Cryptic; enigmatic; fantastical. All of these may describe the elusive Franz Kafka, and yet hardly capture the essence of his life or work. Kafka, like his stories, was a man of shifting faces: as notable scholar Erich Heller states, he was “a neurotic Jew, a religious one, a mystic, a self-hating Jew, a crypto-Christian, a Gnostic, the messenger of an antipatriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, an iconic voice of High Modernism, and much more.”
Today’s episode will aim to peel back but a fraction of the mask hiding the psychotic, grotesque, traumatic, and supernatural reality that is Kafka’s collection of works.
Kafka in 1923
Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, the capital of Bohemia, a kingdom that was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was the eldest son of an upper-middle-class Jewish family, and his childhood was marked by tragedy as his two younger brothers, Georg and Heinrich, passed away in infancy, leaving Kafka as the only son among three sisters, all of whom eventually perished in Nazi death camps or a Polish ghetto.
Kafka had a challenging relationship with both his parents. His mother, Julie, lacked the intellectual depth to comprehend his aspirations of becoming a writer, and his father, Hermann, who was a successful businessman, had a forceful personality that often dominated the Kafka household.
Kafka’s father’s overbearing and unsupportive nature had a significant impact on his personal life and writing. Kafka believed that his relationship with his father contributed to his struggles in romantic and other relationships. His literature frequently featured characters facing oppressive forces that threatened their self-worth and willpower.
Kafka’s parents, Hermann and Julie Kafka, 1910
Kafka was studying law at the University of Prague. He received his doctorate in 1906, and in 1907 he took up regular employment with an insurance company. However, the demanding nature of the work made it difficult for Kafka to pursue his passion for writing. In 1908, he found a job with the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, where he remained until tuberculosis forced him to retire at the age of 39.
Although he was well-regarded by colleagues and known for his charm, intelligence, and humor, Kafka found his routine office job and double life as a writer to be torturous and struggled with personal relationships, including two broken engagements. His health deteriorated rapidly after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis at 34 years, and he spent frequent periods in sanatoriums. In 1923, a year after he retired from his job, Kafka moved to Berlin to focus on writing, and there he met Dora Dymant, a young Jewish socialist with whom he lived until his death from tuberculosis in a clinic near Vienna in 1924.
Kafka’s literary reputation was limited to a small circle of admirers at the time of his death. According to Kafka’s will, his friend Max Brod was supposed to destroy all of his unpublished manuscripts and refrain from republishing any of his works already in print. However, Brod disregarded this request and instead chose to publish Kafka’s writings, leading to his widespread recognition and fame after his death.
It was The Judgment (1913) that broke Kafka through to literary prominence, a short story in which a paradoxical relationship between a son and his father leads the latter to sentence the former to death by drowning. It is through this story we are introduced to Kafka’s thoughts on the unexplainable nature of humanity, as well as his expressionistic narrative style of conflicting ideas and unclear meanings.
Cover of Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) from 1916
This complex surreality evident in Kafka’s work is particularly apparent in The Metamorphosis (1915), which led literary scholars to coin the term “Kafkaesque” as a means of describing his instantly-recognizable wordscapes. In this symbolic novella, the main character wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect, succumbing to a slow death fed by personal remorse and familial negligence. For several critics, this highly-detailed, dreamlike space exemplifies the “Kafkaesque” notion of the world, where common modes of thought and behavior are abandoned, leaving one in a pointless struggle against an impossible existence.
Indeed, even though he wrote primarily in shorter forms, Kafka brought an uncanniness that refuses any single reading. Walter Benjamin, a literary critic, astutely notes that Kafka does not strive for a moral ideal, but rather upholds the mysterious riddle of life. As such, “his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.”
Like The Metamorphosis, his work In the Penal Colony (1919) offers a baffling dystopia through the eyes of a traveler visiting a prison camp, where prisoners (and eventually the Officer) are subjected to a torture device that inscribes their sentence into their skin. Its themes of totalitarian justice and mystical devotion, as well as its detached perspective and disturbing representation of language, offer a complex and challenging narrative steeped in metaphor and dissonance.
Anthony Perkins as “K.” in Orson Welles’ adaptation of The Trial (1962)
The Trial (1925), an unfinished novel published after Kafka’s death that has since become one of his most popular works, further explores themes of justice, meaning, and truth. In this unsettling tale, Joseph K. is prosecuted under an absurd legal system for reasons that remain unknown to both him and the reader. The atrocity of the story is not that Joseph K. has simply been caught by an all-powerful authority; rather, for Frederick R. Karl, a literary critic, “the horror of that world is that he never knows what is happening, or when…that insistence to uncover what is always uncoverable, or to recover what cannot be recovered.” Perhaps even more horrifying was its seemingly prophetic powers, predicting the tyrannical regimes that would emerge shortly after its publication.
While informing literary genres such as science fiction and magical realism, Kafka’s own ingenuity remains uncategorizable; and even as we peek behind the contradictions, paradoxes, and wondrous masks of Kafka’s work, the truth underneath continues to perplex us deep into the realms of our own lived imaginations.
“I am a cage, in search of a bird.” —Franz Kafka
“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” —Franz Kafka
“The meaning of life is that it stops.” —Franz Kafka
“They say ignorance is bliss.... they’re wrong.” —Franz Kafka
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” ―Franz Kafka
How did you like the episode?
Get the word out!
Love Curious Peoples? Your friends will too.