I have now read several of the books collected in the Overlook Illustrated Lives series. None of the additions to these books will hardly be mistaken for a definitive treatment of the particular subject, but through their lavish use of illustrations and photographs they provide a much more tactile introduction to an author than is normal. It is one thing to read of an author that he or she lived at such and such a place, was inspired in their writing by this location, or worked for a specified period of time in a certain building, and quite another to see a superbly reproduced period photograph of the site. I had read about Kafka before, but I realize now that I had always imagined his world as scruffier and dirtier and less elegant than it in fact was. This is significant, because Kafka writes very much about the world he inhabited, taking concrete experience as the basis for some of his tortured fantasies, so that having a more precise image of his world is an advantage indeed.
The text does not quite match the extraordinary beauty of the illustrations. Adler does not give a poor introduction to Kafka's life, but it is a spotty introduction. Some of the truly big questions in Kafka's life are left undiscussed, while others are dealt with quite satisfactorily. For instance, hints are given that Kafka's political beliefs were decidedly leftist, but no substance is given to them. Adler writes of his association with Zionist writers and of his sympathy with Zionist ideas, but to what degree did Kafka subscribe to them? Relatedly, Adler somewhat ignores Kafka's metaphysics for his psychology. One does not catch the bleakness of Kafka's sense of life by reading Adler. In contrast, compare this passage from Kafka's closest friend Max Brod: "'We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God's head,' Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. 'Oh no,' said Kafka, 'our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.' 'Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.' He smiled. 'Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope--but not for us." One gains a great sense of the way that Kafka thought and felt from that brief passage than in Adler's entire biographical essay. Nonetheless, while just lacking as an in depth study of Kafka, one will in conjunction with the wonderful photographs, which are tied closely to the text (compare this to the same series' biography of Proust, where the illustrations frequently have only a very loose connection to either Proust or the narrative) gain a increased appreciation for Kafka's world. I have read Max Brod's memoir/biography and much in Ronald Hayman's more recent biography, but neither gave me such a vivid impression of what Kafka's world was like.
I can't overemphasize just how fine the photographs in this book are. One finds pictures of all the crucial places and people in Kafka's life, and some assist marvelously in reading specific works. For instance, there is a great photograph of the castle in Friedland in northern Bohemia, where Kafka lived briefly in his capacity as representative of the Workers' Accident Insurance. The factory is in the foreground of the photograph, but behind it, up on top of a tor that rises suddenly above the surrounding land, is the castle that has been cited as a possible source for the one in Kafka's final novel.
If one attends to the dates of the deaths of many of the individuals in the photographs in the book--especially Kafka's relatives and his romantic attachments--one appreciates the degree to which WW II destroyed Kafka's world. Had he lived, one wonders if he would have stayed and died with his family and lovers, or if he would have fled with Max Brod to Palestine or elsewhere. It also, however, serves as a macabre confirmation that the horrific events in his novels and stories are not so terribly removed from reality. "The Penal Colony" was transformed by actual events into prophetic fiction or realism instead of nightmarish fantasy.