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."