Many professors of literature would prefer that I not group Kafka among the existentialists. After all, here was a man who was not a trained philosopher or disciplined writer. Kafka never indicated that he was expressing a deep philosophical theory in his aphorisms. But, when you consider the time, place, and nature of Kafka — then you see an existentialist.
This exploration of Kafka is included among my Web of pages because Jean-Paul Sartre recognized him as an existentialist andAlbert Camus considered him an absurdist. If Sartre and Camus considered Kafka a like-minded writer, that’s good enough for me.
Franz Kafka was the writer I most wanted to emulate as a student. While I cannot read his works in their original forms, the English translations are striking. The writing is simple and ironic, yet it demonstrates a complex wit. You find yourself smiling — but never laughing — at the humor he injects within tales of isolation, injustice, and cruelty. As I attempted to evolve my own style, I found Kafka, Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, and the other writers I admired all possessed the same dark wit.
Reading a Kafka short story is like running a race. You find yourself fighting to read, like a passerby trying not to look at a crime scene or accident victim. Because we know what “Kafkaesque” means, we know what to expect from the author. Yet, we read the tales, knowing the end might be neither just nor reasonable. This absurdity separates Kafka’s tales from those of Rod Serling’sTwilight Zone -- Serling tended to teach lessons and dispense justice while Kafka merely taunted his characters, then they suffered.
Kafka never wrote a long novel; he never seemed to have the time. I often wonder if that is for the best — I sense a longer work would not have the same affect upon readers as does a short piece in Kafka’s style. Emotionally, readers reach a limit, and I think Kafka knew intuitively where that limit was.
My favorite works by Kafka are Josephine the Singer, A Hunger Artist, and The Burrow. While other works are more popular (or assigned to more students) these are the works to which I most closely relate. The more I have read about Franz Kafka, the more I see my own nature in these stories. I write at night, alone in a room, closed off from the world. I write because that is what I do. Like Josephine, I am not sure if it is the process or the audience I enjoy. Like the Hunger Artist, I would not pursue my art if I could find another form of emotional sustenance.
Over the years, I have had to purchase several paperbacks of Kafka’s works. The books wear out from constant use. That speaks louder than any other comment I can record on this page.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, in what is now part of the Czech Republic, on 3 July 1883. Prague was a confused city, much like Kafka himself. With numerous languages and ethnic groups fighting for position in Prague, it was clear in the late nineteenth century that Jewish residents were quite low in social rank. Kafka was a Czech-born, German-speaking Jewish boy… a reflection of Europe in 1883. Franz’s father, Hermann (1852–1931), was an importer and operated a store specializing in “fine goods” for the rising middle-class.
Hermann was a self-made man, acutely aware of his own success and his son’s lack of success. Hermann’s father had been a village butcher in Bohemia. There is some evidence Hermann contrasted his success to Kafka’s grandfather’s simple existence. Franz was verbally assaulted by his father often, a fact reflected in much of Kafka’s stories and within his diaries.
Kafka’s mother, Julie Löwy (1856-1934) came from an orthodox Jewish family. She was the moral pillar of the family. An only child for six years, Kafka’s sisters Elli, Valli, and Ottla were born in 1889, 1890, and 1892, respectively. Because he was six years old when Elli was born, one might expect Kafka to be a protective older sibling. Instead, his sisters spent their adult years protecting Franz. Kafka was close to his sisters, vacationing with them and communicating with them frequently during his life.
Biographers have struggled to explain why Kafka chose to live with his parents for most of his life. As a lawyer, there was little reason for Kafka to remain in the same house as his abusive father. Did Kafka believe he was protecting other family members from his father? Living at home was difficult for Kafka, who suffered from hyper-sensitivity to noise and a desire for solitude. Kafka never did rebel openly against his father. It is possible Kafka did admire his father’s ability to exist in a country where Jews were constantly under attack. Hermann Kafka’s anger at home might have been viewed by Franz as a symptom of Prague itself.
Czech nationalism was on the rise in Prague at the end of the nineteenth century, and the German-dominated Hapsburg Empire was despised by many Czechs. German was the language of the Kafka household, with Yiddish spoken at times, but Hermann Kafka was careful not to present himself as either “too Jewish” or “too German” to do any damage to his business. Franz was to emulate his father’s secular nature, though Franz seems to have been influenced by the Jewish culture that surrounded him in Prague.
Hermann Kafka had located his store just beyond the Jewish ghetto of Prague, and even had his family legally declared Czech nationals. Still, the Kafkas were Jewish; Franz was bar-mitzvahed and attended temple at the local synagogue with his father. The paradox is clear — Jews and Germans were hated by the nationalistic Czechs, yet Hermann raised Franz to speak German and took his son to Friday-night services.
