Michael Kumpfmüller: Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens (2011) – The Glory of Life (2014)

Die Herrlichkeit des LebensThe Glory of Life

There are two types of historical novels: those which are pure fiction and those in which real people are brought to life. I’m fond of the latter, so I was interested in Michael Kumpfmüller’s Kafka novel  Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens – The Glory of Life.

What a sad and moving book this is. The last Kafka book I’ve read was Brief and den Vater – Letter to My Father, and with that in mind, Kumpfmüller’s novel was even more moving. There’s this future giant at of German literature, who, at forty, is still afraid to face his father, to make decisions for himself, and to allow himself to live a happy, fulfilled life. And then, on a holiday with his sister, he meets Dora Diamant, a young Eastern Jewish woman who works as a cook in a holiday home for Jewish children. It’s the year 1923, Kafka has been ill for many years by then and is retired. A year later, in 1924, he will be dead.

Dora Diamant falls in love with him instantly. She loves this sensitive, delicate man. He too, falls in love. She’s good for him and for the first time in his life he makes plans for the future. They want to live together in Berlin. He will not return to his family home in Prague. It takes a lot of courage for him to oppose his parents, but they finally give in. Of course, they don’t know that he will live with Dora.

The months in Berlin are some of the happiest in Kafrka’s life, but they are difficult too. Kafka and Dora are not married and landlords aren’t keen on having them in their house. And there’s the hyperinflation. Money’s devalued constantly. Life in Berlin is incredibly expensive. The winter is harsh and the apartments are cold. It doesn’t take a lot for a frail man like Kafka to fall ill again. This time it will be fatal.

The book tells us how he has to return to Prague, from there to a sanatorium in Austria, and to another one, near Vienna. Dora follows him eventually. Kafka’s parents have accepted her. Possibly they sense it’s the end anyway.

It’s incredibly sad to read how Kafka suffered. How painful it was to write his final short stories, but it’s also interesting to read about some of those stories and what they meant. In his last year, for the first time, he stood up against his father; for the first time he’s almost free. Too late though. He dies in June 1924, after long and intense suffering.

Kumpfmüller alternates between Dora’s and Kafka’s point of view which enlarges the book. The dialogue is rendered in indirect speech which is the only way this could have been done. Anything else would have been tacky. Besides, he had to invent most. The notebooks and letters of Kafka’s last years are lost. Dora took them and in 1933 they were confiscated by the Nazis.

I never pictured Kafka to be a ladies’ man nor that there was a true joy of life hidden in him. It’s horrible to see to what extent his father crushed him.

Anyone interested in Kafka should read this. Preferably, in parallel with some of his short stories and The Letter to My Father.

22 thoughts on “Michael Kumpfmüller: Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens (2011) – The Glory of Life (2014)

  1. I read a novel about Kafka’s life as seen through the women in his life and it really changed the impression I’d had of him. He certainly had some interesting relationships with women. His death was awful as was the fate of his sisters.

    • I was thinking that in some ways it might have been better for him to go like this. At least he was spared the fate of his sisters.
      It’s sad to think what a toxic influence his father was.

  2. Right – third person now to talk about it and now I really, really want to read it. I’ve been a Kafka groupie since I was about 10. (Yes, yes, call me shallow.) I liked his writing too.

  3. This looks like a beautiful novel, Caroline. I didn’t know that Kafka’s dad was so domineering. It is nice that he was able to get out of it, though by then it was too late. I have been hearing of Michael Kumpfmüller frequently during this GLM. I have never heard of him before. Such a great new discovery for me. Looks like many are reading / planning to read Kumpfmüller.

  4. I am actually a little uncomfortable with the type of historical fiction that concentrates on real people. Granted there have been great works written as such so I attribute this to my own bias and shortcomings.

    It is so ironic that Kafka, who we recognize as a genius, was so oppressed by his father so late in life.

