Franz Kafka’s enigmatic and frequently ominous narratives continue to exercise a fascination over readers far removed historically and geographically from the world he inhabited. His fictions are typically stripped of overt reference to a particular location or time, offering an imaginative distillation of his historically and culturally specific experiences (including his extensive reading). Part of the fascination of reading Kafka is the sense that the surfaces of his texts encode deeper meanings, so that we feel impelled to search for these deeper meanings as we read. Symbol, metaphor, and analogy play an important part in his narratives, as do language games, a dimension that is inevitably often lost in translation. The physical exteriors of his protagonists (most of them male) are typically not described in detail; instead the narrative voice, often subtly blending the immediacy of the protagonist’s own inner voice with that of an objective, detached observer, gives us powerful access to their innermost thoughts, and to the way they experience the world, while also preserving, potentially at least, a moment of detachment from this intensely experienced inner world. For those readers – perhaps the majority – who tend to identify uncritically with the view of the world seen through the protagonist’s eyes, the word “Kafkaesque” has become almost a commonplace to describe situations which are variously felt to be uncanny, nightmarish, or characterised by (benign? malevolent?) bureaucratic muddle in which the fate of the individual is in the hands of anonymous forces.
Kafka’s writings belong to German literature in the sense that he wrote in German and his early formative influences were German (Goethe, Grillparzer, Kleist). Historically, his writings belong to European modernism of the first decades of the twentieth century, in which national borders became increasingly susceptible to cultural transfer: of the writers Kafka named as “blood relatives” Kleist and Grillparzer wrote in German, while Dostoyevsky was read in translation, and Flaubert probably in French. Dickens, too, was acknowledged as an important influence (specifically on the “America novel”). Geographically, his home was central Europe, the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire, and specifically Prague, where he spent most of his life. Kafka himself located his life and work in a “Western Jewish era”. The term encapsulates the problematic identity of a central European Jew from an assimilating family in which Yiddish and Czech were spoken, who knew French and Italian, was educated in German, felt a strong cultural allegiance to German, but came increasingly to reflect on the precariousness of this position. This radical questioning of his ethnic and cultural identity was given impetus by his contact with non-assimilated Hasidic (“Eastern”) Jewish culture. His diaries from 1911 and 1912 show his fascination with a troupe of Yiddish actors from Lemberg (Lwów), who were performing in Prague. From around this time he became increasingly interested in his Jewish heritage, and in 1917 started learning Hebrew. In the last year of his life he was discussing plans to emigrate to Palestine with his companion, Dora Diamant.
Kafka was born in Prague on 3 July 1883, to Hermann Kafka (1852-1931) and Julie Kafka, née Löwy (1856-1934). He was the first of six children. Two younger brothers died in infancy (Georg 1885-87, Heinrich 1887-88), and there were three younger sisters: Gabriele (Elli, 1889-?), Valerie (Valli, 1890-?), and Ottlilie (Ottla, 1892-1942). Hermann Kafka was a successful Jewish businessman, whose father, a butcher in a provincial town in Southern Bohemia, had belonged to the first generation of entrepreneurial Jews to benefit from the lifting of the enclosure restrictions on Jews by the young Emperor Franz Josef (after whom Kafka seems to have been named) in 1849. In 1881 Hermann Kafka moved from the provinces and opened a fancy goods store in the centre of Prague.
Like many assimilating Jews of his generation, the father sent his son to the German Gymnasium (school), where Kafka studied Latin and Greek and discovered German literature. In 1901 he entered the German University in Prague to study chemistry, but soon changed to law, although he spent much of his time attending meetings of the literary society frequented by Jewish students, the “Lese- und Redehalle”, where he first met his close friend and later literary executor Max Brod (1884-1968). He graduated in 1906 with a doctorate in law (examined by Alfred Weber) and worked an unpaid probationary year in the Prague law courts in order to qualify as a civil servant. His first employment was with the Prague office of an Italian assurance company, the Assicurazioni Generali, and then, from 1908, with the semi-governmental Workers Accident Insurance Institute of the Kingdom of Bohemia, where he rose to the position of Institute Secretary before his poor health finally brought early retirement in 1922. His choice of career was motivated by the fact that the office hours left the afternoons and evenings free for devoting himself to literature, which he did with extraordinary tenacity. He famously wrote, to his fiancée Felice Bauer (1887-1960), that he “consisted of nothing but literature”.
