Authors: Franz Kafka

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Novelist and short story writer

July 3, 1883

Prague, Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Czech Republic)

June 3, 1924

Kierling, Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, Austria

Biography

Franz Kafka (KAHF-kah) is one of the key figures in modern literature, the prophet of alienation, existential angst, Freudian guilt, and the tragicomic failure of the human quest for spiritual fulfillment. He was born in 1883 to a domineering father, Hermann Kafka, and an unassuming, introspective mother, whose maiden name was Julie Löwy and whose quiet inwardness he inherited. He resided until his thirty-first year with his parents and in the shadow of his father’s intimidating presence. Most of his literary achievements, despite their having become requisite to any study of twentieth century Western literature, are fragmentary and incomplete—like his life, one could say, which was marked by four inconclusive love affairs and a debilitating illness that brought him to an early death in his forty-first year. Neither of his younger brothers survived infancy, and his three younger sisters (Ottla, Elli, and Walli) all died in Nazi concentration camps.

His father enrolled him in the German, not the Czechoslovak, schools in Prague for his early education, the choice being dictated, in Czechoslovakia’s prerepublican days, by the more promising prospects in professional advancement consequent upon such an education. At the age of eighteen, Kafka was a student at the German University in Prague; there he began his friendship with Max Brod, who was to nurture his literary career and become his literary executor, his editor, and his biographer.

Czech writer Franz Kafka

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By anonymous (the author never disclosed his identity); as much is indicated by omission of reference in 1958's Archiv Frans Wagenbach. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At the university, Kafka turned to the study of law and the avocation of creative writing. He received his law degree two weeks before his twenty-fourth birthday, and on October 1, 1907, he began work with the Assicurazioni Generali, an insurance company in Prague. With Brod’s insistent help, some of his early writings were published in periodicals. Three of his more ambitious early undertakings in fiction were never completed but were eventually published. “Der Verschollene” (lost without trace) was published in its incomplete state as Amerika in 1927. The first chapter of “Der Verschollene” had been published as a short story, entitled “Der Heizer” (the stoker), in 1913.

In Kafka’s most famous piece of writing, The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. The violence visited upon the insect-Gregor by his father is consistent with the paternal hostility that is drawn in The Judgment: In this story, Georg Bendemann’s engagement to Frieda Brandenfeld is to be announced by letter to a friend in Russia, who is the mundane Georg’s artistic alter ego; when Georg informs his moribund father of his intent to send the letter, the father, reinvigorated by resentment, pronounces the judgment requiring Georg to drown himself. Georg all but voluntarily carries out the sentence.

Kafka’s early prose is not only illustrative of his antinaturalistic style but also virtually explicit with the two major psychological inhibitions of his life: his sense of being irrevocably intimidated by his father and his inability to overcome his indisposition to marriage. These inhibitions and their interrelationship constitute the subject of his autobiographical letter to his father, written in 1919 but never actually delivered to or, presumably, read by Hermann Kafka. The letter informs its nominal recipient of his responsibility for his son’s anxiety, guilt, and sense of failure, all of which precluded the possibility of a confident entry into marriage.

Although never married, Kafka was twice engaged to Felice Bauer—who appears as Frieda Brandenfeld in The Judgment and as Fräulein Bürstner in The Trial—and twice broke the engagement. In 1917, the year of his second broken engagement to Bauer, he received diagnostic confirmation that he was suffering from tuberculosis; he also worked on and completed many of his stories and parables at this time, including “The Country Doctor.” During the next two years, he met and became engaged to Julie Wohryzak in Prague and published “In the Penal Colony.” In 1920, he had an affair with a married woman, Milena Jesenská, and broke his engagement to Wohryzak; that was the year in which he began work on The Castle. His tuberculosis compelled him to retire in 1922; during that year, he continued his work on The Castle and completed A Hunger Artist. His last beloved was Dora Dymant, with whom he lived in Berlin during 1923, the year of his finishing “The Burrow” and “Josephine the Singer: Or, The Mouse Folk.” She visited him regularly at Kierling Sanatorium near Klosterneuburg, Austria, until his death there on June 3, 1924.

In his opposition to naturalism and realistic narrative, Kafka developed a style which afforded his readers the experience of witnessing events as they would be witnessed in dreams; sometimes fantastic, such as Gregor Samsa’s experiences as an insect, often irrational, such as the episodes recounted in The Trial and The Castle, the events retain the realistic effect of a dream upon a dreamer. The short story The Metamorphosis and the uncompleted novels The Trial and The Castle are the works which won for Kafka the most renown and the greatest critical attention. Each relates in risibly tragic (or tragicomic) detail the hopeless quest of an individual for dignity, respect, justice, and self-fulfillment.

