Born: July 3, 1883
Died: June 3, 1924
Little known facts:
Kafka studies have proliferated at a rate of one new book every 10 days for the last 14 years.
In 1924 in a sanitarium in the Austrian town of Kierling, Kafka was unable to eat, drink or speak, but he edited proofs of his story “The Hunger Artist” anyway.
In his “day job,” Kafka was a legal innovator who developed and implemented safety measures and oversight techniques that saved lives and livelihoods of countless workers.
Much better known facts:
Kafka told Max Brod in 1921 that his last testament would consist of “a request to you to burn everything” and fortunately, Brod did not comply with his friend’s wishes.
He practiced vegetarianism, “Fletcherizing” (chewing for several minutes), “Müllerizing” (an exercise regimen), and various other natural healing programs.
Kafka died in Austria, never having settled down in Berlin to concentrate on his writing—having published no more than 450 pages of his work.
Franz Kafka grew up in a middle-class Jewish family, having been born in 1883 in Prague, the capital of Bohemia, a kingdom that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied law at the University of Prague; he worked in the insurance sector; and he wrote in the evenings in the modernist tradition. Born a Czech with Jewish roots, Kafka’s identity was firmly embedded in German culture. In 1923, he moved to Berlin to focus on writing, but died of tuberculosis in Austria in 1924. His friend Max Brod published most of his work posthumously. He is considered a major and unique contributor to 20th Century German and European literature—to the point that we have the adjective Kafkaesque in English.
Early Life and Non-Writing Career
Kafka’s father, Hermann, grew up as the son of a butcher and worked as a traveling sales representative, ultimately becoming an independent retailer of men’s and women’s clothes and accessories. Kafka’s mother, Julie, was better educated than her husband, having grown up as the daughter of a successful brewer. Kafka was the eldest of six children and both parents worked at least twelve hours a day in the family retail business, leaving governesses and servants to raise the children. (Nervi)
Kafka had problematic relationships with both of his parents and, while his parents ran a successful business, his father’s dominant personality needed for that endeavor tended to overwhelm their home life as well. In spite of this, Kafka appears to have derived many of his values from his family—particularly his father—and for much of his life; he lived with or close to his parents. (Bio)
Kafka’s first language was German and he was nearly fluent in Czech. His Jewish education was limited to his Bar Mitzvah celebration at 13 and going to the synagogue four times a year with his father. He entered the rigorous classics-oriented state gymnasium where German was the language of instruction. He entered the Charles University of Prague to study chemistry though he quickly changed course to study law—a longer course of study that allowed him to take classes in German studies and art history. He became a member of a student club that organized literary events and readings. By the end of his first year he had met Max Brod, who became his close friend for the rest of his life. Kafka earned his degree of Doctor of Law and completed an obligatory year of unpaid service as law clerk for the civil and criminal courts. (Nervi)
In 1907, Kafka joined an aggressive Italian insurance company, where he worked for nearly a year, but the hours required allowed almost no time for his writing. So, he resigned and found a position with the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where he was known as a hard worker and where he received several promotions. He pursued his writing and with his close friends Max Brod and Felix Weltsch formed “the close Prague circle.” In 1911, Kafka joined Karl Hermann, spouse of his sister Elli, in the operation of an asbestos factory and during that period, he became interested in Yiddish theatre, which was the beginning of his interest in learning more about Judaism. (Nervi) Kafka remained with the company until 1917, when his struggle with tuberculosis forced him to retire from the factory. He retired from his government job in 1922. (Bio)
In 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer at the home of Max Brod and, over the next five years, they corresponded a great deal because she lived in Berlin. They were engaged twice, but their relationship finally ended in 1917 several months after his first symptoms of his tuberculosis. When Kafka required frequent convalescence, his sister Ottla supported him. Kafka perceived himself as both physically and mentally repulsive, though he was regarded quite as having “neat and austere good looks, a quiet and cool demeanor, obvious intelligence and dry sense of humor.” (Nervi)
In the early 1920s he developed an intense relationship with a married Czech journalist and writer, Milena Jesenská, who wanted to translate his work into Czech. In 1923, he moved to Berlin to distance himself from his family’s influence and to concentrate on his writing. There he became involved with Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family. She became his lover, and influenced his growing interest in the Talmud. (Nervi)
Kafka suffered from clinical depression and anxiety his entire life. He also suffered from migraines, insomnia, constipation, boils, and other ailments often prompted by excessive stress. He struggled to counteract all of this by a regimen of naturopathic treatments. However, Kafka’s tuberculosis continued to worsen until he died on June 3, 1924. His body was sent to Prague where he was interred in the New Jewish Cemetery next to his parents. (Nervi)
In 1904 Franz Kafka wrote the novella “Description of a Struggle” and Brod convinced him to submit his work to Franz Blei’s literary journal Hyperion, which published a fragment of the story in its inaugural 1908 issue. He published his first book Mediation, a collection of short stories, in 1913; he published “Before the Law” the following year; and he published his most popular and best-selling novella, “The Metamorphosis,” in 1915.
