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||Franz Kafka (1883-1924)|
Czech-born German-speaking writer whose posthumously published novels express the alienation of 20th century man. Kafka's nightmares of dehumanization, bureaucratic labyrinths, and totalitarian society have much in common with the works of George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949; Animal Farm, 1955). Jorge Luis Borges has noted, that Zeno's paradox against motion and the arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkaesque characters in literature. Kafka's ill health was also an important biographical factor behind the fear of physical and mental collapse dramatized in such short stories as "Ein Hungerkünstler" (1924) and "Die Verwandlung" (1915, The Metamorphosis).
"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect..." (from "The Metamorphosis")
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 (Löwy) 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."
grew up in an atmosphere of familial tensions and social
rejection that he experienced as a member of Prague's Jewish minority.
However, he never lived in a real Jewish ghetto. 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.'' But his fear of violent pogroms never left him,
even in Berlin where Kafka hoped to lose it. Prague was the most
important city in his life, but it is not mentioned in his diaries and
letters as often as one might think.
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. With Brod he visited brothels in Paris and Milan, where the famous Duomo di Milano tired him more than the brothel 'Al Vero Eden'. 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, a literary descendant of Gogol's Akakii Akakievich, 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.
War I stopped Kafka's productivity as a novelist and
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 café 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." His
friendship with the Polish actor Yitzhak Löwy and the Yiddish theater
also prompted Kafka to recondiser his position towards Jewish culture.
In 1914, Kafka began his second novel, Der Process (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 "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 Jesenská, 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. Jesenská 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 Glückes des Beisammenseins" and in the winter 1920-21 he stopped sending her regular letters.
After their relationship ended, Kafka wrote his last novel, The
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 dürfte doch schon die Lückenlosigkeit der amtlichen Organisation aufgefallen sein. Aus dieser Lückenlosigkeit aber ergibt sich, dass jeder, der irgendein Anliegen hat oder aus sonstigen Gründen über etwas verhört werden muss, sofort, ohne Zögern, meistens sogar noch ehe er selbst die Sache zurechtgelegt hat, ja, noch ehe er selbstr von ihr weiss, schon die Vorladung erhält." (from Das Schloss)
Kafka retired in 1922 on a pension. Next year he met on the Baltic Dora Diamant, a twenty-five old woman from an Orthodox Jewish family, who worked in the kitchen of a holiday camp. 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. In 1924 Kafka moved with Dora to the Kierling Sanatorium outside Vienna. When he proposed marriage and wrote to Dora's father, the reply was "no". However, later Dora described herself as "the wife of Franz Kafka." Dora survived Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia, and World War II. She died in London in 1952.
Kafka spent in the sanatorium 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
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 Hungerkünstler", in which
the hero is left to die unwatched in his unusual profession, and
"Josephine, die Sängerin", in which the central character is a mouse,
who sings – or squeaks. Kafka requested before his death that all
his manuscripts should be destroyed, an act of self annihilation, which
has been regarded as an evidence, that he was not in sound mind at that
Toward the end of WWI, Kafka became interested in Zionism, but
unlike Max Brod he never joined the movement. "Of all my writings the
only books that count are these: The Judgment, The Stoker, Metamorphosis, Penal Colony, Country Doctor, and the short
Kafka wrote to Brod, well aware that his friend would disregard his
wish. Brod came from a well-off family, the son of a banker. Because of
a severe spinal curvature, he was forced to wear a metal corset until
secondary school; despite this he remained a hunchback for the rest of
his life. Brod published Kafka's unfinished novels The Trial, The
classics of modern fiction, disobeying Kafka's
dying wish to destroy all his unpublished writing.
Brod's own works are now practically forgotten, but during his years
with Kafka he enjoyed more literary acclaim than his friend. After the
crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968, Kafka's writings were suppressed
in Czechoslovakia. It was not until the 1990s, when a complete
translation of his writings came out in Czech language.
For further reading: Franz Kafka and Prague by P. Eisner (1959); Franz Kafka: A Biography by M. Brod (1960) Die Kafka-Literatur by Harry Järv (1961); The Process of Kafka's Trial by A. Jaffe (1967); Franz Kafka: A Critical Study of His Writings by W. Emrich (1968); Conversations with Kafka by A. Janouch (1971); On Kafka's Castle: A Study by R. Shepard (1973); Kafka's Other Trial by E. Canetti (1974); Kafka by Erich Heller (1974); Kafka: A Biography by R. Hayman (1982); F. Kafka and Prague by J. Grusa (1983); The Nightmare of Reason by Ernst Pawel (1984); Kafka: Judausm, Politics, and Literature by R. Robertson (1985); F. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature by G. Deleuze and F. Guattari (1986); Critical Essays on Franz Kafka, ed. by R. Gross (1990); Kafka by Pietro Citati (1990); Franz Kafka: A Study of the Short Fiction by A. Thiher (1990); Kafka and Dostoevsky by W.J. Dodd (1992); Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient by Sander Gilman (1995); Kafka - Die Jahre der Entscheidung by Rainer Stach (2002); Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant by Kathi Diamant (2003); Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt by Saul Friedländer (2013); Kafka, the Early Years by Reiner Stach (2016); Franz Kafka and his Prague Contexts by Marek Nekula (2016) - See also: Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Trivia: G. Janouch's Conversation with Kafka (1971) is a hoax; Kafka suffered insomnia like many authors, among them Charles Dickens. Kafkaesque - a term used often by critics to describe a narrative mode combining a realistic style with the distortions and absurdities of nightmare scenarios. Suom.: Suomeksi on julkaistu myös valikoimat Nälkätaiteilija, suom. Aarno Peromies, Kristiina Kivivuori & Eeva-Liisa Manner (1959), Erään koiran tutkimuksia, toim. Kai Laitinen (1967), Novelleja, suom. Aarno Peromies (1972), Keisarin viesti, suom. Aarno Peromies (1989) sekä Kirjeitä perheelle 1922-1924, suom. Markku Mannila (1990).