"One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin." 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.
Franz Kafka was born 3 July 1883 in Prague, which was then capital of Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today it's the capital of the Czech Republic, but you knew that already). He was the first of six children born to Hermann and Julie Lowy Kafka. None of the Kafka children survived to old age. Franz's two younger brothers died in infancy, and his three sisters were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The Kafkas were a middle-class Jewish family who spoke German. They were not a particularly observant Jewish family. Franz was bar mitzvahed, but attended temple only rarely. Franz perceived his father, a successful retailer, as a brutish and domineering man. His father's personality was a powerful influence on Kafka. In 1919, he wrote a letter (which he never sent) detailing his fear of his dad.
Kafka attended German-language schools in Prague as a boy. When it came time to enroll in college, he chose Charles-Ferdinand University, a German school in Prague. He started college as a chemistry major, which lasted all of two weeks. He then switched to law. In the classroom, Kafka was a decent - but not brilliant - student. But he truly flourished in the student literary club he joined his first year. His love of literature blossomed. And he met several other young men who would become lifelong friends and collaborators, including Max Brod, his eventual biographer and literary executor.
Kafka graduated from Charles-Ferdinand on 18 June 1906 and did a yearlong unpaid internship as a clerk in the criminal courts. He was then hired for his first professional job as a lawyer for Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurance company in Prague. It was not inspiring work. Unhappy with his job, Kafka resigned after eight months and found a job in July 1908 at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute, a government agency handling workers' compensation insurance.
Kafka had no passion for his legal career. The office job was really just a way to support himself while he pursued his real work - writing. And he was disciplined about making time for his writing even with his day job. Kafka worked until early afternoon at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute. Then he lunched, rested, exercised, and ate dinner with his family (he lived at home with his parents and sisters). He only sat down to write at 11 p.m. and kept at it for as long as he could keep his eyes open. His diligence paid off, slowly. Within a few months of starting work, his first published short stories appeared in Hyperion magazine. "God doesn't want me to write, but I - I must," he wrote to a friend.
Though it had not yet coalesced into the horrors of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was widespread in Eastern Europe. The bigotry and rejection he encountered because of his Jewish identity was deeply upsetting to Kafka. In his late twenties, Kafka became keenly interested in Judaism - or, more accurately, in exploring his contentious relationship with his religion. Kafka was drawn to many aspects of Jewish culture, particularly Yiddish theater and writing. At the same time, he felt alienated from - and at times repulsed by - his Jewish identity. "What have I in common with Jews?" he wrote in his diary. "I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe." he wrote in his diary). He also managed to fall in love. In 1912, at Max Brod's house, he met a woman named Felice Bauer. They began an epistolary courtship - one conducted almost entirely by letters - with Kafka penning more than 500 letters during their five years together.
In December 1912, after meeting his love interest, Felice Bauer, Kafka published his first book. It was a collection of short stories entitled Contemplation. More short stories followed, often centering on his preoccupations with alienation and the inability of the self to find a place. "One is alone, a total stranger and only an object of curiosity," he wrote in "Wedding Preparations in the Country," one such early story. "And so long as you say 'one' instead of 'I,' there's nothing in it and one can easily tell the story; but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you yourself, you feel as though transfixed and are horrified."
In December 1915, Kafka published his only completed novella - Die Verwandlung or The Metamorphosis. The story of the salesman Gregor Samsa - who wakes up as a giant bug, is shunned, dies and is quickly forgotten - is Kafka's best-known work. It is a classic metaphor of alienation - a vivid image of how it's possible for a man to feel at odds with his home, his family, and even his body.
Kafka's own body was about to betray him as well. In August 1917, he began to cough up blood - the first signs of tuberculosis. Tuberculosis at that time was an incurable and often fatal disease. Kafka took a leave of absence from work while he recovered. His younger sister Ottilie took care of him.
Over the next few years, Kafka underwent rotating bouts of illness and recovery in sanitoriums across Europe. He was able to write sporadically. He became engaged (briefly) to a woman named Julie Wohryzková. His father Hermann disapproved of his engagement to Wohryzková, prompting Kafka to write the missive now known as Letter to His Father, addressing their troubled relationship as father and son.
In 1920, as his health continued to fail, Kafka published the short story collection A Country Doctor. He also became involved with a married journalist named Milena Jesenska, in another epistolary relationship conducted primarily via letters. He began work on his novel The Castle, but had to set it aside when his condition worsened. Knowing that he did not have long to live, he asked Max Brod to be his literary executor. He requested that Brod burn all but a few of his papers after his death.
In 1923, Kafka traveled to the Baltic Sea, where he met a Polish woman, Dora Diamant. The two fell in love, and their relationship lasted until Kafka's death. Complications from tuberculosis made it too painful for Kafka to eat. Like the main character of his story - "A Hunger Artist" - he slowly starved to death. Kafka died at his home in Prague on 3 June 1924. He was 40 years old.
Neither Max Brod nor Dora Diamant honored Kafka's requests to have his papers burned post-mortem. Brod began editing the disorganized chapters of Kafka's unfinished novels. He published them in the years after his death - The Trial in 1925, The Castle in 1926, and Amerika in 1927. Dora Diamant held on to his notebooks and letters until they were confiscated by the Gestapo; despite an international search, the papers have never been found.
Today, Kafka is a voice for all those who struggle to make meaning of an often-senseless world. Kafka once said that books were not worth reading unless they shook the reader out of his stupor and forced him to pay attention. He is still making us pay attention today, never allowing the reader to take things for granted. "The whole art of Kafka," Albert Camus said, "consists in forcing the reader to reread."
Father: Hermann Kafka (1852-1931)
Mother: Julia Lowy (1856-1934)
Brother: Georg Kafka (1885-1886)
Brother: Heinrich Kafka (1887-1888)
Sister: Gabriele Kafka (1889-1941)
Sister: Valerie Kafka (1890-1942)
Sister: Ottilie Kafka (1892-1943)
Charles-Ferdinand University (1901-1906)
Law clerk (1906-1907)
Lawyer, Assicurazioni Generali (1907-1908)
Lawyer, Workers Accident Insurance Institute (1908-1920)
"The Judgment" (1912)
"The Penal Colony" (1914)
The Metamorphosis (1915)
"Blumfield, An Elderly Bachelor" (1915)
"The Great Wall of China" (1917)
"A Report to an Academy" (1917)
"Jackals and Arabs" (1917)
"A Country Doctor" (1919)
"A Message From the Emperor" (1919)
"An Old Manuscript" (1919)
Letter to His Father (1919)
"The Refusal" (1920)
"Investigations of a Dog" (1922)
"A Little Woman" (1923)
"A Hunger Artist" (1924)
The Trial (1925)
The Castle (1926)