Kafka lived and worked in Prague for most of his life, and his professional duties for the Institute meant that he inspected industrial sites in Bohemia, documenting industrial accidents and advising employers on safety measures. In his early years the family had regularly moved apartments, usually within a few hundred yards of Old Town Square. The relationship between the sensitive writer and his no-nonsense “self-made” father is one of the enduring myths of Kafka’s biography, a myth constructed by Kafka himself, most notably in the unsent “Brief an den Vater” [“Letter to my father”], composed in 1919, in which many commentators see an important key to his fictions. In fact many of the Kafka and Löwy family members were energetic and much-travelled entrepreneurs (unwittingly providing Kafka with material for his imaginative excursions into the wider world from his room in Prague). He was for a while a reluctant co-director of the first asbestos works in Prague, set up by his father in 1911, and the tensions between his business commitments and his writing caused frequent thoughts of suicide.
Kafka’s earliest extant work dates from about 1904 (the fragment “Beschreibung eines Kampfes” [“Description of a Struggle”]), excerpts from which appeared in the journal Hyperion in 1909. His first published works, short prose poems, had appeared in the same journal in 1908 and were later included in his first book, the slender Betrachtung [Contemplation, 1912]. At about this time he met Felice Bauer, a stenographer from Berlin, to whom he would be engaged twice, and within weeks had written and dedicated to her the story which he regarded as his “breakthrough”, “Das Urteil” [“The Judgment”]. This marked the beginning of four months of intense literary production, in which Kafka wrote Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis, published as a book in 1915 by Kurt Wolff] and the majority of the America novel (the first chapter of which, “Der Heizer” [“The Stoker”] appeared as a book in 1913). The débâcle of their aborted engagement, called off at an acrimonious meeting at a Berlin hotel in July 1914, precipitated a further period of intense literary activity which produced Der Process [The Trial], in which Fräulein Bürstner – often “F.B.” in the manuscript – occupies a mysterious role on the periphery of Josef K.’s arraignment by an inscrutable Court. Kafka took time off from the Institute in November to drive the novel forward, but instead worked on the America novel and wrote “In der Strafkolonie” [“In the Penal Colony”, published as a book in 1919]. The Trial in particular is certainly impelled by feelings of guilt and the need to justify his commitment to bachelorhood, a state which he regarded as inferior to marriage and fatherhood. But these works also coincide with the outbreak of the First World War, and it is a moot point to what extent they should also be read against the background of war, in which many of Kafka’s friends and relatives were fighting. Kafka’s poor health precluded him from military service, as indeed did his status as an indispensable worker in a reserved occupation.
The next few years are characterized by deteriorating health, periods of recuperation, problematic love affairs, and a number of parabolic stories and short prose pieces. “Der Jäger Gracchus” [“The Hunter Gracchus”, 1916-17] is set in Riva on Lake Garda, which was at the time on the Austrian-Italian border. In “Ein Bericht für eine Akademie” [“A Report for an Academy”], an ape gives a lecture to a learned society on his rapid rise to an intellectual and cultural level comparable with that of the average European. It was published in the journal Der Jude [The Jew] in 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration in favour of a Jewish state of Israel. “Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer” [“The Great Wall of China”, 1917] is a parabolic reflection on the nature of national cohesion, written shortly after the February Revolution in Russia. The so-called Zürau aphorisms, composed during convalescent stays with his sister Ottla in the Bohemian countryside, reflect his reading of Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, among others. A collection of prose pieces, Ein Landarzt [A Country Doctor] was published in 1919, containing “The Hunter Gracchus”, “A Report for an Academy”, and other pieces including “Vor dem Gesetz” [“Before the Law”, first published in 1915], the only fragment from The Trial to be published in Kafka’s lifetime.
In 1917 Kafka broke off his second engagement to Felice when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While recuperating he met and briefly became engaged to a young girl, Julie Wohryzek, much to his father’s disapproval. This relationship was overtaken by a complicated love affair with his Czech translator, Milena Jesenská (1896-1944). The end of this affair in early 1922 coincides with another period of literary productivity in which Kafka wrote Das Schloss [The Castle] and a number of stories including “Ein Hungerkünstler” [“A Starvation Artist”, published in 1922] and “Forschungen eines Hundes” [“Investigations of a Dog”]. In 1923 Kafka finally left Prague for Berlin, where Der Bau [The Burrow] was written, to live with Dora Diamant, a young Zionist with whom he made plans to emigrate to Palestine. These plans were never realised. In the final months of his life, spent mostly in sanatoria, he wrote “Josefine, die Sängerin, oder das Volk der Mäuse” [“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse People”], which was included in his last published collection of stories, Ein Hungerkünstler (1924).
