The Czech-born German novelist and short-story writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) presented the experience of man's utter isolation. In his works man finds himself in a labyrinth which he will never understand.
Franz Kafka was born July 3, 1883, the eldest of six children of a middle-class merchant who had come from southern Bohemia to the beautiful old city of Prague, its capital, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He grew up as a member of a minority (the Jewish community) within a minority (the German-speaking population) at a time when there was little or no communication between these two groups or with the predominantly Czech-speaking citizens of Prague. When he failed to be accepted by either group, he sank into bitterness, distrust, insecurity, and hatred. Although he acquired early in life a thorough knowledge of Czech and a deep understanding of its literature, the gap remained, and this alienation was reflected in his writing, most notably in the protagonists of his stories, who were for the most part outcasts constantly asking, "Where do I belong?" or "Where does man belong?"
An even greater source of frustration for Kafka was his domineering father, a powerful, robust, imposing man, successful in his business, who considered his son a weakling and unfit for life. His childhood and youth were overshadowed by this conflict with his father, whom he respected, even admired, and at the same time feared and subconsciously hated. Kafka later transformed this total lack of communication into the relationship between God-Father and man in his literary production.
Kafka attended only German schools: from 1893 to 1901 the most severe grammar school, the Deutsches Staatsgymnasium in the Old Town Square, and from 1901 to 1906 the Karl Ferdinand University of Prague. He started out in German literature but changed in his second semester to the study of law. In June 1906 he graduated with a degree of doctor of jurisprudence. Even as a youngster, Kafka must have wanted to write. For his parents' birthdays he would compose little plays, which were performed at home by his three younger sisters, while he himself acted as stage manager. The lonely boy was an avid reader and became deeply influenced by the works of Goethe, Pascal, Flaubert, and Kierkegaard.
In October 1906 Kafka started to practice at the criminal court and later at the civil court in Prague, while serving as an interne in the office of an attorney in order to gain some practical experience. In early 1908 he joined the staff of the Workmen's Compensation Division of the Austrian government, in a semigovernmental post which he held until his retirement for reasons of ill health in July 1922. Here he came to know the suffering of the underprivileged workmen and wrote his first published work, "Conversation with a Beggar" and "Conversation with a Drunkard," two sections from Die Beschreibung eines Kampfes (Description of a Struggle). In 1909 these two pieces were published by Franz Blei in his journal, Hyperion.
Kafka's first collection of stories was published in 1913 under the title Betrachtung (Contemplation). These sketches are polished, light impressions based on observation of life in and around Prague. Preoccupied with problems of reality and appearance, they reveal his objective realism based on urban middle-class life. The book is dedicated "To M. B.," that is, Max Brod, who had been his closest friend since their first meeting as university students in 1902.
In September 1912 Kafka met a young Jewish girl from Berlin, Felice Bauer, with whom he fell in love—an affair which was to have far-reaching consequences for all his future work. The immediate result was an artistic breakthrough: he composed in a single sitting, on the night of September 22/23, the story Das Urteil (The Verdict), dedicated to his future fiancée, Felice, and published the following year in Brod's annual, Arcadia. The story contains all the elements normally associated with Kafka's world, the most disorderly universe ever presented by a major artist. The judgment is passed by a bedridden, authoritarian father on his conscientious but guilt-haunted son, who obediently commits suicide. In this story Kafka successfully blends the disparate aspects of his writing—fantasy, realism, speculation, and psychological insight—into a new unity.
Kafka's next work, completed in May 1913, was the story Der Heizer (The Stoker), later incorporated in his fragmentary novel Amerika and awarded in 1915 the Fontane Prize, his first public recognition.
Early in 1913 Kafka became unofficially engaged to Felice in Berlin, but by the end of the summer he had broken all his ties, sending a long letter to her father with the explanation that his daughter could never find happiness in marriage to a man like himself whose sole interest in life was literature. The engagement, nevertheless, was officially announced in June 1914, only to be dissolved 6 weeks later.
The year 1913 saw the publication of Kafka's best-known story about the man degraded to an animal, Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). By means of an unerhörte Begebenheit (outrageous event), Kafka creates for his reader a world of psychotic delusion which his narrative art preserves as a reality in its own right: "When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from restless dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect." In spite of Gregor's gallant efforts to master his new situation, he dies.
One of Kafka's most frightening stories is the novella In der Strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony), written in 1914. In spite of this literary output, Kafka maintained his position in Prague and his relations with Felice Bauer until the end of 1917, when he found that he had tuberculosis. The stories written during the war years, from 1916 to 1918, were published in 1919 in a collection dedicated to his father and entitled Der Landarzt (The Country Doctor), and the following year, in October, Die neue Rundschau published his story Ein Hungerkünstler (The Hunger Artist). Again, as in Die Verwandlung, it is the outsiders, however sensitive and gifted, who succumb, whereas the healthy realists survive in the struggle for existence. Ein Hungerkünstler became the title story for the last book published during the author's lifetime, a collection of four delicate stories that appeared in 1923.