Though his health began to decline, Kafka continued to write and in 1916, he completed “The Judgment,” which dealt directly with the relationship he shared with his father. He finished “In the Penal Colony” and “A Country Doctor” in 1919. In 1924, A Hunger Artist featured four stories in the concise and lucid style he had developed by the end of his short writing life.
Kafka still harbored much self-doubt at the end and he asked his literary executor, his friend Max Brod, to destroy his unpublished manuscripts—according to Brod. However, Brod published The Trial in 1925 a dark, paranoid tale that became Kafka’s most successful novel. In 1926, Brod launched The Castle, which again railed against a faceless and dominating bureaucracy. The following year, he published the novel Amerika about a boy who arrives in America, where his innocence is exploited everywhere he goes. Amerika dealt with the same father issues that were in Kafka’s other work, but it also revealed Kafka’s love of travel books and memoirs and his yearning to see the world. Later, in 1931, Brod published the short story “The Great Wall of China,” written a decade and a half before.
Kafka explored the human struggles for understanding, for ameliorating alienation, and in seeking security in his novels such as The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika. He also created some remarkable shorter narratives such as the novella “The Metamorphosis” and the short story “The Country Doctor.” Kafka believed that many of his personal struggles, in romance and other relationships, were ingrained in his complex relationship with his father. In his writing, his characters often dealt with an overbearing power that seemed likely to break the will of men and to reduce or eliminate their sense of self-worth. Sadly, Kafka’s celebrity—based on readers’ resonance with these themes—only came after his death. (Bio)
There are many scholars who have dwelt on the struggles with relationships, Kafka’s health, and his inner life and how those issues were transformed in such creative ways into the terror and the comedy that are such strong currents in his fiction. But, it is also relevant to consider how his social alienation was also a source for him as well. He was after all a German-speaking Jew growing up in Prague (Young and Hollaman, 133). Furthermore, he was living through the industrialization of the Empire and the rise of the social welfare state and the imposing bureaucracies that came along with both evolutions.
Kafka’s technique blended the fantastic and the dreamlike and used a matter of fact manner that was his hallmark. He cultivated “understatement, provoking us to supply emotions that the narrators withhold, and pursuing a comic effect that is, of course, deadly earnest.” Kafka poses psychological, social, and metaphysical dilemmas that offer more questions than answers (Young and Hollaman, 134). The ambiguity left behind invites revisiting and turning over by the reader and drawing on his experiential base, his learning, and his subconscious—leveraging Ernst Gombrich’s concept of the “beholder’s share”that came out of the contemporary interdisciplinary analysis of the fin de siècle cultural movements emanating from Vienna and the region.
Kafka’s works gathered increasing attention during World War II and had a significant impact on both German literature and Western literature. As the Cold War evolved and it became increasingly clear Eastern Europe would be under the domination of bureaucratic Communist governments for some time, Kafka’s characters and situations resonated with Western readers. This continued into the turbulent 1960’s when many felt they could easily empathize with Kafka’s people confronting faceless organizations which had brought about the use of his name as an adjective: “Kafkaesque, meaning too impersonal and too complex to comprehend.”
The principal theme of Kafka’s novels is not so much the depiction of massive bureaucracies as such but rather the isolation and disaffection associated with office jobs, assembly lines and the machinery of advanced nation-states. Kafka’s The Office Writings, a collection of legal and policy papers written during his fourteen years at the Austrian Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague where he was recognized as an legal innovator, has been analyzed, resulting in the conclusion that he had been immersed in the early development of the European welfare state (evident in legislation as early as 1880’s) and he was—through his fiction—trying to reconcile the alienation of his bureaucratic daily life with that “dreamlike inner life” he pursued after work. (Provan)
The Kafkaesque Epilogue
The purchase of Kafka’s handwritten manuscript of The Trial for $1.98 million in 1988 demonstrated the continuation of enthusiasm for Kafka. At that point, that was the highest price ever paid for a modern manuscript. The West German book dealer who was the buyer said, “This is perhaps the most important work in 20th-century German literature and Germany had to have it.” (Bio)
This sale by auction was the beginning of a bizarre story that could only be about Franz Kafka. There has been a struggle going on in the courts in Israel currently about how to settle gaining possession of other original manuscripts that, at the moment, are held by the daughters of the secretary, Ester Hoffe, whom Max Brod bequeathed them to years ago—with the proviso that she turn them over to a public archive of her choosing. In the background there is another struggle between organizations in both Israel and Germany about where the “Kafka Collection” should reside, whether it should be split between locations, and whether archives in Germany or Israel are best equipped to preserve such old manuscripts.
