Robert Minto at Open Letters Monthly:
Kafka’s swimming is a perfect example — a small thing, it might seem, a mere recreational tributary to the torrent of a life. But Stach begins by exploring its somatic and symbolic dimensions:
Swimming is an archaic activity that taps into deep, preponderantly unconscious realms of experience. It is an exceptionally intense and multi-layered, yet easily achievable physical and mental state of being, comparable only to sexuality.
From such lyrical abstractions, Stach circles in to mention virtually every major passage in Kafka’s texts that pertains to swimming (his story about a man who wins an Olympic medal for swimming despite not knowing how to swim, passages from his letters). He speculates on the psychoanalytic explanation for Kafka’s love of floating. He briefly summarizes Kafka’s prospects for swimming-places over the course of his life. Then he continues to weave appropriate references to Kafka’s aquatic disporting through the whole of his narrative. All of this sets up the moment when Stach will address one of the most famous sentences in Kafka’s writings, a line in his journal with which he commemorated August 2, 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia — went swimming in the afternoon.” This passage has been held up as an illustration of Kafka’s self-absorption and unworldliness. Stach touches it lightly, and merely notes why it has been over-quoted. But in the context of his tender inquiry, the reader of this biography understands at once how profound a response it was for Kafka to swim on the first day of the war. Stach lays the groundwork for such epiphanies everywhere. When you consider how long it took to write the volumes of this biography, and that they were written out of order, such an architectural achievement becomes truly remarkable.