History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
If today’s chosen mode of communication is limited to 140 words (ala Twitter), what does that say about the future of literature, and the works of writers like Franz Kafka.
I first read Kafka during my sophomore year in high school. The world literature class, taught by an imposing and erudite woman, rumored to be a lesbian, was a combination of hot and cold with me. Some of the works we read were intriguing and continue to linger with me today, some 30 years later. Ursula Le Guin, Dostoevsky, Herman Hesse, and Kafka fit the latter category.
For the 15 or so students that made up World Lit class at Lisbon High School, our first exposure to Kafka was via The Trial, one of three Kafka novels published posthumously. For many of us, a work like this one was unfamiliar. A mysterious, vague storyline, and an atmosphere that at times felt equally claustrophobic and hallucinatory, with Kafka mining the dark regions of his ego. The descriptive phrase, “Kafkaesque” emanates from the storyline of The Trial, as well as Kafka’s other works, like The Metamorphosis, and The Castle.
For those familiar with the 60s television series The Prisoner, an understanding, and a corollary between No. 6 and Josef K. (Kafka’s protagonist in The Trial) would seem apparent. The Trial addresses the facelessness, and the obvious impersonal nature of government bureaucracy, in its various forms.
Kafka was born in 1883, to a middle-class Jewish family, in Prague. At that time, Prague was part of the empire of Austria-Hungary.
The Jewish Europe that Kafka was born into would be radically transformed over the next 50 years. WWI would see the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapse at the end of the war, which led to a reworking of the map of central Europe.
Kafka’s Prague disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, where his work was initially banned. The Nazi Holocaust claimed the lives of his three sisters and many of his friends. While Kafka didn’t live to see all this, the tensions and communal anxieties fuelling that destruction had shaped both him and his writing.
While Marxist literary critics are at odds about Kafka, some, like Theodor Adorno, described Kafka’s writing as “a reaction to unlimited power.” That would be obvious in the case of Joseph K., buffeted by unseen, and faceless forces, much the way that Stalin’s subjects in the Soviet Union saw their lives ruined by a baseless accusation, coming from an anonymous tip—off to Siberia you went, relegated to a life of hard labor, and a premature death.
Kafka was raised as both a German, and a Jew. His early years saw him devoted to reading and writing. He had a proclivity towards the philosophical, and the scientific, leaning towards works by Spinoza, Darwin, and Nietzsche.
Raised in a Jewish family, the Kafka’s family was not overly religious in practice, with his Jewishness remaining as a backdrop.
He attended the German University in Prague, where he studied law. After completing his doctorate in 1906, Kafka landed a job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in 1908, where he’d work for the next 14 years. His short work day, as well as the lack of strenuousness associated with the job allowed him freedom for writing and thinking.
During his off hours, he was writing fiction, and between 1909 and 1910, he published a dozen short stories. He also became friends with fellow writer, Max Brod, who would become Kafka’s lifelong friend, and advocate of his writing.
It was Brod that we have to thank for having any knowledge of Kafka today. Kafka had instructed Brod to burn all his writings after his death, which Brod refused to do.
Kafka began work on The Trial in 1914. In 1915, he got his first recognition for his writing when he was awarded the Theodor Fontane Prize, which included a monetary prize of 800 marks.
Kafka found romantic attachments difficult, who wrote that he found the act of having sex repulsive. Nevertheless, he managed to have numerous brief “relationships” with women, but found the romantic entanglements that accompanied them, difficult.
In 1917, after finishing The Hunter Gracchus, and The Great Wall, Kafka’s health began to deteriorate. He began coughing up blood, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This necessitated a leave of absence from his work, and also, his writing. He spent part of the next several years on periodic sick leaves, including time spent in 1921, in the Tatra Mountains, at a sanatorium.
Even while being afflicted by poor health, he wrote three of his most important works in 1922: his novel, The Castle, and two shorter works of fiction; A Hunger Artist, and Investigations of a Dog.
Kafka died a citizen of Czechoslovakia on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria, in 1924. He was 39 at the time.