Featured Author: Franz Kafka
Call me crazy, but I’ve always liked Kafka and have appreciated the absurdity of his writing. My recent visit to Prague included a visit to the Kafka museum (photo above) and a walking tour of Kafka’s Prague. I snapped some pictures that I will share with you and I thought it only appropriate to feature Kafka as our June Featured author. What do you think of Kafka’s works? Love them or hate them?
Kafka was born in Prague on July 3, 1883. He was the first son of merchant, Jewish parents Hermann Kafka and his wife Julie. In the 1800s, Prague was a city of considerable strategic importance, being situated at the crossroads of multiple trade routes. During Kafka’s lifetime, Prague was undergoing many changes as a result of increasing tensions between the German patrician class and the Czech proletariat. Shortly after Kafka’s birth, a confrontation between Prague Germans and Czech led to the so-called “Foundation-Era” or “Grunderzeit” in Prague. This era was a period of considerable development and change in the city and places much of Kafka’s seemingly absurd and surreal work into greater context.
The home where Kafka was born was damaged in a fire in 1897 and later torn down. All that remains as a reminder is the main portal. A bronze memorial to Kafka (below) can be found on the walls of the current building where his house used to stand.
Kafka had a contentious relationship with his parents, in particular with his father. His father was perceived by Franz to be a tyrant with a bad temper. The opening sentence in his “Letter to Father,” Kafka wrote:
You once asked me recently why I claim to be afraid of you. I did not know, as usual, what to answer, partly out of my fear of you and partly because the cause of this fear consists of too many details for me to put even halfway into words.”
His fear of his father can be sensed in his writing. Many of his protagonists are up against some sort of overbearing power, often feeling helpless and stuck in the same ways that Kafka described his own relationship with his father.
“Even years afterward, I still suffered from the tormenting fancy that this enormous man, my father, the ultimate authority could for almost no reason come during the night and take me out of bed and carry me out onto the pavlatche, and that meant that I was a mere nothing to him [Letter to my Father, page 14].”
Kafka was educated in German Language schools and published his books in German – in fact many people mistakenly believe that Kafka was German. He received his Doctor of Law from Karl-Ferdinand University and worked for years in private insurance companies. He wrote extensively about his “double life” working in insurance during the day and writing at nights and in his free time. During his lifetime he published relatively little, and many of his works were published posthumously by his friend, Max Brod. Modern day readers should be thankful to Brod who failed to fulfill his promise to burn all of Kafka’s unpublished works after his death.
His most popular work was the short story, The Metamorphosis which was published in 1915. He is perhaps most well-known today for The Trial and The Castle. In 1988 a handwritten copy of The Trial was sold for 1.98 million dollars by a German book dealer who stated, “This is perhaps the most important work in 20th-century German Literature.
Franz died from complications of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924 in a Sanatorium in Kierling. He was buried at the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague.
Jen’s Thoughts: Many people I know hate Kafka’s books finding them too bizarre and difficult to comprehend. I love them. I love quirky and bizarre stories so it’s no surprise that I enjoy his books. But his books are so much more than just bizarre and quirky. They capture the emotions and sense of helplessness inherent in oppressive regimes. In many ways Kafka had a sad life. He felt powerless as a child due to poor family relations and he faced social isolation and discrimination as a Jew in Prague. While his books may often seem incomprehensible and nonsensical, they actually convey a sense of social powerlessness that many people during his time experienced. I can’t claim to understand all the symbolism in his works. Yet, I enjoy the emotions they elicit. No one who reads The Trial can come away from the experience completely unscathed. Reading the book is an exercise in frustration tolerance and comfort with the absurd.
My two recommendations for his works include “The Trial” and “Letters to Father.” The latter, gives you a greater appreciation for Kafka as a person and how he frequently felt powerless in his own family. It’s an interesting read to give some perspective to his work. Below is my abbreviated review of the The Trial which I read last month.
Review: The Trial is Kafka’s most famous work and it tells the story of Josef K who is arrested and put on trial for unknown reasons. The premise of this short novel is quite terrifying, and the events that occur are enough to make any sane person weep with frustration. Kafka captures the atmosphere in 1914 and builds on the fear of a world in which your every move is monitored and analyzed. Neither the reader not the protagonist is ever made aware of why he was arrested and the trial proceedings are nonsensical. A perfect example of the Kafkaesque style.
Kafka’s situations are humorous and perfectly capture a sense of frustration with a society that often makes little sense. Like most of my experiences reading Kafka, I left feeling like I understood only a fraction of his message and the underlying symbolism, but I liked it.
Have you read any works by Kafka? Which ones and what did you think? Do you love him or hate him?