The less bizarre, but still unique, part of the after story is that approximately two-thirds of the Kafka literary and personal papers estate now reside in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. At present, the Library and the children of Kafka’s sister Ottla’s daughters jointly own the majority of that collection. The Bodleian Library and the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach together bought the letters to Ottla from the Kafka family in 2011 as part of a collaborative institutional partnership that may be the first of its kind. (Lachno)
The other third of the estate—the truly bizarre part of the story—is believed to consist of some of Kafka’s drawings, diaries, letters, and manuscript drafts that were in Brod’s possession together with Brod’s own manuscripts and papers. They are often referred to cumulatively as “Brod’s suitcases,” and were literally carried out of Prague in the face of invading German soldiers in 1939. Brod held them until his passing in Israel in 1968 when “the suitcases” were passed to his secretary, Esther Hoffe, who didn’t pass on herself until 2007, at age 101. The National Library of Israel challenged the legality of her will, which bequeathed the materials to her two septuagenarian daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. The library claimed the right to the papers under the terms of Brod’s will that had included instructions for her to make the papers available to a public archive. (Batuman)
When she died in 2007, her daughters Hoffe and Wiesler believed they had inherited the remaining collection of Kafka and Brod materials along with Ester Hoffe’s material property. They apparently intended to sell the Kafka and the Brod documents in Germany—in spite of the fact that the siblings of both writers had been killed in the Holocaust Brod had escaped. Wiesler died during a long trial process over the disposition of the papers, leaving Eva, her apartment, and her scores and scores of cats the focus of the dispute. (Batuman)
In 2012 the matter was, on the face of it, resolved: The collection of manuscripts written by Franz Kafka and Max Brod will be transferred from Eva Hoffe to the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem—according to the Tel Aviv District Family Court. The court ordered that Hoffe and Wiesler’s heirs use their resources to cover the costs of the trial. On the other hand, the ruling held that Hoffe and her heirs will be entitled for royalties from any future publication of the documents. (Aderet)
The verdict in which the National Library won the case is not the end of this complicated affair. The verdict will likely be appealed—as reflected by her attorney’s statements. Until a final decision is made, the manuscripts are being kept in bank vaults in Israel and in Switzerland. (Harel)
Until we hear of the court’s decision to hear the appeal, we won’t even know if “Kafka’s Last Trial” was really his last trial—or just another ambiguous, illusory proceeding by another bureaucracy—faceless or not.
A FEW OF QUOTES OF FRANZ KAFKA
“A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.” (Bio)
“I would stand at the window for long periods,” he wrote in his diary in 1912, “and was frequently tempted to amaze the toll collector on the bridge below by my plunge.” (Bio)
In 1918, Kafka drew up his vision of an early kibbutz. The only nourishment would be bread, dates and water; notably, in light of recent developments, there would be no legal courts: “Palestine needs earth,” Kafka wrote, “but it does not need lawyers.” (Batuman)
A FEW QUOTES ABOUT FRANZ KAFKA
Reiner Stach, Kafka’s most recent and thorough biographer—objects to the view of Kafka as “a Zionist or a religious author.” “The fact that specifically Jewish experiences are reflected in his works does not—as Brod believed—make him the protagonist of a ‘Jewish’ literature.” Rather, “Kafka’s oeuvre stands in the context of European literary modernity, and his texts are among the foundational documents of this modernity.” (Batuman)
If Brod could see what was happening now, Etgar Keret, a best-selling Israeli short-story writer, says, he would be “horrified.” Kafka, on the other hand, might be O.K. with it: “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?” (Batuman)
“The Metamorphosis” (1915), “The Country Doctor” (1919), The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), Amerika (1927).
FRANZ KAFKA’S AWARDS
At the time of his death, only a small group of readers even knew Kafka’s name.
Eric R. Kandel. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York: Random House, 2012.
Young, David and Keith Hollaman (eds.). Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. New York: Longman Inc., 1984.
Aderet, Ofer. “Israel court orders Kafka manuscripts be transferred to National Library” Haaretz Oct. 14, 2012 | 9:44 Web. 24 October 2014.
Batuman, Elif. “Kafka’s Last Trial” The New York Times Magazine. September 22, 2010. Web. 13 October 2014.
“Franz Kafka.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Harel, Zvi. “An Israeli ending to Kafka’s trial,” Israel Hayom 2 November 2012. Web. 24 October 2014.
Lachno, James. “Kafka letters to be purchased by Bodleian Libraries and Deutsches Literaturarchiv,” The Telegraph 4 April 2011. Web. 24 October 2014.
Nervi, Mauro. “Kafka’s Life (1883-1924)” The Kafka Project Revision: 2011/01/08 – 00:18. Web. 24 October 2014.
Provan, Alexander. “An Alienation Artist: Kafka and His Critics,” The Nation March 2, 2009. Web. 26 October 2014.
Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.