What Franz Kafka did... and why you should care
Who is Franz Kafka? Kafka himself tried to answer that question through his writing.
Kafka, who died in 1924 at the age of 40, was Jewish in an anti-Semitic Europe. He was a German speaker in Prague. (Point of information: Prague was then part of Bohemia, which is now known as the Czech Republic.)
He was a writer stuck in a boring day job.
He was a stranger, no matter where he was. "I am away from home and must always write home," he wrote two years before his death, "even if any home of mine has long since floated away into eternity."1
Like George Orwell, another visionary writer who died early of tuberculosis, Kafka's distinctive style and perspective have evolved into an adjective. "Kafkaesque" is used (and mis-used) to describe bleak and harrowing scenarios. The ominous characters and scenes in his stories seem to have predicted by decades the rise of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and the horror of the Holocaust. All three of Kafka's younger sisters were eventually murdered in concentration camps. Had Kafka lived, he would likely have met a similar fate.
Yet Kafka was not so much a chronicler of the world's ills as he was of the psyche's struggle. The real conflict in Kafka's works is not between the individual and the world but that of the soul attempting to find a place for itself. Franz Kafka was always searching - searching for his identity, searching for love, searching for meaning in a world that seemed intolerably random and cruel.
He chose writing as his antidote to a senseless world. "If the book does not shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?" Kafka wrote to a friend when he was still just a college student. "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."2 Little did he know that his own books would break the frozen seas inside millions of people.