"One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin."3
This sentence from Franz Kafka's classic The Metamorphosis is a glittering example of a "Kafkaesque" scenario. Protagonist (it's nearly impossible to call any Kafka character a "hero") Gregor Samsa find himself suddenly transformed into a hideous insect. He doesn't know how this happened, who he is or what's going to become of him next. He just wakes up to find the world absurdly, wrongly different. And he must proceed from there.
This is classic Kafka.
People endure harrowing trials without reason; attempts to understand the world yield only cryptic absurdities. But really, aren't these just exaggerated examples of what happens in real life? Kafka certainly thought so. He spent his life trying to understand his place in the world - as a Jew in anti-Semitic Europe, a German speaker in a Czech country, a writer in an uncreative world. Writing was a way for him to help make sense of a world that he sometimes wanted to reject. "I have often thought that the best mode of life for me would be to sit in the innermost room of a spacious locked cellar with my writing things and a lamp,"4 he wrote to his off-again, on-again fiancée.
Kafka wrote for himself - he did not intend to be the worldwide phenomenon he is today. His early death from tuberculosis in 1924 came slowly. So he had time to ask his friend and literary executor Max Brod to destroy all of his papers, save for a few short stories. Brod refused (and later said he believed Kafka knew he'd refuse all along). As a result, today we have his letters and diaries to understand Kafka the man. And we have his searing, unforgettable stories to help us understand the world.