath a desire to be fulfilled as a man through marriage and children – what Kafka himself saw as a "dichotomy in his psychological makeup between fear and longing."

This is probably best shown in his relationship with Felice Bauer, Kafkas two-time fiancée. Their correspondence has been reconstructed and the reader witnesses Kafka do an about-face from one letter to the next, swinging from possessive to fickle, demanding to know every triviality of Felice’s day to convincing her how unfit for marriage he truly is. As Kafka succumbs to his illness and draws closer to death, a relief washes over him. A relief that he doesn’t have to chose between one or the other ever again. Seeing his sickness from a fatalistic point of view, not able to deny his fragility any longer, he wrote these words to journalist Milena Jesenska, his last love, and the person who understood him best: "When the soul and the heart can no longer bear the burden, the lungs take over one half of it, so that the weight will at least be evenly distributed." [Italics Begley] Milena later quoted Kafka in the heartbreakingly beautiful obituary she wrote after his passing.

Saved for last, the chapter that deals with Kafka’s work proves even more rewarding. Begley offers relevant historic background for some of Kafka’s most enigmatic pieces and explores possible influences, carefully untying knots of parables and metaphors. Here the author’s profound insight in to Kafka’s literary oeuvre shines in all its glory as he constructs a solid body of reasons and rationale under the flesh of his master’s work.

Splicing Kafka’s letters with his own narrative Begley finds a balance between the two and synthesizes a stream of chapters so natural that one never becomes exposed to the meticulous and dry cataloguing of what’s, when’s and where’s. As the book progresses the reader grows more and more entangled in Kafka’s reality, both inside and outside his head. The cascade of ideas gushes from the narrative, almost every sentence another clue, giving you a chance to stop and follow a train of thought, connect the dots and draw your own conclusions.

Begley manages to walk a tightrope, offering his own insights but never, as appealing as it may seem, imposing them. As you read this book, Kafka’s very tissue becomes tangible, his pain real, heartbreak visceral and by the time you read the notes he wrote on his deathbed tears will form under your eyes. Adding another dimension to the master’s work, Begley forges a welcome addition to the universe of letters spawned by Franz Kafka’s imagination.


Louis Begley

The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head

Atlas & Co. 2008

Available at: Shakespeare & Company

Sterngasse 2

1010 Vienna

(01) 535 50 53

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    the vienna review April 2011