One of Kafka's most important writings is the 100-page letter to his father, written in November 1919 as an attempt to clarify his conscience before his father and to assert his final independence of the latter's authority. "Dearest Father," it begins, "you once asked me why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I did not know how to answer you, partly because of this very fear I have of you, and partly because the explanation of this fear involves so many details that, when I am talking, I can't keep half of them together." There follows a detailed analysis of the relationship between father and son, essentially a short autobiography, emphasizing the years of his childhood.
Kafka's three great novel fragments, Amerika, Der Prozes (The Trial), and Das Schloss (The Castle), might have been lost to the world altogether had it not been for the courage of Max Brod, who edited them posthumously, ignoring his friend's request to destroy all of his unpublished manuscripts.
The first of them, begun in 1912 and originally referred to by Kafka as Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared), was published in 1927 under the title Amerika. The book, which may be considered a Bildungsroman, or novel of education (in the tradition of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister), recounts the adventures of Karl Rossmann, who, banished by his father because he was seduced by a servant girl, emigrates to America. Perhaps his "love affair," in which he was the passive party, explains Karl's vague sense of guilt, a feeling from which most of Kafka's heroes suffer.
The anonymous hero of Kafka's next novel fragment, The Trial, which was begun in 1914 and published in 1925, is suddenly arrested and accused of a crime, the nature of which is never explained. Put before a mysterious court, he is finally condemned to death and executed on the eve of his thirty-first birthday. Though he does not understand his fate, he accepts the trial and follows the orders of the court conscientiously. Kafka shows man to be awakened to the consciousness of original sin: all men are condemned to death in this world in which there is no justice. Joseph K., the protagonist, has only one basic guilt: that he is a human being, a mortal who, by ordinary civil standards, would undoubtedly be considered innocent. The book, therefore, is a parable of an average man in a state of crisis, and of his defeat.
The third and longest novel fragment is The Castle, begun in 1918 and published in 1926. The anonymous hero tries in vain to gain access to a mysterious castle— somehow symbolizing security—in which a supreme master dwells. Again and again he seeks to settle in the village belonging to the castle, but his every attempt to be accepted as a recognized citizen of the village community is thwarted. In one of his aphorisms about his own work, Kafka once said that all of his parables or metaphors were intended to convey the message "that the incomprehensible cannot be comprehended."
During the years 1920 to 1922, when he was working on The Castle, Kafka's health was badly threatened, and he was forced to take sick leave for cures in Meran and the Tatra Mountains. In the summer of 1923 Kafka and his sister Olga were vacationing in Müritz on the Baltic when he met a 19-year-old girl, Dora Dymant, an employee of the Berlin Jewish People's Home. He fell deeply in love with her. She remained with him until the end, and under her influence he finally cut all ties with his family and managed to live with her in Berlin. For the first time he was happy, independent at last in spite of parental objections. Kafka left Prague at the end of July 1923 and moved to Berlin-Steglitz, where he wrote his last, comparatively happy story, "The Little Woman," returning to Prague only 3 months before his death on June 3, 1924.
Further Reading on Franz Kafka
The basic biography of Kafka was written by his closest friend, Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography (trans. 1947); it is available in a second, enlarged edition (1960) with good illustrations. A welcome supplement, again by a friend, comprises the notes written after each discussion with Kafka by Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka: Notes and Reminiscences (trans. 1953); rev. ed., trans. by Goronwy Rees, 1971).
The greatest authority on Kafka in the United States is Heinz Politzer, whose monograph, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (1962), is the standard critical interpretation. The best contemporary critical opinion is in Ronald D. Gray, ed., Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962). The many Kafka studies include Angel Flores, ed., The Kafka Problem (1946); Paul Goodman, Kafka's Prayer (1947); Charles Neider, The Frozen Sea: A Study of Franz Kafka (1948); Angel Flores and Homer Swander, Franz Kafka Today (1958); Peter Heller, Dialectics and Nihilism: Essays on Lessing, Nietzsche, Mann and Kafka (1966); R. M. Albérès and Pierre de Boisdeffre, Kafka: The Torment of Man (trans. 1968); Michel Carrouges, Kafka versus Kafka (trans. 1968); Wilhelm Emrich, Franz Kafka: A Critical Study of His Writings (trans. 1968); and Martin Greenberg, The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature (1968).