Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Franz Kafka was born in Prague, now in the Czech Republic but then part of Austria. His father was Hermann Kafka, an owner of a large dry goods establishment, and mother Julie (L?wy) Kafka, who belonged to one of the leading families in the German-speaking, German-cultured Jewish circles of Prague. Hermann Kafka was a domestic tyrant, who directed his anger against his son. Kafka also had three sisters, all of whom perished in Nazi camps.

Often Kafka's stories dealt with the struggle between father and son, or a scorned individual's pleading innocence in front of remote figures of authority. In Letter to His Father (1919) Kafka admitted: "My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally long-drawn-out leave-taking from you."

Kafka grew up in an atmosphere of familial tensions and social rejection that he experienced as a member of Prague’s Jewish minority. His attitude to his Jewish heritage was ambivalent. In a diary he wrote: ‘’What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.’’ Kafka was educated at the German National and Civic Elementary School and the German National Humanistic Gymnasium. In 1901 he entered Ferdinand-Karls University, where he studied law and received a doctorate in 1906. During these years Kafka became a member of a circle of intellectuals, which included Franz Werfel, Oskar Baum and Max Brod, whom Kafka met in 1902. About 1904 Kafka began writing, making reports on industrial accidents and health hazard in the office by day, and writing stories by night. His profession marked the formal, legalistic language of his stories which avoided all sentimentality and moral interpretations - all conclusions are left to the reader.

Until his retirement Kafka worked at the insurance business (1907-23), first at an administrative position in a Prague branch of an Italian insurance company and then at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute of Prague. His work was highly valued at the company and during World War I his supervisors arranged for his draft deferment.

During his life Kafka had many girlfriends, many affairs, and a number of broken engagements. In 1912 he met Felice Bauer, a twenty-four-year-old businesswoman from Berlin. He warned her that life with him would mean ‘’a monastic life side by side with a man who is fretful, melancholy, untalkative, dissatisfied and sickly.’’ Their relationship lasted for five years. Felice later moved to the United States, where she died in 1960. Kafka’s first creative period started with such short stories as “Das Urteil” (The Judgment) and “Die Verwandlung”, in which Gregor Samsa wakes to find out that he has turned overnight into a giant insect. He remains trapped in his room by his petit bourgeois family. His father throws an apple core at Gregor, it rots, and Gregor dies.

World War I stopped Kafka’s productivity as a novelist and short story writer, but he continued to write letters and diaries. In notebooks, which he started to keep in 1910, Kafka recorded his literary ideas, dreams, everyday occurrences and experiences. Theater and films he had seen were an important part of his life. After he had seen a Yiddish theater troupe perform in a caf? he wrote: “The sympathy we have for these actors who are so good, who earn nothing and who do not get nearly enough gratitude and fame is really only sympathy for the sad fate of many noble strivings, above all of our own.”

In 1914 Kafka began his second novel, DER PROZESS (The Trial) and wrote the short story “In der Strafkolonie,” which was one of the few works published in Kafka’s lifetime. The Trial depicted the hopeless attempts of Josef K. to survive nightmarish events, that start at his breakfast table. “Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.” Josef K. denies his guilt, and starts endless investigations of the court system. But there is no truth and he dies “like a dog.” In the story “In der Strafkolonie” the truth is the function of an instrument of torture, a machine that kills its victims by writing the nature of their crime upon their body.

Kafka’s characters are punished or threatened with punishment even before they have offended the authorities. “You may object that it is not a trial at all; you are quite right, for it is only a trial if I recognize it as such,” one of the characters explains in The Trial. The book starts with the famous words: “Someone must have traduced Joseph K. for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” Joseph K. encounters the merciless effects of law but no identifiable lawgiver, a theme Kafka further developed in the unfinished novel DAS SCHLOSS (1926, The Castle). In the final chapter two men - according to some critics symbols of his testicles - take Joseph away and execute him stabbing him through the heart.

In August 1917 Kafka discovered that he had contracted tuberculosis. He spent ten months with his sister Ottla in the Bohemian village of Zuerau. In 1919 he was hospitalized because of influenza. Kafka spent increasing periods of time on leave in various rural sanatoriums. He fell in love with Milena Jesensk?, a twenty-four-year-old writer, who had translated some of his stories into Czech. After they separated she worked as a journalist and became a Resistance hero. Jesensk? died in a German concentration camp in 1944. Later Margarete Buber-Neumann depicted her in Kafkas Freundin Milena (1963). Kafka’s fear of sexuality was probably the main reason for his decision to leave Milena. He had written in 1913 in his diary “Der Coitus als Bestrafung des Gl?ckes des Beisammenseins” and in the winter 1920-21 he stopped sending her regular letters.

After their relationship ended, Kafka wrote his last novel, The Castle, where K. arrives at a village, claiming to be a land surveyor. “The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that the castle was there.” K. tries to obtain recognition of his status as the officially appointed land surveyor to the Castle, a mysterious domain that rules over the village. K wants to meet Klamm, the castle superior. His assistants, Arthur and Jeremiah, are not helping. K. makes love to the barmaid Frieda, a former mistress of Klamm. Frieda leaves K. when she discovers that he is merely using her.

“Aber auch Ihnen d?rfte doch schon die L?ckenlosigkeit der amtlichen Organisation aufgefallen sein. Aus dieser L?ckenlosigkeit aber ergibt sich, dass jeder, der irgendein Anliegen hat oder aus sonstigen Gr?nden ?ber etwas verh?rt werden muss, sofort, ohne Z?gern, meistens sogar noch ehe er selbst die Sache zurechtgelegt hat, ja, noch ehe er selbstr von ihr weiss, schon die Vorladung erh?lt.”

(from Das Schloss)

Kafka retired in 1922 on a pension and met in 1923 Dora Diamant, a twenty-year old woman from an Orthodox Jewish family. They moved to Berlin. Kafka’s illness released him from the daily responsibilities of bourgeois life but also cut his income - his parents sent him provisions and money from Prague. Kafka, who wrote letters busily, was occasionally forced to send postcards because he did not have money for the letter post. His health rapidly deteriorated. Kafka moved in 1924 with Dora to the Kierling Sanatorium outside Vienna. He spent there the last six weeks of his life. He suffered from thirst and in his last letter to his parents he recollects his childhood when he drank beer with his father during their visits to a bathing establishment. Kafka died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924. His unfinished novel, DER VERSCHOLLENE (retitled Amerika), was published in 1927. Kafka never visited the United States but his protagonist, the 17-year-old Karl Rossmann, enters New York Harbor as an immigrant and sees the Statue of Liberty, who holds in her hand not a lamp but a sword. Karl’s picaresque adventures lead him to a theater and to the company of other castaways. Walter Benjamin noted in 1934 in his essay on Kafka that “While in the earlier novels the author never addressed himself otherwise than with a mumbled initial, here he experiences a rebirth on a new continent with a full name.” Kafka managed to write six chapters but it is open to discussions how he planned to end the novel.

As a Jew Kafka was isolated from the German community in Prague, but his friend and biographer Max Brod (1884-1968) did his best to promote Kafka’s career as a writer. However, Kafka published only a few stories. During the last two and half years of his life Kafka finished some of his best works. Among them were “Ein Hungerk?nstler”, in which the hero is left to die unwatched in his unusual profession, and “Josephine, die S?ngerin”, in which the central character is a mouse, who sings - or squeaks. Kafka requested before his death that all his manuscripts should be destroyed. This was disregarded by Max Brod, who published the unfinished novels The Trial, The Castle, and America, classics of modern fiction.