    • Yes, it is ironic. But a lot of his work is influenced by this. I don’t think he would have written The Process or The Penal Colony, or many other stories, withouth that.
      I’m the opposite. I prefer when it’s based on historical figures.

  5. I kind of want to read this, but like Brian, I’m wary about biographical historical fiction. I’ve had some horrible experiences with books that have literary figures as characters, but I’ve had some good experiences, too. Jude Morgan seems to get it right, although I chose not to read his latest book about Shakespeare because the lack of factual information about him means that the work has to be mostly speculation. Besides that, I tend towards being a Marlovian, which is another thing altogether. 🙂

    I read Letter to My Father in 2010 and according to my blog post about it, I thought it sounded like one of those ‘letters you never mean to send’ that people are encouraged to write when they’re in therapy. I wasn’t impressed by Kafka’s inability to stand up to his father and I called him ‘craven’. Oh, dear. It’s rather disturbing be confronted with evidence of my ignorance and arrogance four years later! I was in therapy myself then and slowly floating back to the surface after a mind-breaking episode of clinical depression, so no doubt my attitude was clouded by what I was dealing with in my own life. I think that blog post is evidence of how, when we point at what we don’t like in others, we are really pointing at what we don’t like in ourselves. I have since read a couple of bios of Kafka and understand more about his family dynamic now. There’s a lesson for me in all of this about the unwisdom of judging people hastily. Reading is an excellent way to learn life’s hard lessons!

    • I’ve still not read Jude Morgna but I’ve heard not all of the books are equally good.
      Kumpfmüller is a very literary writer so, I think, it works. He chose such a short period and I think it’s great that he showed us another Kafka.
      I suppose Kafka battled more than one demon. His father and religion. There’s something in the book that I didn’t want to mention – it’s linked to the possibility of marriage to Dora – I was very disappointed to read that.
      Clearly, even if he had survived, he was still not totally free.
      I know what you mean about judging others more harshly because they are mirrors. I never felt that way about Kafka but it has happened with others.

      • I think Morgan’s ‘Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets’ and ‘The Taste of Sorrow’ (about the Brontes) are his best. I’ve read most of his other books and I’d agree that some of them are a bit lightweight and tend more towards being historical romance novels than anything. He writes well, though. Angela Carter was one of his teachers when he did his MA in Creative Writing at UEA. It would have been something to take that class! Probably the only such class worth taking. 🙂

        • I have those books. I had no idea he took courses with Angela Carter. It would have been so interesting to take one of those, I agree. But Margaret Atwood wuld be an interesting choice too.

  6. I bought this when you first wrote about it and I look forward to reading it–will have to grab the Letters to My Father and read in tandem! A long time ago I read a biography of Dora Diamont and found their relationship fascinating–but then I have always been fascinated by Kafka in general. You wonder if his life would have been prolonged had he had better living conditions, but maybe not. When I traveled to Prague *many* years ago I was able to see the tiny house he lived in for a short period. This sounds like such a good read–not sure I will manage it this month but I hope to get to it sooner than later.

    • It is a good read but so sad. Unbelievably sad. I never knew that tuberculosis was this bad. I thought they just lost strength and died. I’m not going to write more. But it’s also sad to feel the weigth of that father. To read it in tandem with the letter or afterwards would be very good. I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of the novel if I hadn’t been familiar with his life and his stories.

  7. A great idea to read this in tandem with Letter to My Father. I’ll have to be in a good frame of mind to do it, though. Just reading a short bio of Kafka’s life was so sad. Excellent review, Caroline.

  8. I was so hoping I’d get to this, and I might just! I was a bit put off when I flicked through it to see it had no dialogue. I’ve not done well recently with novels that were all telling and no showing, but maybe if speech is indirect, it will be okay. If you like it, it must be!

    • It’s a very German thing to have only indirect speech. I noticed it in all of the recent books I’ve read this month. It often makes for dry reading but in this case it could have turned into melodrama if he’d used dialogue.
      I really hope you’ll reac it. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

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