The seriousness of anti-Semitism revealed itself to Franz in April of 1899. Near the week of Passover, a young Christian girl was murdered, her throat slit with a knife. Throughout Europe there had been tales of Jews using Christian blood to prepare Matzos for Passover — and as far as many were concerned, this murder proved the tales. Anti-Semitic riots spread through Prague and other parts of Bohemia, with boycotts against Jewish-owned stores and even the destruction of shops. Hermann Kafka’s shop was spared only because he was “officially” a Czech.
Franz was 16 years old at the time of the riots. He responded like many secular Jews, developing a strong anti-Jewish bias. Many critics claim Kafka’s works are in fact tributes to the religious and mystic heritage of European Jews, but his own anti-Semitic streak is evident in his diaries.
Sometimes I’d like to stuff all Jews (myself included) into the drawer of a laundry basket… then open it to see if they’ve suffocated.What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself!
During 1899 and 1900, Kafka’s diaries indicate he read a great number of philosophy and science texts. He was fond of Spinoza, Darwin, and Nietzsche. His extensive reading was paralleled by a period of creativity. Kafka wrote a extensively between 1899 and 1903, but these early writings were destroyed by the author. These writings probably reflected the author’s predisposition toward the macabre, but we might never know. During this period of productivity, Kafka met Max Brod, a writer, critic, and editor of Prager Tagblatt. Brod was to be a close friend and editor throughout Kafka’s life.
Hermann Kafka’s opinion of his son was improved slightly in 1906, when Kafka received his law degree from German University, Prague. After receiving his law degree, Kafka worked briefly for an Italian insurance company. In 1908, Kafka took a position at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, a form of Czech “workers’ compensation” insurance company subsidized by the government. The year he was hired, Kafka wrote “On Mandatory Insurance in the Construction Industry,” a report demonstrating the need for insurance to protect construction workers’ earnings and families in the event of injury. His fascination with death and injuries had found a purpose in advocating for workers.
During the winter months of 1911 and 1912, Kafka befriended a Yiddish actor, Isak Löwy, while the actor was performing with a traveling troupe in Prague. With Löwy’s help, Kafka began to study Jewish folklore. Possibly influenced by his mother, Kafka became obsessed with Jewish mythology, history, and the Yiddish language. Kafka even lectured on the Yiddish language at a university.
On the night of 22 September 1912, Kafka began work on The Judgment. He began writing at 10 p.m. and did not stop until 6 a.m. the next morning. In the opinion of editor Erich Heller, this feat alone proved Kafka to be a genius. The story, in standard book format, is a mere 12 pages; but its affect upon a reader is incredible. Kafka had created a form of literary surrealism — a vivid nightmare.
While attending a small party at the home of Max Brod’s father on 13 August 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, a secretarial assistant in a Berlin office. On 20 September 1912, Kafka began writing letters to Felice. Many biographers believe Kafka “created” Felice during this period; not being near her he created a mental image Felice could never equal. It was not until the spring of 1913 that Kafka met with Felice in Berlin. A number of sources indicate Kafka did not love Felice, and any attraction was limited. It is possible Kafka was looking to prove to his father he was “normal” and planned to settle and start a family. About the same time, Kafka met an Swiss woman, according to his diary, and there is also evidence of a close friendship with Grete Bloch, a friend of Felice Bauer. If nothing else, Kafka’s relationships were complex.
Kafka seems to have thought wedding someone would help him maintain a sense of normalcy, so he proposed marriage to Felice on 12 April, 1914. He broke the engagement on 12 July of the same year. In early 1915, he revived the relationship with Felice, trying to maintain their friendship. Curiously, on 20 August, 1916, Kafka composed a list of reasons for and arguments against marriage to Felice. Nearly a year later, in July of 1917, Kafka again proposed to Felice.
Kafka’s diary entries for September 1917 reflect a man suffering a great emotional stress. He apparently considered destroying his notebooks, calling his writings the result of a “reward” from the devil for “services rendered.” It is unclear what those services might have been. A few days later, he noted the power literature has to lift “the world into the pure, the true, the immutable” truth. During such manic cycles, Kafka would write pages for hours, depriving himself of sleep. This sleep deprivation might have exacerbated his condition.
Writing is a deeper sleep than death…. Just as one wouldn’t pull a corpse from its grave, I can’t be dragged from my desk at night.
A life-long hypochondriac, Kafka’s fears were realized when the writer was diagnosed with tuberculosis, not an uncommon disease during the early twentieth century, on 4 September, 1917. Not long after the diagnosis, Kafka temporarily ceased maintaining his diary. He slipped into a mild depression and broke his second engagement to Felice in December 1917.