The Trial and The Castle amount to testaments, respectively, of incomprehensible law and inaccessible grace. In The Trial, Joseph K. is arrested on the morning of his thirtieth birthday, although he is neither imprisoned nor charged with a specific crime. His promising career at a bank suffers, however, as he spends more and more time away from his job attempting to prove his innocence. Finally, without having learned of the crime with which he is charged, he is executed. He reappears as K., in The Castle, where, in a gray mountain village, he attempts to establish himself as a land surveyor and to present himself at the Castle, everywhere visible in its height above the village but, for K. at least, impossible to reach: Each of his attempts to get to the Castle is frustrated by his becoming lost or distracted. Eventually, he dies and is granted the dispensation of identity as a villager; such, at least, is Thomas Mann’s reading.

Kafka’s parable of the doorkeeper to the Law, “Vor dem Gesetz” (“Before the Law”), is one of the chapters of The Trial and is also frequently published as an independent work: A man who seeks entrance to the Law is intimidated by a doorkeeper, who, after the man spends his life in waiting to be admitted and is dying without having been admitted, closes the door because it was meant for the man alone and will be of no use after his death. These allegories of humankind’s sense of guilt and vain quests for justice and spiritual grace have been perennially reprinted and have been subjected internationally to constant and widely varying interpretations.

Max Brod, instructed by Kafka to destroy most of Kafka’s unpublished and incomplete work, chose instead, after the writer’s death, to edit and publish The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, and subsequently many other of his works. His decision was vindicated by the critical reception given to these works and by the establishment of Kafka as one of the major figures of twentieth century literature.