Literary historians have investigated a vast array of putative influences and sources for his writing, many of them provided by Kafka himself. These can only be sketched here. They include Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, Goethe, Kleist and Grillparzer, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Dickens, Yiddish, Jewish and Czech works, works by his friend Brod and other Prague writers, the numerous biographies which Kafka read voraciously, and, of course, his own life. Critics have remarked on his radical reworking of traditional tropes and genres, his profound questioning of religious and existential uncertainties, and his unsparing honesty in mapping the inner life. As more has become known about the historical contexts of his life and work, critics have become more aware of the way his writings engage simultaneously and on a multiplicity of levels with some of the crucial discourses of his (and our) time: on religious faith in an age when the death of God is becoming axiomatic; on the roots of religious experience and their relation to personal, social and political life; on gender (misogyny, the emergence of the “new” – professional – woman); on the role of literature and art in society; and, centrally, on ethnicity and the frailty of and deep-rooted need for belonging, for identity in an increasingly cosmopolitan and secular age. “What have I got in common with Jews?”, he once confided to his diary, “I have nothing in common with myself”. He was “lonely as Franz Kafka”, acutely conscious of occupying a kind of spiritual and cultural no-man’s-land which he himself identified as the “Western Jewish era”. He once wrote that he “had not been drawn into life, like Kierkegaard, by the fast sinking hand of Christianity”, but equally had been unable to “catch hold of the hem of the Jewish prayer mantle before it disappears, like the Zionists”. He was, starkly, “end or beginning”. We should not forget that Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat [The Jewish State] was published in 1896, his close friend Max Brod was a convinced Zionist, and a number of causes célèbres in Kafka’s lifetime are thought to have left their mark on his writing, including the Dreyfus affair in France in 1889-90 and the trial of Mendel Beilis in Kiev in 1911-13, on a charge of Jewish ritual murder.
Kafka’s diaries (dating from 1910 onwards) give the lie to the myth of a writer cut off from the cultural mainstream of his day. He read Freud, met Rudolf Steiner, Martin Buber, Robert Musil and Franz Werfel, heard Albert Einstein and Karl Kraus lecture, gave public readings of “The Judgment” and “In the Penal Colony”, attended the Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1913. His diaries and numerous letters provide an important corpus of biographical material which often sheds light on his literary production – indeed some commentators argue that in Kafka’s case the distinction between literary oeuvre and other writings is particularly dubious. Prominent amongst these surviving documents are his letters to Brod, to Ottla, to Milena and, most copious of all, to Felice. His professional writings for the Institute (some of them in Czech) have also been collected and published, but not translated.
Kafka died of tuberculosis of the larynx on 3 June 1924 in a sanatorium on the outskirts of Vienna, and was buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Straschnitz on 11 June. At that time his literary production – scattered writings published in journals and six slender books with small print runs – was held in high regard by a small circle of friends and acquaintances. His subsequent fame was due in large measure to the efforts of Max Brod, who disregarded Kafka’s rather ambiguous instruction to destroy all his unpublished manuscripts and began editing and publishing them posthumously, including the three novel fragments Der Process [The Trial, 1925], Das Schloss [The Castle, 1926], and Amerika [Brod’s title for Der Verschollene, literally “The man/boy who went missing”, 1927]. Brod rescued several of Kafka’s manuscripts, including The Trial, from certain destruction by taking them with him when he fled Prague on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1939. Brod’s editions provided the basis for a generation of translations (including Willa and Edwin Muir’s English translations in the 1930s) which are now being superseded by translations based on the historical-critical edition of Kafka’s works, which began to appear in the 1980s. The edition attempts to stay faithful to Kafka’s original manuscripts and differs substantially in some respects from Brod’s editions, for example by restoring Kafka’s original spelling and punctuation, removing some titles of works which were given by Brod, providing textual variants, and amending the arrangement of chapters in The Trial.
Along with many of Kafka’s contemporaries, Milena and his sisters died in the National Socialist Holocaust, which effectively swept away the “Western Jewish era” whose foundations had been seismographically explored in so much of his writing.
Citation: Dodd, William J.. "Franz Kafka". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 16 January 2004 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=2429, accessed 08 December 2022.]