Felice Bauer finally married another man in early 1919. She had loved Kafka, but could not endure his depressions and manic episodes any longer. His emotions for her were never clear, even to Kafka.
The Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed in 1919, yet Kafka continued to write in German. As a result of Kafka’s use of the German language, his works did not appear in a translated form in Czechoslovakia for more than a decade after his death. Kafka was not fond of the Czechs and they did not appear fond of him.
Kafka met Milena Jesenská-Pollak (also “Jesenska-Polack”), a Czech writer, in 1920. She was 13 years younger than Kafka. Their relationship seems to have been close, with Milena’s own diaries indicating they made love several times when Kafka visited her. A potential problem with their deep attraction was the fact Milena was married to Ernst Pollak (also “Polack”), a well-known intellectual of the time. Thankfully, Ernst and Milena appear to have had an open relationship. (Ernst had several well-known affairs.)
Kafka made a note in his diaries on 15 October, 1921, that his diaries were to be given to Milena upon his death. The pair last met in May of 1922. Kafka’s ability to travel had been limited by tuberculosis and other ailments, real and imagined, while Milena remained young and energetic.
As mentioned previously, tuberculosis was a common disease in the early twentieth century, and Kafka was among its many victims. By the age of 39, Kafka was unable to work — he was bleeding to death internally. In 1922 he resigned from his position at the workers’ insurance. For some time he lived with his sister, Ottla, long his favorite Kafka family member. In personal notes, Franz described his relationship with his sister as a “marriage” without the normal problems.
In 1923 Kafka found a new companion, Dora Dymant, a Polish Orthodox Jew. Dora was only 19 when the pair moved to Berlin. Kafka enjoyed Dora’s company, forming a relationship much better than those of his past. It is possible Dora and Franz were in love, not merely companions. They traveled together during the last year of Kafka’s life. Kafka was so pleased with his life, he decided to burn his previous writings. He informed Dora, asking her to destroy the manuscripts if he was unable. Curiously, after making the request Kafka produced The Burrow.
On 10 April 1924, Kafka was taken to Wiener Wald Sanatorium, accompanied by Dora. While in the sanatorium, Kafka struggled with severe pain. During the final months of his life, Kafka was reduced to communicating via written notes. He berated his doctors and demanded morphine for his pain, a reasonable request due to the suffering he was enduring.
Kafka died 3 June 1924. Three days later Milena presented an obituary, referring to Kafka as “a man condemned to regard the world with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable and went to his death.”
Franz Kafka spent much of his life trying to improve his metal and physical health. However, his friends considered Franz physically fit. He was an accomplished swimmer, enjoyed hiking in the mountains, and was a talented horseman. Still, Kafka saw himself as thin, awkward, and even cowardly. He pursued various “treatments” to improve his health, when none seemed necessary.
Milena Jesenká-Pollak wrote that Kafka seemed repulsed by his own body, and to a lesser extent, hers. Milena seems to have been reasonably attractive and enjoyed hiking, yet Kafka still had difficulty looking directly at her. Milena wrote:
The irony would not be lost on Kafka.
After Franz Kafka’s Death
While Kafka had written of cruel and unjust treatments of individuals, even he could not have foreseen the horrors of the Holocaust. Max Brod saved many of Kafka’s manuscript pages, despite the author’s request that all his notes and manuscripts be burned upon his death. Unfortunately, many pages were lost when the German army raided the apartment of Dora Dymant. While Dora survived the Holocaust, Kafka’s letters and works he had left with her are presumed to have been burned by the Gestapo.
Grete Bloch and Milena Jesenská-Pollak died in 1944, in Nazi concentration camps. Kafka’s three sisters also died in Nazi concentration camps. Kafka’s sister Ottla died a tragic death, having divorced her non-Jewish husband to remain with the Kafka family.
- Various Works; all were lost or destroyed: 1899-1903
- The Child and the City; Novel: 1903 (lost)
- Description of a Struggle; Short Story: 1904
- Wedding Preparation in the Country; Novel: 1908 (unfinished)
- On Mandatory Insurance in the Construction Industry; Report / Essay: 1908
- Measures to Prevent Accidents in Factories and Farms; Report / Essay: 1911
- The Judgment; Short Story: 1912
- The Stroker or The Man Who Disappeared; Short Story / Novel Fragment: 1912
- The Metamorphosis; Short Story: 1912, published 1915
- In the Penal Colony; Short Story: 1914, published 1919
- The Trial; Short Story: 1914
- The Village Schoolmaster or The Giant Mole; Short Story: 1915
- A Country Doctor; Short Story: 1919
- The Castle; Short Story: 1922
- A Hunger Artist; Short Story: 1922
- The Burrow; Short Story: 1923
- Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk; Short Story: 1924