Author Works Short Fiction: Betrachtung, 1913 (Meditation, 1948) Das Urteil, 1913, 1916 (The Sentence, 1928, also known as The Judgment, 1945) Die Verwandlung, 1915 (novella; The Metamorphosis, 1936) “In der Strafkolonie,” 1919 (“In the Penal Colony,” 1941) Ein Landarzt: Kleine Erzählungen, 1919 (The Country Doctor: A Collection of Fourteen Short Stories, 1945) Ein Hungerkünstler: Vier Geschichten, 1924 (A Hunger Artist, 1948) Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer: Ungedruckte Erzählungen und Prosa aus dem Nachlass, 1931 (The Great Wall of China, and Other Pieces, 1933) Erzählungen, 1946 (The Complete Stories, 1971) Parables in German and English, 1947 The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces, 1948 Selected Short Stories, 1952 The Sons, 1989 Investigations of a Dog and Other Creatures: Fiction by Franz Kafka, 2017 (Michael Hofmann, translator) Long Fiction: Der Prozess, 1925 (The Trial, 1937) Das Schloss, 1926 (The Castle, 1930) Amerika, 1927 (America, 1938; better known as Amerika, 1946) Nonfiction: Brief an den Vater, wr. 1919, pb. 1952 (Letter to His Father, 1954) The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1948–1949 Tagebücher, 1910–1923, 1951 (Diaries, 1910–1923, 1976, 1988) Brief an Milena, 1952 (Letters to Milena, 1953) Briefe, 1902–1924, 1958 Briefe an Felice, 1967 (Letters to Felice, 1974) Briefe an Ottla und die Familie, 1974 (Letters to Ottla and the Family, 1982) I Am a Memory Come Alive: Authobiographical Writings, 1974 (Nahum N. Glatzer, editor) Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, 1977 (Richard and Clara Winston, translators) Miscellaneous: Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande und andere Prosa aus dem Nachlass, 1953 (Dearest Father: Stories and Other Writings, 1954; also known as Wedding Preparations in the Country, and Other Posthumous Prose Writings, 1954) Bibliography Alter, Robert. Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A lucid argument for the complex influence that the Bible has exerted on three important and diverse authors: Franz Kafka, Hayyim Hahman Bialik, and James Joyce. Begley, Louis. The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka—A Biographical Essay. New York: Atlas, 2008. Ben-Ephraim, Gavriel. “Making and Breaking Meaning: Deconstruction, Four-Level Allegory, and The Metamorphosis.” The Midwest Quarterly 35 (Summer, 1994): 450-467. Argues that Kafka’s ability to combine oppositions without resolving them enables him to simultaneously build and dismantle an allegorical ladder ascending the four levels of traditional interpretation. Bloom, Harold, ed. Franz Kafka. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of essays, on Kafka himself and on themes that pervade his oeuvre, by distinguished scholars. Includes essays on the short stories “Up in the Gallery,” “A Country Doctor,” “Der Bau” (“The Burrow”), and “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”). Contains an excellent index that itemizes specific aspects of the works. Boa, Elizabeth. Kafka: Gender, Class, and Race in the Letters and Fictions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. An excellent study. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Calasso, Roberto. K.. New York: Knopf, 2005. This provocative, scholarly study is a welcome addition to Kafka studies. Corngold, Stanley. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Chapter 3 (43 pages) contains what is very likely the definitive analysis of “The Metamorphosis.” Also includes excellent analysis of “The Judgment,” in chapters 2 and 7, discussions of form and critical method, and comparisons with other authors. Corngold also wrote a critical bibliography of “The Metamorphosis” in The Commentator’s Despair (1973). Flores, Angel, ed. The Problem of “The Judgement”: Eleven Approaches to Kafka’s Story. New York: Gordian Press, 1976. An English translation, followed by a valuable collection of essays on the short story that Kafka considered his best. Harmut Binder reveals a surprising number of background sources in literature and legend. Kate Flores writes a convincing analysis based on the nature of human fatherhood. Walter Sokel provides an extensive interpretation. Very worthwhile. Glatzer, Nahum N. The Loves of Franz Kafka. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. Hayman, Ronald. K: A Biography of Kafka. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981. More than a biography, this study contains many helpful discussions of the literary works, showing how they arose in response to specific situations and linking them with contemporary passages from Kafka’s diary and letters. A moving portrayal particularly of Kafka’s last days, when his steps toward liberation coincided tragically with the final stages of tuberculosis. Heinemann, Richard. “Kafka’s Oath of Service: ‘Der Bau’ and the Dialectic of Bureaucratic Mind.” PMLA 111 (March, 1996): 256-270. Analyzes “Der Bau,” as a literary representation of what Kafka called the bureaucratic mind, which reflects both the acceptance of authority as a foundation for attachment to a community and the paralysis of a restlessly critical consciousness that makes impossible any reconciliation between self and other. Jofen, Jean. The Jewish Mysticism of Kafka. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. A detailed, learned examination of Kafka’s connections to Jewish writers, including Y. L. Peretz, Martin Buber, Morris Rosenfeld, and other Yiddish authors. Contains notes but no bibliography. Kafka, Franz. Franz Kafka: The Office Writings. Edited by Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg, and Benno Wagner. Princeton: Princeton University, 2009. Unlike many books about Kafka’s life, this one stresses the connections between his creative and professional interests. The editors make the claim that he liked his job working in an insurance office and even wrote nonfiction pieces about the insurance business. The eighteen documents in this volume are well translated and come with endnotes and commentary that provide information about the issues that Kafka was addressing. This is essential reading for anyone interested in Kafka. Karl, Frederick Robert. Franz Kafka, Representative Man. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. A critical biography that explores Kafka as a representative of High Modernism in Prague during the twentieth century . Krauss, Karoline. Kafka’s K. Versus the Castle: The Self and the Other. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. A good analysis of The Castle. Bibliographical references are included. Oz, Amos. “A Log in a Freshet: On the Beginning of Kafka’s ‘A Country Doctor.’” Partisan Review 66 (Spring, 1999): 211-217. Argues that the story is not a story of crime and punishment, nor is it a fable about making the wrong decision. The feelings of guilt the doctor experiences are not the result of any action. Under the terms of Kafka’s contract, the doctor is guilty a priori, convicted from the start, despite his innocence. Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984. An excellent biography, remarkable in that Pawel’s meticulous research has extended beyond Kafka to include the fates of all those lives he touched. Conveys detailed knowledge of the school and university systems of the time and of the stages of social and political unrest in Prague. Beautifully written. Politzer, Heinz. Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox. Revised and expanded edition. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966. A seminal work in Kafka scholarship. Proceeding from a detailed analysis of one paragraph, Politzer discusses several of the short stories at length (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “In the Penal Colony”) and touches on all the stories. Entertains many alternative readings and compares the works with one another. Preece, Julian, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A volume from the series Cambridge Companions to Literature. Reiner, Stach. Kafka: The Decisive Years. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005. First published in Germany in 2002, this stellar work serves as the first of a projected three volume Kafka biography. Inclues photos, thorough notes, bibliography and several indexes. Spann, Meno. Franz Kafka. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Spann’s familiarity with the 250 books in Kafka’s library enables him to identify sources and influences. He corrects many misleading errors in the English translations, provides lucid overviews of diverse critical approaches, and offers his own concise readings of the works. Good discussions of the major short stories. Speirs, Ronald, and Beatrice Sandberg. Franz Kafka. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Chapters on “a writer’s life” and on the novels and short stories. Provides detailed notes and extensive bibliography.

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